John Carpenter on the set of ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996) | Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

John Carpenter’s Paranoid Los Angeles

Underneath the city of Los Angeles are miles of flooded tunnels laced with fortunes of gold. These caverns hold strange artifacts from ancient extraterrestrial reptilian humanoids, secret invaders who long ago migrated to the surface world and are now living amongst us in clandestine roles of the powerful, the influential, and the mundane.

This conspiracy theory first appeared in a January 1934 edition of the Los Angeles Times, which investigated discovery claims made by amateur geologist and mining engineer G. Warren Shufelt. The theory never faded away and, in the 1970s, the idea that reptoids had invaded society found new life—it collected the distrust of the powerful in post-Watergate America and shared the arresting aesthetics of science fiction narratives.

Jim Shaw, in his 1978 CalArts MFA thesis The End is Here, airbrushed pictures of his friends with Martian heads and presented them side by side with the originals as though it were a revelation of their true forms. The relationship between media, conspiracy, art, and technology is closely intertwined, a feedback loop of theory and creation, expressions of fear and solutions of narrative puzzles. Shaw’s work would go on to influence many science fiction films, perhaps none moreso than John Carpenter’s 1988 alien-invasion horror allegory, They Live

John Carpenter is not a particularly paranoid man; he doesn’t seem to subscribe to loopy, reactionary conspiracy theories. He is, however, a filmmaker concerned with cultural paranoia, or at the very least its facets: fear of corporate control, denial of citizenship, class anxiety, corrupted cultural memory, distrust of technology, etc. His three major films set in Los Angeles—Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Escape from L.A. (1996), and, in the middle, They Live—each pull on threads of America’s paranoia. 

And what better a city to explore paranoia with than Los Angeles? It’s the origin point of the reptoid conspiracy. It’s the broadcasting home of influential conspiracy programs like Dialogue: Conspiracy with Mae Brussell and Coast to Coast AM. It’s also associated with a criminal unsavoriness dreamed up from Hollywood noirs and detective potboilers. The city is beautiful, diverse, full of complex history, and situated in an area of geological danger that plays coy to the plans of nature. It contains multitudes—and for many, that’s terrifying.

To those who have never visited, like me, it seems…otherworldly. All of the things which ostensibly make Los Angeles a haven and cultural paradise for so many make it an object of scorn for others. The opening montage in Escape from L.A., where a Jerry Falwell-like religious zealot from Lynchburg, Virginia rises to the presidency in order to cast L.A. out like Sodom, doesn’t feel like a far cry from reality. Whether it’s the discursive commodification of L.A. as a bastion of leftist American politics or the racist prejudice towards its diversity and location (or both), Los Angeles is a place where anything is possible, including anything wicked. 

America’s paranoid political style, examined by political scientists and cultural theorists for decades, may have as its common centers—Dallas, New Haven, and New York—but the cultural view of so many towards the mystery and possibility of the city makes Los Angeles a metonymic structure of paranoia. This is what Carpenter explores in his three primary films set in the basin: the degree to which paranoia is essential to the American way of life, and to cinema itself.  

I. Visual Paranoia in They Live

They Live (1988) | Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

No one makes films like John Carpenter, and They Live may be his most idiosyncratic work. Carpenter’s low-budget action film directly presents fears of capitalist corporatization and its control over the American independent spirit. Nada (Roddy Piper) is exactly what his name suggests—nothing: a walking bulk of a man cleaved from society. For Carpenter, there seems to be nothing more removed from corporate structures than a professional wrestler in flannel and Levi’s. Nada is an everyman and the film’s main supporting character, Frank Armitage (Keith David), is a transparent attempt to complete this everyman type. Frank is some things that Nada is not—Black, congenial, exasperated. But Frank also shares vital traits with Nada: suspiciousness, motivation, and a willingness to throw fisticuffs for incredibly long amounts of time when necessary. 

Together, these men uncover a conspiracy whereby aliens have long ago invaded Earth, not unlike the reptoid conspiracy. The aliens have expanded their reach and taken control of the populace through subliminal messaging hidden within media, concealing their true form as (what fans now call) Ghouls. Nada discovers this world once he sees Los Angeles through a pair special black sunglasses. The lenses reveal the world in true form: a black-and-white monospace of participatory capitalist directives.  

They Live’s ideological bent is clear fodder for an analysis of capitalism and social structure. Each conspiracy theorist fashions themselves as a Nada, cutting through accepted narratives to find truth, mostly because it makes them feel like an action film’s protagonist. Scholars, critics, and fans (in a rarity) all agree that the film is an explicit criticism of what Louis Althusser has famously termed Ideological State Apparatuses: mostly apolitical agents that influence culture for the ruling class. This means that They Live criticizes both corporate structures and mass media as the primary functions through which ideology is formed, controlled, and punished.

