It was a dark and stormy November night. An icy wind whistled through leafless moonlit trees. A loud thud is followed by a piercing scream. A lone figure emerges from the mist, bloodied and weary, but victorious. Coming to your hometown, Tuesday November 3rd.
This year has brought the usual ration of menacing slasher movies that inexplicably compel us to spend billions at the box office just to be scared out of our seats. It is possible that we are collectively trying to find something more pulse pounding and heart stopping than opening the bills. Here, in New Jersey, we don’t have to go to the movies to get our dose of ghouls and goblins, as the governor’s race is giving us all an unhealthy, unwelcome dose of good old American horror.
Unlike last year’s Presidential election and Obama’s victory, this governor’s race is not about hope. In fact, it seems to be all about the opposite of hope–fear. The campaign messages by the candidates shriek dire economic warnings: Christie is a heartless George Bush clone with no budget plan who will slash health care, eliminate mammograms, side with insurance companies over the people and destroy the middle class without flinching. Corzine is an untrustworthy Wall Streeter who doesn’t care about regular New Jerseyans; a tax-raising spender who will drive businesses out of the state faster than a priest can exorcise a demon. Cue the howling.
Early in the game, the Corzine campaign identified the need to scare voters about Chris Christie to drive his negatives up. They have done an exceptional job, with admittedly good material to work with and a surprisingly thin-skinned candidate to batter. The Christie campaign, on the other hand, has played it far too safe. Like the babysitter who squeals when the phone rings again but stays put the when the caller-killer says “I’m calling from inside the house”, Christie’s campaign has illogically stuck with their “white knight” strategy while Corzine repeatedly stabbed through their armor.
Both Christie and Corzine’s campaign commercials have the usual foreboding music and grainy images of each other the public has come to expect in political ads. Eerie black and white video of a zombie-like Christie standing alone staring into the abyss and slowly clapping at nothing. Corzine has been portrayed as an evil vampire lurking Wall Street’s gilded halls who has come across the river to suck the lifeblood out of Main Street. Cue the bloodcurdling screams.
Maybe the candidates are holding a dusty mirror to the emotions of a recession-weary electorate suffering actual dread as family members and friends lose jobs, go bankrupt, and fall prey to health care crises or foreclosures. It can be no mistake that two of this year’ top-grossing and frightening films are set in and about suburban, middle class America. In the terrifying “Paranormal Activity”, a young couple buys a ‘starter home’ only to find it terrifyingly possessed by a demonic presence. We are no longer safe in our own homes (foreclosures, predatory lenders). Meanwhile, in “Stepfather”, a young man returns from military school to find that his single mother is happily in love with a seemingly all-too-perfect boyfriend-a husband and father wannabe who turns out to be–spoiler alert–a vicious killer. We cannot trust strangers with our family.
Fear sells movies and it drives up television ratings. And, for better or worse, fear dominates elections. We can’t seem to look away. It’s what we remember when all else fades. Recently, the nation held its collective breath, as we stayed glued for hours to our screens watching a silver-spaceship helium balloon careening through the air fearing that a small child was held perilously aloft. Fear captivates, and sadly, unites us.
If the opposite of hope is fear, the opposite of change is safety. Christie’s message has been about change but it has not been about hope. He has relentlessly focused on how bad things are in New Jersey on nearly every front without providing the people with real and specific answers about how he will make things better. His message of change without hope has seemed to push voters, who have lost much already, to fear losing even more. Helped immeasurably by repeat visits from President Obama, Corzine’s safety message, in part, is that the devil you know, one who wears a sweater vest, is safer than the one who is unknown and unknowable.
Horror films, like this year’s governor’s race, are a chilling reminder that we are vulnerable n our own homes, that trusting strangers can be very dangerous, even those strangers who appear to be the perfect father or husband-to-be. In the end, the election promises to be a nail biter and, like any good film, has a plot twist. The “law and order” candidate who was supposed to save the state from economic ruin and charge forcefully to victory is recast as the menacing villain. As he trudges across what many believed to be his opponent’s political grave, a hand reaches up through the dirt, and grabs his ankle. Whether that hand is Daggett’s or Corzine’s or Obama’s, we don’t know. But, at the end of the movie, a bruised but still breathing Corzine walks the State House halls for four more years.