Doctor RJ

Here's an an incomplete journey through the biggest blunders, gaffes and miscalculations in politics

Everyone makes mistakes. However, some mistakes have lasting implications that can redefine a public image, particularly when it comes to politics. The extent to which politics is a dynamic between faith in institutions, ideologies, and people is largely a function of how those things are perceived. The beauty of democracy is that power flows from the people, but the fundamental flaw with democracy relies on these hard truths: What's right is not always popular, and what makes good sense can't always be quickly explained.

It's hard to make the public believe a politician or a movement can do great wonders if their image is subject to laughter and derision. One very public mistake can confirm everyone's suspicions about a politician. Sometimes, the media narrative born out of a gaffe crowds out discussions of bigger issues as cable TV pundits giggle like a group of gossiping teenagers.

The entire process leads to a public deluged with information but lacking in depth of understanding. We don't discuss tax policy, COVID-19 relief, or even health care on a nuts and bolts basis anymore. Even in the best of times, the coverage of proposed policy largely discusses the process of trying to make it pass or fail, and who the winners and losers are of the media cycle. The people are left largely ignorant of what it all means, told to go searching for a website if they want details.

But if a very public mistake occurs, it's almost guaranteed to dominate tweets and cable news, and we find ourselves in the worst of times.

To that end, some mistakes reveal a lot about a person's character and the character of those voters who mark their ballots to support them. After all, we just lived through an election where 74 million people voted for someone with a vast history of awful behavior. There were people who watched that man say things that were demonstrably untrue, defied all logic, and either inspired giggles or shaking heads. And still people—tens of millions of people—viewed it all and said: "He's the guy I want!" There have been all sorts of rationalizations for this, from excuses that labeled every bit of negative coverage as "fake news" to an embrace of the absurd as a pseudo virtue—a stance that defended stupidity as "telling it like it is." That one-term president is proof that to a significant chunk of voters, the mistakes don't matter. Truth and facts don't matter. Instead, reality is skewed by which team a given situation benefits; for some, errors are considered proof of how much someone is "fighting" everything that's supposedly wrong with America.

A spate of recent incidents brings up a larger question of whether gaffes and blunders are as career-ending as they once seemed, especially in a culture where white nationalists have cable TV shows and insurrections are openly embraced by public figures.


Ted Cruz hurries to return to Texas after his Mexican getaway. Will it matter to voters?

Consider February's debacle of Sen. Ted Cruz's jaunt to a Cancun resort while his Texas constituents were left without power or water during a snowstorm. Cruz booked a hasty return once the trip hit the news, but the story, along with leaked text messages from Cruz's wife, seemed to verify every negative opinion of Cruz long held by his many critics, including some Republicans. To them, it was just another example of how Cruz is a "miserable son of a bitch" who only thinks of himself. Cruz's attempts to do damage control became fodder for late-night shows while Texans picked up the pieces and energy providers attempted to price-gouge them.

The question, of course, is whether it'll make a difference to Cruz's political prospects. Will people care about this very public lapse in judgment by 2024? Did Cruz voters see this and change their minds about him? Or does none of this matter, because Cruz's base will find a way to rationalize his misdeeds?

Not all mistakes are created equal, of course, and what ultimately ends up defining or ending a career is extremely subjective. Some misdeeds waved off as mere gaffes are serious offenses, wrongly dismissed as a "joke." Sometimes a supremely unfair mountain is made out of a merely cringeworthy molehill. The way the media responds matters just as much as how the politicians do, if not more.

The errors themselves usually span the entire spectrum from serious malice or rank stupidity to just plain bad luck. Sometimes there's embarrassment and shame, and sometimes not. For someone like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who seems to offend every other day, one could argue her entire public persona is built on turning into the skid of her gaffes, embracing them as bonafides to the nuts in the Republican base. Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom is now contemplating how to survive a recall after backlash to lockdowns in California coupled with a very bad decision to have dinner at a restaurant even as he was telling his constituents to stay home.

The following are a sampling of major missteps in recent political history. It would take the better part of forever to create an exhaustive list, but all of the examples below are ones where the mistake was used by the media to comment on a person's character, temperament, and judgment. Some of the commentary may have been fair ... and some of the outcomes might have not been.

