The troublesome and shallow aesthetics of decay

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Over the past five years, there’s been an influx of horror movies filmed in the living ruins of Detroit. And why wouldn’t directors want to film there? While audiences aren’t exactly tired of crumbling castles and Victorian mansions looming on the hill, those horror staples aren’t as fresh – or, I guess, fetid – as they once were. The new terror trend feels less upper-crust European and more working-class American. Its ghost is not so much a dead person as a dead capitalist promise – that of a prosperous, happy life. Truly scary!

Except for one problem. Too often, these horror movies adopt the aesthetics of urban decay without giving thought to the politics. Urban decay as spooky eye candy rather than critique of a cannibalistic socioeconomic system. And, come on, what’s a horror movie without a serious examination of cannibalism, individual or systemic?

This topic interests me not only as a horror fanatic but also as a lifelong urban decay enthusiast. Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by condemned and abandoned buildings, streets cracked and overtaken by nature, infrastructure frozen in a decade distant from the present. And, for the longest time, I never considered decay political. Like those Detroit-based horror movies, my fascination was all aesthetic. Never did it occur to me that people once inhabited – or currently inhabit – these spaces.

My privilege limited my imagination. Having never eaten fewer than three meals a day or endured a winter outside a well-heated house, I couldn’t imagine how anyone could live in such decrepit places. So, I assumed that no one did. These places were movie sets that just never got taken down. And boy, were they good for a spooky Friday night visit with friends!

Only in the past year have I really thought about the people who inhabit these places. Forgotten, ignored, oppressed, impoverished, made aesthetic. But even typing those words feels strange to me, as if – rather than bringing me closer to understanding – they laughably emphasize how much I will never understand. There will always be that distance between me and people who have lived among decay. There will always be that thrill up my spine when I see a house with cellophane stapled over broken windows and a porch sagging with rot. My perpetual reaction – aesthetics first, politics second.

Such is the film industry’s collusion with capitalism. Turning images that could motivate viewers to action into ones that separate viewers from humanity through titillation. Ignoring reality in favor of detached escapism. That’s the real horror. And it’s one I intend on fighting within myself.

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