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[Culturology] The Purge: Primal Vitality, Homicidal Catharsis, or Both?

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What If?

If you had the opportunity to murder any person (or persons) you chose without the fear of punishment, would you take advantage? Could you suspend or eliminate any religious or moral scruples you may have in order to exact what you perceive to be justifiable homicide - or maybe even murder indiscriminately as a means of excreting some sort of unpalatable primal waste? Further more, if you were born into a world that sanctioned such action, would you even consider said action a sin, much less a crime?

Consider that you were a parent of any one of the victims in the recent atrocities that have set up seemingly permanent shop on CNN and Fox News. If your daughter had been abducted by an utter sociopath in Cleveland a decade ago and then repeatedly and systematically raped by her kidnappers over that same time period, and you had the opportunity to inflict vengeance on one of the perpetrators without recompense, would you cut off the flow of oxygen to their brains and other vital organs that they clearly don't deserve? Or would you practice restraint and forgiveness in accordance with the principles with which we've been indoctrinated in our "civilized" society?

How is it that human beings are able to suppress the natural propensity for committing fierce acts of violence that are clearly part of our genetic makeup? Have we so restricted this propensity through our supposedly sophisticated institutions of law and order that we are actually removing one of the defining characteristics of our humanity? Is violence necessary as a form of social catharsis, and, if so, how can we release these base needs without the world devolving into a chaotic and anarchic state? These seem to be the central questions being posed by the new film, The Purge, set to release on June 7th. 

The Narrative Landscape

The basic premise of the film, starring Ethan Hawke as security expert James Sandin and Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) as his on-screen wife, is that, one night a year, the American government suspends all emergency services and affords each citizen the right to commit whatever heinous crimes they wish (so long as they don't use weapons of mass destruction, certain fragment-producing explosives, or viral contagions) with total immunity for their actions.

Stories like this are never about an event, but rather the ideas that precipitate the event - and these ideas are always difficult to make sense of.

According to the trailer for the film, and its accompanying faux government website, The Purge, along with the rise of a new political party known as the New Founders of America, has been the primary cause for a near utopian revitalization of the United States. Crime rates are said to be at "an all-time low," immigrants are welcomed under the assumption that any "undesirables" will be organically eliminated during The Purge, and the unemployment rate is less than 1% - admittedly, this last bit of information has me scratching my head a bit, but it would seem that population control and new industry created by The Purge could plausibly have a significant effect on the number of jobless Americans.


On the evening of The Purge, Sandin and his family are huddled in the living room of their fortress-like home preparing to watch the events of the night play out on their television. (In this brave new world, even if citizens don't actively participate in this morbid holiday, they are expected to celebrate it as a show or patriotism. Not only that, but those that choose not to partake in the violence don't condemn those that do, but rather accept their actions as a meaningful and necessary cathartic undertaking.) When the Sandin's youngest child notices a man begging for help in the streets, the boy temporarily removes the barricades surrounding the house, allowing entry to the would-be prey. Obviously, this doesn't please the predators, and they now are focused on the Sandin residence as the source of their purge.

It appears that, from there, the movie devolves into a derivative re-imagining of Panic Room, but the basic premise of the film is fascinating regardless of whatever the immediate actions concerning the Sandins may involve. Stories like this are never about an event, but rather the ideas that precipitate the event - and these ideas are always difficult to make sense of.

Utopia = Dystopia

Like all good art dealing with notions of Utopia, the film seems to be built around the idea that Utopia is, and always will be, unattainable. Not only that, but any attempt to create a perfect society will inevitably collapse upon itself and result in a highly dystopian state. Utopia is itself a dystopian notion and, while the two exist on the opposite end of a logical spectrum, they are paradoxically one in the same. Even if we think we've finally found a solution to all of the problems that are attached to any advanced society, that solution will undoubtedly violate our basic human rights in some fashion and breed an entirely new set of problems.

Governments try to establish Utopia by establishing certain guidelines based on revolutionary concepts (the most famous of these being Sir Thomas More's removal of private property in his seminal work Utopia). The problem is that these new guidelines never exist in a vacuum. Every single thing we do, as individual citizens and as a unified nation, will have some sort of ripple effect, some sort of consequence or offspring resulting from our choices.

The Purge is not only a movie channeling our violent tendencies, but also one concerned with the implications this would have on the larger socio-political backdrop of life in the modern age.

For instance, information provided on the film's website alludes to some sort of political streamlining (i.e. forced integration, most likely in the form of a coup) that occurred not two years after the initial Purge. The New Founders of America have greatly reduced partisan politics by establishing what seems to resemble some sort of Darwinian/Libertarian consensus based on 17th century political policies in order to eliminate the problems plaguing 21st Century America and establish absolute autonomy, while preventing any backsliding. Somehow, random violence is the engine behind this political ethos. This isn't meant to be a political argument, just an attempt to show that replacing one political party creates entirely new sets of problems and changes nothing but the faces of our legislators.

