Does the horror film “You’re Next” portend the end of America?

Anyone familiar with Rene Girard and mimetic theory will know that one of the signals you’re reading a persecution text–a text that seeks to obscure or distort communal violence against a sacrificial victim–is a breakdown in distinctions necessary to the social order. This leads to a crisis situation, because if such distinctions dissolve, the community is now vulnerable to the runaway violence the social order was designed to constrain.

The story of Oedipus is a perfect example. A plague has descended upon Thebes. In mythic texts, plagues, fires and floods are like a code indicating that society is about to be overwhelmed by runaway violence. In order to avert disaster, the cause of the breakdown must be found. More often than not, this leads to the second stereotype of persecution: accusations against a victim (or victims) who is found guilty of committing crimes that have lead to the societal breakdown. In the case of Oedipus, he is accused of both patricide and incest, clear violations of the social order.

Such accusations are often followed by the third stereotype of persecution: depictions of the culprit as something less than human or perhaps even as a parahuman–a combination of man and beast. Classic examples include the Minotaur, the werewolf and witches, who were purportedly able to transform themselves into various animal forms. According to Girard, this blurring of the lines between man and beast is another dead giveaway that the social structure is crumbling. Seeking to restore order, the community’s anxieties collect around the sacrifice of the victim or scapegoat, in the hope that his or her death or exile will end the crisis and restore order.

With this background in mind, I find it interesting to consider the upcoming home invasion horror film You’re Next, which comes out August 23rd. According to early press materials, it’s about a family reunion gone horribly wrong when a group of axe-wielding murderers dressed in animal masks crashes the party. Little do the murderers realize one of the family members–a young woman–is about to unleash her own lethal versions of the anti-theft devices McCaulay Culkin mastered in the Home Alone movies.

While home invasion movies and masked mass murderers are nothing new, the animal masks struck me as something distinctive, especially in light of Girard’s persecution stereotypes. Clearly, the filmmakers mean to portray the murderers as sub-human or even parahuman. Consider the tagline “This August, the animals will hunt… you.”

Having spotted one stereotype of persecution, it’s only natural to look for others. I haven’t seen the film, but I’m guessing the family is probably undergoing some kind of crisis, which this reunion brings to a head. The social order is breaking down, and I’m willing to bet the female antagonist is being blamed for the discord. However, the murderous attack unites the family against the killers, thus enabling them to overcome their internal conflicts and restore order. So while the killers start out victimizing the family, eventually they become sacrificial victims themselves. (Note that one of the killers wears a lamb mask. A sacrificial lamb, perhaps?) And the family can feel good about killing the murderers, because their deaths are completely justified in light of the killers’ horrific acts against the family. A classic persecution narrative.

Seeing as I have no idea what motivated the killers to act out in the first place (Were they victimized by the family or one of the family members in the past?), there really is no way to referee such claims and counter-claims of innocence and victimization. But it does make me think of the connection John Pahl draws between dominance and innocence in his book Empire of Sacrifice, where he notes that “Those who dominate and win try to find ways to prove their innocence,” hence the need for persecution texts, which seek to obscure or distort the community’s violence against the scapegoat by blaming the victim. Like most violent conflicts, I suspect what we’ll find here are competing victim narratives with both sides depicting the conflict in a way that justifies their violence.

Pulling back from the literal home invasion scenario, I wonder what this story represents on a metaphorical level. Seeing as works of art often manifest collective hopes and fears of which even the artists themselves may not be aware, what’s actually lurking behind the horrific events depicted in this film? Could the idyllic family retreat represent America and the home invaders some kind of foreign threat? I find it telling that one of the terrified family members says, “Why would anybody do this?” That sounds eerily similar to post-9/11 questions of “Why do they hate us?” This is the perfect family enjoying the perfect weekend together. For them to enjoy such idyllic comfort, who is paying the price? Have they finally come to collect? Is this a film that subconsciously seeks to justify violence against anyone who would dare to puncture America’s idyllic self-image or, worse, use the very tools that assure or represent America’s dominance against them?

Or, to take things in another direction, does this film speak to our fear that the veneer of civilization masks an animalistic propensity for violence that the slightest provocation will unleash? (The screenshot to the left seems to suggest such a connection.) Until I see the film, I can only speculate. But viewed through this lens, even the title seems to portend an end to American hegemony.

At any rate, I find it increasingly instructive to apply mimetic theory to literature, film and actual world events, which is why I’m planning to make it the focus of my next film project, a four-part documentary mini-series tentatively called “Violence & the Sacred.” If this post whets your appetite, I strongly encourage you to investigate mimetic theory for yourself. This radio series is a great place to start.

About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" and "After..." In addition to his work in film, Miller has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.

  • No Surrender

    If they had the guns my family does this would have been settled in short order.

  • http:/www.bradmchargue.com Brad

    You just attempted to dissect a film you haven’t even seen yet. You have no idea what the movie is actually about other than it being a home invasion thriller, and every point you try to make is predicated upon a two-minute trailer.

    This piece is pointless.

  • Don

    Gotta agree with Brad. Excellent piece but ultimately pointless as the guesses you’re making about the film are nowhere close to what actually happens in the film.

    I wish these theories would be applied to something you’ve seen, interesting stuff!

    • Kevin Miller

      Excellent AND pointless? I don’t think I’ve ever received such a mixed message. :) I will endeavor to apply this POV to films I’ve actually seen. Stay tuned.

  • Don

    Kevin-
    I dig philosophical readings on all films, particularly horror but having seen YOU’RE NEXT, I also know you’re waaaay off base in this piece. And I say that sadly as I wish you were right! You’ll see what I mean when you see the film ;-)

    • Kevin Miller

      Well, I have done some digging around and found out that the attack on the family is likely an inside job, which is something I wondered about from the trailer (and the DVD player is still a mystery to me). So yes, I’m probably standing all alone out there in left field. At any rate, I’m now quite eager to see the film. Thanks for the note.

  • Gordon Savage

    Kevin,

    Your planned documentary is great news. Since I started reading Girard a few years ago, it struck me as obvious that someone should explain Mimetic Theory using those visual media that are, ironically, already unconsciously structured under the assumptions of mimetic desire (is there a better description of a Girardian Model of Desire than Howard & Mabley’s screenwriting maxim about the movie Protagonist being “somebody who wants something very badly and is having great difficulty getting it”?). Everything to advertising to film to reality television to how you structure a sports broadcast to seduce audience into wanting to see how it ends — all of these end up explicating Girard.

    I’ve even spent some time bating my documentary filmmaker friends into pursuing it — the problem being getting them past that initial threshold of understanding Girard. The whole idea of “mimetic desire” appears so banal at first, then, when the implications hit you like a two by four, it rocks your world and doesn’t stop. Alas, to understand it in any depth, you have to be willing to go through the kind of “conversion” Girard talks about in Deceit, Desire & the Novel. That’s a hard sell in L.A.

    I hope you include some interviews with Gil Bailie, since he’s probably done the most to tease out the implications of Girard sans the cautious rhetoric of the academy. They tend to be a little sheepish about that 800 lb gorilla in Girardian theory: that its chief implication is that the Cross of Jesus is the decisive moment in human history. But then I’m sure you know that already.


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