There are two different stories in horror: internal and external. In external horror films, the evil comes from the outside, the other tribe, this thing in the darkness that we don’t understand. Internal is the human heart.
When I was a child, the very first city related Horror movies I remember, were Godzilla, and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, two stories about larger than life monsters destroying the biggest things humans have ever built — cities. These movies made an indelible impression on a little girl who lived in the city, and loved dinosaurs. It explains my love of Kaiju stories, from Godzilla, to Cloverfield, to Pacific Rim, and how movies about the destruction of cities have often moved me the most.
I grew up watching these films during the Cold War, between Russia and America, under the constant threat of mutual nuclear annihilation. I remember having nightmares about that, and avoiding movies and shows where it was depicted.
The underlying tone of most of these films is apocalyptic, with many of them indirectly referencing atomic energy. The destruction of entire cities, by some ravaging creature that was caused by atomic bombs, was often a stand-in for nuclear holocaust, natural disasters, or mankind’s hubris. These movies were terrifying, but still invoked awe and wonder, for something greater, whether that was a giant ape, a massive venom spewing dinosaur, or a fifty foot tall woman. They also provided a sense of comfort, as order, and the status quo, were restored at the end.
The stories are all about scale. The monsters are larger than life, meant to distract our attention from the city, and have the side effect of making us realize the more important things in our lives, like our loved ones, or unaccomplished personal goals. The monsters are often huge and unknowable things, that are impossible for any one individual to overcome, much like the city itself.
The monster must rival the size of the city. In 1953, New York got destroyed by a rampaging beast, awakened in the Arctic, by an atomic bomb. It was one of the first atomic age horror movies, and it set the stage for the destruction of New York, by similar beasts, like King Kong, the Cloverfield monster, and Godzilla, for the next fifty years, albeit with different motives.
After Godzilla in 1998, New York was destroyed again in 2008’s Cloverfield, where the lead character, who has planned to move out of the city, realizes what’s most important to him is his ex-girlfriend, when the city is invaded by some giant creature, of unknowable origin. He sets out to rescue her, in an effort to let her know how much he values her. The live action scenes of the two of them trying to escape the destruction of the city, by the rampaging creature, are juxtaposed against the live action footage of their lives during happier times. Here, the horror comes from the contrast of their human connection, with the disruption of order represented by the monster.
In 1954, long before he reached New York, Godzilla (Gojira) trampled Tokyo for the first time, and that film is an example of true urban horror, tragic, and awful, channeling the real citizen’s pain and bewilderment, after the nuclear bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki nearly ten years before. None of the many Godzilla films that followed captured that level of intensity. Godzilla even became an endearing and protective father figure, in a series of zany comedies, which featured other monsters. It was almost like the Japanese were healing themselves of their trauma, through film.
That is until the Fukushima disaster of 2011, a real life horror, in which a massive, earthquake-driven, tsunami, caused a meltdown of the nuclear facility in Fukushima on the same day. Nearly 16,000 people lost their lives, and the entire city of Fukushima had to be evacuated. Five years later, Shin Godzilla was released, and successfully captured all the horror and tragedy of those two events , becoming yet another example of Japan reliving its worst nightmares, through the medium of film.
As in suburban settings, there are three types of Horror stories about the city. someone or something invades the city, which brings about the city’s destruction (external), something insidious is growing within the city or its people, (internal), and destroys its citizens, or it’s the setting itself that is the horror. Movies like Dracula, Blade, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Train to Busan, are examples of these, although they have different goals. One is about the xenophobic fear of disease and contagion from outside the city, or growing within it, one is about the dehumanization of city life, and the loss of individual selfhood, and another is about human connections during its destruction.
Francis Ford Coppola’s version of the Dracula myth was released in 1992, and by that time, most of its original xenophobic themes had been papered over with themes of sexually transmitted disease, and romance, but there are still remnants left behind. Dracula is an outsider, from the Middle East, who brings the plague of vampirism to the busy streets of London, which, in the Victorian 1880s, was in the midst of an industrial revolution. In the real world, talk of outsiders bringing disease, has once again reared it’s ugly head, as the British government threatens to separate from the European Union, while its members speak out against illegal immigrants from places like Iran, Pakistan, and Iraq. So it’s quite a coincidence that there happens to be a yet another version of Dracula, this time set in modern day London, airing on Netflix right now.
Contagion is also one of the themes present in the movie Blade, and its sequel, Blade 2, as New York threatens to be overtaken by a plague of vampires growing within the city of New York, and is also the theme of several alien invasion films, where “sentient diseases” are passed on to unsuspecting human beings through non-consenting fluid exchange, in movies The Invasion, a remake of the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, a movie which is not as effective a story, without the sounds and images of the city of San Francisco as the backdrop. The setting is contrasted against the funny, quirky, Dr. Matthew Bennell, and his close friends. One of the other messages of the movie is how the city encourages social isolation, and dehumanizes the inhabitants, as much as the alien invasion.
In fact, the nature of city life, makes it nearly impossible to tell who has been reborn as an alien, and who has not, and that is the point. The people of San Francisco are so separated from one another, that no one really knows any of the people around them, so it’s impossible to notice if anyone has changed, even after multiple people tell the lead characters that their friends, lovers, and spouses, are not who they say they are.
