The Ideological Monster: Horror’s Social Purpose

Elise Johnson

Author Info

Course: Philosophy of Motion Pictures (PHIL 3700)

Professor: Laura Di Summa-Knoop, Philosophy

Essay: The Ideological Monster: Horror’s Social Purpose


The students were asked to submit a 3000 words+ research paper introducing at least three additional sources. Before submitting the paper, they had to submit an annotated bibliography. Topics were chosen by the students.

I knew that monsters were far more gentle and more desirable than the monsters living inside “nice people.” And I think accepting that you are a monster gives you the leeway to not behave like one. When you deny being a monster, you behave like one.
– Guillermo del Toro

A genre that has frightened audiences for over a century, horror films have seen immense popularity in spite – or because – of the ghastly ordeal audiences endure, with numerous films finding critical and commercial success. Yet many have found this fondness of horror unlikely considering the negative emotions the genre conjures up. Why would a person willingly submit themselves to films that incite fear, repugnance, and dread? This long-sought question has been asked and answered in many different ways by many different philosophers, some examining the issue from a cognitivist perspective, an expressivist standpoint, or from some other theory. While Noël Carroll centers his evaluation of horror’s draw on the monster, claiming that our curiosity around beings that defy cultural categories fuels our pleasure, Berys Gaut takes the position that there is no paradox and we can enjoy a negative emotion when we disvalue the object of that emotion. Both of these theories are persuasive, and in fact both may be applicable to different horror movies, as I doubt that there is merely one theory of horror that can account for its considerable diversity. Nonetheless, I do find these two theories to be lacking. Horror can do so much more than entertain, and I contend that audiences continue to flock to horror because of its application to the real world. These monsters can represent the real-life injustices of our world, with the genre being wielded as a way to reveal their monstrous nature. Of course not all of horror’s monsters are representations of injustice, and indeed some films frame their monsters as historically marginalized groups, thereby maintaining systems of oppression. Some films may also just be campy, blood-splattering fun with little to no intentional social message endorsed by the writer or director. But there are many works of horror this theory applies to, works that audiences respond to and enjoy. Moreover, this depiction of monstrosity can play an important role in addressing and eliminating these systems, as horror can encourage critical self-reflection in the audience. Thus, we can enjoy horror because of its role in mitigating real-life injustice, and this often-overlooked genre can encourage a monumental change in a society’s moral imagination.

Exactly which particular injustice a horror movie depicts and how it is represented varies from film to film, and there are different ways to analyze a film to deduce such answers. The approach taken in this paper is a feminist ideology critique, particularly that of Cynthia A. Freeland’s “Feminist Frameworks for Horror Films.” Such a method examines a film’s participation in an ideology, critiquing certain naturalized messages about gender the film presents (Freeland 205). This framework allows for an intersectional approach that also considers race, class, sexuality, and so on, the
first of which being integral to this paper’s analysis. In examining how the film portrays historically marginalized and dominant groups, we can ask questions regarding the representation of gender (and racial) roles and relations, the type of resolution presented, the hero, and the horrific monster (215). It is the latter’s representation that will constitute this paper’s analysis, though the importance of a marginalized protagonist proving victorious and defeating an ideological monster is a question for further consideration. This framework takes horror films as cultural texts or artifacts that function within a sociocultural context that is constantly changing (215). Horror films, like all art, embodies “the ideological circumstances of the moment that contains it,” though audience readings from different contexts can produce different, even subversive, interpretations of the film and its contents (Sharrett 71). What is important in this ideology critique is recognition of the reflective nature of film genres in that by virtue of the specific historical and sociocultural context in which they are produced and consumed, these films speak to those populations about issues within that context (Benshoff xiv). In horror, what is horrific “flows from the normal,” from the ideological ideals of patriarchy, white supremacy, and other systems of oppression (Sharrett 61). Gaut and Carroll’s theories do not adequately acknowledge these contexts and how they influence the construction of horror, its monsters, and our recognition of them, and thus this paper will prioritize films as such artifacts.

