Horror Lexicon #17: Useless (Police) Authority

In real life, I have great respect for the police force, and for the men and women who patrol our streets, and protect and serve our communities. But the same cannot always be stated for horror movie policemen, who tend to represent what I term "useless authority."  

One of the core approaches of the horror genre involves making people feel alone and therefore vulnerable.  In the horror lexicon, the police force represents society, and society's attempt to enforce the law to keep people safe.  Therefore, in horror movies, the police are often dangerously ineffectual so that greater terror can be generated, and feelings of vulnerability can be enhanced.

Going back as far as The Blob in 1958, the police always seemed slow on the uptake. There, a gelatinous invader from another planet oozed its way through the population of a small American town, and the local police could only pin the blame on teenager Steve McQueen and his buddies.

One cop, in particular, held a grudge against teenagers because his wife had been killed by a teen driver, and so concocted all kinds of reasons why McQueen must by lying, or culpable. The result was that by the time the town police marshaled a response to the Blob, many folks had already unnecessarily died.  In the end, it was up to McQueen's character, also named Steve, to save the day with some quick thinking regarding fire extinguishers.  In fact, he had to create a civil disturbance (by getting his teenage friends to honk their car horns...) to even get the police force's attention.

Over the years and decades, the face of useless (police) authority didn't much change. In Gremlins (1984), for instance, the police were also slow to respond to Billy Peltzer's (Zach Galligans) warnings about the dangerous Mogwai. Finally, even when faced with the monsters themselves, the police were unable to mount a meaningful defense against the critters. 

Policemen in horror films also regularly fail to recognize the dangers posed by vampires (Fright Night), serial killers (Halloween, Friday the 13th Part VI) and other monsters. The idea underlining each of these examples is that the bad guy cannot be neutralized by the law. That's the Final Girl's job, right?

Sometimes horror movies play wickedly with the tropes of the police and useless authority. In Wrong Turn (2003), for instance, a trooper shows up just in time for the climax, and audience hopes are raised that he will save the day. But the in-bred hill-billies quickly kill him in cold blood, dashing those hopes.  So much for law enforcement...

In other films, such as Cabin Fever (2002) and the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), the police not only fail to prove helpful, but are actually complicit in the evil that seems to be running amok in their districts. Once more, the notion is that you must trust yourself, not the safeguards of society, if you hope to survive a horror film.

Many horror films of the police procedural variety have featured heroic policemen, it is true, including Se7en (1995), The Bone Collector (1999), and Resurrection (1999).Semi-heroic policemen (Dewey in the Scream films) also appear regularly, but in the slasher films in particular, you must reasonably expect that help is most decidedly not on the way.

My favorite hapless, useless policemen in the slasher milieu has to be Deputy Charlie (Troy Evans) in Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers. Charlie has been tasked with protecting young Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris) in the Myers House. Sheriff Meeker and Dr. Loomis are using the child as bait, hoping that Michael will return to the original scene of the crime to go after his niece.  In a nice, well-shot scene, Deputy Charlie speaks encouragingly and lovingly to Jamie, telling her to stay strong.  He's there to protect her.  What could go wrong?  What a nice guy...

But when Michael Myers shows up at the door, Charlie proves utterly hapless with a gun. With Michael bursting in, Charlie gets Jamie to safety (which is something, anyway...) but can't get a clean hit on the guy. We actually see all the bullets go astray against the door-frame.  The explicit message: Charlie can't even shoot straight. Jeez, we already know how hard it is to kill Michael when you actually hit him, but this guy is way out of his league.  Dirty Harry he ain't.

Accordingly, Michael offs poor deputy Charlie in short order...and the last we see of him he's swinging from the second floor of the Myers house on a rope.

If Charlie is my favorite example of useless authority, the most infuriating ones must come from Last House on the Left (1972). In that violent but socially valuable Wes Craven classic, two policemen played by Martin Kove and Marshall Anker actually run out of gas on the way to the Collingwood house, where lives are in jeopardy.  After walking on a country road for a longtime, they must hitch a ride on a  slow-moving chicken truck...

By the time the police finally do arrive, some lives have been ended (brutally) and other lives have been permanently shattered. The police in this film absolutely boil my blood because of their incompetence, and  indeed that's part of director Craven's point  He builds-up an escalating sense of blood-lust in the film and then defuses it all at the end with the worthwhile realization that violence solves nothing.  The road leads to nowhere.  The castle stays the same...

But gee whiz, the accumulated message of all this useless authority is this: If you're living in a horror movie, you better not wait for the cavalry to ride in. Instead of relying on law enforcement, save yourself!


  1. There is another side to useless authority, though I'm not coming up with examples. Societal authority runs on rules. And rules can be evaded, either serendipitously or deliberately. So there are cases where authority cannot help. Their hands are tied. Which usu usually good, as we don't really want to give authority the power to corrupt absolutely. And that sort of useless authority then underscores that the protagonist has to go it alone.


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