Vampires, Zombies, and Trump — Oh, My!

November 27, 2017 § 3 Comments

The 2016 presidential election signaled countless changes to life in the United States: a president who tweets at 3 a.m., an all-powerful first daughter, attempts to repeal common-sense healthcare efforts, etc. The swearing-in of another Republican leader is also likely to affect the content in venues that might surprise some Americans: their local multiplexes.

Followers of popular cinema over the past century have detected a correlation between a president’s political party and the type of horror films released during his term; it appears that when a Democrat is in office, vampire movies are popular, and when a Republican is in power, zombie films get more attention.

Skeptical?

After Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the San Diego Union Tribune published a short piece entitled, “With Obama election comes the return of the vampire.” In it, UT staff writer Peter Rowe supplied rather persuasive evidence for his theory, suggesting that “these gore-flecked flicks are really competing parables about class warfare.”

Collaborating with Annalee Newitz, an editor of pop culture hub io9.com, Rowe found that the argument seemed to hold water, particularly under the past few commanders-in-chief.

Whatever the reason, when forecasting White House victories, monsters have been nearly as accurate as pollsters,” he wrote. “By Newitz’s tally, Bush’s election in 2000 came at the start of a massive upsurge in zombie flicks: 183 in seven years, for an average of 26 a year. This year, though, only nine zombie films shambled into theaters, while a rising tide of vampire flicks – 18 in ’08, with more on the way – indicated that the blood-red tide had turned.”

Thinking back to 2008 and 2009, one can’t help but be swayed by this idea — Twilight fever was in full swing! “True Blood” was on HBO! Vampires felt inescapable. So what’s behind this?

Newitz posited this: “Democrats, who want to redistribute wealth to ‘Main Street,’ fear the Wall Street vampires who bleed the nation dry. Republicans fear a revolt of the poor and disenfranchised, dressed in rags and coming to the White House to eat their brains.”

Let’s pause here to consider how those implications map onto a series like Twilight. The majority of fictional vampires are indeed portrayed as powerful aristocrats who use their abundant resources to prey on (oftentimes younger, poorer, female) victims. The vampires depicted in Twilight are no exception here. Furthermore, this series lends some insight into the larger power hierarchy of blood-sucking society, introducing the Volturi as the highest-ranking vampires. The Volturi are painted as a frightening combination of the Supreme Court and the Illuminati: secretive, opulent, lethal, and disturbingly hyper-caucasian-looking. You can get a sense of them from this featurette on the making of the second Twilight film, New Moon:

The portrayal of these vampires in New Moon seems to lend some credence to this notion: those guys do look like they would suck America’s Heartland dry.

Our vampire/zombie theory was put to a further test in 2009 when Marc West of Mr. Science Show published “Correlation of the Week: Zombies, Vampires, Democrats and Republicans based on the UT article from ’08. West used the Internet Movie Database to tally the number of films released each year tagged with “vampire” or “zombie” to compile more extensive data about the possible trends, resulting in this table and graph:

West wrote that he wasn’t entirely convinced of a strong correlation based on his findings. “A stand out result is the large number of zombie films made in the 1980s under Reagan. It seems clear that zombie films peak in Republican years, but it is less clear whether vampire films have similar peaks under Democrats.”

The data West presents is indeed a compelling addition to the argument, but it might not be capturing the whole picture. The sheer number of films centered on one breed of monster or another is an important metric, to be sure, but it seems that Rowe might have been suggesting that the relationship is more about the felt cultural prominence of these narratives. The release of 10 indie zombie movies could never amount to the impact made by Edward Cullen; this is a question of quality versus quantity.

Still, West’s findings are not to be dismissed. His most salient contribution is the suggestion that the correlation could be useful both ways: “To predict the next election, it could well be worth looking at how many zombie movies are planned for the inauguration year and the 3 years after it. As most movies are planned more than a year ahead of time, this could be an interesting election predictor,” West wrote.

So, hang on. Is it possible that pop culture predicted a Trump presidency?! Let’s turn to one of the handiest websites of all time for a little help here: Box Office Mojo.

Following West’s advice, it might be useful to glance at the most (financially) successful films of the three years preceding Trump’s election.

The top-10 domestic grosses for 2016 were: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; Finding Dory; Captain America: Civil War; The Secret Life of Pets; The Jungle Book; Deadpool; Zootopia; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; Suicide Squad; and Sing.

For 2015, they were: Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Jurassic World; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Inside Out; Furious 7; Minions; The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2; The Martian; Cinderella; and Spectre.