Al Gore: The internet, 1999

Contrary to popular belief, Al Gore never claimed he "invented the internet," or even came close to implying it. The notion became a favored talking point of pundits during the 2000 presidential election after a March 1999 interview Gore gave to CNN's Wolf Blitzer before Gore had even entered the race. During the interview, Gore was asked to distinguish his record from his rival in the upcoming Democratic presidential primary, New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. Gore stated he "took the initiative in creating the internet" as well as other legislative matters while in Congress. In context, the statement was about fostering the internet's development through government support, not Gore himself sitting at a computer typing code.

However, neither context nor defenses from some information technology pioneers who cited Gore's advocacy as important would stop a massive amount of ridicule being dumped on the former vice president during his presidential run. Also, the internet claim was used as part of a media narrative during the 2000 general campaign that painted Gore as less than credible.

Al Gore on creating the internet

Howard Dean: The "Dean Scream," 2004

Going into the 2004 primary cycle, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's candidacy seemed ascendant. Dean had been the frontrunner of the Democratic primary field for most of 2003, was strong in both state and national polling, doing well in fundraising, drawing big crowds at events, and had a huge following online. However, the wheels began to come off after Dean finished a disappointing third place in the Iowa Caucus.

During a fiery election night speech where Dean vowed to fight on across every state of the country, he let out a loud scream to excite the crowd.

How to Lose the Presidency: Howard Dean Scream | Night Class | History

The "Dean Scream" instantly became fodder for comedians and late-night talk shows. The pundit class called Dean's performance unpresidential, and played it almost nonstop. Dean's polling lead in New Hampshire evaporated overnight, leading to a 12-point loss to John Kerry. Thirty days after the scream in Iowa had become a meme before we had a word for it, Dean suspended his campaign.

George W. Bush: "Mission Accomplished," 2003, and Hurricane Katrina, 2005

If one looks at the political strength of George W. Bush, it peaked after Sept. 11, 2001, when the country rallied to him in the hope he might actually be a leader. Bush's approval ratings—which hit a baffling 90% two weeks after the terrorist attack —permanently sank below 45% after his handling of Hurricane Katrina. However, in between those two events, there was something else that happened that has become one of the defining political gaffes of the Bush presidency.

Video rewind: Bush's 'Mission Accomplished'

The Iraq War, and the weaponizing of national security to a political end from Patriot Acts, or turning Gitmo into a dungeon, all the way to questioning the patriotism of Democratic candidates like Sen. Max Cleland (who left two legs in Vietnam for his country) had already shattered whatever solidarity existed among Democrats and Republicans in the wake of 9/11. The legacy of the "Mission Accomplished" speech, and the entire spectacle of Bush in a flight suit landing on an aircraft carrier, becomes even more chilling when it's juxtaposed against the continuing deaths and disorder coming out of Iraq in the latter days of the Bush administration.

Arguably, the turning point in George W. Bush's presidency—at least in its ability to claim the trust of a majority of the public—was Hurricane Katrina. The appearance of a president diddling around on vacation while a major American city was under water, over 1,800 people were dying, and millions were homeless along the Gulf Coast seemed to be the straw that broke the back for many voters. It didn't help that when Bush eventually began to get involved, one of his first soundbites was to tell his FEMA Director Michael Brown, who was working at horse shows before being put in charge of emergency management, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

Research done 12 years after Hurricane Katrina found a significant part of Gulf Coast residents still experienced post-traumatic stress symptoms from the incident.

John McCain and Sarah Palin: The financial crisis and that Katie Couric interview, 2008

There is an argument that given the state of the country, George W. Bush's job approval numbers, and the aftereffects of the Iraq War, the 2008 election was destined to be a Democratic year. However, John McCain kept things close in the polls for most of 2008, often outperforming the Republican brand. In fact, at one point McCain held a very small lead in most national polls.

The race was pretty close up until the middle of September, when Barack Obama took a polling lead he would never relinquish. What happened in the middle of September? The stock market and financial services industry went south. It's also around the time people who had 401(k) accounts and investments got statements showing their dwindling nest eggs. This had the effect of putting the economy as the No. 1 issue in the election.

And with the economy going in the shitter, John McCain decided to tell people to believe him, not their lying eyes.

McCain: Fundamentals of Economy Are Strong

This statement, when coupled with the stunt of "suspending" his campaign and attempting to postpone the first presidential debate in order to fly back to Washington and deal with an economy that he had just called fundamentally sound, contributed to doubts about McCain's temperament, as well as his ability to deal with a financial crisis.

