Unaddressed Trauma is Horror, or, You Can Make Friends with Your Trauma

Content notes: death of loved ones, violent death, death of a pet, genocide, white supremacy and anti-Blackness, immigration and related violence

ABSOLUTE SPOILERS for His House and The Babadook.


            There are so many ghosts.

            But what is a ghost? I don’t know what you believe, but I used to believe that ghosts are the spirits, the leftovers, what remains visible or tangible on our plane, of human beings who have passed over. Maybe the occasional non-human animals, like a particularly well-loved cat. One dead person = one ghost. And I see this reflected in a lot of horror: a house is haunted (often, in US horror cinema, the house is currently occupied by a white family who for whatever reason refuse to leave this house).[1] And maybe sometimes that is true.

            But what if ghosts are sometimes something else?

            There is a ghost that has followed me, and possibly my brother, since we were children. If you’re interested in learning more, you can hear my story on the phenomenal podcast Stories With Sapphire, a real-life paranormal podcast narrated by the thoughtful and charming Sapphire Sandalo. You should listen to that podcast either way – it is so refreshing to listen to a podcast run by a woman of color in a field dominated by really eye-rolly white men.

            But I digress. This ghost, spirit, Thing, that first appeared staring in a mirror in the dead of night in upstate NY and was last seen lurking outside a room in Nashville where I was receiving acupuncture, doesn’t seem to be that one to one ratio of one dead human equals one ghost. Instead, as Sapphire suggested when she shared my story, it seems to have been created whole cloth from the trauma that existed in the house where I grew up. And here’s the thing about trauma: it follows you. It lives in the body.[2]

In effect, trauma possesses you.

            Ignoring our trauma, drinking to deaden the thrum of our trauma, moving states, drowning through lovers like six packs – none of these things will help us escape our trauma. Not really. The only way out is through. We must face our pain to heal, we must allow ourselves to open to the fullness of our broken hearts and minds, and only by walking on that glass will we heal, and not escape our ghosts, but befriend them.

            Because what is a ghost if not a trauma?[3]

            Today I want to discuss two of my favorite horror movies, one of which I have already discussed on the blog –The Babadook and His House. Both of these movies feature specific, unsettling hauntings that are not the typical specter of small child or wailing woman in white.[4] Both of them have also, perhaps, unexpected endings – where the ghost is not exorcised, but welcomed. It took me a second viewing of The Babadook to understand, or interpret, the movie as about befriending our trauma. His House is more literal with it. They both are gorgeous, terrifying, fun films, and I highly recommend you watch them before reading any further.

            The Babadook (2014, directed by Jennifer Kent) is about a white woman and her young troubled son living with the memory-ghost of his dead father, her dead husband. The death of this man and his spirit are silent characters in the film. There are scenes of bright light, memories of a car accident. The son, who is a very earnest and irritating character, has never met his father, as his father died in a car accident bringing his mother to the hospital to deliver him. A subtle then direct blaming of son for father’s death is another ghost in the film, blood dripping down the frame.

            But these ghosts I name aren’t the central specter – the eponymous Babadook – of the film. They are dim hauntings on the edges of the film, coating the more dramatic scenes with the Babadook in them. So here’s the story: father died. Single mother struggles to raise her, as previously described, troubled son who gets in trouble at school and does dangerous, exasperating stunts. He constantly talks about monsters, about protecting his mother, and he therefore builds elaborate weapons. He gets kicked out of school or maybe she pulls him out. She is isolated, stressed, her main adult connection her sister, who pushes her away after she is uncouth at a party with sister’s well-heeled, husband-full friends, and her son pushes his cousin out of a treehouse when she makes fun of him for his father being dead.

           All stressful enough, but meanwhile a book shows up, with creepy black and white drawings: The Babadook. At first mom reads it to son, but she stops when it gets violent. The book said the Babadook will come into the house, will stay with you, will get you eventually. The drawings depict a man-like creature with a top hat and lots of teeth.

            Things start happening, small at first, of course. Phone calls with no one on the other side, except someone gurgling “Ba….baaaaa.. doooooook.” More typical haunting stuff – creaks, things seen slithering out of the side of your eye. I give this movie a solid grade in terms of scare factor. Son is having nightmares and sleeping with his mother, who therefore can’t sleep. There is a scene where she pulls out a dusty vibrator and is starting to pleasure herself, only to open her eyes to realize her son is there, wanting to crawl into bed with her. Pleasure denied for duty. It is a stark illustration of what she lost – love, sexual satisfaction, joy – for what she gained – a needy little boy who couldn’t and shouldn’t fill the void left by husband.

            Mom begins to spiral as things get weirder. She puts her son on sleeping medication, which he begs her not to put him on as it makes him feel weird, but she insists. As the haunting escalates, she burns the book, only to have it show up on her doorstep, unscathed. The book depicts her killing her dog, her son. She believes she is being stalked and goes to the police station, only to be laughed off by the police (typical) and scared off when she sees a hat and coat hanging up that look like The Babadook.

            As Mom loses her grip on reality, the family is visited by the Australian equivalent of Child Protective Services, worried because of son being pulled out of school. They return one day when she is hammering a hole in the wall she saw cockroaches pour out of – only, when she tries to show them the insects, there is nothing there. Another time she serves her son soup that she realizes has broken glass in it. She grabs it away from him and searches his mouth for glass.

            And still, The Babadook. More sightings, more intense, more frightening. It is taking over their home and their sanity, perhaps even taking over the mother – she begins to act violent towards her son. She contemplates the knives in the kitchen. She keeps falling asleep and waking up holding the knife. She threatens her son and he calls a neighbor, an elderly woman who babysits him sometimes and worries about them. Mom shoos away the neighbor and afterwards cuts the phone line. Trauma never addressed turns stagnant, then toxic, then abusive. She is violent, unhinged, she fucking kills the dog. She pulls her own teeth out of her mouth.[5]

            And the son sticks by his mother, who by now is blaming him out loud for his father’s death. He tells her constantly that he loves her, that he will protect her from The Babadook, even when she tells him to shut up, possessed by her own trauma that is personified by The Babadook. Eventually, she cannot resist anymore, and The Babadook fully possesses her. After she tries to kill her son, he manages to tie her up – in the basement, surrounded by her husband’s things, which she had previously yelled at her son for looking at and touching. He exorcises the demon – by hugging her and telling her he loves her, over and over. That he doesn’t blame her. She ejects The Babadook through black projectile vomit.

            What makes this movie really interesting to me – and what I didn’t understand my first watch – is the ending. Mother and son are happy, finally celebrating his birthday – which previously she had avoided because it was her husband’s death day. Son is still annoyingly earnest, doing magic tricks. He helps his mom gather earthworms, which she brings to the basement. He wants to come and she says when he is older.

            Down in the basement, in the corner, is The Babadook. He screeches and Mom lets him scream. She says, shhh, shhhhh, I am here. It’s ok. It’s ok. He quiets. She feeds him earthworms and he eats. Life goes on.

