The Golden Age of American Paranoia
Maniacal terrorists, plague-like diseases, and missing planes—times are pretty frightening. However, the last time the U.S. was this paranoid it led to significant cultural innovation.
It’s an excellent time to be paranoid in America. The NSA is tracking your email. Your social network is running social experiments on you. A torture report reveals an intelligence community run amok, while a hostile foreign government hacked a studio and scuttled a major film release—or, maybe it was a bunch of hackers pretending to be a hostile government, which may be even more worrisome. Ebola came to America. In just the past year, one commercial airliner was shot out of the sky by renegade militants while another plane simply disappeared. Each era brings its attendant anxieties, but the current one seems especially jam-packed with disquieting events to fret about. Which is terrible news for anyone looking for a good night’s sleep but excellent news for pop culture.
Or, at least, it should be. The last era characterized by such a pervasive and free-floating sense of paranoia was likely the early-to-mid 1970s—post Warren Commission, post Watergate, post Vietnam and Altamont, right after Charles Manson had convinced people that maybe hippie peaceniks were actually dead-eyed killers and right before Tony Manero and “Saturday Night Fever” persuaded us all to disco-dance our troubles away. And that mid-70s American sense of unease produced a golden age of cinematic conspiracy mongering, from films such as The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, and Marathon Man—all based on popular novels—to ripped-from-reality tales like All The President’s Men to far-fetched yet equally unnerving near-future fables like Soylent Green. Not all of these films were great (and some weren’t even that good), but they all remain notable as cultural by-products of a widespread societal freak-out.
Whatever you may think of the merits of individual films, TV shows, or pulpy thrillers, popular culture as a whole often functions as a kind of fever dream that we collectively experience, the lingering smoky haze from the fires of historical events. And it’s often the pulpiest, most sensationalistic novels, shows, and movies that best reflect an era’s particular anxieties, whether it’s the rule-of-law-flouting sociopathic gangsters of Depression-era films like Scarface and Little Caesar, or the Communist paranoia that suffuses 1950s alien-invasion B-movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and It Came From Outer Space. The end of the last millennium brought a rush of cataclysmic thrillers, such as Volcano, Deep Impact, and Armageddon. New York City cast its own cinematic funhouse-mirror reflection back in the 1970s, as the very real civic strife afflicting the city infused pulpy dystopias like Death Wish and Escape from New York. (In that last film, Manhattan is recast as a futuristic penal colony, overrun by cutthroat criminals, which apparently wasn’t a hard sell, plausibility-wise, to the rest of America.)
So you’d expect, in our post-Snowden, hyper-surveilled, drone-abuzz world, we’d be awash in similarly dark, over-the-top thrillers about shadow governments, secret operatives, and conspiracies that go all the way to the top. Yet when you look at the multiplex, what you see instead are…superheroes, mostly. A few dwarves and a hobbit. Lego people. And a talking raccoon. The past year’s top grossing films included appearances from Spider-Man, Captain America, The Lego Movie, and the Guardians of the Galaxy, yet there’s not one conspiracy thriller among them, unless you count Gone Girl. True, Godzilla makes an appearance, but then, so do the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. At least Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a darker flavor of blockbuster, smartly suggested that maybe humans have irrevocably messed up the planet and we’d be better off just ceding control to our sentient simian overlords.
These hit films no doubt tell us as much about modern movie economics as they do about the national mood—though the landscape of prestige films is similarly devoid of dark visions and paranoiac ramblings. Forty years after Chinatown and The Conversation were nominated for Best Picture, this year’s Oscar field is dominated by dutiful biopics, whether of Martin Luther King (Selma), Alan Turing (The Imitation Game), or Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything). Worthy subjects all, and worthy films—but it seems strange that the most potentially paranoiac age in forty years hasn’t yielded an equivalent flowering of paranoiac pop-culture fantasias, either lowbrow or high.
Or perhaps one just needs to look in slightly different places. The latest chapter of the The Hunger Games was once again a big hit in theaters, and the much-remarked-upon exodus of adult readers to Young Adult dystopias must have something to do with a collective desire to see troubling real-life societal trends tackled in our fictive realms. The classic literary tale of one unhappy family can always, in the right hands, attain universal resonance, but sometimes when it seems like the world’s gone mad, you just want to read about a world gone mad. Similarly, Gone Girl, both the book and the resultant film, play out like modern fables about the dangers of information overload, where once-trusted loved ones plot to use your every utterance and miscue to condemn you. (Is there a more insidious fear in the Internet age than that?)
On TV, True Detective struck a nerve with a world sodden with corruption, while The Americans turns American paranoia inside out, telling the story of Soviet spies living among us, but from the spies’ jumpy and hunted point of view. Last year, I happened to be reading the opening chapters of the novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, about a worldwide flu epidemic, while, in the background, a radio announcer reported on the first appearance of Ebola in New York—a jarring, and these days, surprisingly rare, conflation of fiction and fact. My own first novel Shovel Ready, and it’s follow-up, Near Enemy, take place in a near-future, post-collapse New York where the poor languish while the rich escape to virtual reality—all of which was in part inspired by 70s films like Fort Apache: The Bronx and The Warriors, about the discord of a distant age. Yet in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, the release of Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets, protestors swarming the Brooklyn Bridge and an NYPD that’s literally turning its back on our mayor, these stories feel uncomfortably relevant to the New York of right now.
For a thriller writer, the current challenge isn’t concocting plausibly far-fetched scenarios, but keeping one step ahead of the outlandish headlines popping up seemingly every day.
Which is both bad—after all, who wants to live in troubled times?—and good, in that fiction, whether on the page or the screen, has always worked well as a conduit by which we try to process our outsized fears. We often talk about movies, novels, and TV as a form of escape—and none more so than pulpy thrillers, action adventures, and sci-fi fantasies. But these forms have also always served as early warning systems for our collective discomfort, the funhouse mirror that reflects our anxieties back at us in ways that makes us see them anew. This is no less true—in fact, it’s especially true—at a time when real events seem themselves so twisted and unsettling.