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Is HIV/AIDS the Real American Horror Story?

By Mathew Rodriguez

October 30, 2013

Mathew Rodriguez

Mathew Rodriguez

Horror movies are a way for filmmakers to deal with that which forces humans into survival mode, and perhaps nothing is more visceral in terms of mass fear and hysteria than the HIV epidemic, especially in its early years. Horror movies are built around the idea of human mortality, and horror as a genre often looks at the lengths people go to in order to survive when motivated by fear. When faced with the possibility of death, people feel most alive, and the protagonists of horror movies are often spurred into action by a presence that wants to unleash them from the mortal coil.

Horror movies very much play into what Marxist social critic Stephen Greenblatt discusses as "social energy." In his essay, "The Circulation of Social Energy," he describes social energy as things that can be circulated in society: "Power, charisma, sexual excitement, collective dreams, wonder, desire, anxiety, religious awe, free-floating intensities of experience." Horror is a genre that digs into the social energy and examines what we fear most, what causes us our greatest anxieties and to what lengths humans are willing to go to survive. The major figures in the horror films of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which were dominated by personalities (e.g., Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers), are a direct reaction against the sexual revolution. What do they want? The blood of oversexed teenagers! When do they want it? Now!

Freddy, Jason and Michael all preyed on teens the way many believed sexually transmitted infections (STIs) might, and served as warnings of the dangers of giving teenagers sexual freedom. Freddy attacks you in bed, Michael attacks you while you're babysitting and your boyfriend is over, and Voorhees died because camp counselors were too busy canoodling to hear a little boy drowning -- we get it! Sex is bad!


Made in the late '70s, and released in 1980, The Shining is another example of Cold War anxieties -- a huge "social energy" at the time -- making their way onto film. In the excellent documentary Room 237, critics discuss how The Shining is about mankind's greatest atrocities -- the Holocaust, the treatment of the Native Americans -- and how mankind moves on, continuing to do wrong, blind of past mistreatment. At a time when international relations were dominated by a nuclear arms race, that message rang truer than ever.

Today, the horror landscape is not dominated by individuals; it is dominated by widespread plagues. Whether it's the zombies of The Walking Dead, the disease in Cabin Fever, the idea of demon bodily infestation in the Paranormal Activity series or the mutated people left without government help in the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, it seems disease and plague are what frightens us the most. Apparently, the better we get at curing diseases, the more and more we begin to fear those which are without a cure and see them as outliers in our mortal timelines, rather than commonplace.

In his interview with, Mark Patton, star of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, discusses how he doesn't watch zombie movies because he saw "the real zombies" -- people living with AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s. Now that the "AIDS generation" has grown up, and a new generation has taken the reins of the culture, zombie images (once, mind you, a metaphor for mindless consumer culture) have become the zeitgeist of the horror genre. Nothing frightens us more than the failure of modern science. It also reminds me of my interview with Dr. Kimberly Hagen of Emory University, who described the difference in infectious disease doctors pre- and post-HIV. For the longest time, infectious disease doctors had somewhat of a "superhero" complex -- they could ride in on their white horses and save the day with antibiotics. Now, medical students becoming infectious disease doctors are trained with the knowledge that everything cannot be cured and that chronic illness is the norm.

The horror movie has become a decades-long experiment exploring the frailty and delicateness of the human body. The pre-HIV equivalent that most closely examines this deep-seated fear is probably Alien, which asks the question, "What happens when something takes up residence in your body and uses you as an incubator?" Feminists since have heralded the film as a way to explain rape to men -- a man is the first one in the movie who has to deal with an alien baby growing inside him -- while many people living with HIV can see the metaphor very clearly.

However, this also leads to a change in protagonists. Earlier movies were usually dominated by one main protagonist who needed to face the villain one-on-one. Nancy faces off with Freddy, Jamie Lee Curtis' character faces Michael, and Ellen Ripley opens a can of feminist whoop-ass on the Alien. However, The Walking Dead embraces a model in which it takes a village to survive an epidemic, and that is a realistic lesson for those of us in the trenches of HIV work. HIV won't be solved by a single person -- not even a white coat in a lab somewhere! It will take the love of a community to face the evils of what ails us. We shouldn't be focused solely on the cure. (Horror movie rule number one: The villain is never dead!) We should be focused on communal love and helping those in need now. HIV might be scary, but it doesn't have to be a horror story.

What do you think? Do you think this reads into the horror genre a little bit too much? What do you think of the switch in horror movies from singular villains to deadly diseases? Do you have an aversion to any one type of horror movie for any reason?

Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for and

Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.

Copyright © 2013 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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