Earlier this week, American Student Assistance, a nonprofit group that works to help college grads deal with debt, released "In the Red," a seven-minute horror film that explored the terror of college loans. While it was probably the first movie to transform student debt into a monster, the film was only the latest in a long line of movies that connect ghastly terrors to economic miseries.
With that in mind, I decided to put together a list of horror films that draw a direct line between the monster in your closet and the hole in your wallet. In some, like "The Amityville Horror," the underlying economic terror is clear; in others, like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," the connection is a little more tenuous. Overall, though, one thing is clear: In America, having an empty bank account is one of the most frightening things imaginable.
The Monster in the Closet: Economic Horrors and Scary Movies
Money Monsters: The Scary Economic Truths Behind Horror Movies
If you thought this classic horror movie was about a haunted house, see if this scenario sounds familiar: An idealistic young couple buys a home that sounds too good to be true. Once they're mortgaged to the hilt, problems start to crop up. They can't leave, they can't stay, and an unseen evil force starts to tear their family apart.
Filmmakers have used zombies to symbolize everything from faceless corporations to the inhumanity of the military industrial complex. In this early offering (and, to a lesser extent, in its remake), it isn't particularly hard to figure out the greater symbolism of a bunch of mindless, shambling zombies swarming into a shopping mall.
Speaking of mindless shambling, "Shaun of the Dead" used the same conceit to symbolize office work.
Everybody remembers Janet Leigh's death scene in the classic slasher flick. What they forget, though, is why she ended up in the Bates Motel in the first place: She was on the run after stealing a small fortune from her employer. As for the motel itself, it was facing hard times because the recently-unveiled highway drove away business.
For a funnier take on a similar story, you might try taking a peek at "Auntie Lee's Meat Pies", which manages to brilliantly combine cannibalism, serial murder and Pat Morita.
Forget ghosts and ghouls: Few things are scarier than asking the bank for a loan. But in this Sam Raimi-directed flick, the tables are turned as a young loan officer turns a deaf ear to a seemingly feeble gypsy woman trying to borrow some money. Needless to say, all hell breaks loose.
On the surface, this 1981 classic is the tale of super-evolved wolves preying on New Yorkers. Scratch a little deeper, though, and another story emerges: The tale of wealthy Manhattanites preying on poor people in the Bronx, then being themselves preyed upon by wolves. In other words, NYC in the 1970s was truly a dog-eat-dog world.
If you want another fix or two of class-based horror, check out "CHUD" and "Street Trash," both of explore the plight of New York's invisible homeless.
Sure, Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror film is all about telepathic kids and haunted houses and elevators full of blood. But one of the first bits of fear and tension occurs in the hotel manager's office, where Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic who can't seem to hold onto a job, finds himself forced to beg for a gig as the winter caretaker of a resort hotel. Anybody who remembers the travails of searching for a job will recognize this truth: The nightmare isn't being trapped a haunted house -- it's having to grovel to get a job in a haunted house.
Angus Scrimm's Tall Man character is one of the more unnerving monsters in filmland: Not only does he steal the bodies of the dead, but he also steals the souls of towns. As Reggie and Mike travel cross country, it isn't hard to pick up his trail -- they just have to look for boarded-up stores, deserted streets and abandoned homes. Of course, for 1988 audiences facing the effects of outsourcing, the monster emptying out their towns was a little harder to explain.
For another take on the "monsters-as-suburban-economics" metaphor, take a peek at "Poltergeist." Between the unethical developer who didn't bother to relcoate a graveyard and the mindless TV that saps your soul, the Tobe Hooper classic manages to hit a host of cultural touchstones!
A whole subset of horror films is dedicated to rural families living off the land ... and the miserable travelers who happen across their path. It isn't hard to see why it might be an attractive premise: After all, there's no lack of people clinging to the bottom rung of the economic ladder, and it isn't hard to imagine that they may be one paycheck away from having to make their own clothes and hunt their own meat. What happens afterward ... well, that's where it gets really ugly.
If you want even more tips on living off the land (and curious teenagers), you might check out "The Hills Have Eyes," "Wolf Creek" and "Mother's Day." For a funny take on the same premise, try "Tucker and Dale Versus Evil."