And if that wasn't enough, voter confidence in John McCain's running mate was dropping like a stone. If one looks at 2008 exit polls, the American public was not impressed by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin: About 60% of voters believed she was unqualified to be president of the United States. Even still, there were a few weeks in 2008 where Palin seemed to offer some wind to McCain's sails. Her performance at the GOP convention, as well as early outings on the campaign trail, seemed to bring conservatives home and give McCain a lead in most polls. All of it collapsed after a gruesome twosome where McCain botched his response to the financial crisis and Palin gave disastrous answers when questioned by the media.

The McCain campaign wouldn't let Palin get near a reporter's microphone for weeks after she was selected. As the media continued to press for access, the McCain campaign ultimately decided to allow a limited number of interviews after trying to prep her and cramming her head full of briefing books. The first interview was with ABC News and Charlie Gibson, where Palin was totally out of her depth, talking about energy independence when asked about her national security credentials and sort of threatening World War III with Russia.

However, the pièce de résistance was the absolutely disastrous interview with Katie Couric for CBS News. Palin just seemed out of her league on every level. Palin couldn't name a newspaper or magazine she had read (or make one up). And her answers were the basis for some of the first skits on Saturday Night Live with Tina Fey. It's bad when SNL uses the transcript of the interview ... word for word.

CNN Laughs It Up Over Sarah Palin Interview

As the public would later find out, the McCain-Palin campaign was an absolute mess behind the scenes. The mistakes that defined the campaign arguably spoke to problems of judgment, whether it was McCain's inability to deal with the economic crisis and to pick a competent running mate, or for Sarah Palin to grow into the opportunity given to her. But it also presaged the slide of the mainstream GOP members towards embracing the kooks in a search for votes.

Donald Trump: The Access Hollywood tape, 2016

Audio of Donald Trump bragging about what was tantamount to sexual assault surfaced two days before the second presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle. The behind-the-scenes footage, captured during a press event with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush, featured Trump boasting about his sexual advances to women: Trump claimed that when "you're a star" like himself, women "let you do anything." The footage also included Trump's assertion that he could "grab 'em by the pussy."

Reactions to the tape's existence were overwhelmingly negative from most of the public, but condemnation was not universal, and far more measured from Republican officials. Early speculation that this might be an "October Surprise" that would lead to Trump's withdrawal from the campaign was dashed quickly as a two-prong defense—deflection and rationalization—was employed by the Trump campaign. The tape was dismissed by Trump partisans as "locker room talk," implying it was just two totally normal dudes boasting about sexual conquests. When that didn't work, Trump fell back on whataboutism, arguing that others, including Hillary and Bill Clinton, had done or excused worse.

While Trump did go on to barely win the election against Hillary Clinton, an academic study of the tape's effect on the 2016 race does claim the incident diminished Trump's support. However, former campaign officials like Steve Bannon—who advised Donald Trump to "double down"—believe American voters "don't care" about it and had "no lasting impact."

Steve Bannon: Trump's "Access Hollywood" tape was a "litmus test"

In the runup to the 2020 election, there were various think pieces written with concern about a Joe Biden candidacy, citing his history of gaffes. However, even beyond the above examples, several analyses of the effect of gaffes in campaigns tend to believe such stumbles' ability to move the needle with the public is overstated. Nate Silver's reading of polling found that Mitt Romney's "47%" comments during the 2012 campaign may have only moved 1% of voters towards President Barack Obama. According to Silver, the focus on mistakes and gaffes is fueled by the news media, which needs something exciting for its stories, especially when covering campaigns and feeding a constant need for content. For example, one of the most replayed clips of a presidential candidate making a mistake in a debate is that of Gerald Ford stating there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in the 1976 campaign. Ford's flub is usually positioned in service of the public image of Ford as a dumb lightweight who was not up to being president; combined with the debate mistake, it may have been crucial in his defeat at the hands of Jimmy Carter. However, Ford actually gained in the polls after that debate.

