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SYFY WIRE Feminist Horror Month

C.H.U.D. and the lack of empathy for homeless populations

By Stephanie Williams

When a society lacks empathy for its most vulnerable, no one wins. Why do some of us choose to ignore distressing situations others face, especially when those very same situations could be knocking on your back door at any given moment? Too often it takes crises reaching epic proportions, finally affecting the "right" group of people, for something to be done. There is a great privilege in having the ability to ignore certain situations because they simply don't apply to you, and that is why that kind of privilege should be checked frequently, lest you end up surprised when you're in a position that forces you to reckon with what you've been blissfully ignorant of.

In the 1984 horror movie C.H.U.D., written by Sheppard Abbot and directed by Douglas Cheek, homeless individuals who reside in abandoned subway tunnels are the victims of a government cover-up of harmful activity performed by one of its own agencies. The Nuclear Regulatory Committee was prohibited by New York City government officials from transporting toxic waste underground because it would put the greater public at risk. Unbeknownst to them, however, the NRC decided to store the waste under Manhattan in an abandoned subway tunnel. The toxic waste eventually begins affecting underground dwellers who come in contact with it, turning them into flesh-eating mutants. A significant amount of these underground homeless begin disappearing, and no one bats an eyelash except a man named AJ who runs a local soup kitchen in the area. Most people wouldn't be inclined to care about a community forced to live in abandoned subways, but AJ actually thinks about these people because he can sympathize with them.


Earlier this year, in the days leading up to the Super Bowl in Atlanta, many members of the homeless community stressed concern and fear over how the city planned on dealing with them. There were rumors about the city cracking down on homeless camps and jailing individuals or removing them from the streets, rumors that implied the government would be sanitizing the city so that it looked more appealing. Of course, city officials stressed that wasn't what was going on, but it's not that far-fetched of an accusation. It's important that there are groups like the Southern Center for Human Rights to investigate potential actions against and advocate for homeless individuals.

What happens in C.H.U.D. is what happens in real life — maybe not the flesh-eating mutants part — but the lack of concern until the problem grows out of control because there aren't enough people to stand up for vulnerable populations. AJ had been reporting the missing individuals who would frequent his kitchen for weeks, but no one at the police precinct took his claims seriously. AJ believed it to be some sort of government cover-up given the lack of response from the police department when it finally came down to investigate. We find out later that AJ was right the entire time. The detective who finally does decide to look into the problem only does so because his wife went missing in the same area, increasing his interest in the uptick of missing persons in the area.

Detective Bosch pays a visit to AJ upon learning he made reports of missing persons in the area that weren't officially filed because the cases were weird and because the individuals lived underground. He then finds out more about the underground dwellers and AJ's conspiracy theory about what may have happened to them. In his investigation, he discovers his superiors knew more than they were letting on. They had been taking orders from someone who worked for the NRC named Wilson. Bosch confronts Wilson about how the NRC plans to deal with the toxic waste and the flesh-eating mutants they've created. Wilson wants to gas the tunnels, choosing to asphyxiate the cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers and non-mutated underground dwellers who may still be in the tunnels — a seemingly quick fix to such a disastrous and deadly problem that was ostensibly taking care of the homeless for the city until they were no longer available on the menu.


Maybe if those people who had sworn to protect and serve their community grew a pair and decided not to be complicit in covering such a massive public problem, the detective's wife would have still been alive, and more importantly, the underground dweller population wouldn't have been reduced to a food source. In fact, there would be no cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers to begin with. It's sad the only interest in the homeless prior was limited to photographing them for a news article. A photographer named George Cooper was working on a project involving a series of pictorials on the homeless, specifically the underground dwellers. They don't hold any kind of value outside of voyeuristic consumption for someone's article treating their living underground as interesting instead of concerning. The reporter writing the piece refers to them as subterranean bums. This doesn't sound like an empathetic way to refer to a vulnerable group of people. The concern should be in questioning the city's distribution of resources, or lack thereof, that forced a population to resort to living in spaces not meant for human habitation.

The New York City officials in C.H.U.D. failed to keep the public safe by prohibiting the NRC from moving toxic waste underground. If the police department was in on the coverup, it's safe to assume those same city officials were aware of what the NRC ended up actually doing with the waste. It is plausible to believe they knew where the waste was being stored but thought of it as no consequence — because either they didn't know about underground dwellers or they didn't care about them. The flippant disregard for public safety by the NRC is very clear. Wilson goes out of his way to ensure the coverup stays under wraps. He actually hires someone to follow AJ and Bosch, and they go as far as locking AJ in the sewers to prevent him from getting the story out to the news.

If it weren't for AJ's initial concern for his soup kitchen's patrons, the NRC's coverup would have gone unchecked, and even more, people would have been harmed. AJ sympathized with the people who frequented his soup kitchen because he shared some of those experiences with them, being on and off the streets himself. But it shouldn't take sympathy to show concern for others, nor should it take being directly or indirectly affected by a crisis for empathy to finally blossom. When we choose to ignore problems not affecting us, those problems eventually end up at our back door — or in the case of C.H.U.D., we find ourselves being consumed by them.