Friday, June 14, 2024



Notes from a horror movie marathon in a homeless shelter

May 12, 2020 Category: ColumnFeaturedLongMediaPurpose
Sheltering-in-place in a homeless shelter involves a lot of patience, coffee, and, as I recently learned, horror movies.

This past week, the guests in Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program spent a day watching a Stephen King movie marathon. This seemed appropriate, especially after I saw an NPR headline that read: “Stephen King Is Sorry You Feel Like You’re Stuck In A Stephen King Novel.”

The men in the shelter got a good laugh out of that headline as they set up their makeshift movie theater.

In fact, over the years I’ve found that talking about Stephen King’s work is a reliable way of building rapport with the men. It’s accessible, thrilling, and somehow always deeply relevant to the present moment.

So that headline got me thinking — and Googling. Over the course of the day, I learned some new and fascinating things about King himself, about the “homeless horror” genre, and even the therapeutic value of horror films.

Stephen King, the conversation starter

Over the years I’ve found that talking about Stephen King’s work is a reliable way of building rapport with the men.

One of the earliest adaptations of King’s written work is the horror film anthology Creepshow (1982). The screenplay was actually written by King himself, and in collaboration with none other than George Romero — the director of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and a pioneer of the zombie-film genre.

In 1987, they reunited to produce Creepshow 2. King even has a small role as a truck driver in one of the film’s stories — The Hitchhiker — in which a woman is pursued by the zombie-like corpse of the man she killed in a hit-and-run accident.

Overall, Creepshow 2 was not well-received upon its release — and The Hitchhiker in particular was criticized for making “no sense at all.”

Yet in the early 2000s, another version of the story became a national sensation precisely because it made no sense at all. On October 26, 2001, a homeless man named Gregory Glenn Biggs was struck by a car while walking along the side of a road in Forth Worth, Texas. The impact was so strong that he became lodged in the car’s windshield. The driver, Chante Mallard, drove away from the scene, returned home, and parked the car in her garage — with Biggs still lodged in the windshield. He died shortly thereafter.

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Months later, Mallard was convicted of murder in a trial that made national headlines and left prosecutors deeply perplexed. As Richard Alpert, the assistant district attorney assigned to the case said: “I’m going to have to come up with a new word. Indifferent isn’t enough. Cruel isn’t enough to say. Heartless? Inhumane? Maybe we’ve just redefined inhumanity here.”

That crime also impacted popular culture, as it went on to inspire multiple television episodes of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Law & Order, Fargo, and 9-1-1, in addition to the horror films Stuck (2007), Hit and Run (2009), and Accident on Hill Road (2009).

The problematic subgenre of ‘homeless horror’

I’ve always found the Law & Order adaptation — an episode titled “Darwinian” (2004) — particularly thought provoking. The episode begins when detectives confront what seems to be the hit-and-run of a homeless man by a high-profile woman publicist. After forensic evidence reveals that injuries sustained before the accident were responsible for his death, another homeless man is charged with manslaughter.

In court, the man’s attorney argues that because people experiencing homelessness have been cast out of civilized society, the laws of civilized society do not apply to them. Therefore, he says, his client cannot be charged with manslaughter or any other crime related to the case.

'Homeless horror' typically uses people experiencing homelessness as fodder for the film’s plot, rather than treating them as fully developed characters.

I first saw this episode of Law & Order around the same time I read Richard Connell’s short story The Most Dangerous Game (1924). It’s a horror classic about a Russian aristocrat who hunts humans on his private island because he is bored with hunting animals.

The story has been adapted multiple times into film, though the 1994 version — Surviving The Game —stands out here. It stars Ice-T as a homeless man named Mason who is hired as a survival guide for a group of businessmen on a hunting trip, and who soon learns that the men are actually hunting him.

While reading about the film, I came across a blog post discussing the concept of “homeless horror”— or, in other words, how the horror genre portrays people experiencing homelessness.

