Envisioning Precarity in the American Midwest: RoboCop (1987) and the Horror of Vacancy

The architectural model of futuristic Delta City is unveiled in the OCP boardroom (RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven, 1987)
Tracing the history of uninhabitable homes in the horror genre, Adam Ochonicky connects RoboCop's narrative of precarious housing to media images of the Midwest as a blank or vacant space.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Media, Precarity and the Home.” To read the introduction and other posts in the series, click here.]

Lost, damaged, inhospitable, and otherwise uninhabitable homes pervade the horror genre. In tandem with such settings—which include Gothic castles, Victorian mansions, rural farmhouses, suburban developments, and urban housing projects—horror narratives frequently portray characters experiencing destabilized housing conditions. From the transient existence of the unnamed Creature (who oscillates between covertly squatting in a “hovel” and wandering in the wilderness) in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to the subterranean doubles who invade their aboveground counterparts’ vacation homes (and, presumably, primary residences) in Jordan Peele’s Us (2019), the representation of undesired spatial dislocation abounds throughout the genre’s history.1Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin Books, 1818/2003), 109.

Academics and popular writers alike have noted horror’s recurring attentiveness to housing issues, particularly over the past four-plus decades—a period that neatly overlaps with the dawn of the neoliberal era and various economic crises. For instance, Annie McClanahan observes that “the particular popularity of the haunted-house film in the late 1970s and early 1980s . . . can clearly be attributed to the specific economic anxieties of a period of low growth and high inflation.”2Annie McClanahan, Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First-Century Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017), 149. McClanahan goes on to analyze a slate of twenty-first-century horror films that “dramatize the financialization of real estate markets and its consequences for the security of property ownership in a period of credit crisis.”3McClanahan, Dead Pledges, 149.; For a recent example of popular writing on the topic, see: Matt Schimkowitz, “How Hollywood weaponizes America’s housing anxiety through haunted house films,” The A.V. Club, October 21, 2021. Such housing-oriented horror texts routinely foreground the sustained fear of forced vacancy associated with housing precarity, as well as the genre convention that seemingly vacant spaces are actually occupied by lurking monsters or haunting presences.

For this roundtable, I take up the topic of vacancy across several contexts. Much of my scholarship explores nostalgia and regionalism; both terms are inseparable from abstract and material conceptions of “home” and “vacancy.” Nostalgia is a sense of spatial or temporal separation from a desired object, condition, and/or site—most traditionally, a home of sorts.4Among other studies of nostalgia, see: Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), XIII. Regarding regional spaces, I continually return to the contested meanings of the American Midwest’s identity, which coheres around a simultaneously celebrated and disavowed sense of the region as a national home space. As James Shortridge argues, by the middle of the twentieth century, the Midwest was perceived as “America’s collective ‘hometown,’” and this status configured the middle region as a nostalgic territory suitable for visiting but not inhabiting.5James Shortridge, The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1989), 67-68. This vision of the region frames the Midwest as past-oriented and broadly nondescript in terms of population, cultural specificity, and even landscape—in short, a symbolically vacant space.

Despite eliding actual Midwestern history, such associations persist in American media. In an article on the evolution of the term “flyover country”—which has long denoted the Midwest and other non-coastal locales—Anthony Harkins explains how “the geographic detail of airline and highway maps rapidly diminished between the 1930s and 1960s” as a result of “the development of long-distance commercial passenger air travel . . . [and] the interstate highway system.”6Anthony Harkins, “The Midwest and the Evolution of ‘Flyover Country,’” Middle West Review 3, no. 1 (Fall 2016): 98. Together, changing travel modes and mediated erasure (or generalizing) “encourage[d] a view of the country between the coastal megalopolises as spatially and culturally homogenous, interchangeable and, ultimately, forgettable.”7Harkins, “The Midwest and the Evolution of ‘Flyover Country,’” 98. The title of journalist Sarah Kendzior’s collected articles—The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America (2015/2018)—knowingly highlights these lingering regional perceptions. Kendzior also identifies how a “misleading narrative” in national media outlets habitually overlooks “[n]onwhite Midwesterners” and “ambivalent white Midwestern voters” in election coverage.8Sarah Kendzior, The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America (New York: Flatiron Books, 2018), 232-233.

