Denver Pop Culture Con 2019: Technophobia And Xenophobia In 1980’s Film

by Brendan M. Allen

The eighties was a time of new and rapidly advancing technology, but eighties films reflect a fear of new technology and xenophobia. This panel will discuss the fears in 80’s film and the new societal fears reflected in today’s film.

The eighties were a trip. Artificial hearts, floppy disks, MTV, AIDS, liposuction, Exxon Valdez, Canada was officially granted freedom from the UK… That’s real. Look it up. Canada Act. 1982. And the movies! So many great films came out of the eighties. The Goonies, ET: The Extraterrestrial, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Karate Kid (Justice for Johnny!), Stand by Me, The Princess Bride…
This panel, hosted by recent film school graduates Stanley Bain and Luke Galves, examines two of the fears held by American society in the eighties, as they were reflected in the popular movies of the day.
When I was scheduling the panels I would be covering at Denver Pop Culture Con 2019, I had no idea how much crossover there would be between the education panels, comics panels, and film panels. Many of the same ideas that Dr. Brad L. Duren brought up in his education panel “By The Dawn’s Early Fright: Teaching History With Horror Film” came up here again, completely independently.
Some of the eighties contextual events Stanley and Luke brought up were the release of Pac Man, the recognition of AIDS by the CDC, Reagan’s announcement of his Star Wars defense plan, Steve Jobs introducing the Macintosh home computer, Microsoft releasing Windows, CDs outselling vinyl records and cassette tapes for the first time, and the advent of the internet.

The world was rapidly changing and change is commonly met with healthy doses of fear. Machines were developing at a rate that made people uneasy, especially since they were far from user friendly. Nobody understood them.
My 6th grade teacher was deathly afraid of the Commodore 64 and the Mac in our classroom. She had no idea how the damned things worked. Neither did I. I was a smart kid, but come on, where in the hell would I have learned computer stuff? It was HER JOB to teach me. Anyway, every time one of those machines made a noise or looked at her funny, she’d send me back to “work on” them. I mashed buttons. I stared intently at bits around back. Sometimes, it would start working again, due in no part to anything I did. That lady thought I was a genius.
Internet? Holy hell! The whole world, connected, instantly? Sounds cool, but what if someone uses that connectivity to hurt others? Or, what if the tech got so advanced it became self aware and realized hoo-mans were the problem? These themes are easily recognized in films like War Games, Terminator, Robocop, and Superman III.

Xenophobia was thinly veiled in films like Alien Nation and Enemy Mine. Immigration in the eighties was expected to match or exceed the historic high mark set by the flood of nearly 9 million immigrants who reached American shores in the first decade of the century.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed, making it much harder for illegal immigrants to find work and thrive in the US. The same way that space aliens were analogous to Communists in 1950’s cinema, space aliens represented illegal immigrants in many eighties films.

Homosexuality and AIDS were huge scare buttons in the eighties. The AIDS epidemic was the greatest health scare the US had ever seen, and no one knew anything about it. Homophobic themes can be found in films like The Fly, Nightmare on Elm Street II, The Thing, and Teen Wolf.
In The Fly, the imagery of Jeff Goldblum wasting away, losing body parts, and puking his guts up all lean into the imagery of the AIDS scare. In The Thing, an unseen threat is transmitted by touch, and you can’t tell who’s been “infected” by looking at them. In Teen Wolf, there’s a “coming out” scene, where Scott is talking to Stiles, trying to share his big secret, and Stiles says “ Look, are you gonna tell me you’re a fag? Because if you’re gonna tell me you’re a fag, I don’t think I can handle it.” Scott’s response? “I’m not a fag. I’m… a werewolf.” As if nothing would be worse than being a homosexual, not even the fact the dude’s a literal monster.

“One can learn much about the culture of a society in a particular time and place by understanding what frightens that society.”  Examining eighties films through this lens, it’s pretty clear Americans were very uncomfortable with the technology boom, immigration, homosexuality, and AIDS.

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