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John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’ Was Supposed to Be a Warning. We Didn’t Heed It. We Didn’t Even Understand It.

The horror master’s most prescient movie has nothing to do with serial killers or vampires—it’s about greed and propaganda. And it’s truer than ever.

Efi Chalikopoulou

In 1978, John Carpenter wrote and directed a movie about a mysterious, hulking loner who comes to town and slays innocent victims. Ten years later, he made another movie about a mysterious, hulking loner who comes to town, only this guy waited to kick ass until he was all out of bubblegum.

There are other obvious differences between Halloween and They Live, two of the most beloved films by one of the all-time great genre auteurs. But here’s the one that matters most: Halloween became a popular horror franchise that now includes 11 films released over the course of 40 years, including the forthcoming reboot due October 19.

They Live, meanwhile, sort of became reality.

Drones in the sky, conspiracies in our heads, militarized police in the streets, economic inequality in every corner of society, media that seeks to control our minds: The terror of They Live is more tangible and primal in 2018 than a slasher movie could ever be. Is that an overly grandiose way of describing a cheesy, semi-self-aware ’80s action flick? Am I projecting outsize cultural importance onto a cult classic starring a professional wrestler who utters awesome one-liners like, “Brother, life’s a bitch ... and she’s back in heat”? Have I been wearing these magical sunglasses for too long?

Not if you ask Carpenter. From the beginning, he saw They Live—which turns 30 next month—as a fun action-adventure movie about a magnificently mulleted construction worker who saves the world and as trenchant social commentary. Over time, his take on the film has settled more on the latter.

“You have to understand something,” he told Yahoo in 2015, “it’s a documentary. It’s not science fiction.”

Based on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” They Live centers on a blue-collar cipher symbolically named John Nada (Roddy Piper). The setting of the film is also nada; it’s ostensibly Los Angeles, but the time frame is pitched somewhere between a dystopian future and a pessimistic present.

Nada soon meets fellow laborer Frank Armitage (Keith David), who brings the homeless drifter to a soup kitchen and ad-hoc squatters’ community on the edge of the city. (Armitage, a character in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, is also the pseudonym that Carpenter used as the movie’s screenwriter.) Early on, we see that local TV is occasionally interrupted by a pirated signal carrying the warnings of a bearded conspiracy theorist, who declares that the human race is being controlled by unseen forces. Eventually, Nada learns that this signal is coming from a nearby church, which also contains a box of truth-revealing sunglasses. When Nada puts on a pair, he realizes that the richest, most powerful people in the world also happen to be “real fuckin’ ugly,” skeleton-faced aliens.

To reveal more would be to spoil They Live. (Seriously, though, if you haven’t seen it: What’s the matter with you?) But you can probably already spot an anachronism or two. For one thing, if They Live is ever rebooted, it will have to account for the internet, the outlet for all of our nightmarish ranting about the end of the world.

And then there’s Roddy Piper, the Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson of his time, who died in 2015 at the age of 61. To put it kindly, Roddy’s acting skills were not on par with Carpenter’s usual leading man, Kurt Russell, who achieved eternal cool in movies like Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. Roddy is cool only in a strictly “late-’80s hair metal” sense. While Russell reimagined John Wayne as a Steppenwolf stan, Piper struts through They Live like Bret Michaels after having inhaled the other three members of Poison.

But Carpenter liked Piper’s unpolished, meathead simplicity and lack of larger-than-life movie-star charisma. To him, They Live was a populist, anti-yuppie, anti-Reagan polemic. In a 1988 making-of documentary, he practically sounds like Bernie Sanders as he articulates the movie’s central idea. “All of the aliens are members of the upper class, the rich, and they’re slowly exploiting the middle class, and everybody’s becoming poorer,” he explains. “It has kind of a theme and a message to it, but basically it’s an action film.”

Along with providing some working-class authenticity, Roddy’s wrestling-ring swagger also helped to sell the movie’s Trojan horse, action-oriented trappings. “I like that feel of somebody’s who’s not so hip and rich,” Carpenter says in the making-of doc, “and doesn’t just cruise through every situation but has to struggle.”