Furthermore, it's been asserted that if a focus on gaffes serves any useful purpose for the opposition, it helps confirm negative attitudes about a person among the people already predisposed to dislike them, and charges up the opponent's base to help their turnout rather than converting one's own voters to change their minds. So while Hillary Clinton calling Trump voters a "basket of deplorables" is hyped by media pundits as a reason Clinton didn't do well in the Rust Belt back in 2016, it's more likely that the people who are offended by such a thing were probably never going to vote for her anyway. Amid the 2012 campaign, President Obama stated during a press conference that "the private sector is doing fine." The media decided Obama had made a major gaffe that was a "gift" to the Republicans. Despite all the hyperventilating by pundits, Obama's comment barely affected his job approval numbers.

But is it really accurate to say that gaffes don't matter?

We, as voters, define candidates not only by where they stand on issues, but by the images and words we believe reveal something about their inner character. What we focus on is also based on our own biases, whether those moments are arguably relevant or not. Moreover, in the present environment, where the response to negative coverage, at least among a significant chunk of the electorate, is to scream "fake news," a gaffe's power to drive voters to the polls is more an exercise in stoking one's own side to action than a path to conversion of new supporters.

I would argue the full impact of these blunder stories is not easily understood, and there are indirect effects that are not considered when a full-blown media focus on a screw-up occurs. The biggest problem is how much time and focus gets wasted away. Want to talk about health care? Want to discuss the pandemic response? Too bad, because the next couple of days are going to be spent doing damage control. Once the press frenzy dies down it's not over, since every new story gets filtered through the new narrative.

Does anyone really believe Ted Cruz will ever be taken seriously talking about bipartisanship or the importance of government services providing support to citizens? When Cruz addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in late February, he did so at a time where less than half of Texas Republicans viewed Cruz favorably and his job approval numbers had slipped underwater with all voters. Every time he runs for anything in the future, the video of him looking like a schlub with a suitcase in a Mexican airport will be run, and run again. Such gaffes may not be the main reason candidates lose or careers are destroyed, but they do explain how some of the oxygen of policy debates gets sucked from the room. Yet at CPAC, Cruz took the Bannon approach: He doubled down and didn't apologize or address the fiasco—other than to make a bad joke of it. Instead, Cruz leaned on a laundry list of boogeymen and fearmongering, from the supposed tyranny of mask mandates to minimizing the insurrection at the Capitol.

The sad truth is that Cruz, Taylor Greene, and all Republicans know that while gaffes, mistakes, and errors might animate Democrats, the same people who censured officials for not showing enough support to Donald Trump don't want apologies, or the sort of moments that satiate media pundits. They want defiance, and reward their officials for going against the norms. But those same voters will raise holy hell and get motivated into getting signatures for a recall in California over pictures of the governor making a selfish mistake. To that base, a stumble on a staircase leading to Air Force One becomes a point of obsession that proves every right-wingbacked armchair non-doctor's conspiracy theories about Joe Biden's fitness. Gaffes matter to those voters, but only the ones they think should matter. Therefore, the ability for a gaffe or mistake to ever convert a Republican voter to change their view of a candidate or official is limited. The only ones we can probably hold out hope for are those with an open mind.

Gaffes, of course, have tremendous power to shape both popular culture and our memories, lingering long after a campaign is over. Which political gaffes, blunders, and mistakes have stuck with you?

The fears we laugh about during Halloween say a lot about our politics

"Blessed be our new founding fathers and America ... A nation reborn."

This year will see us celebrating a very different Halloween. In many places around the country, children will not be able to go trick-or-treating, and adults will not be able to dress up and make fools of themselves at the club, given the current pandemic. But what is Halloween without a scary story? And what is the nature of those spooky tales? Most of the time they are rooted in very real issues and very real threats.

Sometimes the scariest thing in movies or books is not the killer, monster, or demon jumping out of the dark. Some of the best works scare people with what they can get the viewer or reader to imagine to be behind the creaking door, without ever spelling out what was really there, or even if there was really anything to be scared of in the first place. For a little kid, what lurks underneath their bed is anything the fear of their mind can imagine.

The best horror stories bring people back to that childhood innocence and then exploit it. But this is also true of those adult fears, which the most manipulative use for untoward ends.

