Many historians, writers and theorists over the years, such as Peter Lev (2000) and John Belton (2005), have surmised that vigilantism appears largely in American popular culture at times of great crisis or social upheaval, such as the American Civil War, the 1960s Civil Rights movement, and the post-9/11 era.
Whilst such claims are more or less accurate, they all overlook one key facet of vigilantism; it is true that such representations increase in times of social discord, yet vigilantism has, in any given format, always been a consistent feature of American popular culture, permeating the nation’s literature, comics, movies, TV shows, and video games since their very conceptions. The relevance of such persistence cannot be ignored, nor can the impact of vigilantism on the collective American psyche and identity.
The Origins and Significance of Vigilantism in American Culture
The rather romanticised image of the vigilante figure has evolved from early American fiction, which has similarly informed the development of contemporary film and television representations. The vigilante first appeared in early American ‘dime novels’ and magazines following the Revolution and Civil war eras, primarily in Western and Crime serials and novels. These included editorials and magazines such as Wild West Weekly (1902), Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) and Beadle’s Dime Novel “Wild Jim, The Traitor Spy (Beadle’s Frontier Series no. 3)” (1867). Western and frontier material naturally outweighed detective and crime stories until industrialisation, and capitalised on stories about mountain men, outlaws, settlers and lawmen who were taming the frontier (Demming, 1998: pp.4-7). Many, such as Wild West Weekly, focused on real characters like Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Jesse James, suggesting popular trends have crucially shaped romanticised representations of vigilantes alongside the depiction and development of vigilante themes. This makes clear that vigilantism lends itself more readily to specific genres that feature related themes such as social change, crime, law enforcement, victimhood and revenge. It is also of note that these themes occur more overtly in fiction following violent events in America’s history, indicating that social concerns and events have been consistently represented in, and mediated through, popular cultural forms.
Literary texts have undeniably influenced screen representations of vigilantism, which is primarily, though not by any means exclusively, located in key genres such as the Western, crime and detective genres. These genres also extend into cycles and sub-cycles of films that appear and fade away, responding to different social themes and problems as is evident in cycles such as Blaxploitation, rape-revenge, vengeful Vietnam veterans, and superhero films, amongst others. The majority of these films are generally considered to be ‘B’ movies, or genres that are widely antiquated and/or aimed at cult or niche audiences, like the Western or superhero narrative. As such, one can see from where the association of vigilantism as a seedy and disreputable yet romanticised part of American life has originated and evolved.
Notable early American literary works have also caused controversy by depicting themes of violence and vigilantism, as is evident in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), which caused uproar upon its release due to the novel’s vulgarities of language and content. The text features lynching, vendettas, murders, and extreme punishments such as tarring and feathering. Other themes common in vigilante representations are also present, such as poverty, abuse and racial victimisation. With this in mind, the evolution of the vigilante can be roughly traced from literature to comics and beyond into contemporary film and television representations, feeding from and building upon an image of vigilantism as one that is prevalent, yet often ambiguous in nature. Such ambiguity arises due to the illegal, forbidden status of vigilantism and its regular use as a tool of ‘justice’ in answering perceived problems in the American state. This crucially relates screen representations of vigilantism to wider taboos surrounding the topic’s problems and ambiguities in everyday life. Conversely, this website will demonstrate how vigilantism can be approached in order for it to be fully understood.
Existing Approaches to Vigilantism in American Culture
Texts that do discuss vigilantism in popular culture and with direct reference to social concerns are very limited (including the works of Peter Lev (2000), John Belton (2005), and David A. Cook (2000), amongst others). All of these texts discuss vigilantism specifically in relation to the early-1970s era and highlight social upheaval, social anxieties and other key concerns, such as the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and Watergate. They generally locate such discussions within specific genres and film cycles of the decade, such as crime and vigilante cop films, Blaxploitation movies, and revisionist Westerns. These texts are useful because they substantiate claims that vigilantism appears more in times of great social change and unease than at other times, and they point to particular areas of concern in representations of vigilantism, such as race, patriarchy and women’s rights. They also indicate a definitive shift from collective, social concerns, to that of the individual and personal attitudes and experiences during the decade, which more broadly reflects Madison and Brown’s key themes and patterns (two seminal theorists on vigilantism that are discussed frequently on this site). However, the tendency to restrict such discussions to the 1970s and its ‘Vigilante Revenge’ cycles, overlooks and ignores the relevance of vigilantism to other times and in other genres. Indeed, overall the discussions are quite short and centred on specific popular or cult films from the decade, such as Dirty Harry, Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974, Dino De Laurentiis Corp., US), Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971, Shaft Productions, Ltd. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., US), Walking Tall (Phil Karlson, 1973, BCP, Inc., US), The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971, D’Antonio Productions, Inc., US) and I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978, Cinemagic Productions, US), but rarely extend beyond. Nonetheless, the texts provide a useful platform, and suggest how such films provide great insight into vigilantism in American history, society and culture on a wider scale.
Considering the very high volume of vigilante themed and related screen representations from the origins of cinema to the contemporary moment, this relatively widespread neglect of its significance is surprising. Vigilantism has been discussed occasionally in relation to other themes and genres, such as in revenge or detective narratives, but there are no extensive discussions of the portrayal of vigilantism in contemporary popular culture, apart from occasional vigilante-themed essays on superhero movies and some others, such as the Saw movie franchise (James Wan et al, 2004-2010, Twisted Pictures, US) and Deadwood (David Milch, 2004-2006, CBS, US). Such essays include Tony Spanakos’ essay on Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009, Warner Bros. Pictures and Paramount Pictures, US) entitled “Super-Vigilantes and the Keene Act” (White, 2009: pp.33-46), and Justine Toh’s discussions of Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005, Warner Bros. Pictures, UK and US) in “The Tools and Toys of (the) War (on Terror): Consumer Desire, Military Fetish, and Regime Change in Batman Begins.” (Birkenstein et al, 2010: pp.127-140). As the latter title suggests, discussions of vigilantism are limited and are commonly situated as a by-product of other topical discussions. In Toh’s chapter for instance, key issues of vigilantism are sublimated and largely overlooked within a discussion of the representation of the actions of authoritative bodies in the post-9/11 era in Batman Begins.
Because of the distinct lack of research into the enduring presence of vigilantism in American popular culture, past and present, this section of the site intends to address the gaps in academic and critical study by offering a more nuanced discussion of vigilantes and vigilantism in American culture, popular or not!
Please click on the links in the ‘Culture’ header tab to read further information about vigilantism in American culture (coming soon!).
 ‘The Concord public library committee deserves well of the public by their action in banishing Mark Twain’s new book, “Huckleberry Finn,” on the ground that it is trashy and vicious. It is time that this influential pseudonym should cease to carry into homes and libraries unworthy productions. […The Huckleberry Finn stories] are no better in tone than the dime novels which flood the blood-and-thunder reading population. […] their moral level is low, and their perusal cannot be anything less than harmful.’ Anonymous review in Springfield Republican, March 1885.