They Live

One summer, after spending three months backpacking through the mountains of Southern and Central California, I walked out of the woods and hitched a ride to Reno, California, where I boarded a bus to Seattle, then hopped immediately in a car and ended up in Vancouver, Canada. As soon as I stepped onto the street there, I was overcome with a sort of claustrophobic anxiety. I hadn't yet identified what was going on. I just felt off.

That afternoon two friends and I took a long walk through Stanley Park. Once the din of the traffic faded behind a thickening wall of old-growth forest, my anxiety waned and I felt like I could breathe again, but I still didn't clue into what was going on inside me.


It wasn't until I exited the park back into the city that I realized what was happening. The sensory assault of 600,000 people generating $110 billion in economic activity was provoking an actual, physical stress reaction. Every direction I looked, there was an advertisement. Colorful, flashing, un-ignorable. Even my olfactory bulb was pulsing with marketing, as restaurants crowded onto every block poured their exhaust onto the sidewalk. EAT A BURGER. EAT RAMEN.

There's a famous quote, often misattributed to Banksy, that argues that advertisers have "rearranged the world to put themselves in front of you," and points out that "they never asked for your permission." Never before had I truly internalized what that meant like I did in that moment in Vancouver. Every billboard was suddenly "a rock thrown at [my] head." I was being stoned by war profiteers, enriching themselves at my expense through their battle for my attention, and it pissed me off.

There's a 1988 movie called They Live. The gif posted above is a direct reference to that film. I highly recommend it, both for anyone who feels like they've worn the sunglasses, and for those who haven't yet identified the source of that feeling of being under attack. The alienation is real people, and it's intentional.