A Sociologist Discusses the Possibility of "The Purge" Happening in Real Life

A sociologist weighs in on the likelihood of "The Purge."

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Twelve hours where all crime is legal? This is the premise of 2013's high-concept horror movie The Purge and its upcoming sequel, The Purge: Anarchy. In a future America, for one night, all criminal activity is legal, and although the idea is initially presented as a form of mass catharsis, the Purge actually serves as population control. All kinds of horrible, right?

Well, we asked Lester Andrist, a sociologist and member of the education collective the Sociological Cinema, about the likelihood of such a thing come to pass. Would people really behave this way?

Warning: There are some spoilers below.

What did you find most interesting in The Purge?
There are two big themes that I would latch onto. One, and this is a little subtle and perhaps harder to argue, has to do with race. Sociologists like to pay a lot of attention to race, class, and gender because they they're sort of the fundamental dimensions upon which inequality is based, and race is something that features in the film unintentionally. I don't think that the filmmaker, James DeMonaco, was trying to make any kind of a comment about race, but it's still there. The second, more pronounced, theme, which feels far more intentional, deals with social class, power, and wealth. And I guess a third thing would be crime. I love the idea that one time out of the year anyone can commit any crime, and nothing is illegal. That's correct?

There is kind of a Purge-esque thing going on from the standpoint that the rich are able to actually commit crimes with relative immunity. So, from that standpoint there are some parallels with this idea of a Purge. What's interesting about the movie is that it extends this idea to all of society for one night.

Yes. One night, 12 hours, and you're able to commit any crime.
Right, and the idea is that—at least implied—society is full of this pent-up anger; that we all need to get our anger out of our systems. What usually happens in societies—until this future time in which the Purge is supposed to be taking place—is that we seep out our anger in acts of violence. So you'll have a murder on Sixth Street, and then later that day you might have a robbery on Sixth Street. The film didn't explicitly talk about it, but there's actually a theory for how society works. Anyways, the film doesn't really support good sociological theory: that we're pent up with frustration and rage, and that if we were all allowed to commit a crime one night out of the year, that we would somehow hold onto that, let it carry to that night and unleash all of the violence that we wanted. It's an interesting and provocative idea and I like it as a device to tell a story. But in point and fact it's just not how it works. [Laughs.]

The next thing is race. As I recall, there's a single black character in the movie, right?

Yes, Dwayne. He's the guy who the son brings into the house.
Right, and I think what I need reminding on is what he ends up doing, because I recall there being something of a twist. So he's in the house and you don't really see him up until the end because he's sort of escaping and evading detection. And then doesn't he come out and save the day, or does it turn out that he's really a criminal?

He kills the next door neighbors of the Sandins, the Ferrins. The Ferrins want to kill the Sandins because they're jealous of the family's wealth.
So he kind of saves the day. The only thing I would say about this is, it's just another instance in a long line of Hollywood films where we actually don't get a sense of his character. Those of us that study racial representations in films, what's common is that we don't actually know anything about him. Both the maniacal but very clever people in the film are white, and also the people who we are ultimately asked as an audience to sympathize with are white. There is no texture to the black man's character, he's simply a vehicle for the plot, and that's the problem. Again, I think that was unintentional. I don't think the director was trying to do or say anything about race in the film, but inevitably he does. I'd be interested to see how race comes through in the sequel.

Now, the more interesting analysis is with social class. I don't think The Purge was a very good movie, but there's something about the premise that seems to have taken off. In other words, it was such a good idea and somehow resonated with people at this particular time in history, that even if you make a shitty film out of it, it's still good enough to warrant a sequel. Now, here's the question: Why does it resonate with such a broad swath of the population? What is it about that story or that premise that we're all kind of like, "That's something I'd like to see"? And I think it has to do with the fact that it mirrors the time that we're living in right now. The gap between the rich and the poor has been growing steadily over the past 50 years or so, and that has allowed us to arrive at some parallels with the real world that you can actually see in The Purge. The enormous amount of wealth that the top one percent—or let's say the top 10 percent—are able to accumulate, and what they're able to do with that wealth that effectively makes them immune to a lot of the problems. I was listening to one journalist, Barbara Ehrenreich, who made the comment that the United States is really coming to look like one of those economically stratified societies that we've seen in Central and South America, like Brazil. You've got this enormously rich part of the city, and then it's contrasted almost immediately on the other side of the fence with these shanty towns. This sort of reality creates the obscene ability to make yourself immune to the problems that come with widespread poverty. This only worsens the problem because if you're only traveling by helicopter, you're really isolated and you're not seeing the effects of poverty and you don't have to live with the consequences of poverty.