Without even getting into arguments over aliens, ghosts, Bigfoot, chupacabras, green children, the Loch Ness monster, or even who killed Jimmy Hoffa, there are more down-to-earth real mysteries and monsters which are just as chilling and unnerving. The Trump administration has been likened to Pennywise the Dancing Clown of Stephen King's It, an entity which feeds on human fears while making targets of the vulnerable and exacerbating the overall negative emotions of everyone in the community. In this respect, the great and terrible darkness we fight is not lurking to get at us from another dimension or to escape a hell below us. It's right here with us, staring back in any mirror. The sad thing is these monsters are not just things which scurry about in the dark. The monsters of today stand in broad daylight wearing suits with flag lapel pins. These demons prey on children and the weak to gain their power. They have a cult of followers, some of which may be our own family members, united in fear and worship of their leaders' every lie. The evil which lurks corrupts everything it touches and foments violence against anyone that disagrees.

Author C.S. Lewis, a Christian apologist who worked his faith into many of his works, believed the problem of evil was not the conflict between two separate and equal entities, but what humans classify as evil only exists as only a dark reflection of that which is good. To Lewis, the natural state of the universe is perfection, since it was created by a perfect God, who passed on that perfection—until humans screwed things up with original sin. Therefore, any evil which exists is only a corruption of a society's norms and a person's integrity, and not an innate aspect of either the community or individuals.

Sometimes it's the individual or societal anxieties which express very real fear-causing aspects of life, albeit in grossly exaggerated ways. This notion becomes important when looking at the ideas and morality which have been part of scary stories and horror tales for centuries, and which still reverberate to this day.

People who have premarital sex and do drugs deserve to die

My mother's next-door neighbor is someone I could call at three in the morning and he'd be there to help. When my mother was rushed to the hospital in the back of an ambulance and we had no way to get back home, he answered his phone in the middle of the night. However, this neighbor is also one of the most politically conservative people I've ever met. I vividly remember him talking about his opposition to birth control and abortion, which were based in his belief there must be "consequences" for sex. If social conservatism has been defined by a fear of one's own body, then the end point for socially conservative policies is punishment as the wages of sin for anyone who chooses agency over their own person.

This sort of right-wing idea of punishing sin is a very common trope in many horror films. Who do Jason Voorhees and his mother kill in Friday the 13th? Their victims tend to be a lot of teenagers who decided it was a good idea to have sex in a tent next to a lake known for an undead killer in a hockey mask. Of course, being too dumb to live is also an acceptable excuse for characters in a horror movie to die.


All of this leads to an argument that the horror genre is actually "innately conservative, even reactionary" in ideology. The essence of fear as a tool to elicit an emotional response aims to reestablish our feelings of essential normality in relation to the threat of change, whether that change be a fear of death or even radical social change. That's why even though scary movies have more than enough violence and bare breasts to make most moral guardians clutch their pearls, most also have a fundamental morality which allows the audience to accept the enjoyment of watching horrible things happen to those people who break certain rules—since many of those rules align with the aims of Focus on the Family and other conservative assholes.

The fairy tale we know as Little Red Riding Hood is derived from two sources—Charles Perrault (also known as Mother Goose) and the Brothers Grimm. However, the story is much older than either of them, and like a lot of well-known fairy tales, the original iteration of the story is quite gruesome. The Big Bad Wolf actually feeds the grandmother to a naive Little Red Riding Hood, then gets her to disrobe and get in bed with him. In the Brothers Grimm version, the girl and her grandmother were rescued by a passing hunter, and then proceeded to fill the Wolf's belly with stones.

But it is Perrault's version that's noted for removing darker elements like cannibalism and adding the "red hood," which takes on some symbolic significance, since there is no happy ending for his Little Red Riding Hood. The Wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood ... the end. Perrault intended the story to be a moral to young women about all wolves who deceive. The redness of the hood has been interpreted as a symbolic representation of sexual awakening and lust.

Variations of almost every element of Little Red Riding Hood appear in modern horror movies. The Big Bad Wolf is the archetypal "slasher" villain; a predator who shows almost, or true, supernatural abilities to deceive and manipulate his victims, most of whom are almost always women. Throw in Perrault's sexual symbolism, and you have the virginal "final girl" of many horror movies.

The heroine is a white virginal girl

The term "final girl" was coined by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, And Chain Saws: Gender In The Modern Horror Film. The book analyzed the slasher genre from a feminist perspective, and Clover argues that, instead of being driven by misogyny and sadism against women, these movies put the male viewer into the mindset of the female protagonist, or "the final girl" to survive. The final girl can scream, cry, and show fear in a way which audiences wouldn't accept from a male character. The final girl usually has a unisex name (e.g., Ripley, Sam, or Jay, in the case of It Follows), and tends to be portrayed as an idealization of female innocence and purity. She's probably not sexually experienced, doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, doesn't do drugs and more likely than not is a bit of a "Mary Sue." The character may be based on conservative attitudes and ideas of what women "should be." On the other hand, the final girl is usually separated emotionally from her parents, and the horror of the story tends to be connected to the sins of the parents, which is hidden behind a facade of family values.


