The title of Annalee Newitz's Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture raises expectations that this book is to fill a conspicuous gap in recent scholarly work on popular film and literature—a book-length study of horror film that takes its cue from Marxism or neo-Marxism. Bits and pieces of such scholarly analysis have appeared in a variety of places, especially as recent scholarship on horror cinema is shifting its focus from close reading to a simultaneous consideration of production, distribution, and consumption practices surrounding horror cinema.1 Though these scholarly projects have been indebted to Marxism's interest in the material conditions of culture, many of them share little else with the critical discourse of Marxist cultural analysis. They neither deploy Marxism's critical vocabulary, nor do they start from the fundamental assumption that economics translates into class difference, which finds its way into all cultural expression. For the study of popular culture, and, more specifically, the study of horror in popular culture, no consistent body of scholarship has emerged as of yet that has devoted itself to a project based on these critical premises.
While the causes for such conspicuous silence from critics of popular culture are beyond the scope of this review, its absence from the scholarly landscape is an indisputable fact. With critics like Carol Clover, Linda Williams, and Barbara Creed, feminist and psychoanalytical readings have dominated the field of horror film criticism since the early 1990s. Recent explorations into matters of gender and identity politics have broadened this field to include queer studies (Rhona J. Berenstein's Attack of the Leading Ladies (1996), Harry M. Benshoff's Monster's in the Closet (1997)). Similarly, in the absence of a single dominant theoretical school, the work of individual scholars (Slavoj Zizek, Giles Deleuze, Judith Butler) has been adapted to the study of horror. To the same degree that critical studies in the Marxist tradition have been on the wane in the academy in general, they tend to be missing from the study of horror film and fiction as well.
This is the gap which Newitz's book promises to fill. Its project, as its title announces, is to read one of the central tropes of the horror genre—that of the monster, and especially that of the undead (in the form of zombies, vampires, ghosts, and other genre-specific tropes)—as a commentary on American capitalism. It takes the idea that capitalism contains within itself contradictions, schisms, and ruptures; that is creates a condition of alienation that can be experienced as deadening; and that it enforces a set of social and economic practices that are inhumane, destructive, and isolating. The book is interested in "tales about the horror of economic struggle under capitalism and the degradation suffered by those who must sell pieces of themselves on the free market" (182). The psychological and social deformations caused by capitalism are expressed not only through the horror genre's preoccupation with violence and bodily dissolution, and its mood of bleakness and oppression, but, most importantly, through the figure of the monster. "Capitalism, as its monsters tell us more or less explicitly," Newitz writes, "makes us pretend that we're dead in order to live" (6).
The experience of the uncanny occurs, according to Freud, whenever repressed or surmounted material reappears in consciousness. What we once believed or desired, but which has been repressed or surmounted up to now, is recognized upon its reappearance as something that we once believed or desired. This is the source of the feeling of familiarity mentioned in Freud's definition of the uncanny. Furthermore, the reappearance of repressed beliefs and desires greatly disturbs us. Why should this be so? According to Freud, repressed material is accompanied by anxiety as it returns to consciousness. Consequently, the experience of the uncanny, at least in the form of the reappearance of repressed material, involves a frightening feeling of familiarity, and thus not merely a feeling of familiarity.
In order to unpack this basic metaphor, Newitz focuses on a different monstrous figure in each one of the books' five chapters: the figure of the serial killer, the mad scientist, ghosts and zombies, robots and cyborgs, and characters derived from the mass media as embodiments of the price that capitalism extracts from its subjects. In an easily accessible language, she manages to plug certain key tropes of the horror genre into her argument: the old chestnut of the "brain in a jar," for example, figures in a discussion of anxieties surrounding the ownership of intellectual labor; the discourse surrounding the Unabomber is made to reveal important rhetorical patterns surrounding the nexus of terrorism and monstrosity. These passages in the book are extremely engaging; they add a sense of expansiveness to the critical discourse that is genuinely refreshing.
For simplicity's sake, the text selection is limited largely to the twentieth century, though the argument takes brief excursions back to the 1880s, "an important turning point in U.S. economic history" (7), whenever necessary. Though its range of materials varies considerably, ranging from fiction to journalism and from current events to historical analysis, the basic thematic focus is sufficiently simple and compelling to hold it all together.
As far as methodology is concerned, Newitz performs a series of close readings of films and novels, an exegesis tracing allegories of economic and social conditions articulated through the "raw expression" of horror's generic vocabulary (5). Her close reading divide texts and interpretive models into those that merely reflect these conditions, and those offering allegories "about surmounting class barriers or workplace drudgery to build a better world" (2). Though reading horror allegorically is not a new idea—in the hands of feminist or queer studies, it is, in fact, one of the dominant interpretive paradigms—Newitz's neo-Marxist orientation often manages to bring out new facets in familiar texts (her discussion of middle-class professionalization in regard to Jeckyll and Hyde is a good example).