            When trauma isn’t acknowledged, when it isn’t held gently and given space to scream, it makes itself known. And it will do so louder and louder until the screaming is all you can hear. Until you scream too, until all you can do is spread the pain around, volatile and bloody and unable to keep yourself from hurting the people you love the most. In this movie, that was represented with The Babadook (where the name came from, no clue). Only when the mother was able to face the pain and grief of her husband’s death – supported by her son’s unconditional love – could she live with her trauma. Not exorcise it. Invite it in.


            His House (2020, directed by Remi Weekes) is a very different movie with some similar themes: grief, unimaginable tragedy (on a scale much larger than the personal tragedy of The Babadook), the ghosts that trauma brings and we cannot ignore. Add to this volatile mix the violence of immigration bureaucracy, racism, and colonialism, and that is His House – a movie seemingly about two South Sudanese refugees moving into a British haunted house after escaping war in their home country.  

            Since I went over the plot in the previous post about this movie, I won’t get too deep into specifics except for things pertinent to the theme of befriending your trauma, along with the ending of the movie – so if you haven’t watched it yet, stop reading! Watch it first. Then continue.

            Bol and Rial are a couple who fled South Sudan to the UK. They risked a lot to escape, including turbulent ocean waters in a small boat, which capsized and drowned their young girl, Nyagak. In the UK, they are immediately treated with suspicion and disdain: by immigration officials, immigration bureaucrats/”social workers,” their neighbors and community, white and Black alike. They are isolated, in a crumbling, ratty apartment that their terrible social worker complains is “bigger than his own.” Bol, the man, tries to take to British custom with glee, even eschewing his wife’s homecooked traditional meals for British food and forks, while scoffing at his wife wishing for home.  

            Things are not right in the home. Not just the sadness and dis-ease of Rial and Bol, but something… else. At first, small sounds. A scratching behind the wall, probably just rodents. But then, the noises earn faces, including a spirit with Nyagak’s face, and an older man with a knife. It seems Bol is specifically targeted by these entities, who grow in number and aggression. Bol and the spirits conspire to drive him mad, as he literally tears down the walls trying to find them.

            Bol believes they brought the spirits with them from South Sudan, and forces Rial to give him all her precious keepsakes, including a necklace from Ngayak. He burns them – but it doesn’t work.

            The spirits return, as does the necklace – Ngayak gives it back to Rial. The spirits increase in vehemence, including the spirit with the knife that threatens Bol. This spirit, as explained by Rial, is an apeth – a night witch, seeking to get Bol to pay his at-first unclear debt. With blood.

            As the spirit activity increases, the movie increases its time-splitting, going back and forth between the present day activity and what happened with Bol and Rial in South Sudan. Rial, running away from Bol (who tried to trap her in the house when she threatened to leave him and his also increasingly erratic behavior), runs and hides in what turns out to be a memory: the classroom where she hid from violence in her hometown. She is greeted lovingly and excitedly by her old friends, to her confusion.

            We learn soon enough that all of these friends were slaughtered. Rial managed to survive by hiding, and was found by Bol. Together they walked – and walked, and walked – to a truck taking refugees away. They were alone.

            As they arrived, the bus was full and not letting anyone else on, unless they had children. Bol, seizing the opportunity for survival at any cost, grabbed a young girl from her mother and said he was her parent. He and Rial were allowed on the bus with the screaming girl, Ngayak, torn away from her mother. We see her mother run after the truck, only to be gunned down.

            So this was the truth haunting them all along – in a split second decision, Bol kidnapped a child to save himself and his beloved. Perhaps he consoled himself that he was saving the girl as well – but not her actual mother – but then she died anyway, drowning in the sea on their way to refuge. She may have died, but she has not left them. Not in peace, anyway.

            Back to the present. The apeth demands Bol’s life in exchange for Ngayak’s – he chases Bol and tells Rial to give Bol over to him. Consumed by his guilt, Bol decides to allow the apeth to take him. He is saved by Rial, who slits the apeth’s throat, saving Bol.

            As the film concludes, the couple is visited by their terrible social worker, who they inform that they wish to stay in the house. When the social worker asks sarcastically about the witch, which Rial had clued him into, Rial replies,

            We all have ghosts – it’s when you let them in that you can learn to live with yourself.

            The shot pans out, showing the house filling with ghosts – Ngayak, folks who died when the boat capsized, other folks who died in the violence the couple fled – but no longer are they hidden in the walls or within shadows. They stand proudly next to Rial and Bol, survivor’s guilt cast aside.


            We all have ghosts. Denying they are there only gives them more power. We each have the choice to acknowledge, face, and befriend our trauma. Only then will the hauntings cease.

[1] I use the word “occupied” strategically. Others have written about how these classic horror tropes of white family feeling entitled to the space they have purchased and seeing any ghosts as invaders of the privacy and property they rightfully own are an excellent metaphor for settler colonialism. White people, or people who will become white, come to a place, don’t care about who had to be discarded or pushed aside to get there, and don’t want to deal with the trauma their very presence creates for the land and the original inhabitants. It also assumes property as something that can be owned by an individual or single family unit. Ghosts, therefore, are unsettling. White people and settlers, if this analysis makes you feel uncomfortable – can you dig beneath that feeling to look at why?

[2] I have cited to the very influential and popular book The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk. I have found this book very helpful in my healing journey and in supporting the healing of others, as have many folks. However, I want to give a few caveats: first, the author was called out by staff for his abusive behavior and was fired from his own center. Also, he is a white man who does not acknowledge the serious and very real trauma of living in this world in a marginalized identity – I am not sure he ever even mentions race, for example. So please check it out if you want to learn more about the body and brain impacts of trauma and how one can heal, but take it with a grain of salt, knowing a lot is being left out or unacknowledged (ironically, creating more trauma). Please comment or email nooneisinnocenthorror@gmail.com with any more up to date and inclusive resources!

[3] What is a monster? (A monster is one who has been wronged and seeks justice.) Why do monsters interrupt? (Monsters interrupt when the injustice is nearly forgotten. Monsters show up when they are denied; yet there is no understanding the monster.) How does one get rid of a monster? (here is no permanent vanquishing of a monster; monsters can only be deferred, disseminated; the door to their threshold can only be shut on them for so long.) –Eve Tuck and C. Ree

[4] Babadook’s monster has, somehow, become or was a bit of a Pride icon.

[5] This is at least the second movie I have seen where someone traumatized pulls their teeth out of their mouth, but I can’t figure out the exact symbolism. I tried googling it and came up flat. If anyone has any ideas or thoughts, email me at nooneisinnocenthorror@gmail.com.

Bad Boring Lazy Horror Movies are Horror – Teaser Post

Content notes: Discussion of ableism, death (including of children), discussion of white supremacy

Spoiler alert: A Quiet Place (2018, directed by John Krasinski)

            I hated A Quiet Place, and I’m going to tell you why.