The individual stories of the invasion victims are tiny, compared to the size of the city, and only heightens the pointlessness of their struggle to tell the world that an alien invasion has occurred. City people are so good at not minding the business of others, that by the time Dr. Matthew Bennell has noticed that people are losing their humanity, it’s too late to do anything about it. The city and the invasion are too huge and implacable for one person to make a difference.
The theme of dehumanization is also captured in movies like Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, and Train to Busan, where a select group of individuals run a gauntlet of ravenous, once human, creatures, while trying desperately to hold onto the last shreds of their own humanity, both literally and figuratively, as civilization collapses around them. The focus of these types of stories are on the humans attempting to survive a chaotic environment, rather than the inhumanity of the monsters. The audience is drawn into the story through the kinds of decisions they make, which determine what kind of people they are. The audience is meant to identify with them, and place themselves in their shoes, thereby illuminating their own character.
Zombie movies are a way to tell an intimate story in an oversized location. Many horror movies set in cities tend to focus on small dramas that happen during its destruction. In Train to Busan, the lead character, a callous business man, who cares more about his job than his family, learns to reconnect with his neglected young daughter, the people around him, and his own conscience, as he tries to protect her, during a zombie apocalypse. The zombie apocalypse is used as a backdrop to tell the story of a man regaining his humanity in the face of everyone losing theirs.
Sometimes, city dwellers themselves are monsters, and the the city is shown as a darkly cynical place, a cutthroat “urban jungle”, where people prey on one another, and no one can be trusted. City living is badmouthed in other movies. There are people who will rape or kill you at a moment’s notice, something which was not entirely an incorrect observation, especially during the 60’s and 70’s, when New York city was a much seedier, and more pornographic place, and Times Square in particular, before its gentrification and cleanup. Now, Times Square is clean and neat, but in the 70s, it was rife with strip clubs, open prostitution, porn theaters, and drug use. The frantic sights and sounds, river of traffic lights, buzzing of neon signs, sleek fashions, inclement weather, and constant chatter of people, are the hallmark tropes of city living. Cities are shown as cold, fast, sleek environments, often at night, using cool blues, and hot reds, which serve as visual shorthand for lusts, and desires, but also the emotional disconnect of the characters.
The movie Candyman was loosely based on a combination of African American urban legends, and the lives of the Black citizens of the Cabrini-Green housing projects of North Chicago. In the years since its creation in 1957, crime, gangs, and administrative neglect, created horrifying living conditions for its residents. Now add an immortal monster, that preys on their pain and sorrow, and what is depicted is an insidious horror, The Candyman, who was created out of Black anguish, and white racist hysteria.
Much of Cabrini Green was eventually torn down in the 90s, and the last few buildings were destroyed in 2011. In 2020 Jordan Peele will release the spiritual sequel to the 1992 original film, which will tackle themes of displacement, and gentrification by affluent white residents, who of course, are not immune to the horrors of the city, no matter how much they tell themselves that they are improving it with their return.
In 1995s Se7en, Gwyneth Paltrow and Brad Pitt, she a schoolteacher, and he a cop, move back to the nameless every-city featured in the film. Unused to the grit, and callousness, she tells Morgan Freeman’s William Somerset, “I hate this city…the conditions here, are horrible.” And she is right. In Se7en, it is always raining, everything is gray, and littered with garbage, and the only warmth to be found is in Gwyneth’s character, and the home she has made for her and her husband. Throughout the movie, Somerset gives several speeches about the apathy of the people who live there, and how easy it is for human beings to not care about each other. The two people who claim to care the most about the city’s plight, are on opposite sides of the law. One is a serial killer, whose only solution seems to be causing more misery, by killing its weakest inhabitants, and the latter is Somerset’s hotheaded partner, who is eventually broken by his interaction with the former.
Cities can be a visual shorthand that represents the dehumanizing future that comes with technological progress. Got a horror story involving robots (The Terminator), or virtual reality, (The Matrix), then the best way to tackle so many sub-themes at once, is to set it in a city. Movies that question humanity, (The Fly), and reality (The 13th Floor), through technology, are almost always set in cities.
Just the name of the movie, Dark City (1998), invokes images of tall buildings, trash strewn alleys, crime, and permanent darkness, all of the shorthand that’s been used in Film Noir to indicate the horror of city living. Film Noir comes out of the German Expressionist cinema of 1920’s Berlin, and the American movies released in the 40’s, are based on that concept, while also referencing the crime and pulp fiction novels of the 30’s. In Film Noir, a person’s fortunes can turn on a dime, and human beings are the monsters, and with their suspect motivations, and weaknesses of character, they often bring about their own demise.
Dark City contains several monsters, including the actual city itself, as it grows and transforms, at the whim of its alien masters. This is a literal parallel to real life cities, where, unlike the country with its bland stability, sites and markers come and go, the city grows and changes, and no where is there a fixed position.
In Dark City, a nameless man is pursued by strange men in black, for a series of murders he doesn’t remember committing. He spends most of the movie in pursuit of his memories, while discovering that the city itself is a lie. As the story progresses, we are introduced to alien possession, superpowers, and multiple themes about identity, alienation, and existential dread, which would be more difficult to impart, if the movie were set, for example, in the desert, which is representative of a different type of isolation.
It is said that there are a million stories in the naked city, and whether they are small and intimate (Rear Window, American Psycho, 1408), or huge and bombastic, (War of the Worlds, Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman), that’s a promise for many more lives and cities to be destroyed, and more themes to be explored, in the foreseeable future.
Let’s hope we can survive them all.