Nonetheless, there is little discussion in Pretend We're Dead of the material conditions under which horror films or pulp fiction are produced, circulated, and consumed; and if there is, the discussion maintains text and economic context as separate spheres. Especially in the chapter on serial killers, this approach sometimes falls short of previous critical analyses that manage to tease out more subtle nuances from their materials because they are based on more sophisticated theoretical models of how texts work both as immaterial signifiers and material objects (one might think of the work of Mark Seltzer, whom Newitz also quotes).
At times, Newitz's method of reading texts allegorically, with a neo-Marxist agenda, causes inconsistencies. As Newitz quotes Marx's statement that "capital is dead labor" (6), and expands upon this idea by adding that work is, therefore, "dead time," the next step in the argument—that serial killers "literalize Marx's metaphoric notion of 'dead labor' by killing people who represent it" (34) feels somewhat glib. Categories of literal and figurative speech slide into each other along this line of reasoning, just as the question remains unanswered in which regard this observation could be considered useful—is this a statement about social or psychological pathology? Are serial killers, therefore, model consumers, dire warnings, figures of satiric hyperbole?
What emerges in moments like these are the limitations of Newitz' project. Ultimately, readers will realize that the book is not a systematic Marxist or neo-Marxist reading of the horror genre. Its interest in specific economic and social phenomena is mediated by the world of the texts it is discussing; that is, the book situates each text in its respective context, but does not develop a systematic model of social dynamics or an overarching sense of American history and culture. The danger inherent in this approach is that the book's account of American capitalism is as simple and, at times, polemically oversimplified as the horror film under discussion makes American capitalism out to be.
However, as an account of capitalism's ideological foundations and their reflection within popular American culture, the book is engaging. It provides a glimpse of the dark side of the American dream; it points out how often the "dream life of capitalism," as Walter Benjamin would have called it, manifests itself as nightmare. As Newitz's discussion uncovers more texts that reflect rather than transcend capitalism, the relevance of her book becomes apparent. Since the horror genre seems better at showing us the world we live in than showing us how to improve it, horror texts often come across as politically less articulate (if not as patently apolitical) than texts in genres that are deliberately and explicitly political. In the absence of such programmatic politics, the genre calls for a critic to articulate that from which both the larger culture and the genre's own sensationalism would have us distracted.
Readers who expect a turn toward Marxism will not find what they were looking for, and yet they will not be disappointed. In the absence of a strong critical tradition to fall back on, Pretend We're Dead has to map out the textual territory and itemize the important critical questions that need to be asked, at the same time that it does the interpretive work which is to take place within this critical framework. These tasks are so important, and performing them simultaneously is so difficult, that readers will forgive Newitz for cutting a corner every now and then. Serving as a trailblazer, the book may not perform all of these operations near a standard of perfection, but always in such a compelling, intellectually stimulating manner that other scholars will be inspired to follow in its footsteps. Hopefully, we can look forward to more critical work in the future—perhaps that yet-to-be-written Marxist analysis of horror film—that will have taken its cue from Annalee Newitz' Pretend We're Dead.
1. Examples of such work include essays collected in The Horror Film, Ed. Stephen Prince (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004), Horror: The Film Reader, Ed. Mark Jancovich (London/New York: Routledge 2002), and Horror Cinema: Creating and Marketing Fear, Ed. Steffen Hantke (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2004).
Harry M. Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film,
Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997.
Rhona J. Berenstein, Attack of the Leading Ladies: Gender, Sexuality and Spectatorship in
Classic Horror Cinema, New York: Columbia UP, 1996.
Horror Cinema: Creating and Marketing Fear, Steffen Hantke, ed., Jackson, MS:
University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
Horror: The Film Reader, Mark Jancovich, ed., London/New York: Routledge 2002.
The Horror Film, Stephen Prince ed., New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
Mark Seltzer, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture, New
York/London: Routledge, 1998.
About the Reviewer:
Steffen Hantke received his Ph.D. from the University of Marburg. He is Associate Professor at the English Department of Sogang University in Seoul. He is the author of Paranoia and Conspiracy in Contemporary American Literature: The Works of Don DeLillo and Joseph McElroy (1994) and Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear, Univ. of Mississippi Press (2004), as well as editor of Caligari's Heirs: The German Cinema of Fear after 1945, Scarecrow Press (2006). His reviews and articles have appeared in Literature/Film Quarterly, Studies in the Novel, The Journal of Popular Culture, and Film Criticism.