The popular Purge horror film series offers a dystopic view of a possible American future, where citizens are allowed to commit crimes as heinous as murder for 12 hours during a yearly ritual of legalized mayhem, meant to curb people’s aggressions. The First Purge, which debuts July 4, shows fans how this social experiment gone wrong found its beginnings, but the idea of a purge isn’t exactly a new one for the real United States of America.
While the actual U.S. government hasn’t sanctioned an annual holiday of lawlessness (yet), according to director Gerard McMurray, the country has flirted with the concept in other ways throughout its history—and even in its present. At the core of purging is the belief that some people, particularly the rich and powerful, are allowed to steal, harm and maim others with impunity under the guise of civic duty. This sounds eerily familiar to how some can justify lynching, police violence or horrific moments like the destruction of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street in 1921 or the bombing of a black Philadelphia neighborhood by police in 1985, all done under claims of patriotism or a yearning to cleanse the country.
“The history of this country, there’s always been some form of a purge in some sense,” says McMurray. “But, we’ve come a long way in this country and people have really come together. I think that we’ve come far enough in this country where we can talk about these things.”
Although McMurray believes the U.S. has changed for the better over the years, he did draw inspiration from our current politically divisive times when crafting The First Purge. Aside from several sly references to Donald Trump, McMurray tried to bring the real-life horrors that many people, especially black Americans, face today to the world of the Purge.
The First Purge and real America
In particular, last year’s attack in Charlottesville had a significant impact on McMurray as he made the prequel, which is why the film showcases elements of protestors resisting the purge juxtaposed against images of murderous, hooded white supremacists taking to the streets. The First Purge is even told through the perspective of young, black protagonists who must combat these violent racists, armed by a government that’d rather eradicate communities of color than provide them with the resources they need.
“There’s a lot of social commentary, a lot of political stuff, and it really spoke to a lot of the things that I really thought we could say within the franchise,” McMurray says. “The film itself has a lot of real-world inspiration. I think that the genre of horror lets us wrestle with the evils of our real world.”
“For me, showing the KKK, showing the Charlottesville people, that’s horror. That’s really horror,” he adds. “In real life there’s purging going on. And purging, not necessarily about murder. It could be separating families, anything, you know, mass incarceration. So many different ways to purge.”
Despite the heavy themes, McMurray adamantly explains that The First Purge is meant to be a fun, horror movie experience for audiences.
“I wanted to make it real as I can within the first movies, but also at the end of the day, this is not real, this is alternate reality,” he says, “This is a fun film and people should not take it literally.”
The First Purge is now in theaters.