            I’m busy in my non-blog life, with three jobs, several random gigs, and a catastrophe family, so I am behind on a regular post (working on one about the ghosts trauma leaves behind – and making friends with them – stay tuned!). Instead enjoy this less serious teaser post about how much I hated A Quiet Place.

“Ok real talk how the fuck did it take until all of humanity was dead for them to realize they should play a loud sound to fight the monsters with ultra hearing”

my friend Lee

A Quiet Place, which until editing this post I believed was called The Quiet Place, is a post-apocalyptic movie featuring literally only white people somewhere in Upstate NY or somewhere else with pretty fall trees and hills. With no exposition of how it happened, most of humanity seems to have been wiped out by merciless monsters who are blind and have super sensitive hearing. The only way to survive is to be very, very quiet – as we are shown almost immediately, when an adorable child is torn off screen when he puts batteries in a toy rocket and plays with it, with ensuing noises. That child’s family, now comprised of a mother, father, daughter, and son, are virtually the only humans in the film, and they survive in large part because of their rudimentary knowledge of ASL thanks to the Deaf daughter.

            I didn’t watch this movie when it came out – not for a solid political reason, but because it just looked deeply uninteresting to me. Maybe it was political, in that I didn’t want to watch another white family scrappily try to survive something, especially with no character development or any reason I should give a fuck about this family. I decided to watch it this week because the second one just came out, and I believe I am ready to watch something in theaters, and the remake of Candyman isn’t out yet.

            So, I watched it. And, walk with me.

            I won’t even get into the tired racist trope of innocent sweet white family battling the scary black monster. They could have chose any other color for the monsters to be. At this point, having a monster with black skin is as good as deliberate.[1] And I won’t repeat what others have said about the utter thoughtlessness of casting an entirely white cast, who are “silenced” by a big black scary enemy, particularly in the time of Black Lives Matter.

            Ok, racist, check, how about the ableism? It’s great they cast a Deaf actor to play the Deaf character – seriously, it’s important that Deaf people are represented in media and play themselves, just like with other marginalized communities. But her father, the annoying character from The Office, is obsessed with getting her cochlear implant to work. When a friend convinced me to watch this movie, she said there is a scene where the Deaf daughter tells her father to stop trying to make her not Deaf. That would be cool – but the scene is actually cast as her having a temper tantrum, telling her father to Just. Stop. Working on the cochlear implant. I doubt Krasinski is aware of the political implications of trying to force Deaf people to wear hearing implants.

In fact, by the end of the movie, the Deaf character (I don’t know anyone’s names) realizes how much her father loved her – her father, who heroically sacrificed himself to save his kids, fucking YAWN – by seeing all his work on her cochlear implants. Also, at the end, when they figure out the feedback from her implant hurts the monsters, she is only able to hurt the monster by harming herself. This feels so typical for a marginalized person busting their ass to save all the non-marginalized people in the room. For an excellent takedown on how The Quiet Place perpetuates ableist tropes that being Deaf – surrounded by silence – is ultimately tragic[2], and that medical interventions like cochlear implants literally save the day, check this article out. Also, I learned in doing research for this post that cochlear implants cannot, by their design, make feedback noises. Womp.

            So, the movie is racist and ableist (also sexist, in that the dad insists on taking his youngest living child, a son, out to “learn to survive”, even though the son doesn’t want to go and the older Deaf daughter does) – is that all? No. It’s also fucking lazy and full of plot holes. The cinnamon-tography might be amazing (being that upstate NY baby, I loved the sweeping views of autumn red gold trees), but it is such a manufactured adrenaline ride that by the end, I was too bored for my heart rate to go up. I thought the first scene of the youngest son being killed by a monster was jarring and scary, but from there they just keep ratcheting up the intensity, until the scene when the dad screams himself to death and I just wanted the movie to be over.

            The scene with the mother going into labor was too fucking much – she’s alone, she goes into labor, she steps on a fucking nail and screams, and it just keeps escalating and escalating. We, the audience, do not catch a break in this movie. That being said, why are they even fucking having a baby in the middle of this apocalyptic mess? Babies are gonna cry. That is what they do. What a fucking entitled white family thing to do, to bring a child into the world that guarantees putting everyone else in danger because they feel like it.[3]

            And then the son falls into a fucking giant sinkhole of corn? That is too much drama. And why doesn’t the monster sink into the corn when it comes after them? The movie is too dramatic for a bunch of underdeveloped white people I do not care about, and the plot holes are bigger than the monster’s ears. Why are the monsters so obsessed with humans, and why do they just immediately kill them? Surely there is a bunch of other stuff to eat. Also, how do the monsters tell the difference between the sounds of, say, a creaking swing, and a dropped lantern?

            Anyway, that’s all I feel like saying about that. 2/10, irritating and problematic movie. Will I see the sequel? Eh, probably. I want to sit in a movie theater.

[1] Also, isn’t the monster just the monster from Stranger Things? But like, the way the face opens up is slightly different and they have big ears? Lazy.

[2] I liked the silence of the movie, I found it calming. It was gross to me how elated the hearing characters were about shouting and speaking aloud. In fact, I found the speaking parts to be jarring and irritating.

[3] Also, apparently the enforced gender binary exists in the Stranger Things silence apocalypse, as the parents repeat “It’s a boy” to each other before they even know where their other kids are. Gross.

Abuse is Horror II

Intense content warning: eating disorder, intimate partner violence, abuse, physical and psychological violence, rape and sexual violence, child sexual abuse, graphic murder

            Spoiler warnings (big time): Things Heard & Seen, The Power

            Recently I watched two movies that were excellent at portraying abuse in a nuanced way – how abusers manipulate and charm their way through exerting power and control over their intelligent and autonomous targets, how bystanders play a role by ignoring or excusing the red flags and abuse, and the different ways survivors or victims[1] claim their own resilience through fighting back in ways large and small. The movies diverged sharply, however, in their endings (this is a major spoiler post!): one leads up to a dramatic finale where you believe the abuser will get what’s coming to him and the survivor will escape but at the last minute it goes the opposite way for no apparent cinematic or thematic reason; the other really has you thinking the survivors are going to die at the hands of the smarmy abuser who has the respect of his peers – when they suddenly turn the tables on him, kill him with the help of a ghost, and escape. Guess which one I liked better?

            “Nowhere is home with you, George.”