One horror film beloved by both fans and critics alike that has grounded itself in the injustice of American racism is Jordan Peele’s Get Out. The film centers on Chris, a young black man who is invited by his white girlfriend Rose to her wealthy liberal parent’s house upstate. As the weekend progresses and the racial microaggressions from the “well-intended” Armitages and co. begin to stack up, the film takes a turn to mad science when it is revealed that the family has been transplanting their brains into the bodies of black men and women. Throughout this fantastical twist the film remains deeply rooted to the very real racism black people continue to face in the United States, an oppression that has adapted and evolved over time. Though by no means to only horror film to discuss racism, Get Out provides an unflinching look at American racism in the era of “colorblindness,” one that could not have been made in another period. Consider another acclaimed horror film that similarly deals with American racism albeit in a different era: Night of the Living Dead. Although the intention of writer and director George A. Romero to provide a social commentary on 1960s America is debated, the film was nonetheless groundbreaking in its portrayal of a calm, competent black man as its leading man Ben. The overt racial tension between Ben and the white characters, notably fearful Barbra and aggressive Harry, is palpable, but nowhere is the racism of the 1960s more present than the final scenes of the movie. After surviving the horde of zombies, Ben is gunned down and thrown upon a bonfire by a posse of white men not unlike the lynch mobs and Ku Klux Klan that have targeted black people. The zombies are established as the monsters of this film from the beginning, but the closing scenes hint that there may be another, the mob of white men, lurking about. Both Night of the Living Dead and Get Out concern themselves with the racism of their eras, the latter’s being more covert while explicitly setting up the white characters (and the racism they uphold) as the monsters throughout the course of the movie.

Get Out’s monsters are quite literally wealthy liberal white people who appropriate black bodies for themselves yet cannot see the racism underlying their motivations. But more abstractly, the monster of the film is not only the individually racist members of the Armitage family, but the systemic American racism they help maintain. “Monster” here is defined as “a threatening force” or “a person of unnatural or extreme ugliness, deformity, wickedness, or cruelty,” the concept being extended from the individual wicked person to the wicked and threatening system of oppression that they perpetuate (“Monster”). Peele depicts this wilier twenty-first century racism through the subversion of common racist ideas, conventions, and stereotypes as well as the employment of images and ideological narratives that have shaped this particular injustice. The realistic, concrete, and rich characterization of Chris, a member of a vastly underrepresented group in mainstream cinema, written by a member of such group is certainly subversive, but it is the depiction of the film’s monsters that will be considered here.

One way of subverting racist ideology is by drawing attention to its ideals and then writing them off, revealing them to be absurd, senseless, or even horrifying (Cunliffe, Feminist Philosophy 23-24). Much of the dialogue between Chris and Rose’s family and their friends consists of racial microaggressions that are so frequent during its runtime and so outlandish that not only is Chris made to feel uncomfortable, but the audience, too. Many examples of blatant sexualization and commodification of Chris and his body takes place during the party scene in which the Armitages’ white guests insinuate Chris’s sexual prowess, remark on their love of fellow black man Tiger Woods’s athleticism, and proclaim that “Black is ‘in fashion’” (Peele 92-95). Unbeknownst to Chris, these proclamations reveal their racist reasoning for stealing and inhabiting black bodies; to be as physically endowed, athletic, or “privileged” as black men and women in “post- racial” America, racist falsehoods propagated by contemporary racism. Even the “well-meaning” attempts to connect by father Dean, such as proudly noting that he would have voted for President Obama for a third term or his use of the word “thang,” are cringe-inducing and depict the very real employment of such techniques by white people to mask their own discomfort and racism, foster false rapport with a black person, or minimize their privilege (Due 9). These problematic attitudes and behaviors are not depicted as acceptable and the racist idea that we live in a “post- racial” society is subsequently dismissed. This post- racial lie is explicitly referenced and even wielded by the villains in their attempts to dismiss the racist motivation underlying their subjugation of black people. During his mad scientist monologue, Dean attempts to assuage his “weird twisted sense of white guilt” by asserting that he sees Chris as superior and that is why black people are chosen and stolen (Peele 178n62). He cannot see his actions, nevermind himself, as racist. Similarly, Jim, whose brain is set to be implanted into Chris’s body, asserts his “colorblindness,” brushing off Chris’s race and claiming that he doesn’t care if Chris is “black, brown, green, purple... whatever” (147). This is simultaneously a privilege of white people to not have to ever factor their race into the equation as well as the racist lie that being colorblind in this sense is real, which it is decidedly not. In this film, the falsity of this statement is more prominent than ever; how can this not be about race when only black people are stolen and subjugated by white people? These scenes reveal the true absurdity of such a belief and that it is not only the individuals who maintain this lie but the ideology that has constructed it that are at fault for anti-black violence.