Overall, it’s not good.

For example, in C.H.U.D. (1984), toxic waste turns New York City’s homeless population into cannibalistic monsters living in the sewer system.

In Street Trash (1987), people experiencing homelessness are sold contaminated alcohol, and the film follows them as they literally begin to disintegrate.

In Prince of Darkness (1987), there is a growing mob of homeless zombies that may or may not be possessed by Satan.

These are some of the more grotesque examples of “homeless horror,” but they aren’t alone in their basic mistreatment of people experiencing homelessness.

In Ghettos, Tramps and Welfare Queens (2017), the scholar Stephen Pimpare reviewed American films released between 1902 and 2015 to analyze how they portray poor and homeless people. He identified only 300 that dealt with these subjects in any significant way. Unfortunately, he also found that the poor and homeless characters in these films tend to be stereotypical, disposable, or literally monsters.

This is problematic both in terms of cultural representation and cultural understanding. As Pimpare wrote for The Washington Post in 2017: “Where do we learn that poverty is shameful and dangerous? At the movies.” The same is true of the way we learn to think about homelessness.

“Homeless horror” typically uses people experiencing homelessness as fodder for the film’s plot, rather than treating them as fully developed characters or presenting the genuine horror of homelessness itself.

The way to change this, as Pimpare described in an interview with New Hampshire Public Radio, is “to approach movies about poverty and homelessness the same way we approach movies about the police or about war or about the CIA. It’s now standard practice in Hollywood, if you’re making a police movie, you go out [and] you hire retired police officers who can show your actors how to hold the gun and talk about what procedure actually looks like […] We could do the same for other kinds of movies, including those about poor and homeless people, to actually bring in people with a deeper knowledge of that experience to help shape the kinds of narratives and the images that get created.”

The therapeutic value of horror films

By the time I finish reading Pimpare’s interview, it’s late in the day. We’re out of popcorn, the coffee pot has been refilled no less than two times, and I have texted everyone I know, “Have you seen the movie C.H.U.D.?”

I’m also left wondering what it is about the horror genre that is so appealing to the men in our shelter. I mean, don’t they live enough horror already? There have been days when simply working in shelter has felt like a horror marathon: drug abuse, fights, scabies, overdose, weapons, bed bugs, lice, grief, poverty, etc.

Shelter isn’t like that all the time, but those things are almost always in the background — perceived, expected, feared, remembered, or simply rumored. It’s this quality that makes me wonder whether watching horror movies in shelter might actually be harmful for the people who stay there.

It turns out that these films can have genuine therapeutic value for people with trauma histories.

In 2015, Jenny Hamilton explored a similar question in her book Horror in Therapy: Working Creatively with Horror and Science Fiction Films in Trauma Therapy. It turns out that these films can have genuine therapeutic value for people with trauma histories — which includes many, if not all, people experiencing homelessness.

For some people, horror films can function as a kind of exposure therapy, where trauma can be elaborately presented, relived, and processed, but in a context where the threat is not real. The films also serve as an effective visual medium that can help when verbally processing trauma that may be challenging.

For others, horror films are helpful precisely because they provide a new set of terms for processing trauma — for example, in the Netflix adaptation of Unbelievable, the protagonist memorably uses the film Zombieland as a metaphor for talking about trauma, trust, and self-protection after being raped.

Horror films during a time of crisis

Perhaps that’s also the more universal value of horror films — the way they offer a rich set of characters, settings, and images to describe the world in moments of crisis. Sometimes, it’s easier and even more honest to speak in metaphor. Sometimes, the truth is simply that it feels like we’re stuck in a Stephen King novel.

As it happens, after our movie marathon ended, one of the shelter guests recalled that headline and asked: Which Stephen King novel do you think we’re stuck in? Cujo? Misery? The Stand? All things considered, we had a good time figuring that one out.

That’s what horror does — what good horror does. It gathers people together, it makes you think, and it sheds some light on the world.

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