Many have argued this trope takes advantage of regressive sexual attitudes in pop culture, where an apprehension to sex is coupled with the audience being titillated by sadism against a female protagonist and female characters. Beyond just horror movies, depicting a woman with sexual agency is still problematic in both fiction and real-life. There's a "virgin whore" dichotomy that Freud would have a field day with, where the culture sexualizes women, but if those women actually enjoy sex, it's either ridiculed (i.e., slut-shaming) or seen as something wrong or weird.


The other side of the argument is that many of the horror movies which came out of the 1970s "exploitation" film era are some of the first movies to have strong female characters that weren't dependent on men to "save" them. This argument is also found in discussions of Blaxploitation films, where the trade off to having Black actors and actresses front and center meant seeing them typecast as gangsters, hookers, and pimps.

"Even in the mid-'70s, the kind of proto-feminist element was being written about," said Kathleen McHugh, director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women. "Feminist film scholars were writing about Roger Corman and Stephanie Rothman, locating a feminist impulse in the standard plot, where you have these powerful, self-assertive, one might even use the term 'extremely aggressive' women who are wreaking vengeance against forces, people, men who are trying to keep them down."

The Black guy dies first

Apparently all evil monsters, aliens, and serial killers are racists, since people of color hardly ever survive a horror movie, and usually are among the first to die. On the one hand, this ties in to an argument about diversity both in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood. As it became more important for movies and television shows to increase representation and not pretend every community only has white people, more people of color appeared in front of the camera. However, the space behind the camera was, and to some extent still is, dominated by white writers and mostly white people in production. Writers tend to write what they know, and if given a character with a background they don't know or haven't really experienced, it may lead to either a cliche storm of stereotypes or killing the character off to get them out of the way once they're onscreen for a few minutes, long enough to get bonafides for diverse casting. And so Black characters—just as Black people in real life, sadly—become accessories to be used and discarded in service of white characters' needs.

Black people rarely make it to the end of a horror movie, but it's not exactly true that they always die first.


Over the past few decades, this notion has further been subverted, especially as more people of color are producing and directing their own material. More films in the horror genre have put issues of race and class front and center, with the horror of the movies shifted. Instead of the story being in service to the wants of white people, as it was in many past films with token characters, the struggle of these films switches the perspective where the horror is the wants of white people.

Jordan Peele's Get Out is a "social thriller," in which the horror scenario is a way for the story to expound into a damning satire about objectification and exploitation of Black people and Black culture, while assailing a type of white liberal guilt that talks a good game but does nothing to change anything. Peele's second film, Us, bases its action around a family being terrorized by violent doppelgängers attempting to take their place. The film is just as full of subtext as Get Out, but this time it's a contemplation about the nature of how we define ourselves as persons, and the ways it spirals out into the lies we want to believe about societies.

The Purge series was originally written off as nothing more than schlock, but each installment has made the themes of social inequality more explicit. Set in a future where a right-wing party called the New Founding Fathers of America has instituted an annual holiday where all crimes are legal for one night, under the claim of purging negative emotions, the propaganda of the regime claims instituting the event has resulted in 1% unemployment and an "America reborn." In actuality, the purge is intended as a legalized form of mass murder, in which the poor and other undesirable elements of society are eliminated through death squads, and the purge itself is a metaphor for the destruction done by the social inequalities created by poverty. In The Purge films, the wealthy are able to protect themselves or take part in the holiday with a degree of safety, while the poor are preyed upon by racists and elements of government who have judged them to be burdens or non-human. The Purge thus becomes a story for how people will rationalize abandoning the unfortunate if given only a perception of fairness, even when the result is not—reminiscent of the elevation of the idea that the free market fairly picks the "winners" and "losers," without allowing for the idea that hundreds of years of bias and discrimination plays a part.

