Watchmen: Pale Horse Explained

Watchmen reveals there was a Steven Spielberg movie called Pale Horse, and it has a deeper connection to the book.

This article contains Watchmen spoilers.

Since early in its first episode, HBO’s Watchmen has kept the catastrophic tragedy that concludes the book just within view of the audience. The events of Nov. 2, 1985, when New York City was seemingly attacked by an enormous squid from another dimension that emitted a psychic shockwave so powerful upon its arrival (and immediate death) in our realm that it killed over three million people, while injuring and traumatizing countless others. Despite the fact that the squid tragedy and the subsequent squid rains were a hoax engineered by Adrian Veidt to put humanity on a path away from certain annihilation via nuclear war isn’t accepted public knowledge (although the events of Watchmen episode 5, “Little Fear of Lightning” seem to indicate that may change before the season ends), after over 30 years, the world of HBO’s Watchmen still struggles with the aftermath of the deaths of millions in New York and the surrounding areas. 

That event is present in the mysterious squid rain that periodically falls from the sky. It’s there in the distant, haunted Wade Tillman (Det. Looking Glass) and the bunker he keeps in his backyard for safety. It even echoes in this world’s lack of internet, personal computers, and cell phones. And it’s also present in the form of an Oscar winning movie by the name of Pale Horse, directed by Steven Spielberg. As we learn in Watchmen episode 5, Pale Horse was a movie dramatizing the events of Nov. 2, 1985. Spielberg is no stranger to bringing real world events to the screen, having done it with films such as Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Schindler’s List, and others. 

But it’s Schindler’s List that seems to be the most relevant to Pale Horse in the Watchmen universe. Filmed in black and white, Pale Horse apparently features a scene with a young girl in a bright red coat, stumbling amidst the carnage of the giant squid attack. That mirrors a similar scene in Schindler’s List, which picked up Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, and also netted Spielberg a Best Director Oscar. It sounds like the Pale Horse movie might have replaced Schindler’s List in Spielberg’s filmography here in the Watchmen universe.

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But why is Pale Horse the name of the movie and thus one of the pop culture symbols of the 11/2 tragedy? That’s because Pale Horse was the name of the band that was playing at Madison Square Garden the night the squid materialized in Manhattan. They seemed to be a favorite of the knot-top gangs that are often seen on the streets of the book, and the scenes of carnage in a post-squid New York City in the book features piles of dead knot-tops at Madison Square Garden. 

According to an FBI memo on HBO’s official supplemental website, Peteypedia, Pale Horse was a death metal band. They then inspired a space rock band in the mid-90s called Sons of Pale Horse, who released an album called The Book of Rorschach. Amusingly, HBO released the first volume of the Watchmen soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as if it was a reissue of the Sons of Pale Horse album The Book of Rorschach, complete with liner notes complete with an essay from Seymour David, the New Frontiersman intern last seen reaching for Rorschach’s Journal in the final panel of the book. In fact, just go ahead and listen to the track “The Brick” on the soundtrack, and you can see how this is a suitable illusion. So remember this the next time you’re grooving to the Watchmen soundtrack, you’re not supposed to be listening to Reznor/Ross compositions, but rather an album by a fictional ‘90s band inspired by the fictional ‘80s band who were playing the night three million people were suddenly killed by a genetically engineered psychic squid in the greatest hoax in history.

The world of Watchmen is as deliciously weird as it is tragic and disturbing.

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Mike Cecchini is the Editor in Chief of Den of Geek. You can read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @wayoutstuff.