That is exactly what The Purge is touching on. A stratified reality creates this scenario where society can deal with its problems, but it's in a way where the people who control the laws, and who probably created the Purge, are isolated. They can afford the surveillance systems and home protection systems that will allow them to be immune from it. So the Purge is like, "Well, what if we throw a wrench in the works and say they're not immune to it?" Somehow, somebody gets in and breaks the system, and then what's gonna happen? What if the rich and the wealthy can't get away and escape the problems? It's really that contemplation of what happens when it gets so bad, that the problems that have been mostly due to decisions made by the top one percent actually come back and bite them in the ass.

Do you think society would ever get to a point to where there's a Purge?
Well, I think we do really see examples of wealthy people getting off, and not being held to the same standards or same laws that the poor are held to. This comes through in a lot of different ways but a fresh example would be the most recent recession. When you look at which firms and what sorts of behavior caused this huge debt that we've all had to pay back, what caused that? The million people who were behind that and failed to regulate it, they haven't really been punished—at least in an open way or if they have, it hasn't really been all that painful. And so, when you consider the actual damage done to average people in terms of losing their homes or the policies of cutting social services because we have to pay back our debts, who is really paying for that? Well, it's the people who access those social services. My point is that there is kind of a Purge-esque theme going on from the standpoint that the rich are able to actually kind of commit crimes with relative immunity. So, from that standpoint there are some parallels with this idea of a Purge. What's interesting about the movie is that it extends this idea to all of society for one night.

So do I see this happening in the future? I haven't really thought this through but what I would say right now is no, because I don't see what the impetus or the motivation would be to extend that rule to everybody. What's the logic in The Purge? That the poor are going to kill other poor people and that's how they deal with their poverty problem? I think we already have a pretty effective way that deals with the poverty problem. In other words, I think there's a good rhetoric and widespread ideology that, for the most part, demonizes the poor. So, "Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps," and "It's certainly not the fault of the rich that you're poor, it's the fault of you that you're lazy." These sorts of things have an effective way of managing our poverty problem through these sort of ideological ways we talk about the poor. I don't think that there's any real reason there would need to be a night where they kill each other. Why would they want to kill poor people? Because this idea that social services are a drain on society. Here's the big reason why you don't need a Purge—the United States has proven how to demonize the poor and deny them social services when they need it now more than ever. A simple example is food stamps. It's a great program but I think every time I hear food stamps mentioned, it's talked about in a derogatory manner. And as long as we're able to do that—where we're able to make it shameful to take food stamps when you absolutely need them to feed your children—there's not really going to be a drive to increase funding to these social services.

With The Purge: Anarchy coming out soon, what are some other ideological themes you would like to see? With this one, there are average people getting caught within The Purge, as well as people seeking revenge. What themes that were presented in the first film would you like to see revisited, or new ones presented?
I would be more satisfied if they just did a better job of highlighting that what people do matters for everybody—even the one percent. People can or cannot buffer themselves depending on their location in society in terms of social class and race. The kinds of inequalities we create in society and that we enforce with our laws, they matter for us all. And what I think The Purge does is that it shows us that moment when not even the one percent can escape what they've done. So the second movie would be more satisfying for me if we saw that theme play out more as a cautionary kind of tale.

What would you do in a Purge-like situation?
The movie depicts a world where there is widespread lawlessness one night a year. People either kill, maim and steal, or they hunker down in the most impenetrable shelter they can find. This is a rather bleak vision of civil society, and one that doesn't square well with history. Some people might revel and seize the opportunities of a world where law has been suspended and others might barricade themselves inside bulletproof homes, but I think the first movie failed to depict the ways people would also collectively resist this ultimatum. If the Purge were real, I think you would see large groups of average people arranging to spend the night of the Purge together in parks, or cul-de-sacs, or wherever else it made sense to meet. They would meet with the aim of defying the spirit of the Purge and keeping everyone accountable for their actions, masks would be prohibited at such gatherings, and there would be strength in numbers.

On the night of the Purge, I would definitely be at one of those anti-Purge gatherings.

Elijah Watson is a contributing writer. He tweets here.

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