There’s a recurring debate that emerges in the wider cultural discourse around this time every year. It centres on a simple, but seemingly inexhaustible, question: What is Halloween for?
Unlike the majority of other holidays, it doesn’t seem to have a clear purpose. Increasingly, voices on the right have used it as a way of indulging their tiresome histrionic culture war. Want to teach your kids about the dangers of socialism? Simply take their candy away from them when they go trick or treating and voila, lesson learned! It’s a cheap rhetorical move, but an easy one to pull off.
However, as the writer China Miéville points out in Jacobin, Halloween isn’t for the right, but functions as a cultural space essential to the socialist political imagination. In fact, it’s important to go further than Miéville does, and argue that not just Halloween, but horror more widely, should be of profound importance for a leftist understanding of culture and our place in the world. To put it simply, capitalism is a horror story. This is something well documented in the history of leftist thought.
The two great critics of capitalism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, frequently turned to gothic language and horrific imagery to communicate the essential truth of the system they sought to critique. Marx, for example, was emphatic that capital as a mode of production comes into existence “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
To be trapped in the relations of capitalist labour is to stop being a person and instead become prey to a system that sustains itself through both figuratively and literally sucking the blood from our bodies. As Mark Steven at Jacobin puts it, life under capitalism is the experience of “the irreversible liquefying of human substance and its necrophagic consumption.”
Critiques and commentaries on capitalism are rife with the gothic and spooky, from the occult powers of the market that transforms everyday objects into commodities, to the vampiric bourgeoisie who secure their existence at the cost of the literal blood of working class people who die to build the wealth of their oppressors. Not for nothing did Arundhati Roy title her 2014 book, an exposé of the essentially haunted nature of Indian success — economic power built on land from which farmers had been forcibly evicted, or on the graves of those who could never even hope to pay off their debts — Capitalism: A Ghost Story.
Thus, horror is not just there to scare us, but can also provide a symbolic and cultural vocabulary for the experiences of contemporary capitalism, articulating the fears of all those who live within that system at a particular time and place. Think of the spate of invasion films from the 1950s, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, remade again in the 1970s as American Cold War anti-communist paranoia began to bite. In contemporary films, such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, we see new articulations of the cultural fears around race in what we’re told is a post-racial era. Perhaps the most high-profile recent example is Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar winning film Parasite, which outlines in beautiful, meticulous detail the nightmarish horrors of contemporary class antagonisms.
The latest example of horror that details the realities of capitalist living for us is Squid Game, a South Korean series on Netflix. The show, which has become phenomenally successful, follows a group of heavily indebted people who compete in a series of deadly children’s games in order to win a colossal cash prize.
Whilst some might quibble with calling Squid Game horror, it stands in the tradition of the deadly game concept, made famous by Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel Battle Royale, or the film from the following year of the same title. However, in contrast to the tradition, Squid Game participants aren’t chosen at random, but rather because they’re in colossal amounts of debt, which can never be repaid. Thus, when offered a cash prize, participants are all too eager to join up.
The show follows Seong Gi-hun, a gambling addict and part time chauffeur who has run up colossal debts with loan sharks, lacks the money to care for his ailing mother, and is in danger of losing contact with his daughter. As the show unfolds, we find out he’s a former auto worker, who was involved in a strike met with vicious police repression that left him deeply traumatized (mirroring a real life example in South Korean labour history).
Whilst much has been made of the specificity of the show to its South Korean milieu, its popularity reinforces a point made by Bong: “Essentially, we all live in the same country, called capitalism.” The show’s focus on debt, and its understanding of it not simply as an economic relation but rather a kind of existential trap, is extremely useful for a left analysis of contemporary capitalism. Credit promises us a future freedom — with credit one can buy anything, whatever we might lack, and by making that purchase we buy a better kind of life.
This, as the writer John Berger pointed out in 1972, is the entire point of the advertising and marketing industries. However, debt at a certain point becomes circular. Debt can’t be repaid, but fortunately cheap credit is there to help until you can’t pay that back, and so the circle gets ever tighter. This financial problem is then a kind of ontological one also — a wager against our own future.
That reality becomes especially clear in situations wherein our economic status directly impacts health. Can you afford to stay alive? Can you stay working long enough to pay off the debts you needed to take on to stay in work in the first place? The consequence of this is that debt, in contrast to what it promises, doesn’t liberate agency but seriously constrains it.
The show makes this point explicit in the opening two episodes. We meet Gi-hun as he encounters a recruiter who promises him a way to keep his family together and see his daughter grow up if he’ll take on the risk of participating in a game. The same sort of economic desperation is present in all the other contestants as well. Yes, they could have said no, but if the alternative is prison, death or the continuing misery of slowly sliding down into absolute destitution, then the choice is illusory. Debt limits where you can live, or with whom; it limits your health and the quality of healthcare you’ll receive. It limits your access to education, and will dictate the sort of jobs you’ll take and the amount of work you’ll have to do. Debt is a trap, and one which is almost inescapable.
When the contestants realize the game’s deadly nature, they hold a vote to determine whether it should be terminated. By one vote, the decision passes, but the organizers say people can return if they want to. Of course, the contestants go back to their lives, to the grinding inescapable misery of debt and exploitation, and then the vast majority make the choice to return. At least in the games you know the rules, and the punishment, whilst fatal, is more honest.
The latest monster of capitalism, then, is not just the vampiric creature in the castle, but a far more abstract and universal danger. Debt is a gothic creature, trapping us all within the confines of capitalism whilst whispering the possibility of freedom in our ears. In a system predicated not on freedom but economic exploitation, democracy is a hollow joke, an illusion of choice that serves merely to underscore the degree to which the status quo is violently enforced.
All the players voted to terminate the games and yet the system in which they’re constrained brought them right back to play. What is the difference for Gi-hun between the police who beat his friends to death in front of him for the crime of being a worker and the masked men with machine guns who will shoot him in the head for failing at a child’s game? You can fall into debt though trying to better your conditions at work, ill health or just bad luck, and so the wager in Squid Game is that it might be better to get to see the bullet that will kill you coming, rather than the slow death from 1,000 cuts of the debt trap you can’t escape.
Canadian consumer debt recently broke the $2 trillion mark, pushed up by mortgages — a kind of debt that is essential to avoid homelessness. Yet even then, homes are not just a need, but an asset too, and so home equity lines of credit have increased massively in the last year. Even if most of that is paid back, there will be countless families who find that their home becomes possessed, taken over by debt.
It’s a classic horror movie set-up, isn’t it? Can you hear the whisper? It’s already inside your house. And this is perhaps one of the main reasons for Squid Game’s success — the recognition that for all of the differences between those playing the game and us watching, we are all caught by the very same monsters.
Here then the value of thinking not just about Halloween, but horror, as an essential way of understanding our lives under capitalism, becomes clearer. Halloween can function as a cultural space wherein we recognize the monsters on screen as articulations of our collective fears, and find new ways of comprehending how capitalism has us all in its grip.