Life Imitates Art: the Influence of John Carpenter’s 'They Live'

Essential Viewing

They Live introduces a concern that couldn’t be more timely today: our relationship with the ambient noise of advertising.

Rowan Hand

I. Introduction:

They Live introduces a concern that couldn’t be more timely today: our relationship with the ambient noise of advertising.

The film asks us to reassess the systems that support a world where not only are advertisements themselves ubiquitous, but an advertisement-based economy drives everything from search to social to streaming. The advertising industry, stronger than ever before, has a stranglehold on all but vanishing slivers of media and culture.

Thirty-five years after its release, this would-be B-movie has maintained a consistent mimetic battle against the forces that would pause your video just to shill some crap you’d be better off without. You see it in the wild: on lampposts, park benches, and t-shirts. You might not understand consciously, but on a deeper level something clicks. This film, my friends, is where it all came from.

They Live had humble beginnings as a low-budget sci-fi flick. It was funded as part of a cheap-shit, three-picture deal with none other than Shep Gordon, legendary manager of Alice Cooper and sometime B-movie impresario.

Carpenter was sick of interference from the studios post-Starman. Gordon just wanted his money back [1]. The rest of us got a lot more: Yes, even if you haven’t seen the film.

II. Eight O’Clock in the Morning

Carpenter wrote the screenplay himself [2], effectively using the minimalist, five-page science fiction story Eight O’Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson as a treatment.

The principle of Nelson's story is this: the protagonist, George Nada, is told to “awake” by a hypnotist and finds himself able to see the subliminal messages in all advertising. Put a pin in this: it seems a totally normal, feasible that advertisements might actually contain subliminal messages.

The film follows the same basic plot. In the case of the film, Nada (Roddy Piper) is an out-of-work drifter who arrives in Los Angeles on a freight train. He seeks work through the normal channels, but is rejected at every turn. He eventually finds a non-union job on a construction site, where he meets Frank (Keith David), a fellow worker who takes him to the shanty-town sort of encampment where he (Frank) lives. This encampment is in fact a revolutionary cell whose members hack into television broadcasts, explaining to the public that a malevolent force is using TV to send a signal that keeps them hypnotized.

After the encampment is violently raided by police and the radio equipment, Nada discovers a box full of sunglasses. Upon putting on the sunglasses, Nada sees that all billboards contain subliminal messages (OBEY, CONSUME, DOUBT HUMANITY, HONOR APATHY, STAY ASLEEP, etc.). He also sees that a minority of the public are aliens with faces of no more than skull and sinew.

At this point, Nada, true to the short story, goes on a homicidal rampage. He soon kidnaps a woman, Holly (Meg Foster), who refuses to listen to him. Nor does Frank, whom Nada convinces, after a violent fight, to wear the glasses. Finally seeing reality for himself, Frank agrees to help Nada. After a resistance meeting is raided by the police and most of its attendees slaughtered, Nada and Frank make their final stand by storming the television station that is broadcasting the hypnotic message to the public.

III. Spinning Gold

One of the hallmarks of John Carpenter’s oeuvre is how much mileage he can get out of limited resources, in this case a sub-$4m budget that was meager even for its day. The final product shows little evidence of its shoestring budget.


The filmmaking is assured and nothing is out of place; it seems incongruous that a film with a budget this low should look this good or tell a story so cleanly. One is constantly reminded of the steady hand of Carpenter’s idol Howard Hawks. More than a few times in my latest rewatch, I was struck at how the deft shot composition made full use of its Panavision widescreen as well as the notoriously varied Los Angeles terrain: flat plains of suburbia (the shanty town), lush canyons (Holly’s house), the Downtown area. Note particularly how the impact of each billboard is augmented by the compelling architecture behind it. In fact, the only thing that seems dated is the haircuts, but if you’re going to cast a pro wrestler in a movie about aliens then by all rights he should be wearing an Australian-grade mullet.

