The Success Of Society Run Amok: What Does 'The Purge' Say About Us? The fourth installment in the dystopian movie series comes out July 4. Neda Ulaby considers why this grim horror franchise resonates so strongly with audiences right now.
NPR logo

The Success Of Society Run Amok: What Does 'The Purge' Say About Us?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/625683415/625981013" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Success Of Society Run Amok: What Does 'The Purge' Say About Us?

The Success Of Society Run Amok: What Does 'The Purge' Say About Us?

The Success Of Society Run Amok: What Does 'The Purge' Say About Us?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/625683415/625981013" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The Purge films are about a large-scale psychological experiment: What if every year the country allowed one night of complete lawlessness? Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and Isaiah (Joivan Wade) star in the fourth installment of the series, The First Purge, which opens July 4. Annette Brown/Universal Pictures hide caption

toggle caption
Annette Brown/Universal Pictures

The Purge films are about a large-scale psychological experiment: What if every year the country allowed one night of complete lawlessness? Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and Isaiah (Joivan Wade) star in the fourth installment of the series, The First Purge, which opens July 4.

Annette Brown/Universal Pictures

What if, one night a year, all crime, including murder, was legal? That's the premise of an incredibly successful horror movie franchise set in the not-so-distant dystopian future. The idea of The Purge is: Let people blow off steam, and crime rates will go down. The fourth Purge installment — The First Purge — opens July 4.

The Purge films have, on average, made almost 2,000 percent of their budget at the worldwide box office. What is it about these stories of society-run-amok that keeps audiences coming back?

"It's a cool idea," says Grady Hendrix, an expert on horror literature and film. And cool ideas in movies can be hard to come by, so "when you find one, you may as well make as many sequels as you can," he says.

The Purge movies are in the tradition of the urban menace movies that were big in the 1970s, Hendrix explains — think Death Wish or Taxi Driver. The idea, Hendrix says, is that "our cities are just these horrible death traps and the second you let your guard down you'll get murdered by weirdos."

At a moment when gentrification has changed the conversation about crime on city streets, the power of The Purge also derives from an older horror trope — the idea of blood sacrifice — played out in The Hunger Games series and Shirley Jackson's classic short story "The Lottery." The idea is that "for a society to be healthy, you just have to kill people sometimes," Hendrix says.

The politics of The Purge haven't exactly been subtle. In one, the heroine is a crusading senator who calls out the National Rifle Association and insurance companies for profiting from the Purge.

In a 2013 promotional interview about the first Purge film, writer James DeMonaco says he purposefully made the backstory shadowy. "We kind of say that America was starting to crumble — crime, poverty, stock market crash, many wars — so everything kind of went haywire. [A] new government regime came in and got us back on track by creating the Purge."

The worst villains in the series tend to be wealthy elites who enjoy private manhunts and deem certain citizens — such as homeless people or political opponents — expendable in their "spring cleaning."

"Survival is the most important thing," Hendrix says, and that message resonates when so many people struggle just to make ends meet. In a climate where "safe spaces" are frequently ridiculed, the Purge is literally about having no space that feels safe: "There are no safe spaces," Hendrix says. "Your house isn't safe, your store isn't safe, your family isn't safe. There is nowhere you can go to get away from, or be protected from, someone who wants to get at you."

Numerous polls have found that Americans are feeling more divided than ever — so a story about losing common humanity feels relevant. Regardless of politics, The Purge movies share a sense of a decay of the American dream, and if horror movies serve as catharsis — and The Purge films live up to their name.