Another way Get Out subverts racist ideology is by purposefully upending our expectations regarding racist ideas, directly invoking and then destabilizing them (Cunliffe, Feminist Philosophy 23-24, 25). Historically, black men have been depicted on film as monstrous, as with the infamous film The Birth of a Nation, which portrayed black men as sexual predators lusting after white women while Klansmen served as the film’s heroes. Yet in Get Out, the monsters are white characters, the most of vicious of whom being white women. One of the most prominent racist conventions that continues to be used in pop culture today, the white savior trope involves a white character rescuing a nonwhite character or group from dire circumstances. Get Out appears to set up girlfriend Rose as this savior, designating her as an ally that both Chris and the audience can trust. From “defending” Chris from a racist police officer to expressing frustration at her family’s racism, Rose is established as likeable and protective of Chris when in reality she is only a few steps ahead of both her boyfriend and the viewers (Peele 169n13, 171n23). This illusion comes crashing down when Rose reveals that she cannot give Chris the car keys and escape her family’s clutches. This reveal is so shocking because, as Peele notes, “we are preconditioned to think movies don’t let you remove the white savior trope... there’s always one good white person” (178- 9n64). This racist fallacy is one that is meant to comfort white audiences watching movies that deal with race, and we have come to expect this characterization of white characters. Get Out thus subverts not only this individual trope but audience expectations and the racist ideology that has cultivated them.

Racism itself is further established as Get Out’s monster with Peele’s use of various images that have historically been associated with slavery and racism and that have been used to uphold this ideology. In his examination of the documentary The Act of Killing, Robert Sinnerbrink discusses the film’s exploration historical and moral relativism, the use of “noble lies” in maintaining order and democracy, and the potential to destabilize society with the rewriting of history (“Gangster Film” 177). Yet director Joshua Oppenheimer does so in relation to the image, particularly that of the perpetrators of Indonesia’s 1960s mass killings and the ideological economy
of images that shaped their acts of killing and the repressive social consciousness that was subsequently established (175). This paper will borrow this concept of an ideological economy of images that has sustained a society founded on acts of political violence, with slavery and racism as an ideology serving as these acts and its images being exhibited in Get Out. The image of the buck, which connotes a strong male slave, is littered throughout the Armitage home, with decapitated deer heads adorning the walls (Peele 179n70). And it is ultimately one of these stuffed bucks that kills patriarch Dean as Chris impales him with its horns. This pejorative has been used to maintain a system racism in which black people are enslaved and abused, and its image is used to express the racism of the Armitage family as well as liberate Chris. His use of a chair’s cotton stuffing to protect himself against hypnosis similarly takes a racist image of slavery and uses it to reference this dark history and its lingering effects today. What is essentially a slave auction as Chris’s body is sold to the highest bidder is a shocking image to see framed in this time period, yet the importance of these references to slavery cannot be understated (177n56). Peele employs these images, images that recall and supported the racial violence upon which the United States has been built, in conjunction with images of modern racism in order to connect “the subtlest forms of microaggression to the most violent, unimaginable racial violence” (173-4n35). Frequent microaggressions as well as images like that of a camera phone being used to reveal racial violence and contemporary racial subjugation’s manifestation in the Sunken Place are shown alongside those that sustained slavery, this heavy symbolism showing the racist ideology of today to be just as devastating and monstrous (172-3n30).

