Economic Fears Are Fueling A New Twist To Horror Film Genre

These thrills do not come cheap...

Scary movie?
Scary movie?
Jean-François Rauger

PARIS — Since the origins of the movie industry, fear has always been linked to the capacity to show. It has largely remained the fuel of a genre that has preserved part of its popular origins.

But the release of several movies in theaters this summer confirms the success of a type of cinema that strives not only to make the audience jump, but also speaks to a deeper contemporary anxiety.

Though horror movies tend to attract young audiences searching for a Saturday night thrill, they are also a formidable indicator of certain world conditions. In the horror genre, fiction always has a theoretical dimension.

The success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999 started the trend of “found footage” movies, filmed in such a way as to make the audience believe it was made from an amateur camera that was later recovered.

After 2001, the technique became a veritable cliche. Although it seemed inspired by a disaster film, 9/11 made reality look more terrifying than fiction. Movies such as Diary of the Dead (2007), Cloverfield (2008) or the Paranormal Activity series thus injected an impression of reality in otherwise pretty conventional stories featuring giant monsters, zombies or ghosts. One of the latest examples of this trend was Barry Levinson’s convincing film The Bay.

And yet, it looks as if something new has made its way to the screen over the last few years, with an increasing number of movies about disaster and apocalypse. But the end of the world as represented in several contemporary productions should not be seen as a millenarian threat but rather as the disappearance of a social bond that was damaged by the general workings of the economy.

Losing control and returning to a pre-civilization state, to a time when law didn’t govern human relations, has become a recurring pattern of cinematographic fright. Deprived of all protection from their governments, humanity goes back to fighting for their lives. In this representation of sometimes teenage and often exaggerated nihilism, man is once again a wolf.

The fight for survival consequently allows for the expression of an individual egoism left to its own devices. The Last Days, from the Spanish brothers Alex and David Pastor, depicts a humanity that has fallen prey to a virus, preventing people from being in the open air. Humans are forced to live like rats, in buildings or underground, in sewers or in Metro tunnels, fighting for their food.

More clearly still, James De Monaco’s The Purge invents a near future in which all crime goes unpunished during one night, in order to allow society to purge itself from its latent violence. As a result, the tiniest neighbor conflict results in murder, as if by nature.

But the fantasy of these extravagant tales hides a more tangible dread, that of dispossession, as if these nighmarish scenarios were born from the crisis of a globalized economy.

It is significant that the heroes’ behavior in these stories are determined by their social status. In The Last Days, the main character is about to be fired. In Scott Charles Stewart’s Dark Skies, the father is unemployed before he is persecuted by aliens and, more importantly, rejected by the people in his neighborhood. As for The Purge, the hero is a manager who is obsessed by his economic figures.

Nowadays, the fear of being dispossessed of one’s property takes the shape of a sub-genre that Americans call “home invasion,” wherein strangers try to get into the house of the protagonists. This is what happens in The Purge, as well as in Adam Wingard's You’re Next, and in the excellent but rough Kidnapped (2010), from Spanish director Miguel Ángel Vivas.

The pure logic of terror (the audience fears for the characters with whom they identify) is disturbed by a class animosity, which casually slides toward savagery. The main character in The Purge, a conformist head of family, immediately comes across as an unlikeable man, and only the ethical indignation of his children offers the possibility for redemption. The killers in You're Next, who assassinate even their fathers and mothers, are mostly driven by greed. They end up up against people who are more violent and more skilled in the art of killing. Beyond its black humor, the movie can seen as a violent condemnation of the middle class.

Despite appearing to be built on an imaginary threat, fear takes root in a dread that comes from reality itself. But there is a truly sadean view behind the jitters of the Homo economicus who sees his life escaping under the effects of an unrestricted free market. The cruelty of horror cinema now resides in depicting the consequences of unlimited desire in a modern world — and what the End of History might promise.

Thus, inciting contemporary fright involves revealing what happens when people pursue their deepest desires, which sometimes means the demise of others.

Movies such as the terrifying Cure and the equally frightening Pulse, both from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, speak of nothing else, as do other films. For instance, the brilliant Hostel (2005) from Eli Roth, the lesser known Turistas (2006) directed by John Stockwell, or the very successful Saw series are a few examples of “torture porn.” In this type of film, man is often no more than a predator and finds a bigger predator than himself, You're Next being yet another example.

“Every man wants to be a tyrant when he fornicates,” wrote Marquis de Sade. Nowadays, horror films are a plausible and popularized representation of the expression of this tyranny.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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