Catholics are the only ones capable of fighting demons

Religious horror basically takes the Cliffs Notes version and various apocrypha of major religions and turns it into a scary story. In any horror movie, if it comes time to battle the forces of darkness and there is a possibility of defeating the evil by some vestiges of religion, the means by which it will be defeated will probably be quasi-Catholic. So thanks a lot for nothing, Martin Luther and the rest of you Protestants! The reason is because the Catholic Church is old and has a history of ornate ritual and majestic symbolism. Plus, cursing out a demon in Latin just sounds cooler.

Both Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist use the concept of the Devil and demons to inspire fear. But at their core, they're really movies about the female condition, within a religious framework. In both films, women are in situations where their pleas for help are either subverted or not taken seriously. And in both movies, the male figures either betray them, are absent, or are emotionally detached from offering any comfort.


Rosemary's Baby connects to real fears that women have during pregnancy: the possibility that something is wrong with their baby, that they're losing control of their body, and the situation is one they have little control over. The movie just adds in Satanic rape and devil worshipers.

The true horror of The Exorcist exists whether one believes in demonic possession, since the crux of the story is really about helplessness and a mother's fear of having something wrong with a child that no one seems able to fix. In this respect, whether it's mental illness, cancer, or a demon, the story connects on that emotional level.

The key to surviving any horror scenario is friendship and a family's love

1982's Poltergeist is now considered a classic of this particular genre. And that's interesting for a number of reasons, given some of the controversy and trivia which surrounds the movie. Poltergeist is a great example of a theme usually associated with Steven Spielberg's movies from the late '70s to the mid-'80s (i.e., suburban, middle-class families dealing with extraordinary circumstances). One of the knocks usually levied against Spielberg is he idealizes American suburbia and visualizes it in a nostalgic tone. That's not exactly true. In E.T. and Poltergeist, both families have flaws. Spielberg's suburban life is one in which unsupervised children stay up all hours watching TV, eating junk food, surrounded by products and things which provide no meaning, while living in cookie cutter neighborhoods. But if Spielberg sentimentalized anything, he idealizes the ability of a family's love to overcome all obstacles.

Teamwork makes the dream work and, like a dysfunctional family, this is especially true for any disparate group of people thrown together in a crisis. The George Romero Living Dead films touch on race, gender, and the inability of people to work together at the end of the world, which is just as true when expanded out to societies which can't work together to combat climate change, systemic racism, health care, or pandemics.

The zombie apocalypse is a situation that brings out the worst tendencies in humans, and turns our best qualities against us. In order to survive, a balance has to be found between the two. With almost any zombie film, they can be seen in such an entirely different light when you realize the zombies aren't meant to be evil—or even the villains. The zombies are no different than a thunderstorm, or a hurricane, or an earthquake. It's just a part of nature that we deal with, and how we deal with it can sometimes depend on what kind of person we are. Therefore, the true evil in most zombie apocalypses is humanity. With the world crumbling around them, the human characters still can't put aside their differences (whether race, class or ego) to save each other. The survivors would rather fight over the last scraps of civilization, or hold on to prejudices that serve to help no one survive.


Don't turn off the main road for a shortcut

Among one of the most disturbing documentaries PBS ever broadcast is The Donner Party, which focuses on the infamous incident in which a disastrous expedition of settlers to California resulted in starvation, murder, and cannibalism.

Director Ric Burns, whose brother is Ken Burns (The Civil War), uses historical stills, nature photography, and celebrity voice overs to create a truly unsettling tale. Just as in The Civil War, David McCullough narrates, with readings from the actual diary entries of the Donner settlers providing the details of what happened as the situation went from bad to worse. McCullough's narration is particularly effective. The way McCullough nonchalantly mentions a wife having to watch her dead husband's heart being roasted on a stick catches the viewer off-guard. And with the use of still photography, what one doesn't see becomes more troubling, since the mind fills in the gaps in ways that are more horrific.

Many very common horror movie tropes occurred over the course of the Donner Party's journey. Hell, it might be the source of some of the cliches: people deciding to turn off the main road to take a shortcut that turns out to be the worst choice of their lives, an arrogant member of the group's behavior making a bad situation worse, disintegration of relationships through greed and ego, and ending most gruesomely with blood and gore through cannibalism.


What could possibly go wrong?