In his book on Carpenter, Robert Cumbow writes that They Live is muddied by its “simplistic linking of police state fascism to the very consumer-based capitalism that, after all, makes filmmaking…possible.” From the very beginning, however, Carpenter uses his camera to reorient the audience’s relationship to cinema and truth. What seems like a stylized opening title card fades to a mass of chaotic street graffiti and what seems like a tracking shot of a moving train passing is actually Nada’s introduction. What we think we are seeing and how we are seeing it is not at all what is actually happening. Carpenter’s brilliance often lies in his mastery of cinematic perception: directing, at times baiting, an audience to take a point-of-view or direction that operates as unsettling misdirection.  

They Live concerns itself with how cinema has trained audiences to recognize perspective, attention, and color in service of entertainment, and how Los Angeles—in its overabundance and brightness and fullness—is the perfect place to reveal such a paranoid outlook on American structures. Nada’s sunglasses are an attention shift. They allow the wearer to “wake up” to consumer systems. The stimuli in They Live are typically one or two-word subliminal messages hidden behind visually stimulating representations of whatever phrase is given. An image of a woman in a red bikini beckoning an onlooker to “come to the Caribbean” is, in fact, merely an attention-directing image telling the onlooker to “marry and reproduce.” It is a representation of reality masking capitalistic truth. 

In its critique and Carpenter’s misdirection, They Live suggests that cinema operates the same way. But mass media also has the power to fight back against this—it’s why Nada and Frank make their last stand at a broadcasting station in hopes of exposing the Ghouls. By the end Nada succeeds in waking up the world, but not before he and Frank fight their way to the top of the studio by venturing through secret underground tunnels (the real off-limits pedestrian tunnels beneath downtown LA). 

In his commentary track for the film, Carpenter seems to surprise himself with how much his photography focused on capturing the complexity of Los Angeles. “[The city] to me,” the director says, “has always been a really beautiful place even though it has its problems.” Carpenter refers to the city as “unique,” perhaps underselling the way he presented LA as ground zero for an alien invasion. 

II. The Communal Paranoia of Assault on Precinct 13

Assault on Precinct 13 | Image Entertainment
Image Entertainment

Assault on Precinct 13 is a classic in the “various strangers hunker down in an unsavory place while something attacks them from outside” subgenre. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), a Black California Highway Patrol officer, receives a special assignment to babysit a soon-to-close police precinct in a seedy neighborhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Complicating his night is the arrival of death row inmate Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), a white criminal who Bishop must find comradery with in order to protect the people that end up stuck inside the station after a violent gang begins retaliating against the LAPD.

The film is remembered (or despised) for a sequence in which a young girl is murdered by one of the gang members while purchasing an ice cream on a suburban street. Though the gangs vow revenge on the LAPD earlier in the film, the titular assault on the precinct begins when her father kills a gang leader, and triggers the standoff when he flees there for safety. The man, Lawson (Martin West), is not a resident of South-Central LA, but instead attempting to move his mother out of “this dangerous neighborhood.” There’s something morosely poetic about someone who views this neighborhood as something so vile becoming a domino in its cycle of violence.

A CityLab piece on the film’s fear mongering of LA explores how its rendition of South Central Los Angeles is “all but devoid of law-abiding civilians—it’s just a featureless, underpopulated landscape of sun-blasted empty lots and tired bungalows.” While this depiction of a minority neighborhood as a cesspool for crime feels reactionary, Carpenter makes the assault more complicated than it requires. One of Carpenter’s recurring preoccupations, also apparent in Halloween and The Thing, is that delicate social fabrics deteriorate quickest with an act of violence from within a community. Assault on Precinct 13 is about a neighborhood abandoned and writhing. But the film is also about how a city like Los Angeles has orchestrated this descent into crime. The history of Angelinos of color is one of displacement, treachery, and anger too fraught to analyze here. But suffice it to say, Carpenter has set his film here intentionally. 

The film begins with an unfortunate title card describing the area as “a ghetto of Los Angeles,” but Carpenter takes steps to show that this ghettoization is not the fault of the residents. Once the precinct is under attack, Bishop holds out hope that someone will hear the shots and call for help. Bishop is a neighborhood native and is in disbelief at its estrangement. He might as well be stranded on Mars. After all, the police are closing the precinct in this neighborhood and there’s none nearby. 