            Things Heard & Seen (2021, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini) is a movie about a white straight couple moving into, you guessed it, an apparently haunted house. Catherine is an art restorer with an illustrious career in Manhattan, whose husband George just received a professorship in very rural upstate NY (y’all know I grew up in rural upstate NY, so I loved the setting). Despite the warnings of friends around sacrificing her career for his, Catherine believes she owes it to George to move to upstate and abandon her life, friends, and career. Early on in the movie, we are shown Catherine’s eating disorder (she takes a bite of cake at George’s graduation party and then throws it back up).[2]

            Things are eerie almost immediately in Chosen, NY. There are parallel tracks of unsettling circumstances: the first, the seen, are happenings in the house that Catherine and her daughter (whose name I have no idea, this child was barely present in this movie despite being a plot device) see: lights dimming and brightening, a rocking chair rocking by itself, strange smells of car exhaust coming and going. When Catherine brings up weird occurrences to George, he dismisses them and tells her to stop going on about the house being haunted – which she actually didn’t name until much later. It’s *almost* like he knows something about the house he hasn’t told her.

            Meanwhile, as things in the house continue to escalate, another horror is revealed slowly to the audience: the heard, the abuse dynamics perpetrated by George that are at first subtle and then undeniable. George increasingly isolates Catherine, calling her crazy for every legitimate concern, and denies her every need and desire to fulfill his own. The abuse is so subtly portrayed at first I am having trouble recalling specific circumstances until the more intense and obviously violent behavior closer to the end of the movie: but that’s part of the problem with how we excuse abusers in this society, right? Everything is plausibly deniable, maybe just in the survivor’s head, until they are caught in such a web of power and control that even attempting to extricate themselves proves incredibly dangerous. It is well documented that just before leaving and when attempting to leave an abusive partner is the most dangerous time for survivors.

            Without listing every horrifying, controlling, gaslighting, belittling, violent behavior by George, suffice it to say I was impressed by how well the movie portrays an abuser. He was not, at least at first, obviously monstrous. I hated him immediately (but frankly I have a bit of a bias), but he was mostly just boorish and obnoxious. He immediately attempts to cheat on Catherine, but that’s shitty behavior, not necessarily abusive (later woven in as part and parcel of the abuse dynamic). He is also charming: his female students fawn over him. A white woman professor, Justine, says to George later that she doesn’t trust a professor whose students worship them. George responds by “playfully” forcing Justine into a violent game where he grabs her wrists and refuses to let go, insisting she wants to be caught. Point by point, the movie built an excellent, realistic abuser.

            Alright, cool cool cool, abuse is horror yes, but what about the ghosts? At first, Catherine is scared of the events in her house, but everything that happens around her seems to be leading her in the direction of learning more about the original inhabitants – and attempting to lend her support. After she finds a bible with a list of family names – and one scratched out, with the note DAMNED scribbled next to it – she learns of the pastor and wife who built the house. It turns out the wife was an early adherent of spiritualism, which the pastor condemned. She died under “mysterious” circumstances.

            A theme underlying the movie is that the spiritual and the physical are inherently connected. The school George is teaching at has a lot of proponents of a spiritualist scholar, who was mentioned in George’s thesis and was a major reason George was hired. Strangely(?), George could not really carry on a conversation about this scholar with the department chair. The department chair gives George a book by this spiritualist, which he discards at home. He doesn’t believe in what he does not hear and see – even if others hear it and see it.

            Catherine finds and devours the book, and ends up connecting with this department chair, who holds a séance in her house to connect to the ghosts. According to the aforementioned scholar (whose name I didn’t write down and I can’t find in a quick google search) and his proponents, everything in the spiritual world is connected to and affects the physical world, and vice versa. This tracks with Catherine’s experience, who realizes that the ghosts in her house seem to be educating her about and protecting her from George. She also realizes through the séance that there is another, malevolent, entity in the home.

            Soon, Catherine learns at a party that there are more secrets related to the house – and secrets related to her husband. The previous owners of the house were also a straight white couple – the man was abusive, violently so, and ended up killing his wife (with a knife or an ax) and himself by closing all the windows and letting the house fill up with gas. George knew, and in fact threatened several people to keep them from telling Catherine.

            This isn’t the only secret George is keeping – at the beginning of the movie, he mentions he won’t let anyone read his thesis because he is anxious about it – we slowly learn that he forged the letter of recommendation he put in his application, because his advisor would not write him one. In fact, his whole life seems to be forged. He tells a story about a cousin who died at sea whose journals he devoured: later we learn that paintings George had passed off as his own for years were his cousin’s.

            The movie devolves quickly, and infuriatingly. As Catherine realizes the extent of the isolation and abuse George has wrecked on her, George is doing everything he can to cover up his mountain of lies: first, bizarrely, he kills the department head who confronted him about lying on his application, making it look like an accident on the water (perhaps like his cousin?). When Justine confronts George as well, he follows her in his car and rams her car off the road. She ends up in a coma. George is offered the department chair position. Catherine makes moves to get out of the house – but George catches her. The most dangerous time.

            Gaslighting is a common theme throughout this movie – George constantly gaslights Catherine, and the ghost mirrors this by dimming and brightening the lights. Always, the fellow survivors (ghost women killed by their abusers) are there to affirm and amplify what Catherine is experiencing, while George mocks Catherine for thinking the house is haunted. This is also surely a reference to the original source of gaslighting.

            George is, simply, entitled white male mediocrity. George has never in his life created an original thing of beauty or intrigue; he is a parasite sucking off the life of marginalized people (his gay cousin, his wife, his Black advisor) and passing off their genius as his own. When he was confronted by the department chair about forging his admission materials, he insists that he merely wrote the recommendation he deserved, with no mention of why in fact he deserved this. It’s implied he didn’t even write the thesis he submitted.

            This movie gets more and more exciting until it collapses in a frustrated heap. George can’t keep killing off everyone who knows his secrets: he killed the department chair, yes, but only put another professor who knows his lies in a coma. Catherine also knows, and she is prepared to leave him to fester in his worthlessness: but then George sees the packed car, feeds Catherine a drugged smoothie, and runs off with their daughter. Later he fucking takes an axe to Catherine, murdering her, joining the other dead abused women in the house. What the entire fuck????? After he gets questioned by the police chief and he realizes the world is closing in on him, he steals a boat and seems to sail off into a storm, presumably dying there: the storm is the painting featured on the cover of the spiritualist’s writing his advisor gave him, and I assume that is supposed to mean something.

            But it is deeply, deeply unsatisfying. Infuckingfuriating. Ultimately, George was able to choose his own ending, while to the end Catherine never had any agency, except to deprive herself of eating. Maybe that isn’t quite true – she held seances, forced him to visit his parents, went to a women’s lib meeting – but ultimately she wasn’t able to escape his cruel hands. Not alive, anyway.

            Alternate ending: Catherine doesn’t drink the drugged smoothie. She leaves with her child (why is the child a non-entity in this movie), and just as George tries to stop her physically, the ghost grabs him and drags him away. Catherine escapes while the ghost slams all the windows shut, turns on the car engine, and George asphyxiates. Everyone believes he killed himself because of the shame of having forged his way into a professorship. A better, more satisfying ending that my friend and I wrote in like two minutes. Wtf directors. We don’t need more media where women are victims of men. That’s not educational or empowering. It’s boring, lazy, and probably even actively harmful.