The film has very few special effects, most of them achieved by changing film stock and using mattes. The locations are bare and simple, with little-to-no use of soundstage. Note that the famous six-minute fight sequence between Nada and Frank takes place in a trash-strewn alley, of all places. Part of the beauty of the fight scene is that Piper and Keith David, drawing on Piper’s day job as a pro wrestler, do not stage fight: they actually brawl [3]. There’s something perversely satisfying about watching two enormous men, one with a degree from Juilliard, beat the living shit out of each other. It looks brutal because it is, and Carpenter captures this while acknowledging the humor of the fact that we are indeed watching these two battle over a pair of cheap-looking sunglasses.

That said, the ridiculousness of the premise is not lost on Carpenter, who normally casts fine actors yet chose to cast professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as his lead. While Piper is hardly a graduate of the Actors’ Studio, his mix of confusion, determination, and genuine hurt at the unfairness of the world work beautifully in this context. Arguably, Nada is underpainted on the page; we learn just enough about Nada to understand that his life has been hard and nothing has come easy. Piper, who claimed to see himself in Nada, breathes true life into the character with earnestness, intensity, and an unstudied realism.

One of the key features of Piper’s performance, notes Carpenter historian Troy Howarth, is the juxtaposition of a hard life and inherent optimism. Nada’s insistence that “I believe in America” doesn’t sound jingoistic coming from Piper; rather, Nada understands the arbitrary unfairness of the world and is willing to fight for a better alternative.

Additionally, despite his size and murderous intentions toward the aliens, we don’t worry that he will be anything less than chivalrous to Holly, notwithstanding the whole kidnapping business. Nada is not a complicated character, but he is a moral, heroic one, and Piper captures this admirably. Piper, like Nada, is here to chew bubblegum and kick ass.

Arguably, the film has its weak plot points. Perhaps it moves a bit too fast for its own good, and the second half of the movie goes by in sort of a blur drenched in war film clichés. Then again, perhaps the speed lets us skim over those script weaknesses. Witness Nada’s abrupt decision to begin shooting people, even if those people are aliens. The jagged portrayal of Nada and Holly’s perverse courtship grates particularly given that it comes between Nada and Frank by the end of the film. Alternatively, we could see the B-story more as a romance between Nada and Frank: a positive example of male bonding [4].

Perhaps due either to these narrative irregularities or the fast pace of the film, it is common for people to recall little of the actual plot. The features that stick in the mind are the fight scene, the skeleton-and-sinew faces of the aliens, and of course the billboards.

IV. Seeing the Fnords

Without the sunglasses, the billboard reads: “We’re creating the transparent computing environment: Control Data.” With the sunglasses: OBEY. A woman lounging in a bikini says “Come to the Caribbean”: MARRY AND REPRODUCE. All money: THIS IS YOUR GOD. The list goes on. Soon, we no longer see the original meanings, just the hidden ones: HONOR APATHY, SLEEP, DOUBT HUMANITY, WORK 8 HOURS PLAY 8 HOURS SLEEP 8 HOURS, etc.

Carpenter wasn’t going for subtlety with his critique, and critics of the day were quick to point that out. To paraphrase: “Another hippie complaining that the 60s are over… say, do you mind racking me another line?” After thirty-five more years of trickling up, one wonders if their opinions would be the same today.

In any case, a few stragglers aside, the clarity of the metaphor may have saved *They Live’*s key missive from being co-opted by the mentally deficient corners of the internet the way The Matrix’s “red pill” has been [5]. They Live’s decidedly left-leaning, anti-corporate message means that, a few stragglers aside, its mimesis has stayed a similar course. The robust middle finger that They Live delivers to consumerist society remains proudly extended.

The arc of Nada’s awakening recalls the concept of the fnord. “Fnord” was originally introduced as a pseudo-religious nonsense word in the 1965 pseudo-religious put-on [6] Principia Discordia written by Kerry Thornley and Gregory Hill. The word was borrowed and given a fuller life in Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s 1975 Illuminatus! novels, wherein it was described as a word that we are trained as children not to see, yet that has a hypnotic effect instilling a general sense of unease, confusion, and paranoia in the populace.


Notably, the sole place that fnords do not exist is in advertisements. Naturally, paranoia and confusion might get in the way of obedient consumption.