For 2014, they were: American Sniper; The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1; Guardians of the Galaxy; Captain America: The Winter Soldier; The LEGO Movie; The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies; Transformers: Age of Extinction; Maleficent; X-Men: Days of Future Past; and Big Hero 6.

True, this data set is not related to vampires or zombies. But does it not seem pertinent that a thread of underdog-ish blue-collar-ish narrative surfaces in many of the above titles, many targeting the exact audience that Trump mobilized? Scary stuff indeed.

P.S. I am tremendously sorry for posting belatedly! Travel troubles!!

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§ 3 Responses to Vampires, Zombies, and Trump — Oh, My!

  • ajon8090 says:

    Thanks for this cool post, Marianne. Vampire and zombie films as predictors of US elections was not a theory I was aware of!

    I like the way this post makes us think about culture’s anticipatory power as opposed to a view more partial towards the reactive tendencies of novels, films, poems, and so on. Within the purview of the latter, culture is epiphenomenal, a secondary by-product of the main thing, e.g. politics. I suppose I am fairly neutral on this point, but it is troubling to think that, in either case, politics isn’t being fought or forged anew in the multiplex so much as endlessly rehashed in the darkness of the local movie theater. Could I be forgiven for my pessimism in saying that, rather than zombies and vampires alternating between Republican and Democratic administrations, these monsters appear now as transhistorical options with no other alternatives. What I mean is that art appears so enervated that we can no longer come up with different monsters to explore the current political moment–there are only zombies and vampires, followed by more vampires and more zombies. There is a crisis of imagination in the cinema; we are destined to repetition. Don’t get me wrong, I like the use of statistical analysis to predict political elections, but it seems that the power of art to actually change politics is a naive, outdated, dream.

    Where is the appropriate cultural configuration, or monster, for the Green Party, the libertarians, the socialists? Maybe the many recent films exploring climate catastrophe are an emanation of the Green Party’s predictive, sybil-like, capacities? Maybe Republican fears of a socialist uprising can already be seen in the zombies themselves? Could there be a monster for a party so individualist as the libertarians?

    But perhaps the endless variety of uses to which the zombie and the vampire are put proves art’s enduring power to combine again so as to produce anew. As we have mentioned in class, zombies and vampires are often blank slates, empty symbols, which audiences project upon in whatever way they please. Would be great to talk in class about these issues–great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • e.britos says:

      Thanks, Marianne, for this interesting post! I had not heard of the vampire-Dem, zombie-Republican horror film theory before. In addition to Newitz’ statement that Democrats fear “Wall Street vampires”, I would also say that in mainstream vampire books/movies, the humans fighting Wall Street/“bad” vampires are often intellectual-types (the animal-blood sucking Edward Cullen and human Bella Swan are great examples of this, too: Wuthering Heights reading, Debussy-listening, Dartmouth-bound! [yes, I read all the Twilight books]). We see this in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, whose vampire hunters include two doctors, a lawyer (who conveniently inherits lots of money, and so doesn’t rip anyone off), two men of leisure, plus a well-educated woman; each has the time and smarts to fight these monsters. In contrast, from what admittedly few zombie-related films I’ve seen, the fighters of these monsters seem to be working-class Americans.

      Regarding the staleness of Vampire and Zombie art that ajon8090 mentions: totally. These stories are retold and rehashed because they belong, I would argue, deep in the primal human psyche: we fear the powerful, the profane unknown. Using archetypes in storytelling outside the paranormal is commonplace, too—and yes, often stale. I think of the Femme Fatale, the Villain Twirling His Moustache, The Nerd Sidekick, The Nice Girl Who’s in Love With Her Male BFF, ad nauseam. I’ll defend these types, though, because I think they—along with vampires and zombies—bring filmmakers to task to push boundaries, to rehash the known and expected to say something new (and maybe political!). Whether their commentary succeeds in pushing beyond Democrat/Republican class-conscious horror-anxiety, though, might often be doubtful, as ajon8090 suggests.

      Like

      • e.britos says:

        (Speaking of subverting archetypes, I forgot to mention: Neil Jordan’s Byzantium is an interesting, political take on “traditional” vampirism. It challenges an all-male, illuminati-like vampire elite when a female prostitute, Clara, steals the secret of how to become a vampire (she has to visit a bat cave on a remote island). Her vampire daughter, Eleanor, drinks the blood of only the old and infirm, who wish for assisted suicide).

        Liked by 1 person

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