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Why Immigrants Are to Thank For Your Favorite Horror Movies

Immigrants created some of America’s most iconic fright fests — and an annual “zombie economy” of $6 billion.

This week, as Night of the Living Dead director George Romero celebrated his 76th birthday, he will also witness just how deeply his zombie obsession has devoured the American imagination. Today marks the release of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the movie adaptation of the best-selling novel, based on Jane Austen’s seminal novel. It’s everything you’d expect from Regency England, only in this case, as Elizabeth Bennet throws verbal darts at Mr. Darcy, she must also hurl real ones at the undead creatures attacking Pemberley.

The zombie is merely one (if not the most) lucrative monster in the American entertainment history. Cinematic horror in particular permeates the American consciousness; it shapes our fears, but it also reflects them. It’s a political genre masquerading as pure, frightening fun. And it has come to loom so large in our culture due to the creative power of a surprising population: immigrants.

The mythologies, creative energy, and popularity of cinematic horror are largely rooted in the immigrant experience. Hispanics are the largest consumers of horror movies, but immigrants have always made up the bulk of this audience, dating back to the early days of film. Of the 20 top-grossing horror movies of all time, eight were directed or produced by immigrants. Finally, there’s a good argument to be made that the current zombie craze — a national obsession that pumps nearly $6 billion into the economy each year — exists because two immigrants from Cuba and Lithuania were able to raise their family here. But why the seemingly random connection between immigrants and the horror industry? Here are four good explanations.

  1. Immigrants Were the First Movie-Goers, and They Were Watching Horror

In the early 20th century, most movies were screened inside shops, usually in working-class immigrant neighborhoods. Films were cheap to watch — then only a nickel — and they were silent, which meant that audiences didn’t need English fluency to enjoy them. Meanwhile, directors often had backgrounds as stage magicians, so they gravitated toward supernatural storylines. Such films resonated with immigrants’ traditions and folklore. “If you were Ukrainian or South American, the ghost at midnight or the haunted castle carried a deep cultural resonance,” says Kendall Phillips, Professor of Communication & Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University and author of Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film. A century later, Phillips says these influences abound in the movies of America-based Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Crimson Peak) and Cuban-American filmmaker Eduardo Sánchez, who made The Blair Witch Project.

  1. Non-Immigrants Were Too Cool to Appreciate a Good Scare

Unlike immigrants, early 20th century native-born audiences had trouble suspending their disbelief. “At that time, America was all about technology, science, and knowledge,” says Phillips. They preferred what he calls “cinema of the uncanny,” or movies in the “Scooby Doo model.” In these films, “what looks like a ghost isn’t really a ghost,” says Phillips. “We know it’s really Mr. Drucker from the pharmacy trying to get those darn kids off his land.” In such stories, the cantankerous Druckers of the world are great at fooling unsophisticated dupes (read: women, foreigners, children, rural folk). But they’re always unmasked by the hero: typically a terrific-looking, no-nonsense American man.

In Cecil B. DeMille and Oscar Apfel’s 1914 film The Ghost Breaker, considered to be the first of the “haunted house horror” genre, the protagonist goes to Spain to hunt for ghosts. “The hero is this brash American guy,” says Phillips “and his message is basically, ‘Ghosts? We don’t believe in ghosts. Americans fight with our fists and our guns.’” It wasn’t until Americans started feeling uniquely vulnerable — particularly during the Great Depression — that horror finally caught on in the United States.

  1. Today the Horror Movie Industry is Fueled by Immigrants and Second-Generation Americans

In 1931, Dracula, starring the Hungarian-born Bela Lugosi as the blood-sucking Count, introduced horror to mainstream American audiences, and the genre took off. English-born director James Whale came to the United States that same year to make Frankenstein, and by 1939, fellow Englishman Alfred Hitchcock had moved his family to Hollywood.

Since then, some of the most successful horror films have been made by immigrants and their children. There’s The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin (the son of Ukrainian parents); the wildly successful Paranormal Activity franchise, created by Israeli-born Oren Peli; the Saw movie series, directed by Australian-born James Wan; The Blair Witch Project, directed by Cuban-born Eduardo Sánchez; and the movies of Indian-born director M. Night Shyamalan.

At the box office, these films have done phenomenally well. In fact, horror in general has the greatest return on investment of any cinematic genre. While Blair Witch was made for $60,000, it grossed over $140 million in the United States alone. Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense grossed over $293 million domestically.

Phillips says the immigrant role in horror cinema has obvious psychological underpinnings. “These people understand what it means to be an outsider,” he explains. “All of M. Night Shyamalan’s films are about this, and the fact that what we think of as ‘normal’[—the mainstream insider—]often turns out to be abnormal,” i.e. the excluded outsider. The Sixth Sense is a perfect example. Until the very end of the film, we’re under a mistaken assumption about who and what Bruce Willis is.

Further, just as outsiders are often judged unfairly, horror monsters can’t always be held responsible for their monstrosity. “Is monstrosity a choice or a condition?” asks Bernadette Calafell, a Mexican-American professor of communications at the University of Denver. Often, she says, the horrific creature becomes that way due to some misfortune or stroke of bad luck (i.e. vampires) or because of what society at large has done to them (i.e. zombies).

  1. There’s a $6-Billion-a-Year Zombie Economy in the United States, Thanks to Immigrants

The Walking Dead was produced by Hungarian-American Frank Arpad Darabont. (He’s also written screenplays for the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, The Blob, and The Fly.) But the origins of AMC’s powerhouse horror-drama are credited to George Romero, the son of a Cuban father and Lithuanian mother and director of Night of the Living Dead, which came out in 1968.

Phillips, who has written extensively on Romero, argues that, on some level, all of the Living Dead films force us to confront America’s complicated relationship with immigrants. In one sense, zombies represent the melting pot ideal. “You come here with a language and traditions that will be absorbed,” he says. In this view, to be a successful immigrant, connections to the old world are “digested and erased.” In another sense, however, Phillips says that Romero and his ilk are critiquing anti-immigrant sentiment — i.e. the zombie hordes represent newcomers who are eager to transform American society into something unrecognizable. “They’re the evil hordes that suddenly rose up and outnumbered us,” says Bernadette Calafell.

And then there’s Phillips’ third option, which is that no matter how much of a melting pot we hope to be, we can never entirely erase our origins. We see this reflected in the few remaining humans who are struggling to preserve their humanity in The Walking Dead and the families in just about every haunted house film who refuse to leave their homes, despite the abundance of warning signs.

If you look back far enough, most of us came to this country from somewhere else. Which means ancestrally, we’ve all been outsiders at some point. So whether we’re immigrants, struggling to preserve our unique identities in a culture that calls for conformity or native-born Americans, afraid of a rapidly changing society, or simply moviegoers who crave a hair-raising scare, we’re united by the same fears and the same response to those fears. “We’re obstinate,” says Phillips. “We don’t want to give up our old culture and beliefs. That’s the terror of the zombie — it doesn’t kill you; it transforms you.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…