Carroll might claim that in such films as Get Out, there is no monster because there is no categorical violation, the Armitages do not “def[y] standing conceptual schemas” (Carroll 278). Admittedly, I have also described the Armitages as villains in the sense that they are the antagonists opposing hero Chris, but the monster of the film is systemic racism. Carroll’s definition of monster is quite narrow and more closely follows that of “an animal or plant of abnormal form or structure” or “one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character” (“Monster”). Certainly, this definition applies to that which defies categorization, as with the Universal Classic Monsters of the twentieth century, and it would be difficult to argue that the everyday racism exhibited by the Armitages is, unfortunately, out of the norm. Yet as previously stated, monsters can also be considered “a person of unnatural or extreme ugliness, deformity, wickedness, or cruelty” or “a threatening force” (“Monster”). A monster need not be abnormal in order to be monstrous; it can simply be extraordinarily vicious and devastating. When we describe someone who has committed a crime so atrocious as a monster, it does not mean that we lack a category to ascribe to her. Rather, she committed such an injustice, an evil, that she is shockingly horrible. Similarly, a system that has subjugated, tortured, and murdered people of color, one that has enslaved black people and has continued their marginalization for centuries, has produced such horrific injustice that it can defined, and thus visualized, as a monster. As a genre, horror allows viewers to “reframe true-life trauma on the screen as imaginary monsters and demons,” with Get Out enabling them to visualize racism as an allegorical monster that can at last be defeated (Due 7). This progression of horror’s monsters from literal creatures to more abstract thematic concepts is one that can be seen in numerous films of the “horror renaissance” of the 2010s and ‘20s, from The Babadook, which features a literal monster that is the mother’s trauma and grief physicalized, to Midsommar, a film that lacks a physical monster but examines the construction of relationships both familial, platonic and romantic in American society. The horror of these movies does arise in part from the literal manifestations of systems of oppression, trauma, and so on, be it a top hat- wearing ghoul, a pagan cult, or a killer suburban family. But the horror also arises from what these monsters represent or what injustice or social concern they are grounded in, the recognition and analysis of which fueling audience’s viewing pleasure.

By depicting an injustice as a monster, horror filmmakers do much more than entertain an audience; they can also play a role in countering that injustice by encouraging audiences to recognize, reflect upon, and then take action against systems of oppression. Building upon Miranda Fricker’s conception of epistemic injustice, Zoë Cunliffe asserts in “Narrative Fiction and Epistemic Justice” that narrative fiction can provide epistemic correctives to both testimonial and hermeneutical injustice, the former of which will be discussed here. In order to counter testimonial injustice, the social imagination itself must be transformed, as this is what generates, sustains, and adapts the identity stereotypes that feed negative identity prejudice and establish credibility deficits (Cunliffe, “Narrative Fiction” 170). One of the ways narrative fiction can combat this injustice is by stimulating a higher level of self- and other-awareness in the audience, allowing them to connect the prejudices in fiction that parallel those in everyday life. Since these socially conscious horror films feature such prejudices and injustices, horror fans can similarly gain a better understanding of the struggles marginalized groups face (other-awareness) as well as an appreciation of their own positionality regarding such groups (self-awareness; 171). This can in turn translate into action against these injustices.

Horror films depicting injustices as monsters stimulate higher levels of other-awareness regarding systems of oppression, educating their viewers on that which does not marginalize the personally. Get Out encourages other-awareness in its unflinching examination of contemporary American racism, inciting the audience to recognize its systemic nature and the stereotypes that constrain how Chris is perceived by white individuals (172). Linking subtle microaggressions with devastating anti-black violence, the film forces the viewer to look at the system beneath these individual instances of racism. This is especially apparent in
the final scene during which what appears to be a police cruiser approaches Chris as he looks upon a dying Rose. Chris’s face falls as he raises his hands in surrender, Rose smirking from below, playing opossum. Regardless of the individual’s view of police brutality, the audience agrees that the cops arriving threatens Chris’s life, that “this situation right here gets him shot” (Peele 182n88). They must acknowledge that despite his innocence, a black man interacting with police places his life in danger more often than not. Moreover, there is a system of racism comprised of both subtle acts of anti-black sentiment and overt acts of violence, one that has resulted in the deaths of countless black Americans at the hands of law enforcement. Get Out affords viewers not personally affected by racism in the United States better awareness of how this system of oppression operates and its detrimental effect on black Americans, in turn increasing the likelihood of an individual looking for and recognizing this system in action (Cunliffe, “Narrative Fiction” 172). Even if a viewer does not experience racism or another particular form of oppression themselves, watching such horror films can reframe these systems as monstrous and horrific, their frightening images acting as a form of aesthetic “shock therapy” that jolts the audience into recognition of oppression’s real-life horrors (Sinnerbrink 173). The horrific images both illustrating the oppression itself and those characteristic of horror films establish the true monstrosity of such systems while providing information about historically marginalized groups that the viewer might not have been aware of previously, enabling them to recognize such prejudices in real life.