A hunger to know things is a common theme in literature and mythology, but it's been balanced over thousands of years with messages that the pursuit of knowledge may destroy paradise. Curiosity is frequently treated as something of a sin; the pursuit of knowledge and the discovery of truth usually signify the loss of innocence. The Holy Bible uses this trope with the temptation of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And Greek mythology has both Pandora and her box and Prometheus and his gift of fire. Reams could and probably have been written on the effect on Western civilization due to two big cultural myths which blamed women for bringing evil and suffering into the world, and how that corresponds to ideas about sexual innocence and moral purity.

In a good portion of scary movies that touch on science fiction, there is more than a fair share of Luddite tendencies. Even though science fiction deals with possibilities and all the wonder that may be, it also has a habit of tempering that with a lot of paranoia and suspicion of advanced technology, scientific discovery, and its application. To this end, most stories posit corporations and government as the "Big Bads," since their depictions tend to be neither benevolent nor trustworthy enough to deal with knowledge that might be gained, due to ulterior motives of greed and power.

As a child, I learned some important lessons. If I should ever come across a crashed meteor, and ooze should slither out of it, I should run the hell away instead of poking it with a stick. If I am ever part of an experiment, any positive physical changes will be temporary; I will ultimately descend into becoming a monstrous mass of flesh. And if someday a flying saucer is discovered under the ice of Antarctica, don't thaw it, as it will end with teeth growing out of the chest and one's head growing tentacles.


Killers struggle with sexual identity

Until the mid-1970s, both the American psychiatric and psychological associations classified homosexuality as a mental health disorder and listed it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This particular bias is prevalent in many, many stories where gay and transgender characters are shown enduring a life of self-hating sadness, suffering from an addiction to supposedly aberrant behavior, or drawn to an underworld of sin. And since people with these "unnatural" compulsions are broken, LGBTQ characters have been used, sometimes as the twist, in a lot of murder-mysteries, psychological dramas, and horror movies.

Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer plays the monster angle literally, where a gay character is chased through the streets like Frankenstein's monster and killed. Along the same lines, the implied or explicit homosexuality of the killer is often a twist of the "thriller" genre. The adaptation of Roderick Thorp's The Detective, starring Frank Sinatra, has the killer at one point saying he "felt more guilty about being a homosexual than being a murderer" and skulking around the streets looking to pick up men, like an addict searching for a fix. William Friedkin's Cruising, which follows an undercover cop investigating a serial killer targeting gay men within New York's leather/BDSM scene, was protested during its production and upon release by gay rights activists who believed the film characterized homosexuals as promiscuous and violent. Similar to the most problematic issues surrounding Cruising, 1992's Basic Instinct was protested by LGBTQ activists for presenting gay people and bisexuals in a negative light; some protesters stood outside theaters holding signs that revealed the identity of the movie's killer. One of the most controversial aspects of both the novel and Jonathan Demme's adaption of Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs was the characterization of serial killer Buffalo Bill.

It's fascinating how this characterization has changed over the years. The change in these views of the LGBTQ community has led many to feel that positive depictions of gay men and lesbian women in film and television have been important in pushing the public to a more tolerant position.


We live in The Twilight Zone

As I've gotten older, I've come to realize a lot of my love for science fiction and horror material can be seen through the prism of cathartic wish fulfillment and a release of all the things we're afraid of within an engaging story.

Because "in a better world," we can do anything. In some far-off future society, things make sense. Unlike in the here and now, problems can be solved with reason and science, no one looks down their nose at others for being different, and the worst mistakes can be made right again. Brave heroes boldly charge through the darkness in great machines to save the day. While there will be struggles and suffering, and dark threats must be confronted, even death itself can be opposed. And through it all, maybe there's even a fatherly figure who dispenses wisdom and lessons of morality in between drags on his cigarette.

One of the greatest powers of story can be its ability to divorce a controversial topic from all of the usual bullshit that surrounds it, forcing the reader/viewer to examine a topic in a new way. It allows the public conscious for confronting humanity's hopes and despairs, fears and failings, prejudices and atrocities in allegory and metaphor. So it should be no surprise that scary stories reflect who we are as a people, both good and bad.

The horror films of the last two decades have seen an increased diversity in topics and formats, which are themselves reactions to cultural shifts. Found footage films arose at the same time that selfies and social media became commonplace. A glut of horror movie remakes, and remakes in general, have occurred during the same era where a significant part of the populace has clung to old ideas and want to make flawed, past memories great again instead of creating better and newer ones. What does the future hold? How will the influence of the Trump era be expressed in future scary movies?

Only time will tell.

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