Posted on June 23, 2020

Horror Fans, Don’t Call the Cops!

Sara McCartney

What do you think of when you think of the police? Do you think of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and many more Black people who should be alive today? Do you think of the brutal police responses that have interrupted peaceful protests around the nation?[1] Do you think of your favorite television show? Entertainment, from buddy cop movies to gritty thrillers to police procedurals to detective dramas, have shaped our perception of law enforcement, sometimes under the direction of actual precincts.[2] And if you’re following the news, the incongruency between the real-life police and their fictional equivalents is impossible to ignore.

One of the reasons I love horror is because it’s very good at not taking the status quo for granted. The best horror unmoors us from our assumptions about the world. As calls to abolish the police enter the American mainstream, it’s time for us to rethink our familiar narratives about cops, and that’s where horror comes in, because the cops you’ll find in horror movies aren’t quite what you’ll see in Law and Order.

There are those horror stories that trust in the status quo, of course. Theorist Robin Wood noted a divide among horror films of the 1970s; there were larger-budget studio films that reinstated traditional values, and then there were their lower-budget, less reputable indie counterparts, which didn’t.[3] Some later horror-thriller hybrids, like Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), followed the former camp. The film’s climax culminates in the heroine, an FBI agent in training, fatally shooting the gender deviant villain, and it’s presented in such a way that no reasonable person could object to her actions. Like Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s NYPD,[4] the FBI of Silence is shown as imperfect – the heroine faces more than her fair share of bad behavior from her male colleagues – but fundamentally reformable, in no small part through the recruitment of women like her. Other films in the same genre niche are less confident in their systems of power. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007), for example, focuses on the institutional failures that hindered the real-life investigation of the titular serial killer. And it’s that sense of skepticism that characterizes the bulk of horror’s attitude to the police and authority more broadly.

Clarice Starling, FBI

Take the British folk horror classic The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973), for example. Scottish police officer Sergeant Howie arrives on the pagan island of Summerisle to search for a missing girl and soon becomes convinced that the islanders plan to sacrifice her. But it turns out that Howie was dead wrong. The islanders indulged his fantasies of his own heroism to trick him. The girl was in no danger from her community; foolish Howie is the real sacrifice. The Korean film The Wailing (Na Hong-jin, 2016) follows Jong-goo, a police officer who tries to protect his village from a demon that wants to claim his daughter as its next victim. Things don’t work out. The film’s heart-wrenching ending finds the deranged Jong-goo repeating his failed promise to his daughter that because “Daddy’s a policeman” everything will be all right. Even if, as reformists love to claim, bad policing were the work of “a few bad apples” – and neither the rageful and culturally insensitive Howie nor the vigilantism-inclined Jong-goo are models of good policework – these films posit that there are problems the system isn’t equipped to address.

Sergeant Howie addresses a skeptical audience

 But nothing cemented the horror cliché of the useless cop quite like the slasher film. The slasher cop resembles nothing so much as the cop comedy of early Hollywood, “inept buffoons to be mocked.”[5] A whole generation of horror fans were encouraged to identify with white suburban protagonists who, when facing deadly peril, found the police to be no use at all. The slasher cop might be benignly useless, like the skeptical and ineffectual Sheriff Brackett of Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). He might be belittling, like the officer who laughs off Charley Brewster’s fears of vampires in Fright Night (Tom Holland, 1985). He might be comic relief, like the lovable Deputy Dewey of the Scream franchise. Or he might be actively harmful, like Nancy’s police sergeant father in A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984), who barricades her in their home in the mistaken conviction that the danger comes from outside. But even at his most well-meaning, he’s never the hero of the story.

One of Deputy Dewey’s many brushes with death, this one from Scream 2

Cop stories feed an important cultural appetite. As journalist Alyssa Rosenberg puts it, they’re “the place where we face down whatever crimes frighten us most in a given era and grapple with what we want from the cops who are supposed to stop those crimes.”[6] Horror stories scratch the same itch; they allow us to face our cultural fears, even when they are distanced from reality and masked in allegory. The hero of the cop story is an aspirational figure who restores order for civilians. Horror heroes are above all relatable, ordinary people whose lives are interrupted by danger and terror that they could never have expected and who have to solve their problems themselves. This offers narrative space to talk about cultural fears outside of what journalist Kathryn VanArendonk calls “a police’s-eye perspective […], prioritizing the victories and struggles of police over communities being policed.”[7] It’s also scarier; viewers are invited to imagine that this could happen to them. Not to mention, the state can’t swoop in to manage the danger. In horror stories, our traditional authorities have failed us.

