Horror And Working Class Identity

Horror can act as a channel for working class communities to reclaim space in a climate that says we shouldn't.

By Sammy Willbourne · @___SAMO · May 20, 2021, 4:34 PM EDT
the curse of frankenstein.jpg
Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Robert Urquhart in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957).

I grew up as a poor kid. I wore the same pair of shoes for four years at comp. I had a school jumper that was more sewn up holes than jumper by the time I left. I grew up with a single dad who loved war films and prison films and one day, he sat me down to watch The Exorcist. A funny thing happened. I was terrified of the film, but I was more terrified of the way I related to the anguish of the demonic forces tormenting Regan. It reminded me of school and the way poor kids are bullied mercilessly for things, just like Regan’s agony with Pazuzu, that are out of our control. We’re born into council estates, but we can be much richer in authenticity than our middle- and upperclass counterparts. Maybe some of that comes from our need to find stories on the fringes, and why so many kids living in poverty come across horror and fall in love.

As Britain descends into another phase of historical denial, many intersections of identity suffer under it. But I can’t help but make connections between the need for historical denial of an imperialistic state, and the energy that takes away from working-class areas that need serious community investment. In the British state, crafted by the hands of Thatcher and solidified by a newly central or right aligned Labour under Blair, the British institution is still happy to argue over its past because it takes focus away from the now: British people that genuinely need nurturing.

Denial and suppression are massive parts of British society, especially when it comes to class. Working-class communities rarely make headlines unless it’s negative, and the conversations around class identity are complex and fluid. They can be a constantly changing societal position, but are looked at, through media and policy, as inherently fixed. Horror smashes this out of the window in both subtle and stark ways. It pulls the darker sides of human emotion into focus, something the British stiff upper lip culture can’t handle at all. Horror by its definition is a denial of a reality of everything being okay and is a perfect vehicle for channelling societal fears, issues and grief. Especially for the working classes.

As Britain continues to hold working-class intellectual and artistic expression hostage through funding cuts and insidious censorship, the lens of a British working-class fan or artist’s look at horror is one of finding a deep sense of belonging, emotional release and a space to be cynical and joyous, all at once.

By its mere existence in our country, horror has proven the class divides of the whole nation, historically. Under Thatcher’s government and under the guise of “Christian values,” the video nasties list was made in the '80s, banning horror films that were deemed inappropriate for public viewing. Looking at this from a modern perspective, from my background, I can only interpret this as a very specific kind of governmental disrespect to working-class intelligence. The archival footage of Christian maniac Mary Whitehouse tells a story of intellectual warfare on the working classes, the idea that we were too stupid to surmise the difference between a real killing and a filmed, choreographed slaughtering on film. The video nasties list was an inherently classist show of the aristocratic and upper class levels of society saying they didn’t trust us to consume violence, because our tiny little brains couldn’t handle it.

But in true working-class fashion, this only highlighted what the working classes in this country do best. We will find any way to defy the conventions set out for us and we’ll do it well. Organised. Dignified. Secret and underground. Video stores all over the land started trading blank video tapes full of things we were told not to watch. It created intrigue for films that may have been confined to horror history as merely films that got made. By trying to take away our intellectual dignity and need for critical thinking as the “under-class,” a new culture was made in secret. People would fly to Europe and bring back VHS reels full of violence and suspense. Soon, the mere thought of horror films being in the hands of council-estate “vagabonds” sent the police raiding houses – not for drugs or murder weapons. For fucking video tapes, of fictional films.

This whole time in history, which Britain hopes we forget, hangs on something as old as the British empire’s birth: the notion that the underclasses are incapable of thinking, fighting and organising. I still think the government was more upset people were actually getting hold of these films in innovative ways, than the films themselves. Mary Whitehouse said overtly that she hadn’t seen most of the films, because she “didn’t need to.” But nonetheless, the media was hysterical with links for films such as Child’s Play to the horrific '90s Jamie Bulger case, and headlines that read burnings of tapes. The headlines were reminiscent of fascistic power structures and the stage at which they come down on art to curtail the masses to a totalitarian controlled press and art system. It was happening in our own country, but if you live on a council estate, you’re used to being at the mercy of a money- and blood-hungry government.

So why this hysteria around horror? Why the fear of who could watch it? It’s the consequences of working classes having channels to focus their trauma and find alleviated ways to deal with their emotions. A working-class to an upper-class government is only as good as its exhaustion. Horror revitalises, challenges and satirises everything our country violently insists it stands for. Horror shows England’s underbelly and Britain is a fan of restraint.

When we look at British horror and its journey, we’re met with the glory of the Hammer days. The monsters, the undead, the chases around haunted houses. Hammer stands as the greatest output of an independent horror studio in this country. It redefined what creatures meant for a British audience and thrust a bloody flag in the ground for Britain. Hinds and Carreras started with The Curse of Frankenstein, and told stories of outsiders, at their heart. This focus on creatures can resonate with working-class Britain. The plight of Frankenstein, who is made by a doctor hellbent on creation, rings true to the same insidious power displays of '80s Thatcher. She decimated community psychology, calling for a nation to be individualistic and selfish. She crashed unions, the coal mines and worker’s rights into the ground. Unemployment was at an all-time high. Conditions were so bad in some communities it compelled people to either strike, protest or, in Michael Fagan’s case, break into Buckingham Palace and speak to the Queen himself as she sat for morning tea. Yes, it really happened.