In its depiction of everyday injustices and prejudices, horror films, and narrative fiction in general, can also incite greater self-awareness in their audience, allowing for constructive self-examination of one own’s role in systems of oppression. With Get Out, not only does the director reflect black Americans’ most enduring fears and traumas, but he also “holds a mirror to the face of white society, particularly white liberals, who can identify their own problematic behaviors and attitudes” in those of the film’s characters (Due 9). As white audience members observe the racist microaggressions, they are simultaneously encouraged to reflect upon their own perpetuation of harmful prejudices. The party scene is one that highlights this moral self-examination in action, calling on white viewers to consider this particular white, liberal way of treating race, the associated myth of a post-racial society, and whether or not they as individuals have perpetuated the same damaging stereotypes (Cunliffe, “Narrative Fiction” 172). A response to this scene that Peele often receives from white viewers is one of personal horror, realizing, “Oh my god, I feel like I have done this” (Peele 173-4n35). Horror films can function as an imaginative instrument of self-examination, confronting those who perpetuate prejudice, knowingly or not, with the damage their actions cause. Not only does can the audience critique the system of oppression itself and the traumatic violence of the past that continues to control the present, but their complicity in such a system, as well (Sinnerbrink 173). This self-awareness then increases the likelihood that a person catches and corrects the prejudicial judgments they may be making, bringing constructive change out from the borders of fiction and into the real world (Cunliffe, “Narrative Fiction” 172).

Cunliffe also asserts that in virtue of their status as fiction, fictional narratives enjoy certain advantages in countering epistemic injustice over other more traditional or confrontational methods (176). As a genre, horror capitalizes on these advantages, actively engaging the viewer while being less likely to provoke of antagonism. One of these advantages is that it is often seen by those maintaining epistemic injustices, knowingly or unknowingly, as less hostile (176). More direct attempts to address epistemic justice are often met with hostility, and its intricacies such as implicit bias and microaggression are not universally well known or accepted. Although audience members are urged to examine systems of oppression and their role in preserving them, these films do so in such a way that the audience does not feel “called out” or attacked. Not only does their status as fiction somewhat shield horror films from resentment, but their genre does, as well. Historically, horror as a genre has been, despite its commercial success, viewed as less serious than others and subsequently written off. Horror films then may be in a better position to pose critiques against injustices as they would not be considered as aggressive as those included in, say, drama films. They can thus create a cinematic “safe space” of sorts in which systems of oppression and their perpetrators can be questioned and the individual’s actions exposed to scrutiny (Sinnerbrink 176). For example, the common response of white viewers to Get Out’s party scene, as detailed above, has not been one of personal offense but rather a more liberating, positive realization instead of a “crushing blow” (Peele 173-4n35). Horror audiences can thus learn of the consequences of their involvement in systems of oppression without feeling personally attacked, in turn being more receptive to this criticism and willing to adjust their behavior and attitudes.