As the country moves further from the distant memory of Reagan’s America, They Live continues as a reference point, a meme, and, for some, even a guidebook for survival. In the process, the meaning of They Live has changed; it’s not just for left-wingers railing against the excesses of capitalism. Yes, They Live is a low-budget thriller that ends [SPOILER ALERT] with a naked woman making love to a man she has just realized is an extraterrestrial. But head down any number of online wormholes and you’ll discover that skeptics of all political persuasions have embraced the allegorical significance of They Live.

All that’s required is feeling as though you’re oppressed by a shadowy cabal of they—media elites, corporations, globalists, Russian hackers, university professors, the deep state, SJWs, the Koch brothers, George Soros, or some other evil character that your conspiracy glasses have detected.

All of us seemingly live in this paranoid world now. When Brett Kavanaugh angrily speculated last week that women’s stories of sexual assault involving him were spurred by “revenge on behalf of the Clintons,” he was echoing They Live. Kavanaugh himself is precisely the sort of privileged, upper-crust figure who, depending on your point of view, might very well be one of they. If you don’t believe me: Either put on the glasses or start eating that trash can.

Just how far afield have some fans of They Live drifted from Carpenter’s original intentions? In 2017, Carpenter took to Twitter—the 21st-century version of a pirated TV signal—to denounce neo-Nazis for appropriating the film as an anti-Zionist diatribe about a Jewish-controlled media brainwashing the public.

They Live was not meant to be anti-Semitic. But because art is so easily malleable when exploited by ideologues, it’s not difficult to understand how it could be construed as anti-Semitic by the worst people in the world. The bearded man who appears on TV screens to “wake up” the populace uses the same apocalyptic language that’s become standard in the darkest corners of the internet. “We are their cattle,” he says. “We are being bred for slavery.” Later, he likens the human race to “a natural resource” in the eyes of the aliens. “All we really are is livestock.” Carpenter wrote that as a critique of Reaganomics, but if you remove that original context timely to 1988, it can apply to any supposedly fascistic regime—whether you’re against Barack Obama, or Donald Trump, or a more subterranean world order that controls both political parties.

The most memorable parts of They Live, outside of the catchphrases and that fight, are the scenes in which seemingly innocuous advertisements and pop-culture entertainments are exposed as nefarious means of mind control, delivering blunt subliminal messages like “OBEY,” MARRY AND REPRODUCE,” and “NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT.” This skepticism about the media and the government overlords was implanted on Carpenter’s generation by the double-whammies of Vietnam and Watergate, which naturally resonated most with outraged liberals who justifiably distrusted the Nixon administration.

But in 2018, the sunglasses wearers are just as likely to come from the far right. An NPR report from August on the conspiracy-theory group QAnon quoted several Trump supporters apparently living in a real-life version of They Live. “He’s saying all these things about how they lead … these rich people using their money to kind of, like, manipulate the masses,” one supporter said of Q, the anonymous figure (or consortium of anonymous figures) responsible for propagating the Pizzagate conspiracy. “You’re finding out how bad and how corrupt this world really is,” another QAnon-reading Trump voter told NPR. “I mean, you knew things were bad and things were corrupt, but you really didn’t know.”

How strange is it that They Live has endured in this way—or, really, at all? Upon its November 4, 1988, release They Live was a commercial failure, grossing just $13 million. (It was overshadowed by the more successful Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, released just two weeks prior.) Critically, it was a mild curiosity, receiving mixed reviews from critics who appreciated the subversive message but questioned the execution. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, with some justification, criticized They Live for its “confusing blend of anti-Reagan satire and genre conventions that make the film every bit as crass, amoral, and mulishly blinkered in its many rightwing assumptions as the attitudes it is ostensibly attacking.” In other words, They Live is a critique of American greed in which the solution is an all-American macho man mowing down foreign intruders with a machine gun.

For Carpenter, the short-term public indifference toward They Live merely confirmed that he was ahead of his time. After all, the movie came out the weekend before Election Day, when Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, handily won his own presidential term, capturing 426 electoral votes and carrying a staggering 40 states, a stunning endorsement of the status quo by the American electorate.