This time in modern British history, for me, is interlinked with the creature features Hammer had produced years before. This focus on individualism breeds the other side of that dangerous coin. There is me, and then there’s you. There is us, and there’s them. We’ve seen this play out for decades after Thatcher’s treacherous legacy culminating in the hostile environment. Both Dr Frankenstein and Thatcher created monsters. I’d say Dr Frankenstein did it on a smaller scale, though, and wasn’t responsible for a nation starving of culture, healing and food.

Horror resonates deeply through the eye of the "other." Working-class communities have always been treated as such. Sometimes, it’s not overt joy you need. Joy can be manifested in being understood. Horror understands us. It puts us into characters that we can choose to relate to or not. It gives us a chance to represent ourselves and our communities and, silently, it asks us for the opportunities. It doesn’t assume, like the media, we need to be spoken for. It reaches out its hand and offers to take us on a journey, and often, we take it.

Coming away from the creature features of yesterday, one of the most devastating horror films I’ve ever seen, is a British production. Threads, which I categorise as a horror film, was a 1984 BBC-produced film directed by Mick Jackson and written by Barry Hines. The first thing that strikes you about the film is its setting in Sheffield. Whether a conscious choice or not, the setting in Sheffield breaks conventions of British TV and film for various reasons. Hearing northern accents is still a rarity and the history of trade unions and working-class solidarity in Sheffield is a rich one. The film has a sense of duality. You can find political undertones, or you can follow the story.

A nuclear bomb hits Britain. We are thrust into nuclear war. The film centres around two families, as a disagreement between the US and Russia descends into devastation. Through this war, we’re met with sentiments of working-class life in the '80s that bring us a sense of home. Young couples are discussing marriage and parenthood, and with this, the need to move out of their parents’ house – a key working-class discussion for previous generations. Whilst the families discuss the future, the Home Office informs Sheffield to start preparing for emergency. Hinds and Jackson take us on one of the most realistic, dreadful journeys of the aftermaths of nuclear war, especially on a working-class community in the South Yorkshire.

They lay a wasteland of forgotten corpses, bikes, footballs and buildings. Very few survive. But even in survival, we see the highlighting of the primal human condition that British governments have always evoked to get into power. The innate need to survive when things are crumbling. The tendency to go insular. Every person for themselves. In the context of Threads, it makes sense, but the film almost highlights the ridiculousness of evoking these emotions when things aren’t as dire. Whenever I watch that film, I get a sense of cynicism around the current political process. They ramp things up as if we are going through a nuclear war, or we’re close to one, in the height of drama, to evoke the survival mechanisms that will allow us to be just blinkered enough, so the government can not only gut our working-class communities, but countless other vulnerable ones.

As the wasteland of Britain lays millions in its wake, and a handful of survivors fighting each other to the death over a piece of bread are left, I find myself wondering whether this is the conservative fantasy. This level of violence. This level of distraction away from them and onto each other.

These are exactly the vehicles in horror that are both political and pure story-telling. Stories that challenge in layers where they can resonate with everyone that comes across them. That horror seeks to make a community – one already condemned for violence and perceived idiocy with no evidence at all – think about themselves away from the caricatures of the media. It gives us space to be honest. Raw. Introspective. The plight of the outsider finally finding power through survival and resilience is a tale as old as time in both horror and working-class history. They have a lot in common. I think the powers that be fear that more than anything.

For every Frankenstein or The Mummy, there is a working-class community ostracised and segregated from society. For every Threads, there is a community in tatters due to the psychological warfare waged decades ago, that told us we only needed ourselves, but really what we need is each other. Horror goes a long way to bring us into contact with these processes, and to finally channel our trauma, so we can think critically about our place in the world and reimagine something better. It gives us that ability, through giving us a time to break away from the weight of poverty, if only for 90 minutes.

Throughout the history of British horror, starting with 1898’s Faust and Mephistopheles – a tale of wanting something more, and giving anything to have it – there’s a key throughline of wanting and needing, which starts in the segregation of poor communities and the legacy of life in poverty. British horror has always played with the most ancient of interrogations. The duality of the human psyche. These human components live and breathe in life in poverty. We see the most violence, have the least, but we often have the most hope. This ability to hope and see life, and often death, for what they are, gives us a unique lease on life if we choose to meet it at our door. British horror stands to interrogate the power of creation, of revenge, of retribution, giving us both inspiration for reimagining society and cautionary tales of the true meaning of power and how it is enforced.

Britain is at a crossroads forged by generations that are historically self-aware. Resentment and dissent have been built into the systems of British cultural assimilation. People are pouring into the streets with a right to protest and voice generations of pain at the hands of a murderous and judgemental establishment. Much like the mythical dragon, Britain is being forced to look in the mirror and at pools of cognitive dissonance, claws sinking into British comfort in the lies of elitism and imperialism, and the power of enlightened, critical thinking are clashing on the world stage. Britain’s worst fear is happening.

The intersections between working-class common sense, its authenticity and the wisdom of people that live life on the pavement, coupled with the stark honesty, brutality and rawness of horror in all its forms, is not lost on me in a historical moment of power structures instilling its own fear onto people through violence and propaganda. Horror can shine lights on neglected communities. From the canvas of nuclear warfare, or the injection of overseas rural communities in the American Midwest and their moral code to swing the chainsaw, or the council estate-infused comedy and heroism of Attack the Block, horror is sometimes good to us. Despite funding cuts and the film institution in this country not taking risks on the new British horror artists, we’ve found small spaces to feel seen and the agency to interrogate on our own terms. It provides us space to grieve so we can take a break to strategize. That is Britain’s greatest nightmare. Long may it continue.