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The Purge – A Study on Psychotic Characters

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            The basic premise of The Purge is for one night of the year any crime—including murder—is permitted. In this new government (i.e. New America) unemployment is at 1% and crime is way down. This is because of what they call The Purge. Talk about dystopian society.

            Anyway, this is not a movie review. Although, I did enjoy watching Ethan Hawke’s latest offering to the silver screen. I’ve noticed—with the notable exception that is After Midnight—Hawke’s been gravitating to darker more twisted films. But, like I said, this is not a review.

            In anything I watch, besides the entertainment factor, I like to take away something that could help me as a writer. In The Purge, it’s all about exploring the psychotic character. When you give a character a free pass one night a year to do anything, lots of baser tendencies come out.

Here’s what I learned:

1.      The Smile

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Exaggerate a smile enough and it can become the creepiest thing you’ve ever seen. The leader of the elite group had this smile that made him look like the Joker. It gave me chills. A smile, which should be something positive, is used in this case to bring out anxiety.

2.      Playing Up Innocence

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There’s something creepy about women in white dresses and ballet flats skipping around brandishing machetes. I’ve seen this imagery in other similarly gory movies. Again this plays with the image of something positive and subverting it. The pleasure of killing attached to such a virginal image can be an effective way to make an audience uncomfortable.

3.      The Neighbor

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The neighbor turning out to be some psycho-killer has been done before. But, usually, it’s just one neighbor. Put together a whole gated community of them and you have a recipe for freaky nightmares. Well played writers of The Purge, well played.

            In the movie, the gated communities are relatively safer because they have security systems that enable houses to lockdown for the twelve hours of The Purge. Through the course of the story, we see a family have their life turned upside down. They are peace loving yet support The Purge. This is a contradiction in so many ways. And a blatant critique on society. Actually, the whole movie is a critique.

            Besides the family, you have a group of white elites who believe The Purge allows them to cleanse society of trash like the homeless. They treat this night as their chance to do their civic duty; some may even say patriotic duty. As disturbing as this seems, they are believable characters…if not more than slightly unhinged. They have one goal and anyone who gets in the way becomes collateral damage, like the family in this movie.

            I think what makes The Purge so disturbing is the possibility of encountering these characters in real life. The neighbors, for example. They smile and give you cookies, but are secretly plotting your demise. You may know people like this, heck you might be someone like this.

            Watching the movie really made me think. If I had one day a year where I could do anything I wanted, kill anyone I wanted with impunity, would I exercise this right? There have been days when it’s crossed your mind. Maybe you have a “kill list” in your head.

            I think, if given the chance, there’s a little bit of the psychotic in each of us. The boyfriend who wanted to kill his girlfriend’s father because he got in the way of their relationship. The neighbors who secretly want you dead. The overzealous group that believe what they are doing is for the good of all. These are not complex characters by any means, but they resonate because the viewer may know one or two people who’d use something like The Purge to rid themselves of annoyances.

            It’s scary to think how possible the scenarios presented in this movie are in real life. The characters justify their actions as a way to rid themselves of anger, hate, and aggression among other things.


            I commend the writers of this movie. Simple yet effective characterization. There were so many symbols and societal critiques that I would need more than a blog post to cite them all. It gave me ideas for my own writing. Techniques I’d like to try in terms of adding an extra psycho element to characters. A smile, of all things, could freak you out. 

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