BrainDead & the Horrors of Election 2016

Curator's Note

Discourse surrounding the 2016 presidential election cast Barack Obama as the antichrist, Hillary Clinton as Illuminati, and Donald Trump as Cthulhu, thus establishing public dialogue equating politicians with monsters – a theme developed in BrainDead, a science-fiction/ political-satire television series that premiered on June 13, 2016 on CBS - just weeks before the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. It followed Laurel Healy, a temporary constituency caseworker for her brother, a Senator who soon discovered Washington, DC invaded by alien bugs controlling the brains of Congresspersons and their staffs. Though canceled after one season, a four-season arc was planned for the bugs to spread from DC to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood.

Money is often the root of evil in political horror, from the maintenance of slavery in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to the annihilation of the lower-class in The Purge. BrainDead recreated the 2013 government shutdown against the backdrop of the 2016 Clinton/Trump election. The ensuing chaos raised questions about in/humanity with regards to the suffering of thousands of out-of-work capital-area residents at the whim of manipulative Senators – who literally became inhuman when possessed by the alien bugs. Turning politicians into physically perfected political zealots (creating a Stepford Wives meets House of Cards vibe), the insects further represented danger and duplicity in trusted institutions. The scariest moments were created because of unwitting vulnerability to the bugs, reflecting fears about public susceptibility to government corruption.

In 2016, The Economist proclaimed "the death of reason" in democracy, and contemporary horror, too, suggests that rationality is futile in chaos. BrainDead’s political horror highlighted both perspectives. Intelligent victims of the space bugs died when they resisted the corporeal invasion - their heads exploding into bloody goo - implying that thoughtful people cannot survive in DC politics. This was underscored when an infected Senator forced a piece of brain out his ear, equating mindlessness with political power.

Amidst the bugs and blood, the show’s humor was premised in how few people noticed high-profile politicians becoming brainless shells controlled by evil aliens, thus condemning democracy as a thoughtless, monstrous, push for unchecked power. While traditional monsters often represent social fears via the form of demonized Others, and the reclamation of power by the subjugated, in BrainDead monstrosity is instead used to indicate the inhumanity of politics-as-usual.


Very interesting post to start off the discussion. While Christina clearly lays out the 'death of reason' elements of the show that are connected to current discussions and anxieties around living in a 'post-truth' era, BrainDead's combination of those themes with the sense that people that you thought you knew are not who they think they are is what it makes it a particularly prescient text for our current moment. While this sense of mistaken identity/replacement has literally ancient roots (in tales of changelings, dopplegangers, etc.) and more modern iterations in media texts ranging from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" to "Westworld," it's interesting to think about how those narratives are shaping a number of more general current US political tropes across journalistic stories, social media, and personal conversations. These include "the shocking Trump voter" (often a close family member or friend who turns out to be "not who I thought they were" because of their vote/support for Trump and his policies) to longtime Republicans claiming that the Trumpite GOP "can't be who we are." I wonder if in some ways, narratives like BrainDead in fact provide a framework for absolving people of responsibility for these positions--it's not "really" a question of individual choice, the actual political program of a party, etc., but literally outside/alien forces exerting mind control and dictating actions. I would also add that this question of mistaken identity is a central component of a number of contemporary horror subgenres (i.e. the "uninvited guest" renaissance) and specific films (such as Get Out, It Follows, Hereditary, etc.). The connection between these elements--how feelings or fears about false or misunderstood identity challenges the very possibility of truth, reason, or a sense of reality or 'normalcy'--seems very relevant to me.

This is a fascinating post. I was especially interested in Christina's observation that "While traditional monsters often represent social fears via the form of demonized Others," the cultural function of the figure of the monster in BrainDead "is instead used to indicate the inhumanity of politics-as-usual." I agree that recent horror films like Get Out and It Follows are a timely response to the Trump Administration insofar as the possibility of truth and reason are called into question.

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