            The title Things Heard & Seen reminds me of a theme of this blog, which is that which we fear exists in ourselves – true horror is being a complacent bystander to the violence around us and enacted in our names. Throughout the movie, multiple friends, neighbors, and colleagues recognize that something is wrong with Catherine, see red flags from George, but never intervene. How can we build a world where people are empowered to step in safely, without prompting more harm against the survivor? Right now we are socialized to ignore potential abuse no matter how worried we get. How many lives could be saved if that weren’t the case?


            But sometimes, survivors fight back, and win. To jog my memory, I read two reviews of The Power (2021, directed by first-time director Corrina Faith), and the one by the white dude missed the point so hard it doesn’t even deserve a clever metaphor. This movie is a slow burn – I was actually really bored at first, and wasn’t going to finish it, but after getting myself a whole pizza I decided fuck it, I’m too tired to choose anything else, and by the end I loved it.

            The Power is about a young white lower-class nurse, Val, who gets a job in a London hospital in the 1970s, when mining strikes are causing rolling blackouts. Class is an ever-present entity here, as is its cousin race, and the two intertwine: the hospital where Val works is a hospital for low-income patients, many of them people of color and immigrants. Staff constantly belittle and deride the patients, calling them “animals” and that they are responsible for their own misery. Val, sweet and naïve, is shocked by this behavior.

            Power has dual meaning here: the electrical power, which shuts off at night due to the strikes, giving a creepy ambience to an already unnerving hospital. It also refers to power dynamics: those between the (female) nurses and (male) doctors, the uneven hierarchy between the nurses themselves, and racialized, classed, gendered power dynamics. Val is mocked for both having come from the poor community and orphanage this hospital serves, and for supposedly making up a sexual assault accusation against a powerful man that she lived through as a child. Staff lament that Val “ruined that poor man’s life.” This trauma is also connected to Val’s fear of the dark.

            Val is punished by the head nurse for supposed insubordination when she deigns to answer the questions of an attractive and charming male doctor (“male doctor” is repetitive in this context, but I insist): punished by having her first shift be the graveyard overnight shift. Because of the strikes and ensuing blackouts, the hospital’s patients are moved to a place with power, leaving only the most vulnerable who cannot be moved: elderly people, folks on life support, and infants. A generator powers the few floors where these patients stay.

            As I said, the movie is a slow burn. There are creepy moments – a door creaks open on its own. Val smells unexplained ash in the air. But the frights aren’t really cranked up until later on in her first night shift – the entire movie takes place over just a couple days, mostly centered on this single night, minus flashbacks – when Val is forced to explore the hospital in the dark, without a flashlight (taken by a bully nurse).

            Of course, that’s when she encounters the ghost.

            And soon enough, is possessed by the ghost, in scenes crafted for real horror aficionados. Just like when she was sexually assaulted, no one believes Val about the ghost – who appears like a little girl. Turns out to be a former ward of the hospital and orphanage, who no one liked because she also “made up lies” and was dirt poor – hmm. In the possession scenes, Val takes a knife to herself and to the people around her, including a nurse who knew that little girl when she was alive.

            Once again, at first, we think to fear the ghost. But the truth turns out to be more complicated. The ghost possessing Val is a little girl who was sexually assaulted – then disappeared/murdered – by someone in the hospital. She is trying to get her revenge, and she is trying to warn Val.

            The ghost is also trying to protect another character, a young girl of color, Saba, who is taken with Val. Val was kind to Saba when other caregivers were dismissive or cruel to her, and when Saba was supposed to get moved to another hospital – with that charming male doctor mentioned previously – she hid instead, coming out in the darkness after everyone else had left for the night. Saba tries to warn Val and everyone of an evil in the hospital – and again, no one believes her (in part due to their racist reactions to her limited English). Saba, however, isn’t scared of the ghost, and she isn’t scared of possessed Val either, even when Val warns her to get away or she might inadvertently hurt her.

            Somehow, Val, Saba, and a lot of the others make it through the night (not at least one nurse who tried to run away and fell out a window, and not a sleazy maintenance guy who aggressively tried to sleep with Val – a possessed Val set him on fire). That morning, Val is confronted by her supervisor and some old white dude who is presumably in charge. She tries to explain to them some of the things she learned in the night – that a young girl was abused and probably murdered at the hospital. Val says her name – and the white man in charge says no one by that name was ever at the hospital. Val’s supervisor’s reaction tells us the truth.

            Everyone assumes Val is crazy – everyone always assumes survivors are crazy. She is left in the children’s ward by herself to – I don’t know, sleep it off? Saba is taken from Val, but leaves Val with her sketchbook, which Val looks through. She realizes through the drawings that the evil in the hospital Saba warned of – the entity she was so afraid of – is that twice mentioned charming male doctor. Who just took Saba away again. The clever, charismatic white male doctor, who has been getting away with raping and killing children in poverty, children he and others believe won’t be missed, don’t have any power.

            But guess who ends up having The Power in this movie?

            Val sneaks away from her ward and finds Saba. They try to sneak off together, but are caught by the abuser doctor. Val decides to sacrifice herself, telling Saba to get away, while Val leads the abuser doctor to the basement, to the furnace, where the ghost girl herself was murdered, by the same doctor.

            Here is where the movie takes a dramatic turn that positions it in opposition to Things Heard & Seen: Val is attacked by the doctor when she confronts him, and he tells her that no one will notice if she disappears forever (classic abuse tactic). Instead of him succeeding the way George did, however, Saba shows up. As does the ghost. Working together – literally screaming, using their combined voice – they kill that DAMNED doctor, and escape. By working together, by refusing to be silenced, by realizing their own power, they kill their collective abuser, and fucking survive.[3]

            Now that’s the kind of horror movie I’m trying to see. And hear.

[1] Traditionally, people in the United States who experienced abuse or a crime have been called “victims,” especially in the criminal legal system. Some folks find that disempowering, and choose instead the word “survivor.” I identify as a survivor and often default to that term. However, not everyone identifies with the word “survivor.” It is important to refer to people respectfully, which also means using the words they use to self-describe. Every victim, every survivor, is different.

[2] I’m irate about the eating disorder. I don’t understand why it was included – was it supposed to be the only thing Catherine controlled? How much she ate? It mainly serves as a plot device to deliver some good lines: “I wish everyone would stop blaming everything on how much I’m eating!” and “I’m throwing up this marriage, George.” Lines aside, I don’t know why this is part of the plot, and to me just serves to further pathologize the survivor.

[3] I believe it should go without saying that I don’t believe in the death penalty – for any person or any crime – and I believe in transformative justice, justice and accountability that exists outside of punitive, violent systems. However, this is a movie, and in a genre and culture soaked in the blood of women and survivors, where violence against women is just a plot device, I think survivors killing their rapist in a movie is radical. For more on the peaceful coexistence between the sentiment “Kill Your Rapist” and transformative justice, check out Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories From the Transformative Justice Movement, edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, especially “Vent Diagrams as Healing Practice” and “Every Mistake I’ve Ever Made.”

