‘Parasite’ and the rise of Revolutionary Gothic

An emergent genre explores how class conflict is always part ghost story, and how the only answer is insurrection.

‘Parasite’ and the rise of Revolutionary Gothic

An emergent genre explores how class conflict is always part ghost story, and how the only answer is insurrection.

Of all the lines ever written about economic theory, probably none is as chillingly vivid as Marx’s metaphor in Capital: “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” It might be Marx’s greatest literary turn. In precisely encapsulating an idea, he also manages to invoke a feeling: Capitalism makes us feel haunted, whether by our own alienation and precarity, the specter of the exploited other, or just a sense that the sins of the past and present can’t go unreckoned forever. Capitalism produces ghosts, and they’re getting harder for all of us to ignore. Is there a way out of the haunted house?

In the middle of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a poor family succeeds in taking over the home of a rich family. [Spoilers follow] It’s only for a night or two, but it’s the victory the audience has waited for ever since we met the desperate yet wily Kims, and watched them infiltrate the household of the decadent and oblivious Parks. All four Kims have been hired in various domestic roles, through subterfuge that obscures the fact that they’re a mother, father, daughter, and son unit intent on defrauding their employers. Now, the Parks have gone camping, and the Kims lay claim to the brightly-lit, hyper-modern house that strikes such a dramatic contrast to the dingy basement apartment where they normally dwell.

As the Kims luxuriate and drink themselves silly, the night grows dark and stormy. We’ve been worried about the fate of their so-far flawless plan — when will the Parks discover that they’re being conned? What dooms the Kims is not their rich employers suddenly showing up, but the revelation that the house is literally haunted. Not by a ghost, but by the husband of Moon-gwang, the housekeeper the Kims got fired as part of their takeover — his wife had kept him hidden in a secret panic room beneath the house since before the Parks moved in. Soaked by rain as though she’s crossed a thundering Victorian moor, Moon-gwang returns and frees her husband, Geun-sae. Once the housekeeper and her long-hidden husband discover that the Kims are not whom they’ve pretended to be, they begin to wreck the family’s plans. Things soon spiral beyond the control of any one character, driven at first by intra-class scrabbling, and then by straightforward inter-class warfare.

Parasite is a difficult movie to classify. Part psychological thriller, part horror, part dark comedy, part two-dimensional parable, it’s both strikingly original and immediately familiar. It’s also extremely funny, aiming its droll disdain not so much at the characters as at their circumstances. We do care about the Kims, but by the end we don’t much believe in their individual agency. They strive for it, but it’s always being snatched away by curses laid down long before any of them entered the house. What do we do with a movie that assaults our conventions from so many directions?

Revolutionary Gothic is less about the inevitability of overthrow than the inevitability of rupture, of all that haunts us coming back for a reckoning.

Bong Joon-ho has given us a story that demands its own category, a genre we might call Revolutionary Gothic. In Revolutionary Gothic, the classic elements of the gothic are in place — a fixation on haunting and ghosts, the overbearing influence of past sins and curses, grieving for what’s lost, as well as a looming sense of foreboding and dread for what might come. Gothic storytelling has always had a strong interest in class, seen most strikingly in Heathcliff’s rejection and revenge in Wuthering Heights. Novels as different as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! have been classified as gothic at the same time as they’ve provided generations of readers with a rich vein of material analysis.

What’s different about Revolutionary Gothic is that it takes class hierarchy and struggle out of the ethereal realm of the thematic and into the viscerally literal. In Parasite, the brooding sense of dread comes not from supernatural possibility, but from material reality. The ghosts are not the specters of scorned lovers, but living people who have been pushed down below. These ghosts are very real, resisting the distancing of “symbol” even as they stand for so much.

Parasite might be the most fully realized example of Revolutionary Gothic, but just like the unsuspecting Parks in their gleaming house, it’s not alone. Back in March, Jordan Peele followed up his wildly acclaimed directorial debut Get Out with Us, a movie that also features a literal underclass rising up from the depths to stage a reckoning. In Us, seemingly every person in the United States has a doppelganger that lives in underground tunnels, shadowing the movements of their counterpart in the daylight realm. These subterranean others wear carceral jumpsuits, and lead much poorer, emptier lives than those living in the sun. When they come to the surface, it’s not in peace.

Us cloaks itself in ambiguity where Parasite impales us with finely honed conclusions. I loved Peele’s movie, but I’m still unpacking exactly why. It works to collapse the distance between self and other by staging a violent collision between literal incarnations of the two. It also folds in distinctly American themes of racial caste and rampant imprisonment, yet its many highly-specific yet often shadowy signifiers — why all the rabbits? — make it a mysterious film that risks leaving us wondering what it wants to say. In contrast, Parasite is crystalline enough that a global audience could understand what Bong intended as a specifically Korean story because “we all live in the same country, called capitalism,” as he said in a viral interview.

Interpreting Parasite and Us in tandem, regardless of their differences, helps us understand crucial and complicated elements they share. In both movies, the violence enacted by the subterranean specters is emotionally and morally fraught — exactly who deserves to suffer or die like this, and why? Is it doing anyone any good? Once we understand these movies as Revolutionary Gothic, it becomes clear that’s the wrong question. We’d have to start with: Why wouldn’t we expect spectacular violence to erupt from the hidden violence of forcing human beings underground? Why would we expect the ghosts we’ve created not to haunt us?

Such violence may not be successful in destroying the dominant order; it may not even be coherent. Parasite makes a series of intricate moves with its characters’ insurrectionary impulses: Geun-sae nurtures an unhinged love for the patriarch of the Park family, to whom he sends a series of increasingly deranged, wholly unreceived Morse code messages from his basement cell. When Geun-sae emerges from his dungeon, he genuflects to his idol Mr. Park, even as the circumstances that have led him to revere the man collapse all around him. In the end, it’s the father of the Kim family, Ki-taek, who stabs Mr. Park to death. There are many reasons that lead to this final murder, but the most immediate is the consuming rage Ki-taek feels when he sees that Mr. Park finds the body of Geun-sae — a man who died gasping out his respect for his perceived better — repulsive and stinky.

Here, violence is less a clean solution to oppression than a messy response to despair and desperation. The violence doesn’t even necessarily disrupt the hierarchies it responds to, as we see in Parasite’s catharsis-denying ending. Revolutionary Gothic is less about the inevitability of overthrow than the inevitability of rupture, of all that haunts us coming back for a reckoning. These stories don’t try to comfort us with victory; they unsettle us with the implications of ongoing defeat.

Other stories have played with the possibilities of the genre that Peele and Bong have fully embraced. In its first season, True Detective bewitched viewers with a tale of elite corruption and exploitation that was both sickening and mystical. Rust Cohle set out to avenge ghosts that didn’t, at first, have anything to do with him. It all sunk in deeply with viewers, if Rust’s second life as an ever-present online meme is any indication. Westworld has also touched on elements of Revolutionary Gothic — a brooding obsession with past sins, channeled into collective revolt.

Revolutionary Gothic doesn’t so much urge violence as it admits that you can’t have class hierarchy without conflict. Anyone who’s been arrested for jumping a turnstile or protesting an oil pipeline will already be intimately aware of this fact — it’s the rest of us who need to sit through the shattering of the myth that class divisions can exist without ongoing violence. If Bong is right that we all live in the same country, then we also all live in the same haunted house. The thing about ghosts is that they don’t really go away, even when you can’t see them.

Connor Wroe Southard is a writer and the cohost of the science fiction podcast Podside Picnic.