Elsewhere, I have noted how the Midwest’s imagined blankness or vacancy results in a fluctuating, unstable regional identity.9Adam Ochonicky, The American Midwest in Film and Literature: Nostalgia, Violence, and Regionalism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020), 6-7. Like the symbolic properties of homes in horror texts, the Midwest itself is subject to projected meanings. Notably, the middle region is regularly used as a primary setting (or originating space) for horror, including iconic franchises such as Halloween (multiple directors, 1978-2022) and Candyman (multiple directors, 1992-2021). Detroit has especially been the subject of extensive commentary and mythologizing while also serving as a backdrop for many twenty-first-century horror films. Dora Apel suggests that “Detroit has become the preeminent example of urban decay, the global metaphor for the current state of neoliberal capitalist culture and the epicenter of the photographic genre of deindustrial ruin imagery.”10Dora Apel, Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015), 3. Consequently, Detroit’s identity has become tinged with Gothic overtones. Set in Detroit (but largely shot in Dallas), Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987) memorably visualizes these interconnected associations through its treatment of precarious housing and identities.11For background on the production and architecture of RoboCop, see: James Adams, “RoboCop: Resilience and a Tale of Two Cities,” Columns Magazine 33, no. 3 (Summer 2016).

Along with being an overt satire, RoboCop is commonly associated with science fiction due to its cyborg protagonist and a robotic adversary (among many human villains). Like Shelley’s Frankenstein and its many adaptations—to which RoboCop is clearly indebted—Verhoeven’s film straddles horror and science fiction. RoboCop is a cyborg developed by Omni Consumer Products (OCP), a private corporation that “entered into a contract with the city to fund and run the Detroit Metropolitan Police Department,” as a newscaster (Mário Machado) explains. Because Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is killed in the line of duty, OCP owns his corpse and uses the remains to create the RoboCop cyborg (also played by Weller). One character detail involves Murphy’s memories persisting within—and sometimes clashing against—RoboCop’s programming. Flashes of memory manifest onscreen and establish Murphy’s consciousness as a ghostly presence within cyborg casing. In these ways (and others), RoboCop functions as body horror and even a ghost story of an intermittently present and absent identity.

RoboCop is embraced beneath a billboard for Delta City (RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

To varying degrees, two plot elements engage with housing precarity. Early in RoboCop, the OCP chief executive (Dan O’Herlihy) announces, “In six months, we begin construction on Delta City where Old Detroit now stands. Old Detroit has a cancer. The cancer is crime, and it must be cut out before we employ the two million workers that will breathe life into this city again.” Hence, the impetus for developing RoboCop (and a competing law enforcement robot) is OCP’s sweeping gentrification scheme in which a massive swath of the city will be replaced. What remains unresolved is Delta City’s impact on current residents, who seem destined to be displaced. As Sara Faraj reminds, housing displacement—particularly among Black residents—has historically accompanied urban renewal plans in Detroit.12Sara Faraj, “Urban Renewal Today,” Belt Magazine, November 10, 2021. RoboCop’s major narrative events are propelled by an exaggerated version of this actual history.

A memory flash of Murphy’s wife dissolves into the vacant bedroom in the present (RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

The character of RoboCop has a peculiar housing situation that carries notes of precarity and exploitative labor. As a cyborg owned by a corporation, RoboCop lives at work; when needing rest or nourishment, he sits in a chair at the police station and has no other residence. At one point, RoboCop is targeted for destruction and briefly squats at an abandoned industrial site. In another scene, RoboCop looks up the address for Murphy’s former home and tours the now-vacant house, which triggers a series of memories visualized onscreen. During this sequence, the camera oscillates among RoboCop’s present perspective, Murphy’s past perspective (within memories), and a neutral external perspective. After experiencing a vision of Murphy’s wife in the bedroom, a visibly distressed RoboCop rushes for the exit and punches a monitor displaying a simulated realtor.13RoboCop eventually learns that Murphy’s wife and son “moved away” and “started over again,” but it is not specified if the house is being sold for sentimental reasons or an inability to afford it. Inside this generic suburban home, horror conventions are infused with nostalgia. Like a ghost haunting a site of past trauma, residual traces of Murphy—a disembodied human trapped in a machine shell—are drawn to the vacant home where he once resided. RoboCop’s typically stoic demeanor momentarily falters when confronted with personal reminders about the precarity of identity and housing.

Although RoboCop concludes with its protagonist embracing his original name—Murphy—the moment is something of a hollow victory. He is likely returning not to a private residence, but to a chair or lab for repairs. Submerged within the science fiction, horror, action, and satirical elements, then, is the gloomy tale of a nostalgic Midwesterner who has lost his family, identity, and home. Such concerns align Verhoeven’s film with longstanding regional narratives of vacancy. In this regard, RoboCop is an important work within the history of Midwestern representation and a notable precursor to the Detroit-set horror films that have followed.

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