What Drives the Urge to Purge?

2016/07/15 21:14:09 +00:00 | Margee Kerr

I’m not a typical film critic; in fact, I’m not a film critic at all. I’m a sociologist that studies fear with a fondness for horror films. What I love to talk about is the ways in which horror movies, in this case The Purge: Election Year, hold a mirror up to society, reflecting both our fears and our secret (or not so secret) desires.

There is no guesswork required in Election Year; this is no funhouse mirror, but rather a pretty direct reflection of where we are today. Election Year picks up where Anarchy left off, with growing opposition to the Purge: on the pro-Purge side we have a Christian minister backed by the New Founding Fathers (and a super creepy bishop), and on the other side a career politician (who happens to be female, white, and blonde) that wants the Purge gone for good (I wonder if writer/director DeMonaco thought Huckabee would be opposing Clinton instead of Trump this fall).

As the two sides face off throughout the 12-hour free-for-all, it becomes abundantly clear that Election Year is an explicit condemnation of the classism and racism threaded throughout the US. Current contentious social and political issues are rolled out one after another; from police targeting and killing the poor and people of color, to the NRA fueling gun violence and bankrolling politicians. Camera angles direct our gaze again and again to the mercenary assassins’ prominently displayed Nazi and Confederate flag patches. They even take a strong shot at the Catholic Church, highlighting the hypocrisy and abhorrent age-old practice of using religion to justify unfair policy.

There is a self-awareness in Election Year that is almost comical at times, and makes these parallels more palatable: the obvious, over-the-top (and I hope, intentional) white savior narrative, the overacting, Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” blaring as Purgers rage on, and the one-liners that make you go, “Really? Really?” Perhaps my favorite: the news reports touting the US as the destination for murder tourism, where travelers can come to get their violence on! You laugh at the ridiculousness, until you remember the latest US headlines.

But, it’s not just the timeliness that makes the Purge enticing. The whole concept taps into strong beliefs that have been around for a long while:

  • That we have an inner reservoir of evil emotions swirling inside us, and that they can be exorcised by committing truly horrific deeds.
  • That killing those at the edges of society is a viable solution to address issues of crime and/or poverty.

Research has a lot to say about both ideas. First, no, there is no anger reservoir (or any emotion) hiding inside us. Yet, this idea of “releasing bottled emotions” is wildly popular and used to justify most adult escapades into the land of excess (typically with drugs, sex, alcohol, or violence) so they can “blow off some steam.” But our emotions do not work like that (as cute as Inside Out makes it sound). Emotions are constructed in time and place from sensory information (hot, cold, pain), cognitive processing (what we’re thinking about, like maybe how mad you are at the bastard who just killed your husband—The Purge: Anarchy), and environmental cues (Purge Night).

Should you choose not to “express” (however defined) emotion at that time, it is not as though you pour a gallon of anger into your reservoir where it waits for when you decide it’s time to “unleash the beast.” The idea, though, that we can “cleanse” ourselves of negative emotion is incredibly appealing—who wouldn’t want to free themselves of anger and frustration? However, research (and history) shows that inducing anger, for example, Primal Scream Therapy, in an attempt to expel negative emotion doesn’t work. In fact, it typically makes things worse (next up: The Purge: The Day After, where everyone commits mass suicide in a spiral of shame and guilt).

But, we do get angry, really angry, especially when we perceive injustice. Indeed, many of us would sacrifice our own life to hurt someone who wronged a loved one. While intuitive, it’s not really rational, but fairness is that important to us. In fact, research shows that study participants will administer stronger electric shocks, and take a financial loss, to punish someone for even a minor perceived injustice.

You’ll notice in The Purge movies that the “good guys” are the only ones motivated to murder for justice, and SPOILER ALERT, in the end they don’t kill the Big Bad, reminding us that we really did evolve to do better together (not that some don’t need a reminder of this, e.g. Lena Heady smashing the face of Grace in The Purge, an all-time fav).

Restraint, rational thought, and the desire for fairness are some of the amazing traits that make us human. Sure, it’s hard, and that’s why it is so much fun to fantasize about a world where we can follow our more animal instincts without consequence. The reality of violence, of course, is very, very different from the fantasy.

The second belief the Purge taps into is that we can address issues of crime and poverty by removing those who happen to reside in poor areas. While simple, easy solutions are always appealing, this is a “downstream” approach and doesn’t work. It reminds me of the story of the farmer dragging bodies out of his river until someone comes along and asks why he’s not going upstream to find out who’s throwing them in!

Sure, there are bad people in the world, but they are not confined to a certain class, in fact, a surprising number of psychopaths are on Wall Street and commit crimes that destroy lives by the thousands. But when we’re talking about mass poverty and the crimes that go along with it, we have to look upstream at the institutions—a message The Purge: Election Year repeatedly and gruesomely beats into the viewer, but in the good way that only horror movies can do.

So there it is, The Purge series gets us all revved up not just by the creepy masks or gruesome violence, but because the film takes us into a world with unbridled freedom from social norms, taboos, and the boundaries of our daily lives (which is why holidays like Mardi Gras and Halloween are so much fun; restraints come off, masks go on, and inner demons emerge). We get to see what that world looks like without limits, and are then reminded that boundaries, and a respect for humanity, are what allow us to live, and not just survive.