If Karl Marx were alive today, I’d like to think he’d spend this Halloween watching horror films. He certainly drew on horror, gothic and fantasy literature throughout his mature oeuvre, evoking the power, wonder and terror of capital through supernatural allusions.
Memorably, he opens the Communist Manifesto with: “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.”
So well-crafted is the Manifesto that philosopher and literary theorist, Umberto Eco hinted that it was a work of Gothic literature, capable of “alternat[ing] apocalyptic and ironic tones.” For Eco, the Manifesto anticipates cinema itself, Eco commenting that the work conjures images “in an almost cinematographic way.”
Nearly as famous as the spectre of the Manifesto, is the way Marx handles the animist agency of commodities in Capital. “The table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood,” wrote Marx.
“But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas far more wonderful than ‘table-turning’ ever was.”
The mention of table-turning is an allusion to spiritualist practices, where, in a séance, a table would be adjusted to indicate the presence of a spirit, like a Ouija board.
When reading this Gothic prose, we should remember that Marx, at one stage in his youth, aspired to be a romantic poet. The dream was never entirely abandoned, as his political and economic analysis strove, as Marx put it in a letter to Engels, to form “an artistic whole”.
In the very same letter, he compares his writing to that of the folklorist Jacob Grimm, noting that an artistic whole “can only be achieved through my practice of never having things printed until I have them in front of me in their entirety. This is impossible with Jacob Grimm’s method.”
It is a curious comparison. Grimm’s Fairytales are seldom moralistic fables, as many a horrified parent has discovered when going back to the original. Rather, they are avenues to encounter the grotesque, weird, uncanny and horrific. Perhaps Marx compared his writing to Grimm because they were both interested in fantastical and macabre images that spoke to the people.
Indeed, throughout the pages of Capital, we find references to werewolves and vampires. For instance, Marx warns of “the werewolf’s hunger for surplus labour,” and the “vampire thirst for the living blood of labour”. Indeed, Marx’s interest in vampires precedes not only Bram Stoker’s Dracula but even Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Camilla.
There are tendencies in Marx toward what would later be called Science Fiction Horror, Marx describing capitalism as: “A mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demon power, at first veiled under the slow and measured motions of his giant limbs, at length breaks out into the fast and furious whirl of his countless working organs.”
Part of the reason Marx turned toward gothic and fantasy imagery, is that it spoke to the people. But it was rich in themes related to working-class struggle amid political oppression. After all, is not Mary Shelley’s depiction of Frankenstein’s creature a proto-proletarian; assembled from decontextualised parts, wanting the same rights as its bourgeois inventor?
Today, one need only look to the zombie films to see how useful allegories are. George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) depicts a black protagonist surviving zombie ghouls only to be killed by law enforcement. The ending remains poignant, given the police murder of George Floyd.
Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), set in a mall filled with zombies, has often been interpreted as an allegory for consumerism. Even the horror romcom Warm Bodies explores parallels between zombies and alienated consumers looking at their smartphones in the opening scene.
That’s not even mentioning the most celebrated examples of recent political horror, such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, or the horror sequences with the equisapiens in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. And there are definitely horror tropes in Bong Joon-Ho’s anti-neoliberal Parasite.
Of course, horror is home to all sorts of reactionary tropes. But it has long had the power to comment on social injustices and frame the powers of capitalism as an alien or supernatural threat. In this way, it denaturalises, as Marx did, the system that currently engulfs the world, with its “demon power” and “giant limbs.”