Acknowledging the inversion here (that is, in fnord-theory, advertisements are what do not carry hidden messages), I submit that seeing the fnords is learning to identify and thereby avoid the hypnotic effect of these hidden agents of control. Carpenter/Nelson and Hill/Thornley/Wilson/Shea might be approaching the subject from opposite directions, but arrive at a starkly similar vision of the ambient manipulation surrounding us. Perhaps Hill and Thornley were inspired by Nelson, or perhaps each put to words that ubiquitous, low-grade, humming unease that we all experience.

(At this point, I probably need to make it clear that no prescriptive advice regarding presence or absence of manipulation is implied here. Not everything on the internet is true, and paranoia is a rabbit-hole that it is decidedly not fun to go down. In a world intentionally relieved of bereft of consensus reality, it is easy to see manipulation in places where it may not actually be. Equally, it is likely to paper over that which we choose not to see. If one is not careful, one might see subliminal messaging as often as a reedy-voiced pseudo-intellectual might see communists.)

All in all, They Live provides a touching reminder of a kinder, gentler time long past when the political Left were the ones who distrusted the government; despite a few heavily-armed rotten apples, much paranoia and conspiracy-talk was a province of people with triple-digit IQs, and made for a damn fun time when stoned. Alas…

V. Resonance

There’s a reason the key message of They Live hasn’t dated in 35 years: the proposition that advertising secretly coerces us simply resonates. Deeply.

This is a testament both to Nelson and to anti-consumerist activists such as Vance Packard [7]. Concern about advertising and advertisers’ methods has existed en masse since the 1950s [8], but really caught fire as America’s engineered post-war picket fence culture imploded in the 1960s under empirical reality’s hat-trick of Vietnam, Civil Rights, and psychedelics. At this last great divide between the broadcast narrative and the situation on the ground, it became realistic to question received truths; unsurprisingly, consumerism-as-narcotic ended up against the wall like much other received wisdom.

Fast-forward 60 years: even if advertisements aren’t literally hypnotizing us with audio tracks at frequencies we can’t hear or placing furtive frames of terrible hot dogs and stale popcorn in our films, there is no denying that the purpose of advertising is to coerce encourage us to purchase things.

A growth-based economy is by definition set up to encourage consumption, whatever the real costs to our happiness, the environment, future generations, and of course our own sanity. If people grok this, it causes a problem. Because they might buy less crap they don’t need. And then the economy wouldn’t keep growing, or at least not as quickly. And, axiomatically (or so I am told), this is bad.

Consider the level of abstraction here: a given advertisement may itself be innocent of coercion [9], but the system of presumptions that underwrites advertising most certainly is coercive. Nelson and Carpenter simply cut out the middle-person because it made for better storytelling.

If harbouring any doubt, the reader is encouraged to peruse the (surprisingly readable) works of Edgar Bernays [10], your friendly neighbourhood Social Engineer of the early 20th century. Bernays proposed that crowd psychology and his uncle (!) Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories could be used to control large swathes of the population.

This was eventually codified into Bernays’ most famous work, Public Relations, which became the template for what is the modern advertising industry. Poetically, the book was itself a sort of PR move: Bernays’ most famous book prior to this was entitled Propaganda, a text acknowledged by Bernays himself to have been a favourite of Goebbels. “Public Relations” was, presumably, a better look; good call, Eddie.

Bernays was evidently able to reconcile the illiberalism of coercion of the populace with the (ahem) liberalism of the Western world by stating that, to paraphrase, “Folks are gonna be controlled by someone, so let’s make sure they’re controlled by the good guys.” Distasteful as this may be, one can look at any number of recent social movements and wonder drily whether Bernays, et al. had something of a point. Whatever the case, it didn’t stop the man sleeping at night, for Bernays died peacefully in 1995 at age 103.

This all makes one wonder whether the modern advertising industry is as cynical and manipulative as it once was, or whether it even holds the same sway over our lives. It would be a mistake to think that the pervasive web spun by advertising is any less present than it was in Nelson’s, or even Carpenter’s, time.

The times have changed, and perhaps so have the methods to a certain degree. Bear in mind the fact that the largest companies online, from social media giants to the Great Oracle itself, make their money from advertising revenue. Renting out space in our minds without our informed consent [11], these companies demonstrably manipulate people to maximize engagement because that means more time with eyeballs on advertisements.