An example of this exchanging one problem for another: In the film, one positive peripheral effect of The Purge is that poverty rates have sharply decreased. Along with this reduction in poor citizens, however, is a corresponding reduction in the enlistment rates of the national military. Therefore, the draft has been reinstated to compensate for declining recruits with the promise of promoting "civic responsibility in our youth" and to "better prepare them for purging at home." Any way you slice it, instituting a draft and forcing citizens to serve in the military against their will is a dystopian concept, especially when the impetus for the draft comes as a result of a government initiated program. So, it seems that The Purge is not only a movie channeling our violent tendencies, but also one concerned with the implications this would have on the larger socio-political backdrop of life in the modern age.

Socio-Evolutionary Ramifications

A purge involving 12 hours of unrepentant, unchecked violence seems like an isolated set of circumstances on the surface, at least temporally speaking, but it would likely have nearly unfathomable effects on almost every aspect of our humanity. If such an annual occurrence existed, we would begin to devote large portions of our daily lives to preparing for this one event mentally, physically, and spiritually. In short, it would become the defining ritual of our society.

If you had a pretty fair chance of dying a sudden horrific death during the Spring Equinox every year, you may begin to reexamine the path of your life. Indeed, our entire existence would revolve around the enormity of this single evening. The Purge would affect what professions we choose to pursue, how we select our mates, where we decide to live, how we maintain our health, our political beliefs, the nature of our relationships with friends and family, even the media we ingest. Forget the Super Bowl; who needs football when the entire world is turned into a war zone once a year?

We often talk about the survival of the fittest in an arbitrary fashion when discussing minor events like 7th grade gym class or promotional rivalries in the work place, but over time, this one event would begin to have a truly Darwinian impact on the human species. In an environment predicated on the need to kill to express your essence, the most savage would emerge victorious time and time again, establishing a very specific pattern. Those with an aptitude and propensity for violence would then breed, resulting in a society of individuals who place a premium on their skill as murderers. At some point down the evolutionary track, 12 hours wouldn't be enough to control the murder impulse threatening to boil over at any moment. This argument may seem oversimplified, but not if you take into account the fact that The Purge would influence every aspect of our lives.

At some point down the evolutionary track, 12 hours wouldn't be enough to control the murder impulse threatening to boil over at any moment.

In addition to these tangible problems, myriad existential issues would inevitably arise. In a world where life expectancy is not only unpredictable, but entirely subject to another person's opinion of you, life would become even more valuable and infinitely more perplexing. If our humanity had devolved to the point of murder as catharsis, how could we possibly make sense of any sort of theism or concepts as layered as the existence of the soul (as if this notion isn't already confusing and self-defeating enough).

Conversely, for the Purge enthusiast, myriad moral questions would inevitably arise as you struggle to gauge your actions against the reverence you have for your own life. Sociopaths are able to separate their bloodlust from their consciences, but the rest of us aren't. How can we expect to operate on a daily basis with collective vats of blood on our hands? It would be extremely difficult to teach our children how to operate with decorum and etiquette and then turn around and kill the neighbor's dog one sunny afternoon in late March.


The implications of the effect this could have on our daily interactions with others is difficult to consider. Imagine the anxiety that would come from simply pissing off a coworker over a seemingly innocuous water cooler conversation about last night's episode of Mad Men. For the next six months or so, you would be living in constant fear that you may be the target of his purge and attempt to act accordingly so as to pacify his heightening rage. ("No, you misunderstood me! I totally think that SCDP should merge with CGC, I just think Teddy Chaugh is kind of a ding bat.") Meanwhile, you'd be seeking out your own victim, all the while selfishly seeking to protect your own life and the lives of your friends and loved ones. Interpersonal relationships would dissolve in an acidic elixir of paranoia and mistrust, leaving us feeling more existentially lost than we already are, with our only solace being the opportunity to kill that kid that picked on us in high school.

Primal Vitality

It seems that the primary sub-textual meditation of this purge proposition is how life and death are related. How does the fear of death heighten our appreciation for life, and is it worth it to sacrifice our reverence for the latter merely to satiate our primal need for the former? Are we so out of touch with our own humanity that we have to revert to our pre-evolutionary savagery to satisfy an impulse?

I'm sure that the film will ultimately answer this last question with an emphatic no. Still, it's interesting that the world has devolved into such a chaotic, disorganized state of humanistic entropy that this movie actually feels quite relevant and that these sorts of questions need to be examined in the first place.


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