How James DeMonaco Created the Smartest Horror Franchise of the Century
From gun control to politics, The Purge always has something important to say if you’re willing to listen.
The same questions American opinion columnists, journalists, and pundits have asked over and over again about the last seven years of national politics also apply to the Purge horror movie franchise: How the hell did we get here?
Politics demand a complex answer, but the Purge series is a much easier solve. How did a humble home invasion picture about a wealthy family fending off psychotic socialites over the course of one night spawn four sequels, a TV show, and a sprawling cinematic dystopia? Simple: James DeMonaco got mad.
“I think my mindset infected the films deeply as I grew angrier and angrier at the politics that were unfolding inside the country,” DeMonaco tells Inverse.
The Purge, first released in June of 2013, feels removed from the sequels spawned from its success: 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy, 2016’s The Purge: Election Year, 2018’s The First Purge, and 2021’s The Forever Purge (plus a TV series, also titled The Purge, airing between 2018 and 2019 before USA unceremoniously pulled the plug). DeMonaco cooked up the original himself, directed the first 3 films, and to date has written all 5 of them (with a 6th script, completed before the WGA writer’s strike, marinating on the shelf).
Joining these stories together is a grim conceit. In the Purge’s alternate reality, a far-right political party, the New Founding Fathers of America, comes to power in 2014 and institutes an annual event called “the Purge.” Every March, for 12 hours (and heralded by pealing sirens) all crime becomes legal. While most people shelter in place, purgers take to the streets, bedecked in outre costumes and armed to the teeth, to blow off steam. Crime and unemployment tumble to one percent as a result of this state-sanctioned Grand Guignol. The economic benefits of both speak for themselves.
“There’s always an allegory.”
The Purge’s true purpose is the eradication of minorities and liberal-minded types, but the NFFA doesn’t say that little quiet part out loud. Instead, DeMonaco shoves the brutal fallout of the Purge to the forefront while framing each bacchanal with a not-so-subtle political message. The Purge is about gun control and American firearm fetishism. The Purge: Anarchy is about wealth and income inequality. The Purge: Election Year is about entrenched political power. The First Purge is about the targeting of disenfranchised people. And The Forever Purge is about the threat of armed insurgency in modern America.
“There’s always an allegory, hoping to put a mirror up to society to make a metaphorical, view of what's going on,” DeMonaco says, adding that those themes often overlap. “There was some stuff in the first one too, about the treatment of the disenfranchised in America.”
But with each expansion, these themes got to enjoy their time front and center in the spotlight. What this meant for DeMonaco, working out his political frustrations in each script, is an increase in blatant fiery social commentary in the Purge sequels.
“I think the sad truth is, they became more and more politicized,” DeMonaco confesses, “because I became angry and angrier at what I was seeing unfolding in the country.”
“The idea of a gun to me is just the scariest thing in the world.”
That the Purge series began as a treatise against American gun culture and has since blown up into an uncanny predictor of the nation’s social and political temperatures reads almost like a cruel punchline. DeMonaco didn’t expect The Purge to go the places it did. He just wanted to make a movie about the fear of firearms.
“The idea of a gun to me is just the scariest thing in the world,” DeMonaco declares without hesitation. “So to me, [The Purge] is the ultimate horror movie.”
His nightmare is a world where everyone can use guns not only legally, but freely, without having to worry about legal repercussions. In that phobia lies the seed of The Purge (though a road rage incident, which DeMonaco has spoken about openly before, also served as inspiration).
But the films have moved on from that message in the last decade. Now, they encompass an assortment of broader fears and a larger cast of characters. The Purge sticks with the Sandin family — James (Ethan Hawke), Mary (Lena Heady), Zoey (Adelaide Kane), and Charlie (Max Burkholder) — as they try to survive the Purge, and an assault on their fortified house by privileged upper-class purgers, led by “Polite Leader” (played by Rhys Wakefield). By the end, James has perished protecting his wife and children, along with the Purgers and the Sandin’s neighbors, who nearly slay the family out of resentment of their own privilege. The film leaves the Sandin’s abode and briefly steps outside into the world beyond their door. With that one simple gesture, the Purge movies confronted institutional violence instead of the intimate violence of the first.
A surprising effect of this perhaps inevitable focal shift is that The Purge nearly feels safe compared to its follow-ups.
“The first one actually seems, in a strange way, more fantastical than 2 to 5,” DeMonaco says. “There’s almost comfort in that.”
The other Purge pictures hit closer to home. Their relationship with America’s political travails makes them read as too real, even as characters like Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), a vengeful off-duty cop who ends up serving as security detail for an anti-purge Senatorial candidate (Elizabeth Mitchell), go full-action hero, blowing away fascist stormtroopers and Purge revelers alike.
And so we arrive at The Forever Purge, a dramatized take on an attempted far-right extremist coup that felt a little too real in July of 2021 — mere months after the January 6th insurrection shook the foundations of American democracy.
“The saddest thing was, we shot before January 6th happened,” DeMonaco says. “People thought that we based Purge 5 on January 6th. I'm like, ‘No, it was way before that.’ They’re not understanding the post-production process, how long it takes.”
DeMonaco pauses. Recalling these conversations and viewers’ misapprehensions gets him down almost as much as our present political circumstances.
“We’re in a bad place,” he adds, “and I don’t see it getting better right now.”
Unfortunately for the civilians who inhabit the world of The Purge (and possibly for real Americans as well), there’s no going back to 2013 — no matter how much we wish we could.
“I think we could safely say that it was a time of less division, right? Less overall division in the country.” DeMonaco says. He acknowledges he’s a middle-class white guy, and that this skews his perception somewhat, but his point remains salient. “I think 90 percent of people would probably agree with that. And I yearn for that, in a way. I can't foresee it ever going back to that.”
“TV was a great place to explore the thematics of the Purge, given we can get into a little more nuance than we can get into the movies.”
He’s talking about America in the early 2010s, still roiling with political and social tensions but kept from spilling over, as well as the cloistered setting of The Purge. The films can only go bigger, widening their lens and scale in the aftermath of The Forever Purge’s plot. There’s always the chance The Purge could return to television, where stories like that of the original Purge can thrive.
“TV was a great place to explore the thematics of the Purge, given we can get into a little more nuance than we can get into the movies,” DeMonaco says. “We can be more character-driven, really explain why people would ever choose to purge, and having the real estate to do that.”
For the time being, the big screen is where The Purge will stay, and where audiences will flock on a future 4th of July to watch make-believe political mayhem unleashed. Maybe the next Purge film will predict America’s next instance of domestic terrorism. The films have a solid track record to date prognosticating sedition and a bump in class warfare. If that’s the case, DeMonaco should probably start directing screwball rom-coms instead of Purge films. We’d be in a better place if those movies came true.