John Carpenter is undoubtedly one of the trailblazers of American horror films. He successfully created a certain tension in his cult classics, which made the audience sit at the edge of their seats for hours. Most of these movies were backed by heart-pounding, spine-chilling background scores designed by his own hand.
However, hair-raising background scores and slow-moving camera work accompanied by sudden jolty moments weren’t his only strengths in creating a horror masterpiece. If we dig a bit deeper, we’ll find that the films carried his political outlook where his concerns about the unravelling of society, particularly the government, were reflected.
Carpenter grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which was a part of Southern United States also known as the ‘Bible Belt’. This highly populated belt consisted of States there were socially conservative Evangelical Protestantism strongly influenced society and politics. Carpenter was able to break through this conservative cocoon due to his exposure to pop culture.
While tracing back his cultural influences of college days, Carpenter said in an interview with Pitchfork, “In this period of time, I had just gotten to USC (University of Southern California’s school of Cinematic Arts) and was wandering around campus. I went into the student centre, and there were the Beatles singing ‘Hey Jude’ on television. The place was full.
“The Beatles were hated back home in the South,” continued Carpenter, “because John Lennon had put down Christ, but not out where I was going to school. I had to hide everything I did in the South, just because it was the Jim Crow South—it still is. I knew what was going on back then; it was everywhere. But now? Oh my god. That’s a wake-up call.”
The Beatles, at that time, helped to shatter such illusions of millions of people by being at the forefront of many social, cultural and political discussions including the counterculture movement. They propagated the message of universal love and peace through their songs and helped to cool down racial tensions by promoting black music and by refusing to play a segregated audience. However, on the other side of the world, the 1960s being immediately after the anti-communist political propaganda of the McCarthy era and, during the uneasy political climate of Cold War, the aura of paranoia and distrust over anything foreign and “different” became all-consuming.
This feeling was felt especially in the rural Southern belt, which was in complete opposition to the growing cosmopolitanism and liberal culture developing in the country’s urban centres. So, when the band went on their US tour in 1964 and 1966, they received a strong and seriously unfavourable reaction from the enraged Bible belt, which seemed intent on ending Beatlemania once and for all. John Lennon’s controversial statement of 1966, one in which he argued that the band was “more popular than Jesus”, fueled this outrage.
“The repercussions were big, especially in the Bible belt,” recalled George Harrison for the Anthology series. “In the south, they were having a field day.” Several dozen radio stations stretching from Ogdensburg, New York, to Salt Lake City, Utah – instantly followed WAQY’s lead and banned the Beatles’ music. Some DJs went so far as to actually smash their records live on the air, and Reno’s KCBN broadcast an anti-Beatle editorial each hour. Not to be outdone, Charles and Layton, the unofficial spokesmen of the movement, urged listeners to send their Beatles records and paraphernalia to the station to be destroyed with an industrial-grade tree-grinding machine.
The spirit of rebellion that The Beatles inculcated within the likes of Carpenter, however, couldn’t be washed away from their systems with doses of overbearing conservatism. Though Carpenter didn’t speak up against religious intolerance exclusively, his anti-authoritarian stance in his films highlighted how religion controlled politics. Carpenter’s central characters underneath their machismo still believe in the ideals of liberty and equal opportunity.
Their beliefs place them in constant opposition with the law and the establishment, but they are nonetheless freedom fighters. When, for example, John Nada destroys the alien Hypno-transmitter in They Live, he restores hope by delivering America a wake-up call for freedom.