Abandoned by their trusted institutions, the slasher protagonist must rely on untraditional authority or, just as likely, their own wit to make it through the movie. When Nancy struggles against Freddy Kreuger with nothing but booby traps and courage, it’s because of a threefold failure of the powers white suburban teens are taught to rely on – the parents, teachers, and police who failed to protect their kids from Freddy in the first place, the justice system that mishandled Freddy’s case, and the parents’ vigilante justice that still failed to eliminate the danger. The film, like so many slashers, harbors a profound mistrust in the power of traditional forms of authority to keep people safe.

Nancy handles it herself

In Fright Night, after Charley is laughed off by a cop, he turns to the unlikely resource of washed-up horror star Peter Vincent. The ensuing scene, as the skeptical Peter accompanies Charley to the vampire’s house to systematically prove there are no vampires to be found, could be viewed as analogous to the kind of community intervention that activists promote as an alternative to getting the police involved, one that leaves guns (and stakes) behind.[8]

But of course, this is a horror movie, vampires are real, and the monster still has to be destroyed (at least until the sequel). Slasher movies still have good guys and bad guys, and still justify the violence that the good guys enact. And these stories don’t do a good job of capturing the terror the police can inflict when they escalate and execute. The worst that happens when Charley goes to the cops is an ego bruising. If this was real life, and the vampire and his roommate weren’t well-spoken, affluent white guys, it could’ve gone a lot differently. But to the audience, especially the white kids who probably see a lot of themselves in Nancy and Charley, the horror movie, especially the slasher, is a rare piece of counter-programming to the lessons so many of us were taught. If something seems weird, call 911. Trust cops. They’ll take care of it. But maybe, these movies whisper, they won’t.

Peter Vincent, using a different kind of weapon

As Black-led projects increasingly find their way to screens, horror fans can expect their favorite genre to take up the real-life horror of policing. Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) relies on distrust of the police in its already-famous ending, making viewers embrace a love of the TSA they never knew they had. Upcoming HBO series Lovecraft Country, with its prescient recent trailer, is poised to do just that. Some fans will complain that they don’t want politics mixed with their horror. But horror has always been political and has always viewed law and order with a skeptical eye. Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968), among the first truly modern horror movies, concludes with its Black hero, Ben, surviving the zombie hordes only to be shot dead by a marauding patrol of armed white men. Whether or not Romero intended it, the film’s final shots recall lynchings and the racist origins of American policing.[9] Night of the Living Dead warns its viewers that, for some, a return to the status quo is just as deadly as any zombie. Right now, we need narrative spaces to be skeptical of that status quo. Horror can do that. It must.

Ben, a hero

And remember, horror fans. Learn from Charley and Nancy. Don’t call the cops.








[1] Jamelle Bouie. “The Police are Rioting. We Need to Talk About It.” The New York Times. June 5, 2020.

[2] Jacqui Shine. “‘Dragnet was straight-up LAPD propaganda, on national TV for years.” Timeline. June 20, 2017.

[3] Robin Wood. “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 1970s.” Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, 1986. pp. 86

[4] Harry Waksberg. “Can Brooklyn Nine-Nine Ever Accurately Portray the NYPD.” Vulture, February 4, 2015.

[5] Constance Grady. “How 70 years of cop shows taught us to valorize the police.” Vox. June 3, 2020.

[6] Alyssa Rosenberg. “How Police Censorship Shaped Hollywood.” The Washington Post. October 24, 2016.

[7] Kathryn VanArendonk. “Cops Are Always the Main Characters.” Vulture. June 1, 2020


[9] Anna North. “How racist policing took over American cities, explained by a historian.” Vox. June 6, 2020.


Sara McCartney, an M.A. student at Lehigh University with a special interest in horror studies and queer studies. She’s loved horror since she convinced her parents to buy her Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark at the Scholastic book fair and used the illustrations to upset her friends. Currently, she’s spending quarantine with her girlfriend, watching a horror movie every day. Her favorite horror tropes are doppelgangers, scary woods, and female monsters.


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