Environmental Racism is Horror

This horror movie starts with a government’s promise to right a historical wrong. Smiling city officials, white and Black, line up in front of beautiful brick homes. Behind the politicians stand Black families, kept from generational wealth through redlining and loan denials, each family promised one of those gleaming new homes. The homes loom in the background, grinning their straight brick smiles. These New Orleans homes are state of the art for 1960, and they have a front yard and a back yard. Porches.
            Welcome, they say. Welcome to the American dream.
            The city of New Orleans sells these homes to working class Black families at a steep discount. Coming soon! A brand new elementary school to serve these families and their sweet children. State of the art.
–   xxx      –
            Two weeks after moving in, a young man is digging in his yard. He wants to plant trees, food to eat. Autonomy through property that will accrue value, with space enough to grow vegetables so the food desert of the upper ninth ward doesn’t keep him or his wife from fresh, healthy food. As he digs, his hands bleed. Broken glass, shard after shard, spit from the earth. Like teeth.
            That’s strange.
            Children develop asthma. After more time, adults and children get cancer diagnoses at alarming rates. It isn’t just glass shards that the earth under these homes rejects: it is massive amounts of garbage. It is old containers too worn down to reveal their prior contents, the only markings remaining a skull and crossbones. And —
            Warning: Toxic.
–    xxx      –
            In this case, the horror movie I describe has a name, but isn’t actually a movie: Gordon Plaza. The neighborhood in New Orleans built on a superfund site. Homes knowingly built on a toxic waste dump – one that once burnt trash so constantly that neighboring folks called it Dante’s Inferno – that for decades piled trash considered too toxic for “normal” landfills. The landfill was shut down when it was deemed too toxic, then reopened when Hurricane Betsy devastated the ninth ward neighborhood of New Orleans and more space was needed for the resulting strewn trash.
            Gordon Plaza was developed as a subdivision in 1981. After garbage began exploding out of the earth almost immediately, the EPA tested the soil and found 150 known contaminants, 49 of which are known carcinogens. In 2006, residents won a class action lawsuit that did not provide enough money for relocation or restitution for the plethora of sicknesses that residents have suffered and died from.
 It’s 2021 – and Gordon Plaza is still demanding a fully funded relocation
It is not an accident that every single resident of Gordon Plaza is Black and working class. In a lot of horror stories, the monster is at once simple and looming, in the shadows but with its tentacles protruding out of the soil in front of our very eyes. But this monster we can defeat – together.
Want to learn more and hear from the residents themselves? 
Want to get involved or donate to help a fully funded relocation? 

Capitalism is Horror

content note: mentions of genocide and chattel slavery with some references to specific violent tactics taken by white settlers.

            A deep, gnawing hunger. A hunger so insatiable it rips through the skin and creates a noise of its own, a deep guttural growl that doesn’t so much exist in the air as it does thicken it. How hungry would you need to be to eat the still-warm, beating heart of a pig? Of a small child? Of your mother?

            What if, succumbing to that eternity of hunger, you eat the heart of your mother and your hunger still is not sated?

            Have you heard of the Wendigo?

            Why is the white man so afraid of the woods?

            Many settlers[1] on Turtle Island who are interested in the paranormal seem to have heard of the Wendigo, even reporting seeing the creature in frosted northern woods. A Wendigo is Indigenous folklore originating from Algonquin/Great Lakes/Anishinabe peoples. There are similar legends in other nations in the colder parts of Turtle Island, including my grandfather’s people. While exact characteristics vary, the general idea is the Wendigo is a powerful entity driven by insatiable hunger. Often, a Wendigo was once human: either transformed into or overtaken by a Wendigo if driven by deprivation or greed to eat human flesh. A Wendigo eats and eats and cannot be sated.

            There are obvious parallels to capitalism and settler colonialism[2] (Winona LaDuke, famous Indigenous activist, has written about the Wendigo as capitalism).

Under capitalism, growth at all costs is considered positive: when we purchase and consume, that is a sign of a “healthy” economy. Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man and founder of Amazon, saw his wealth increase exponentially under the pandemic (personally earning over 7 million every HOUR since March 2020), where stay-at-home orders saw more people ordering things online. But stay-at-home only applied to the white collar and middle class or above: as the union struggle growing out of Bessemer, Alabama shows us, the demand for 2-day shipping and Bezos’ greed meant Amazon workers are/were forced to work non-stop under punishing conditions for 9 to 12 hours, penalized for pee breaks (with ‘non-work time’ deducted from their paychecks). By the time I got this post out to publish, the union drive lost their first election in Bessemer thanks to Amazon shelling out millions of dollars to intimidate and confuse their staff – and engage in union-busting to the level of getting Bessemer to change its traffic light signals in order to stop union canvassing during red lights – but the struggle continues.

            It is not lost on me that Amazon refers to the lungs of the planet, which are currently being stripped, burned, and desecrated in the name of global capitalism.

            Settler colonialism, the brother of capitalism, is likewise an insatiable monster: gobbling up land, seeing ancient trees as only resources to be logs instead of brethren, killing buffalo only as a means to more effectively eradicate the people who were here first, willing to slaughter or forcibly assimilate any Indigenous who remain.

            In the United States, both capitalism and settler colonialism are taken as a given: maybe something to be tinkered with around the edges (raise the minimum wage, offer land acknowledgements before a talk), but never dismantled or overthrown (stop assuming the only way to structure a society is giving our labor in exchange for money required to meet our basic needs, give the land back). In such a culture, a Wendigo is just a monster, something to be experienced/consumed, the sighting of which is a collectible item. Settlers who think they see the Wendigo (which is to not discount that they saw something or that the Wendigo may literally exist) miss the point: the Wendigo is a warning against greed and acting only in one’s immediate self-interest against the needs of community. The Wendigo is a reminder that we are connected, bound up in one another.

            Not only are we connected to one another as members of the human community, but we are connected to all the world: the breathing trees, the bugs and birds, the weird deep sea, even the Sasquatch. Colonialism and its gross progeny whiteness (a social category made up to justify hierarchy, chattel slavery, and genocide) aim to separate humanity from nature, as if we are not a member of nature, and crown humanity as lording over nature. That hierarchy is what allows for seeing everything in nature as only a resource to be consumed – when in fact we are devouring our own flesh.

Wait though – the Halluci Nation said it better than me, and to a beat: “The Halluci Nation, the human beings, the people, see the spiritual in the natural, through sense and feeling. Everything is related, all the things of earth, and in the sky, have spirit – everything is sacred. Confronted by the AlieNation, the subjects and citizens see the material religions through trauma and numb. Nothing is related. All the things of the earth and in the sky have energy to be exploited. Even themselves, mining their spirits into souls sold, until nothing is sacred: not even themself.”

