Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture

Annalee Newitz

(Duke University Press)

A political writer I know once told me he felt guilty turning in a piece analyzing class issues in Veronica Mars. “It felt like a cop-out,” he said. “I was getting a free pass to write about my Tuesday-night television habit.” Pop culture may be an all-purpose fallback for party conversation, but even among critics there’s a sense that applying political or cultural analysis to the fluff churned out by Hollywood can’t be serious work.

Annalee Newitz has spent many years writing the type of sharp, funny criticism that proves this sentiment wrong. Founding editor of the Berkeley-based cultural journal Bad Subjects, she served as culture editor for the San Francisco Bay Guardian in the early 00s. She writes with ease on technology as well–as a freelancer she’s contributed to both Popular Science and Wired.

Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, is the culmination of a project that started as her Berkeley dissertation in the 90s. A slim survey of horror in American film and literature, it’s the sort of book that makes you want to both storm the nearest video store in search of Demon Seed and dig out that copy of Dialectic of Enlightenment you never quite made it through.

Monster stories, says Newitz, portray the destructive effects of capitalism. Such tales reveal our anxieties about the ways capitalism alienates workers from their labor and alters social relationships. Regardless of whether they appear in literary novels or B movies, “capitalist monsters embody the contradictions of a culture where making a living often feels like dying.”

In horror narratives, she points out, professionals often become monstrous with success. Consider the “mad” doctor or scientist: from Spider-Man 2’s Doc Ock to the tortured mathematician Max in Pi (the book helpfully reminds you with a film still that Max lobotomizes himself with a drill), the fates of such characters are “intimately connected to discomfort with the process by which professionals translate ideas and abstractions into material reality.”

Tracking film versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde over the past 80 years, Newitz notes that the films reflect shifting attitudes about what’s at stake when one becomes a “professional”: Mr. Hyde (the monster) morphs with each era. In the 1920 version–reflecting the era’s fear of a corrupt upper class–Hyde is frightfully white and rich. In versions produced in 1931 and 1941–when falling into the working class was a real concern–he’s dusky-skinned and lower class. “Jekyll and Hyde stories,” Newitz says, “depict the boundary between one form of labor and another, and the maintenance of that boundary over time”–and if this book is beginning to sound like the film elective you were sorry you signed up for, don’t worry. Newitz is just as happy to extend this analysis to the likes of Frankenhooker–in which a geeky college student reanimates his dead girlfriend using the body parts of hookers he’s blown up with doses of bad crack.

Turning to zombie films, Newitz begins with the idea that narratives of the undead highlight thinly veiled concerns about race and colonialism. In the 1943 classic I Walked With a Zombie, set on a West Indies plantation, the zombie is a result of a “native” ritual practiced by the white female plantation owner. “[The undead] represent the sorts of identities that erupt into being when different racial groups collide violently with one another and produce horrifying new cultures of deprivation and oppression.” More recent films bring class into the equation. Looking at undead films of the 80s and 90s, such as Tales From the Hood and the Snoop Dogg vehicle Bones, Newitz suggests that the black men and women who take economic advantage of others “are pursued by angry black ghosts for the same reason the white racist politician is: for oppressing the black community.”

All of these monsters are made, not born. None of them, be they doctors or zombies, began as monsters. “Capitalist monsters,” she writes, “are, to put it succinctly, freaks of culture, not freaks of nature.” Newitz brings her book full circle in the final chapter, where she considers recent horror and technology films as explorations of struggles over mass media consumption. (Admit it, you know you’ve been waiting for the essay that posits Tron as an early defense of copyright freedom.) She cites The Ring, in which surviving the curse involves duplicating that creepy tape and passing it on to others, as an example of Douglas Rushkoff’s notion of “viral media,” media pushed and publicized by consumers rather than producers. “The Ring articulates how audiences are complicit in their own conversion into media monsters,” she writes. “No one is entirely a victim of the information economy because consuming media forces people to become complicit with its spread.”

At times like this Newitz can’t help but show her academic roots. And given that she herself notes how the fears these monsters embody change over time, it would have been useful if she had consistently referenced every movie with the date that it was released. But overall her vast knowledge of cultural criticism, which she incorporates without a hint of ego, makes it work. Shifting seamlessly from a blow-by-blow account of Videodrome to a discussion of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, Pretend We’re Dead is like an extended conversation with that U. of C. friend who, despite being frighteningly comfortable breathing the rarefied air of high theory, will still go see Snakes on a Plane with you.