Dragging the State: The Banality of Horror

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou




There is a scene in The Man in the High Castle, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of alternate reality, occurring a third of the way in the pilot. The series portrays a world where the Allies have lost WWII, and where the United States are divided between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan (the Pacific States), a gripping premise coming to life through excellent production values, striking visuals and impeccable detail (as one expects from seeing Ridley Scott credited as executive producer). In the scene in question, Luke Kleintank, who plays Joe Blake, gets a flat tyre on a mysterious errand on behalf of the resistance. A local cop stops to give him a hand and kindly offers him a snack, seeing that the young truck driver is unprepared for a long distance trip – he is not threatening like the German ‘Brownshirts’ that have made an earlier appearance, so the viewer lets his guard down.

While they are standing, making small talk and munching on egg salad sandwiches, something that looks like snow starts falling from the sky. Joe asks what it is, to get the reply:

Cop: It’s the hospital.

Joe: The hospital?

Cop: Tuesdays…the hospital gets rid of the cripples, the terminally ill…dragging the state.

It is at this point that the viewer realizes that the flakes slowly falling are ashes, from the burning bodies of the unwanted, the dispensable, the burdensome that are “dragging the state”. It is a subtle, understated scene, but it is sufficient to imbue the series with dread. Noah Berlatsky has argued that The Man in the High Castle tends to present a sinister and dystopian view of alternate reality while Dick’s novel drew its strength from presenting the Nazi-dominated world as terrifying precisely because of the way people had adapted to it. This scene counters his argument. It shows precisely that horror is not located in the alien, the fantastic, the nightmare reality that could have nearly happened but (the viewer is assured) didn’t; it does not stem from the victory of a fascist and racist regime, nor lies exclusively in its explicit acts of violence (beatings, torture, ‘humane’ executions). Horror is the unexpectedly casual manner that all this and more has gradually seeped into everyday life; it is the banality of it that is truly shocking. How people go about their business without registering what goes on, without being perturbed by it, how they shrug their shoulders and continue. This poignant scene, chilling to the bone, can also be seen as an allusion to the contemporary horrors that accompany us today. Whether it be the drowning of refugees while they flee war, the islamophobic rhetoric rising in the West, the security state in the ascendant and the prospect of more war, or simply the comparison of people with rats much as it had happened with Jews during WWII, we (mostly) shrug our shoulders and move on. The distance between reality and this alternate version is shorter than it seems, and it is depressing that we need a television series to remind us.