Late Tuesday night, writer-director John Carpenter–the man behind such late-night-cable classics as Halloween, The Thing, and Escape from New York–sent out a jarring, seemingly random tweet about one of the best-known entries in his decades-long filmography: They Live, the cult sci-fi conspiracy thriller about a working-class drifter (played by wrestling icon “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) whose discovery of a pair of special sunglasses leads to the revelation that Los Angeles–and possibly the world–is under the control of blister-faced, poorly wigged aliens. The movie was released in 1988, the tail-end of the Reagan era, and very clearly targeted at the capitalism-crazed boomer-bougies who’d eagerly exchanged their ideology for luxury. Pretty obvious, right? Surely, no one would need an explainer on one of the most enjoyably surface-level sci-fi analogies of all time, right?
THEY LIVE is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism. It has nothing to do with Jewish control of the world, which is slander and a lie.
— John Carpenter (@TheHorrorMaster) January 4, 2017
In case you’re wondering why Carpenter suddenly felt the need to defend a nearly thirty-year-old movie, the answer is real fuckin’ ugly: In recent years, They Live has in recent years become a meme-muse for online neo-nazis, some of whom have adopted the film’s messages about media manipulation and secret powers, and used them for their own anti-Zionist propaganda (which is only a degree or so dumber than arguing that Gremlins is about the perils of free-trade imports, or that Short Circuit’s Number 5 is actually a numerology-foretold Illuminati agent). One antisemitic GIF that makes use of the film’s iconic “Obey” scene has been around since at least 2015, and there are a handful of straw-grasping videos on YouTube alleging that They Live is some sort of secret expose about Jewish power run amok.
Such interpretations run counter to the fact that Carpenter has been talking about the movie’s anti-yuppie stance for years now–and, even more importantly, the fact that such an interpretations makes no sense, and instead are cobbled together from a wispy husk of near-gossamer-thin “evidence.” These include, but aren’t limited to, Carpenter’s admiration of noted anti-Semite H.P. Lovecraft; the movie’s relatively quick disappearance at the box office (the result, it’s alleged, of some higher-power meddling); and Piper’s 2013 tweet that the movie was “a documentary”–which some interpreted as a supposed “admission” of the film’s secret purpose, and one that could have directly led to Piper’s untimely death … nearly than two years later. Compelling stuff, guys!
This isn’t the first time Carpenter’s cult-adored film has been embraced for its ideological underpinnings: Artist Shepard Fairey famously co-opted the movie’s “Obey” message for his anti-commercialism Andre the Giant design, while rapper Paris sampled one of the film’s best-known lines–“We all sell out every day”–for his aggro 1992 track “House Niggas Bleed Too.” And last year’s election saw a slew of merchandise tying the greed-goading aliens in They Live to president-elect Donald Trump, who was lampooned via Carpenter-inspired Halloween masks and T-shirts.
Still, the neo-Nazi embrace of They Live is certainly one of the strangest and far-fetched interpretations yet–and one that merely distracts from Carpenter’s cash-rules-everything message, which is more important than ever nowadays. “Listen, I’m a very happy capitalist,” he said in a 2015 interview. “I love my country. I love the system that we’re in, but not without some restraints on it…the mentality that the ’80s bred is really alive and well.” Surely, seeing that message perverted by a bunch of deep-diving ding-a-lings must be a source of frustration for Carpenter. But judging by his straight-talking tweet–and his long-running stint as a BS-averse truth-teller–we’re guessing he’ll live.