            Horror tropes perpetuate this destructive disambiguation: how many horror movies have you seen where the forest looms, dark and foggy, with some kind of music underscoring the fear of the woods? The Ritual (2017, directed by David Bruckner) sets a group of white men in Swedish woods where the woods themselves take on a persona of intimidation. The woods play a similar role in the lesbian murderer (yawn) flick What Keeps You Alive (2018, directed by Colin Minihan), and a pagan connection to the earth is the entire villain in the 3rd season of the new Sabrina. Often I feel it is taken for a given in horror that the woods and nature are somewhat alien and foreboding, but that is a cultural perspective – a harmful one.

            The white man (as my grandfather would call them) makes up all kinds of stories about specters in the woods, missing the entire time that he is the Monster.

[1] I define “settler” in this particular context as someone who lives in North America and is not descended from Indigenous inhabitants or from people who were kidnapped and brought to the Americas as part of the chattel slave trade. I recognize this is complicated – unsettling, if you will – because it implicates people of color, not just white people. While I think there are important differences for Brown settlers and white settlers, I still think it is important for every settler to think about their relationship to this land and the original inhabitants. I welcome other perspectives and pushback! Even as I write this, I am like, what about refugee and economic migrants? What do you think? An honest, not rhetorical, question.

[2] Settler colonialism is where people not originally from a land come to that land and seek to not only exploit the resources there, but also establish their own colonies there, typically seeking to erase, subsume, or control the original inhabitants. This is distinct from merely extractive colonialism, where colonists seek to extract resources from a colony but not create their own state there (although it still obviously has damaging impact on the people living there).

Ableism is Horror

Content note: Discussion of ableism, mention of incest, mass shootings by white people, violence against disabled people, suicide (mass and individual), gun violence, death of a pet dog, religious abuse and cults

Spoiler alert for The Lodge.

Why are we afraid of what we are afraid of? Disability as a shortcut to “scary” is so prevalent in horror as to be a trope, and much has been said about ableism in horror.

From characters whose disfigurement represents the evil inside them (Freddy Krueger’s burnt face), to psychosis rendering a villain evil (Mike Myers, characters with split personality), I don’t need to go much into examples because the internet abounds with them.

            And this is not relegated to the 80s horror film – we see it in recent films too, where physical disability is an easy way to denote “be scared of this” –  think the Ruben character in Midsommar, an intellectually disabled and physically disfigured child of intentional incest, whose few moments in the film literally zoom into his non-normative face.[1]

            And disability still too often represents what we’re scared of more broadly. I listen to many, many true paranormal podcasts (too many?), having started with a classic, Monsters Among Us. I have such a love-hate relationship to this podcast – it has people call in with their real paranormal experiences, so the stories aren’t edited, and generally it doesn’t dive any deeper into the fucked up stereotypes it plays into. More than once someone has called in saying they have seen a cryptid or paranormal entity, when it sounds to me like they are just describing someone with physical disfigurement or antisocial behavior. In my own life, I remember a particular time in a haunted house – one of those paid Halloween haunted houses – and having someone apparently legless crawl after me, one hand dragging themselves, the other with a chainsaw. It was scary to be chased by someone with a chainsaw, but clearly part of the intended effect was that this person didn’t have legs.

            My point is “disability = scary” has been a lazy trope in Western horror since it began (Phantom of the Opera with his scarred, skull-like face?), and that this has an effect on real life. When we consider people with serious mental illness to be evil and irredeemable, it makes it much easier for prosecutors to convince jurors that an alleged murderer is a “psychopath” and therefore should be put to death. It means that when white people go on an actual murderous rampage, they are deemed “mentally ill”, ignoring the fact that mentally ill people are much more likely to be targets of violence.

            What feels more interesting to me than another reading of horror as ableist is observing how that history can be subverted. There are movies where the disabled person is the hero –  Hush and A Quiet Place have deaf protagonists whose disability gives them power and agency – but I want to discuss one that is a little more subtle – The Lodge (2019, directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala).

            The Lodge is a movie I kind of hated but also found really compelling. I hated it because it felt like the kind of psychological torture porn that feels more frequently used in modern horror (it was directed by the same people who did Goodnight Mommy, which literally was just children torturing their mother, so I should not have been surprised). It was painful to watch, more unsettling than scary – as I have said before, I love a good jump scare. On the other hand, I enjoyed the twists, and while I saw the end coming, I liked the subversion the ending created.

            The movie opens with shocking violence: after learning that her ex-husband, Richard, is about to marry a young woman he met while researching cults, Laura commits suicide onscreen. It is a graphic and jarring scene, setting the tone for the movie not pulling any punches.

            When Richard’s new wife, Grace, is first seen, she is blurry and creepy: familiar to those steeped in the genre, she is being presented as untrustworthy and potentially malevolent. We see her from a distance, behind fuzzy glass. Richard’s two children, Aiden and Mia, dislike Grace and blame her for their mother’s death. Aiden refers to Grace as a psychopath. We have already been tacitly encouraged by the film to support the kids, watching them grieve for their mother and support one another.

            Richard decides that an excellent bonding experience will be for Grace and the kids to spend some time in an isolated lodge for Christmas; to encourage the bonding, he plans to leave them alone for a few days. After being told this, the kids research Grace and find the grisly details of her father’s Christian cult: she is the lone survivor of a mass suicide. They watch a very eerie video reminiscent of found footage horror: the cameraperson walks slowly down basement steps to a bunker, where dead bodies positioned on beds are draped in purple silk, with duct tape on their mouths that say “sin.” The film ends with the cameraperson filming herself in the mirror – a young Grace, with the “sin” duct tape over her mouth. Again, the audience is led to believe that Grace is the creep factor in the movie.

            At the lodge, both Aiden and the audience learn that Grace takes some kind of psychiatric medicine and hides this from Richard. She is upset by the all Catholic iconography in the house, and turns over religious paintings, only to have them returned face-up later. Triggered by this iconography, she is beset by dreams of her father. Creepy things start happening in the lodge: Mia’s doll, who possibly represents her mother, goes missing and ends up in Grace’s luggage. Little things here and there, which almost suggest Grace is being haunted by the dead ex-wife.

            After tensions rise with Aiden, Aiden makes hot chocolate for Grace and they fall asleep watching movies with a gas space heater on. Grace wakes, groggy and disoriented, much later than expected, to find that the generator has gone out and her belongings, along with all of the Christmas decorations, food, her psych meds, and even her pet dog are all missing. Of course she suspects the kids – but their belongings are gone too. With the generator out, her cell phone is dead. Aiden tells Grace he dreamt that they suffocated from gas fumes and expresses his fear they are in the afterlife.

