I’m not especially bothered by violence in media. I’m a huge fan of the films of Quentin Tarantino. I play a lot of video games. Hell, I teach a course every few years called “Violence in Literature & Film.”
However, I find watching the movie American Psycho uncomfortable. There’s something I find upsetting about Christian Bale’s performance of the psychotic yuppie killer Patrick Bateman .I think it has to do with the posing and preening that he does when in contact with his victims. The way that he fawns over himself while taking advantage of his underprivileged victims makes the violence that he perpetrates against them seem all the more detestable.
On the one hand, this seems strange to me given that American Psycho is so clearly allegorical in nature. That violence perpetrated by the Bateman character on screen is really just a representation of what director Mary Harron (or novelist Brett Easton Ellis) sees as the relationship between the wealthy and the impoverished in American society. In short, the Bateman character and his execution of the homeless and street walkers is a metaphor, and in that sense, the cannibalistic serial killer’s actual actions in the movie aren’t intended to be taken literally. I should feel distanced from the carnage and gore, since it is just meant to signal that the American economy is one in which the rich consume the poor.
On the other hand, maybe my discomfort with Bateman’s self congratulatory nature about cannibalizing those weaker than himself shows the effectiveness of the film’s allegory. I find this rich-on-poor violence especially horrific.
While not made quite so uncomfortable when playing it, my memories of American Psycho and its allegorical violence as a stand-in for a commentary on economic inequality certainly floated through my mind for the past week or so while I was playing OSome Studios’s survival horror game, White Night.
Set in the 1930s, the game concerns taking on the role of a kind of “detective,” a man who, following an automobile accident, stumbles into an old and ruined estate looking for help. What he finds is a house empty of anything other than ghosts. As he wanders through the mansion, avoiding the ghost of Margaret Vesper, one of the previous occupants of the house, he finds himself investigating the history of the home and the family that owned it.
The horrors of the Vesper household are not merely confined to angry ghosts, though. While Margaret’s spirit haunts the home seemingly aggressively trying to excise or punish this interloper, the protagonist also discovers that Margaret’s son, William, was a serial killer dubbed by the press “The Wolf of Black Lake”.
As the player pokes through old diaries belonging to Maragaret, William, Maragaret’s husband Henry, and one of William’s victims, a jazz singer named Selena, a picture begins to emerge of a family in which mental illness was common and hereditarilly passed on from both father and mother to son, all of whom struggled with their own afflictions in very personal ways and struggled with one another in often terrible and hateful ways.
Alongside this history of mental illness, though, the game’s many in-game texts also include seemingly incidental news reports about the years preceding the game, much of which concern the Market Crash of 1929 and FDR’s efforts to fix the American economy. Initially, these texts might seem, as I said, purely incidental, perhaps, only intended by the game’s writer to flesh out the time setting in which the game takes place. However, as more and more of the Vesper family’s history begins to form, an allegory also clearly begins to become apparent, an allegory not unlike the one employed in American Psycho. It becomes clearer and clearer that the mental illness and violence at the heart of this American family parallels the social and political events that contextualize the game’s 1930s setting.
The marriage of Henry and Margaret Vesper was a union based on economic practicality, not love. Margaret’s family, the Venter-Crosses, are a family established on “old money”, a kind of aristocratic, moneyed family that might come from the New England area, similar to American families, like the Roosevelts, the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, and the like. However, they are a family that has run out of money and thus run out of time, and the only way to maintain their privileged lifestyle and the respectability of their family name is to refill the family’s coffers by marrying a daughter, Margaret, to a successful businessman, Henry Vesper.
The Vespers are a family that owns a textile business, one that caters to the lower classes, and as such the company will also manage to stay afloat during the market crash by still finding a market for their more cheaply priced products in an economy in which few have the ability to pay for anything but the most meager commodities. Henry and Margaret hate one another, though they seem to share an affliction with one another. Margaret’s father suffered a psychotic break when he was a child, and as Margaret and William’s diaries seem to indicate, that mental illness is one that will eventually claim Margaret’s mind as well. Henry, likewise, as a result of contracting syphilis, struggles with dementia and psychotic episodes after the birth of his son. Both of these families, both old money and apparently new money, have a predisposition for madness.
It is unsurprising then that their issue, the son William, finds himself deteriorating mentally after the deaths of both Henry and Margaret. His emergence as “The Wolf of Black Lake” and his string of murders of lower class women, including prostitutes with dark hair, at once seems like an effort to avenge himself against a mother he hated and feared, the dark haired Margaret. However, it also seems to be a mantle that he has taken up from his own family heritage, as Margaret’s diaries frequently refer to her own father in his maddened state as a wolf seeking something to devour.
In a letter that William sends to his final victim the blonde haired Jazz singer, Selena, a woman he almost feels can save him from his dark past and insatiable need to kill, William explains his own nature, stating simply that “This country needs wolves as much as it needs game.”
It is in this moment in which the economic themes and these upper class families’ struggles with madness come together indicating what it is that Margaret, Henry, and William represent and what their madness represents, an insatiable hunger for wealth and the need to acquire it by using and consuming the lower class.
Two quotations from FDR appear as newspaper clippings quite early in the game, that, again, initially do not seem to directly connect to the ghost story that White Night seems interested in telling. Both of which are statements made by Roosevelt at the Democratic National Convention in 1936. The first of which is this:
For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor—other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.
Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people’s mandate to end it. Under that mandate it is being ended.
And the second of which is this:
These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.
The Ventner-Cross family in particular, but, the Vesper family as well, represent the “economic royalists” that FDR speaks of (which also, somewhat ironically, is similar to Roosevelt’s own family, one of the oldest moneyed families in New York). Their “blindness” (and, indeed, Margaret literally suffered blindness near the end of her life) and “despotism” due to their “over-privileged” status as result of wealth “concentrated into their own hands [allowing] an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor,” leading to the near ruin of the whole of the American economy, the ruin of their own fortunes in many cases, and the ruin of the livelihoods of the labor classes that served them.
William, the wolf that devours himself through the symbolic act of devouring his mother through the consumption of lower class women, is the issue of a deranged, blind upper class that holds all of the control over the means of production in the country, and one that may recklessly destroy themselves as they consume others.
Many stories of horror have often been seen as as cautionary tales, stories intended to serve as warnings against doing foolish things by representing the consequences of such in the most brutal ways possible. The risk of Red Riding Hood being devoured by the wolf that roams the woods, for example, is a violent cautionary tale warning children to not talk to strangers. White Night, it would seem, is a cautionary horror story of its own, but one intended for adults, one that wants us to consider who the wolves might be when it comes to our labor, our finances, and our livelihood.
While, perhaps, the story of the market crash of ‘29 might be a sufficient cautionary tale itself, assuming we recall our own history, in an era in which Joseph E. Stiglitz’s claim that “1% of the people take nearly a quarter of the nation’s income“ (”Of the 1%, for the 1%, by the 1%”, Vanity Fair, May 2011) has been largely assumed by many to be a true statement about the current state of the American economy, Osome Studios seems to be making the argument that Americans may need to investigate their history a bit more to see if we still do remember all of the cautionary tales about wolves and the ruin that they leave in their wake that Americans have been told through their own past.