Perhaps it’s best to cap this off with an off-hand remark made by a friend of mine who works in advertising: “People think advertising manipulates people, but that’s overstated. Our numbers show that the manipulation isn’t really as effective as people think.” To wit: it’s not that advertisers are not trying to manipulate people; they definitely are, and they’re annoyed that while their manipulation does work (sort of) it’s not nearly as coercive in practice as they’d like it to be.

Bill Hicks had a point.

At this point, you might wonder just how you would be ambiently aware of They Live’s cultural legacy. The Matrix’s rhetoric may have made it into the mainstream, but They Live does one better by literally plastering its core message all over meatspace; the sharp-eyed reader may already wonder why the sign says “OBEY” when that’s a t-shirt brand.

To explain: street artist Shepard Fairey, he of the original 1989 “André the Giant Has a Posse” street art sticker campaign, eventually adapted André’s face into the OBEY Giant. Even if you are somehow unfamiliar with the sticker campaigns [12], it would be difficult not to have noticed the ubiquitous OBEY clothing line, founded in 2001. Its unironic adoption among even those who would vehemently disagree with its subtext has spread its message farther and wider than could have been hoped for by those actually conscious of the joke.

As is the case with any clear correlation, one must be careful about the arrow of causation. Did Ray Nelson steal the tag off a frat boy’s shirt? Fairey openly acknowledges that the OBEY Giant campaign and the clothing line were inspired by They Live [13], but as of press he still has not apologised for all the frat boys wearing OBEY shirts.

VII. Conclusion: the Curious Case of Holly

On one hand, *They Live *gives us a pass. It’s sort of comforting to think that we have thus far been hypnotized into complacency. It allows us to think that we would act better and stop propping up the alien systems that keep us subjugated for their own benefit if we only knew.

However, just as we see with Holly and the Drifter (Carpenter favorite George ‘Buck’ Flower) during the final storm on the TV station, every insurrection has its collaborators. Carpenter slaps us with a dose of reality here: some people are constitutionally capable of siding with a system that exploits all of us. They choose to feed the monster for their own benefit, somehow rationalizing the fact that the havoc they wreak on others’ lives far outweighs whatever meager incentives have been dangled before them.

If we really think about it, how much are we choosing to rationalize our own exploitative behavior? Sure, we don’t have literal sunglasses, but we do have the work of writers from Nelson to Packard to Shoshanna Zuboff and Jaron Lanier, among many others. Perhaps the most important question that They Live raises is this: just how willing are we to continue collaborating?

It is not a question of if, but when, the bubblegum will run out.


[1] He recouped it at the box office, given the tiny budget. The film really shone, however, in its video sales.

[2] Under the pseudonym Frank Armitage.

[3] Or at least as much as pro wrestlers actually do.

[4] The question of why men need to beat the fuck out of each other in order to bond notwithstanding, but They Live is only one example among hundreds (if not thousands) so that’s a discussion for another time.

[5] The whole Jesus trip in *The Matrix *was always too broad, and, thereby bound to appeal to fuckwits.

[6] Drawing the distinction between a “true religious text” and a “pseudo-religious put-on” is an exercise best left to the reader.

[7] Author of 1957’s The Hidden Persuaders, an exposé of the use of subliminal messaging and depth psychology in advertising. In 1964’s The Naked Society, Packard detailed advertisers’ (ahem) use of personal information for targeted advertisements.

[8] UCL philosopher James Garvey discusses this in The Persuaders, but in short the idea was probably beyond the scope of reasoning of most people pre-World War II. Goebbels’ enthusiastic use of propaganda, and, yes, Propaganda itself probably kicked open a few mental doors for the Person on the Street.

[9] Charitably, I will grant benefit of the doubt on this point.

[10] You may have heard of Bernays from Adam Curtis’ Century of the Self, or in the work of Garvey. Truth is stranger than fiction, I’m afraid.

[11] They definitely have our legal consent, however. Didn’t you read the Terms of Service?

[12] If you are not in fact aware that André the Giant has a posse, I encourage you to look at lampposts in any town that boasts more than one stop sign.

[13] Wired-Mag-Photo (2011) How they live's alien propaganda infected Shepard Fairey, Wired. Conde Nast. Available at: (Accessed: January 22, 2023).


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