When consuming narrative fiction, the kind of involvement offered in its employment of the imagination is one that is uniquely compelling
with emotional responses toward and on behalf of characters. These works are thus more likely to “live on in the imagination” than nonfictional narratives and contexts (Cunliffe, “Narrative Fiction” 178). Horror films provide an involvement that is even more compelling that those of other genres, its scenes producing often visceral reactions and heightened states of fear, anxiety, and relief. Scenes of terror often remain with the viewer well after the credits have rolled and can keep the film – and its epistemic correctives – at the forefront of the viewer’s mind. These emotions can foster further engagement after watching the film in which the viewer discusses it with friends, read reviews and analyses of the work, and even rewatches the film with new knowledge of what is to come (178). Furthermore, the ability to show rather tell when discussing complicated issues is an integral advantage of narrative fiction, horror films, and film itself. This feature prompts empathy, sympathy, and engagement of emotion in a way particular to fiction (177). Horror thus provides a unique opportunity for audience members, particularly historically marginalized persons, to “experience danger without a true cost, releasing tension and creating community against imaginary monsters” (Due 8). At times, horror derives its force from bringing the audience away from reality, but only so far as to provide an adequate buffer of sorts. The audience can feel terror without experiencing the horrific situation firsthand, allowing them to enjoy negative emotions. Yet even in the most outlandish of plots that are far removed from reality, the portrayal of a social injustice grounds the film in real life. Though the brain transplant procedure of Get Out is a work of fiction, the systemic racism of the film is not. Hence, even if a film is unrealistic in many aspects, as horror films so frequently are, its examination of epistemic issues remains valid.

Since the earliest of storytelling traditions, monsters have been wielded as instruments of moral education, revealing a society’s deepest fears while teaching its values of right and wrong. As a film genre, horror has frightened audiences for well over a century, creating iconic killers and creatures that have endured in sequel after blood-soaked sequel. Whilst entertaining audiences with tales of terror, some of the most renowned horror films have sought a more socially minded goal. As with all works of art, horror films can play an important role in the dissection and eventual elimination of systems of oppression, with these systems being portrayed as the monsters that they truly are. From Get Out’s critique of racism’s covert operation in American liberalism to The Purge series’ examination of political systems designed by and for the affluent and Dawn of the Dead’s criticism of American consumerism and cultural apathy, horror films have proven themselves as an apt medium for social commentary. Horror is uniquely positioned to address issues of injustice while entertaining viewers, being able to magnify them in such a way that their monstrous nature, and even our own involvement in such systems, cannot be ignored. These films allow those marginalized by such injustices to feel seen and heard while providing an education on these injustices as well as an avenue of moral self-reflection for the audience. Real life is not without its monsters, even if they do not always appear as grotesque beings of unthinkable origins. Horror films bring them out of the darkness and shine a light on our own behavior, asking us to consider our own role in their creation and what actions we are willing to take in order to finally conquer them


Applebaum, Stephen. “Guillermo del Toro on the Deeper Meaning in ‘The Shape of Water.’” The National, 5 March 2018. Web.

Benshoff, Harry M. “Preface.” A Companion to the Horror Film, Wiley Blackwell, 2014, pp. xiii-xix.

Carroll, Noël. “Why Horror.” Arguing About Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates, 2nd ed., edited by Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley, Routledge, 2008, pp. 275-294.

Cunliffe, Zoë. “Feminist Philosophy of Film.” Palgrave Handbook of the Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures, edited by Noël Carroll, Laura Di Summa- Knoop and Shawn Loht, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, pp. 653-675.

“Narrative Fiction and Epistemic Justice.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 77, no. 2 (Spring 2019): pp. 169-180. Web.

Due, Tananarive. “Get Out and the Black Horror Aesthetic.” Get Out: The Complete Annotated Screenplay, Inventory Press, 2019, pp. 6-14.

Freeland, Cynthia A. “Feminist Frameworks for Horror Films.” Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, edited by David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, U of Wisconsin P, 1996, pp. 195–218. EBSCOhost, login?url= direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1996028718&site=eds- live&scope=site.

Gaut, Berys. “The Paradox of Horror.” Arguing About Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates, 2nd ed., edited by Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley, Routledge, 2008, pp. 295-307.

“Monster.” Merriam-Webster, 2020. Web. 6 May 2020.

Peele, Jordan. “Get Out and the Black Horror Aesthetic.” Get Out: The Complete Annotated Screenplay, Inventory Press, 2019.

Sharrett, Christopher. “The Horror Film as Social Allegory (And How It Comes Undone).” A Companion to the Horror Film, Wiley Blackwell, 2014, pp. 56-72.

Sinnerbrink, Robert. “Gangster Film: Cinematic Ethics in The Act of Killing.” Cinematic Ethics: Exploring Ethical Experience through Film, Routledge, 2015, pp. 165- 182. Web.