They Live’s poor box office showing became a moral victory in retrospect for Carpenter. “By the late ’80s, I’d had enough, and I decided I had to make a statement, as stupid and banal as it is, but I made one, and that’s They Live,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. “I just love that it was giving the finger to Reagan when nobody else would.”

But once They Live left theaters and became a home-video mainstay during countless middle-school sleepovers, “giving the finger to Reagan” mattered less and less to millions of teenagers. One of those kids was a voracious reader of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist Gary Allen who grew up in the Dallas suburbs. Years later on his show InfoWars, Alex Jones called They Live “one of my favorite all-time movies,” adding that he had “probably seen it 100 times. It breaks down everything!”

When you see Alex Jones through a They Live lens, his rants assume the tenor of a Roddy Piper soliloquy, with emphatic protestations about “con artist pot-bellied chicken-neck pieces of garbage running our world” delivered with a sandpaper-coated bark that’s all bluster and zero brains.

In 2013, Jones had a chance to profess his love of They Live directly to InfoWars guest Roddy Piper, who in turn expressed his admiration for Jones.

“I’m a big booster of you!” Piper beams at the start of the interview.

From there, the conversation goes about as well as you might expect, wobbling incoherently from rants about anti-globalism to an extended digression about advertisers using TV signals to trick housewives into buying dog food. The overall gist is that They Live isn’t just some goofy cult movie, but “kind of the Cliffs Notes for what’s going on,” as Piper puts it.

But what exactly what is going on? Well, who’s asking? If you don’t know, you either aren’t equipped to know … or else you are one of they.

I should state for the record that as a fan of They Live, I don’t believe that aliens walk among us, nor do I think that the movie should be regarded as Cliffs Notes explaining the oppressive power structures underpinning the so-called civilized world. They Live, in my view, is enjoyably stupid entertainment that I like to revisit occasionally late at night when I don’t feel like going to bed. It’s just a movie, OK?

But the meta-narrative of They Live, about the fear of being controlled by some massive conspiracy only you and a select group of “awakened” radicals can see, is a different matter. That is the story of how many of us now see reality. While the text of They Live isn’t all that scary, the subtext is among the most terrifying aspects of life in the modern world.

My favorite observation about They Live comes courtesy of the 2012 documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, in which the Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek explores the nature of belief through the lens of cinema. The opening sequence addresses They Live, which Zizek calls “definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood left.”

Overconfident use of “definitely” aside, Zizek does make a profound observation about the sunglasses, which he refers to as a “critique of ideology glasses.” Often, people frame ideology as something akin to glasses that affect how we see the world. “We think that ideology is something blurring, confusing our straight view,” Zizek says. When we remove those blinders, the thinking goes, we expect to see the “real” world.

But in They Live, ideology is not imposed, Zizek postulates. Rather, Nada puts on the glasses in order to see how things really are, because ideology is “spontaneous relationships to our social world” and therefore indivisible from reality. The glasses, therefore, finally remove ideology from the equation.

In the movie’s most notorious scene, Nada tries to impose this truth on another person, brawling with Armitage for several minutes in order to force him to put on the glasses. This endless fight scene, possibly the longest in cinema history, is a metaphor for the struggle to achieve enlightenment.

“To step out of ideology ... you must force yourself to do it,” Zizek concludes. “Freedom hurts.”

Zizek’s interpretation of They Live reminds me of Carpenter’s best and scariest film, The Thing. In that movie, the enemy once again is an alien who subjugates humans by secretly taking over their bodies inside of a remote scientific base in Antarctica. However, The Thing is about the ways we are undone by our inability to see and understand other people. The real enemy isn’t external; it’s the evil that springs from the misplaced faith we all put in our own perspectives.

With They Live, many of the film’s most devoted viewers make the mistake of looking outward for the monsters we sense but can’t always see. It’s what makes the movie, like all conspiracy theories, a comforting fantasy; whatever is ruining our lives is out there, somewhere, even if I’m one of the only people who realize it. But the monster is not always out there, stalking us like Michael Myers. Sometimes, it’s in here.