Friday, 11 October 2013

ALC201 Module 3 Essay: Digital Media and Surveillance Use in The Purge (2013)

The Purge (2013) is a film that introduces a low crime North American society in the near future, all thanks to a single annual day during which crime is legal – murder, vandalism, theft – so that citizens can ‘purge’ their anger.

The audience is brought into one particular household, introduced to the protagonist characters (a family called the Sandins), and depicts an eventual home invasion on the day of the annual ‘Purge’. The use of technology utilised by all family members through the film both helps and hinders their crisis. 

One example of these is the official footage feed displaying the effects of the ‘purge’, not only to the public of the film, but to the audience as well; utilising this digital media to tell the film’s narrative. This feed is available on televisions within people’s homes, and the footage itself is CCTV footage in public places; hitting home the gravity of legalising crime for the night.

The official government surveillance being circulated through the public raises some interesting questions on privacy and distribution ethics. This film may be set in a near, dystopian future, but are there not regulations for the use of CCTV and its distribution?

Levin (2002, p.578) notes the particular use of CCTV cameras today and the ‘dataveillance’ taking place, comparing such methods to dystopian ideas and themes in Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. The omnipresent effect of surveillance and the possible uses for such footage is not lost within Levin’s text, and this sequence seems to visually articulate these fears in The Purge.

Another example of digital media use through the plot is the security system placed on the house for the family’s use in the ‘purge’ to keep them safe. This is symbolised by a separate room with the footage from the house security cameras. Charlie Sandin; being able to see the outside and letting the attacked man obtain sanctuary in their home becomes the driving point of the story; who is this man? Is he dangerous, is he armed, does he want to hurt the protagonists?

Screencap from The Purge (2013) of the family’s surveillance system and their multiple screens

The situation is worsened when an armed group arrive at the house and ask for him alive; this interaction takes place entirely through the surveillance cameras, where the family is safe inside their house and guarded by the wonderful technology that surrounds them. At least, until their power is cut by the group.

People have been conditionalised to feel ‘safe’ in the presence of such technology. Turner (1998, p.93) explains in the following how surveillance technology works, within an effective manner.

“Indeed all forms of surveillance, but particularly massive or magnified surveillance practices, or panopticism, are employed throughout Western bureaucratic and capitalist institutions to enhance predictability, risk assessment, security, identification, efficiency, and control.” 

Turner’s explanation of panopticism and its use in Western society in surveillance allows the observer to observe everything and asserts control. The Sandin’s house and extensive surveillance footage (while seemingly exaggerated for a family home) provides the observer the advantage of seeing without being seen, and this takes panopticism to a new level in regards to surveillance and technological developments in the narrative’s imagined future.

Another use of digital media is the toy surveillance camera, foreshadowed near the film’s beginning and utilised much later, by Charlie Sandin. The film includes camera angles of the floor to reveal the presence of the small surveillance camera. This later becomes important to the narrative when an attacked man seeks refuge in the family’s home and needs to hide. Having eyes and ears everywhere allows Charlie to hide the man, through which most of the story is again utilised through the camera’s live footage. This is again another example of Turner’s explanation of panopticism (1998, p.93); being able to see everything without the observer seen themselves.

This technique of storytelling allows the viewer to feel more suspense in the scene, especially when Charlie’s older sister Zoey decides to hide in the same spot and discovers the fugitive.

Another surveillance worth discussion is the one carried out by the film’s audience. The audience is receiving an ‘all-access’ pass to the lives of the Sandin family; all of their actions, movements and decisions during this family crisis. The audience is especially privileged with the information that Zoey’s boyfriend Henry has stuck into the family home and is now trapped inside. Their reunion is barely censored for the audience and the film’s classification rating, and the male gaze has taken hold as the camera lingers on Zoey’s short plaid skirt and long legs.

Hollinger (2012, p.22) incorporates Laura Mulvey’s discussion of the male gaze in cinema while discussing Hitchcock’s film Vertigo (1958), and her arguments certainly apply here in The Purge. Zoey has been objectified by the filmmakers, which is evident in camera movements and costume choices (the ‘sexy schoolgirl’ archetype), and these choices have been ‘justified’ because her boyfriend is not a legal adult; making their ‘relations’ more legal than, say, a man ten years older engaging in the same acts with Zoey. Zoey’s underage status has been made irrelevant by the filmmakers and their decisions.

While the surveillance carried out is not all strictly by the characters of the film, it is quite clear that all forms of surveillance need to be taken into account when discussing digital media use and surveillance.


Hollinger K 2012, Feminist Film Studies, Taylor and Francis, retrieved 11 October 2013, Deakin University Library e-book database.

Levin TY 2002, ‘Rhetoric of the temporal index: surveillant narration and the cinema of “Real Time’‘’, in Levin, TY, Frohne, U and Weibel, P (eds.), Ctrl Space: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, ZKM, Karlsruhe, pp. 578-593

Turner JS 1998, ‘Collapsing the Interior/Exterior Distinction: Surveillance, Spectacle, and Suspense in Popular Cinema‘, Wide Angle, vol. 20, no. 4, October, pp. 93-121 (Deakin Library e-journal database).

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