One of the most effective ways for a horror film to accomplish its goal of scaring or shocking an audience is to tie twisted events to reality.
Any story can feature some jumpy moments, gory deaths and the like, but it’s when writers and directors can create connections to real people or scenarios that audience members will truly feel that skin-crawling sense of dread—or, in a certain type of horror film, a touch of amusement.
This can be accomplished in plenty of different ways, but one interesting technique that a lot of horror directors have tried out over the years is to infuse the imagery of iconic American presidents into their stories. Though some are good and some are bad (or, some would argue, some are disastrous and others heroic), American presidents are among the most recognisable people in history to much of the world. And to many Americans, they represent some level of comfort or stability, whether or not they’re successful in office. So naturally, seeing them tied to horror films can be jarring.
One terrific article on this very subject pointed out 10 presidential appearances in horror cinema, from Horror House On Highway 5 (1985) to President’s Day (2013). Let’s look back on some of the most noteworthy examples.
When Abraham Lincoln Battled Zombies
You surely remember Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which came out in 2012 with a wide release. It was pretty much just what it sounds like, taking one of America’s most iconic presidents and offering up a twisted history in which he was tasked with taking on vampires. It had its moments, but critical consensus was that its silly premise was betrayed by a serious tone; in other words, it didn’t realise it was absurd.
On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies was entirely self-aware and both creepy and amusing. It’s worth a look if you missed it and this is your sort of thing. Nothing quite beats watching “Honest Abe” take down the undead, even if it’s not the scariest film you’ll ever see.
When Reagan Slaughtered Hippies
Just to be clear, this had nothing to do with the actual Ronald Reagan, who was a Hollywood actor before he assumed the presidency. Rather, this hippie slaughter occurred in the 2006 David Arquette slasher film The Tripper. It was about a killer wearing a Ronald Reagan mask to go on a hippie-killing spree. The joke was that the real Reagan was rather anti-hippie and was also commonly referred to as “The Gipper” (which is an absurd name for a president).
As one review pointed out, the satire was not subtle in this film, and in a way it was primarily a political comedy. However, there are genuine slasher aspects to the film, and as stated previously, the presence of presidential imagery connected to horror elements can be a little bit shocking. Sure, it’s just a guy in a Reagan mask, but watching him murder the hippies he disapproves of is still a little bit different than watching any old serial killer in a mask. It’s simultaneously absurd and creepy.
When Reagan Also Slaughtered Cheerleaders
This happened in a significantly less political film. Blood Diner was about two troubled brothers who are essentially possessed by their dead (and formerly murderous) uncle to kill a bunch of women and collect their body parts. It really doesn’t have anything to do with politics or presidents, but there is one pretty spooky scene in which they massacre a bunch of cheerleaders while wearing Reagan masks. And again, the visual is effective in making an ordinary horror scene that much more off-putting.
When Trump Conducts A Purge?
This one hasn’t happened yet, and may not, but it’s worth noting that one relatively recent estimation gave Donald Trump 2/1 odds of winning the presidency in the United States. Americans are facing the very real possibility that a man many consider to be dangerous or morally misguided could be elected. And it’s already been suggested that the stories in The Purge series might be a little too close to the reality that would follow if Trump assumed office.
Would Trump actually enact a Purge? Probably not—he might not be that crazy. But his rhetoric against entire religions and nationalities has people concerned about mass deportations and the like, so a certain kind of purge probably isn’t out of bounds. At any rate, we already know that the violence at some of Trump’s rallies influenced The Purge: Election Year. If the controversial billionaire does win the White House, it seems a virtual certainty that he’ll be parodied in a Purge sequel or similar horror film soon thereafter.
It’s a bizarre thing that’s happened in a lot of horror films over the years, but in a way, it tends to be pretty effective to tie American presidents to the genre.