But there’s something else going on here, something orchestrated. As Bishop is patrolling the Anderson, California area at the beginning of the film, he is given his new assignment, and as he questions it, his commanding officer gives him a strange mantra. The faceless voice of authority tells him, “There aren’t heroes anymore, Bishop, only men who follow orders.” When he arrives at 13, the precinct’s former captain tells Bishop, “someone in the office wanted to give you a special first night.” Everyone seems to know something Bishop doesn’t. That, and they don’t care what happens to a Black man in a Black neighborhood.  

The cold open features news narration of the police raid. The newscast frames this as a “shootout,” but Carpenter’s depiction of this robbery as the opening credits play is hardly that. It is an execution; police fire assault weapons from atop an overpass with little to no return fire. On the officer’s uniforms are neither name badges nor distinguishing features. Back on the newscast, the police chief remarks that “law enforcement has been driven to deplorable extremes.” There is a chance, spoken wordlessly throughout the film, that the police allowed the attack on Precinct 13 in the hopes of drumming up public support for law enforcement. The police force is a specter looming over much of the film. They are mysterious and powerful, but also removed from the main narrative, figures for speculation. And in a film as claustrophobic as this, speculation is primarily how the characters interact. Carpenter keeps this claustrophobia until the end, when the faceless officers finally arrive at Precinct 13 only to arrest Wilson. In this light, the film feels prescient to the growing fears of police departments operating as fascistic enterprises. In this world, characters have to overcome their suspicion of one another to focus on truer enemies. 

III. The Police State of Escape from L.A.

Escape from L.A. | Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Escape from L.A., on the other hand, takes the idea that Los Angeles is a city of orchestrated vileness from a police state and makes it, well, the entire point. Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) returns from Escape from New York to kick ass in diminishing returns—and although Carpenter’s post-megaquake LA isn’t drastically different from his maximum-security prison of Manhattan, its origins are more pointed. In the film, the island of Los Angeles was abandoned not to use it as a prison, a pragmatic evil, but because the theocratic President (Cliff Robertson) used LA’s culture as a scapegoat for its own natural demise, which in turn facilitated his rise to power. 

The film is not very nuanced, but it is quintessentially Los Angeles. Steve Buscemi plays a character who knows the lay of the land, of course named Map to the Stars Eddie. Peter Fonda pops up as a wise interloper. The film’s tone is one of light self-mockery mixed in with genre reverence. Escape from L.A. approaches some sort of muscular camp before weening its way to a ludicrous climax that nonetheless fits into Carpenter’s paranoid mold, in the sense that it is an imagination of a successful dystopic conspiracy. 

After Snake traverses through ravaged LA on a mission for the President, he finds himself again with a choice testing his nature. Through a bit of a plot contrivance, he somehow renders all technology powerless, reverting the earth back to primitiveness. In a line that could easily be muttered by Nada at the end of They Live, Plissken dryly announces to no one in particular, “Welcome to the human race,” the implication being that devoid of electronics the world can be reset in an aura of humanism. While I’m not sure that makes much sense, I am sure that Escape from L.A. finds that uniqueness Carpenter talked about before with L.A. and exaggerates it as a place that would find itself crumbling in a dark future. 

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Carpenter’s cinema is one predicated on fear. This fear comes from unsettling sources, such as the gangs and police in Assault on Precinct 13, or the Ghouls in They Live, or pretty much everyone in Escape from L.A. Writers like Robin Wood have criticized Carpenter’s films for being reactionary in their interpretive ideologies, wondering what these unsettling premises are supposed to mean. But it’s shortsighted to prescribe an ideology to a body of work as purposefully incoherent as Carpenter’s. For this is what paranoia is: incoherence made coherent through fear and narrative. 

Carpenter has himself acknowledged the paranoia at the heart of his films. In an interview with Ronald Vorst, he was asked to clarify past comments about how people are “too scared in their daily lives.” This, Carpenter said, prevented him from working without constraints to truly scare an audience: “We’re frightened of forces of chaos, forces of evil, or of things happening…that really things are beyond our control. We’re afraid of all that, and to really scare people would be to open that little door and say life is really about chaos and it’s not being directed.”

Conspiracy theory is primarily a way to make sense of something that might otherwise be senseless, to take our biases and fears and form a narrative around them. Carpenter prods at this desire and the fear of what happens if there is no hero to make sense of the chaos. What Los Angeles has in cultural beauty it matches in chaos—chaos of people, chance, and traffic. Carpenter knows that there’s a lot of cynical hypotheses about humanity out there and fears that it would be better if some of them were true.

I think I share the feeling.