What happens when laws of society are annually broken down for twelve straight hours by the very institution that created them?
This is the question explored by The Purge (2013), a film that depicts a few hours of legalized bloody sacrifice in exchange for a near perfect society for the rest of the year. Even though The Purge has its own twisted mixture of surprise and stupidity, it’s still something to consider if you’re looking for a uniquely disturbing thriller.
The film’s premise is this: In the year 2020, the United States is a near perfect society – unemployment and crime rates hit an all-time low. This societal accomplishment is made possible by a night called “the Purge” – an annual event that suspends all emergency services and legalizes all kinds of crime, including murder, for twelve straight hours. The logical basis follows that people kill others during the purge in order to vent out their hateful desires to those who have done them wrong and who do not contribute to society.
The film revolves around the wealthy Sandin family who tries to survive the night. The story picks up as the youngest son allows a stranger inside their house and freakishly masked people start invading the house in search of their prey.
While the movie offers a philosophical hint that human beings are inherently evil, it actually tackles two interesting issues for sociological inquiry: social control and class conflict.
In a highly speculative scenario in which the citizenry regulates itself without the consequences of punishment, we ask: How does society rely on unconventional forms of social control?
Social control, in its simplest definition, is a collection of efforts designed to ensure the conformity of people to a norm. It is a form of response when people go against widely accepted behavior – just think of the fine you pay when you violate traffic rules.
The Purge brings this definition of social control to a new level. While people conform because of the fear of punishment or because norms have been so internalized as to become self-control, the movie shows how fear itself becomes institutionalized as a type of social control to quell social ills. Citizens fear the existence of the annual “purge,” which is not a form of punishment, but a condition of normlessness in which there is actually no punishment. As such, the purge becomes a new kind of tool to control the population. It prompts an internalized sense of restraint on the citizens’ actions towards other people in anticipation of long-term consequences.
For instance, the interactions of citizens become somehow contrived in that they are driven to be good-natured to one another, with the idea that somebody might come after them during the night of the purge. People who rely on the purge seek the approval of others. They regulate their behavior and avoid offending others so that they will not be affected during the purge.
In the midst of the question on social control, class conflict is also a prevalent theme as the film is driven by the “rich vs. poor” tension all the time. The antagonistic group of masked “purgers” who invade the Sandin house is determined to capture the male stranger who was granted entry. These purgers believe that the male stranger is a “useless pig” who deserves to die.
The movie shows how the interests of the haves are played out in the bigger picture. During the purge, the elites utilize this government-sanctioned orgy of violence by killing the have-nots as they believe these people are a burden on everyone else. This somehow mirrors one of the common beliefs of having a “purge” in the first place – that the poor are usually the ones who are more prone to committing crimes given their limited resources and opportunities.
Karl Marx’s depiction of class conflict illustrates that the masses are the ones who should wage an armed struggle against the ruling class (or the rich), but The Purge ironically boasts a perversion of his idea. Instead, we see how the ruling class eliminates everyone under their wing with bullets and blades. It is like witnessing an elite protest where conflicting interests are pitted against each other. Even in a state of normlessness, we see that anarchy remains at the mercy of the elites.
Ultimately, The Purge attempts to satisfy the satirical carnage and hunger for insanity of its viewers. But in its quest to do so, we are faced with a lot of questions that reflect the larger society. How will social relationships be affected after every purge? Would crime really be reduced if we legalize it once a year? Does the purge really embody certain norms of correctness that grant society’s physical survival?
Perhaps there’s only one way to find out.