            Over the following days, Grace unravels. She is foggy, suffering from intense anxiety and medication withdrawal, cold and hungry. The clocks all say January 9th – weeks after she went to sleep. She begins sleepwalking and the children wake up to her standing over them. She hears her father’s sermons in her waking state. Desperate, she decides to try to walk to the nearest town in a snowstorm. She hallucinates seeing her father and ends up back at the lodge, frostbitten and panicking. In the snow, she finds a photo of the children in a memorial frame.

            Inside, the children are praying over a newspaper article from December 22nd that states the three died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Aiden says they are in purgatory, and to convince her this is no prank, hangs himself – but survives. This causes her fragile mental state to completely collapse – and then she finds her dog frozen to death outside (I know, it is so fucking horrible – you can always check out https://www.doesthedogdie.com/ for this kind of and other trigger warnings).

            Grace goes into a catatonic state on the porch. Fearful now that she might actually die, the kids admit they were gaslighting her all along: they hid everything in a crawlspace, including her medication, and were playing her father’s sermons on a loudspeaker. Grace is unresponsive. They try to get in touch with their father on their cellphones but can’t get the generator on. They are in over their scheming little heads.

            Ultimately, the kids’ bullying backfires in the worst of ways: by the time Richard returns, Grace fully believes they are in purgatory and can’t die. To prove it to him, she plays Russian roulette with a gun (I believe Richard gave it to her earlier in the film): first pointing it at herself, then at him. Richard loses, and is shot to death in front of his children. They try to escape in the car, but get stuck in the snow, and Grace brings them back in. The final scene is Grace singing a hymn at the dinner table with Aiden and Mia’s mouths sin-duct-taped shut and Richard’s corpse propped up. She still has the gun.

            A surface reading of this film still recreates ableist tropes: a mentally ill person and survivor of religious abuse ends up killing at least one person, probably three. But to me, this movie illustrates misunderstandings our culture has about traumatized and mentally ill people – that they are monsters, scary, beyond redemption. This movie played with those assumptions: showcasing Grace in just dim enough light to suggest untrustworthiness, someone to fear. Really who we should have been fearing the whole time is the young boy, and to a certain extent his sister (who seemed a little dragged into the mess, but still should have known better). Without his gaslighting, lying, and intentional triggering – oh, and literally stealing her medication? – the violence in this movie does not exist (and the dog does not die). In this film, the disabled protagonist is the victim of ableism, and the reveal asks us as viewers to questions the ableist assumptions we might have had in the buildup to the climax.

[1] Don’t worry, I have a planned blog post for Midsommar – on whiteness as horror.

Assimilation is Horror

Content note: mention of rape and pregnancy caused by rape, delving into racism and white supremacy, discussion of the violence of immigration bureaucracy, mention of civil war, death (including the death of a child)

*Some spoilers for Culture Shock and His House, but not the full ending for either.

            Originally, I was going to name this post Borders Are Horror, but I wanted to get more specific. Yes, borders are bloody lines hacked on the curves of the earth by colonists and capitalists, and migration without regard to these scars is a human right. And when powerful countries exploit and sew chaos in less powerful countries (as understood through global politics, not value of the people in those countries), we should expect that people will try to leave them in an effort to care for themselves and their loved ones.

            But this post is about what happens once someone has left their country –  with papers or without – and experiences the brain/body terror of leaving behind the self you were just by crossing an invisible man-made border. Out one skin and into new. Culture Shock (2019, directed by Gigi Saul Guerrero) and His House (2020, directed by Remi Weekes and co-starring the inimitable Wunmi Mosaku, who yes, you recognize from Lovecraft Country) both tell the story of desperation leading their main characters to cross those borders into an alien land, but finding only additional horror in the land where they seek asylum. And what kind of horror is it to be told that the way you have always existed in this world is wrong and you must change your very shape to be accepted?

            Culture Shock, as one review and interview with the director pointed out, is several movies at once: it is about the terror of trusting a coyote to help secret you across an invisible line and through treacherous desert, it is about the fear and violence men inflict specifically on women who trust them (but delivers on a sweet and very satisfying rape revenge arc – worth watching despite my spoilers for that alone), and culminates in a strange sci-fi Matrix-y element. Really, watch this movie. It is excellently acted and gripping, and also illustrates the lengths that people will go to find themselves a better life. But I want to focus on the in-between (I do so love the in-between).

            Marisol is a pregnant woman trying, for the second time, to get into the United States from Mexico. She is pregnant from getting raped by her lover on her first attempt into the United States, and narrowly eludes rape on this second attempt. It is gritty and difficult to watch. She also befriends a young boy on the trip, doing her best to protect him, as well as a gruff heavily tattooed fellow traveler, Santos. As if the terror of territory and abusive humanity weren’t enough, the group is ambushed by ICE agents (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or the modern US Gestapo).

            She wakes up in… a paradise? Reminiscent of Pleasantville or Edward Scissorhands, Marisol finds herself in a pastel-streaked American dream, a small town with diverse shades of residents, headed up by a smiling white male mayor. Marisol is greeted by Betty, a sickly sweet white woman who wraps her caretaking arms around her and doesn’t let go. Marisol has had her child, who Betty keeps at arm’s length from her, while encouraging Marisol to meet the rest of the town. The rest of the town exists in an idealized suburb, where they prepare together for Independence Day festivities and eat “American”[1] food together – pizza, hamburgers.

            But this is nightmare Marisol can’t wake up from – every morning, she opens her eyes to the same day, different pastel dress. She doesn’t remember having her child, and is prevented from holding her child. She sees Santos, dressed like a banker in a button up and sweater, and they find they can’t speak together in Spanish. The horror of this forced sameness is drawn out, as the viewer also struggles to figure out what is going on, and as the shots get more grotesque: lips smack and chew loudly on the oh-so-“American” food. If you are a non-immigrant watching this movie, you might start to question things you consider normal and non-frightening.

            Essentially, Marisol, Santos, and who knows how many other immigrants are forced to exchange the vibrancy of their past, full selves for the dull pastels and sameness of manufactured suburban “American” life. None of the food, language, culture, or self they brought along with them. And are expected to be grateful for it.

            Eventually, Marisol figures out what is going on. I’ll let you watch to find out how, and what. This is a tough movie to get through, but so well done and incredibly satisfying at the end.

            His House is, in many ways, a more typical horror movie, using the trope of a haunted house to talk about trauma, with hefty doses of jump scares.[2]  But like Culture Shock, this movie also begins with a crossing: Bol and Rial play a couple who flee war in South Sudan with their daughter, Nyagak, crossing stormy waters to seek safer life in Europe. The boat capsizes and many drown, including Nyagak.

            This scene of turbulent seas contrasts sharply to the next: Rial and Bol in administrative immigration hold (read: prison), where they are granted conditional asylum by a dour panel of British bureaucrats, who wonder aloud where their daughter is, without addressing the couple directly about her or acknowledging the great tragedy and pain that brought the couple before the panel. This asylum truly is conditional: when they are shown their rotting, garbage-filled apartment by the most British social worker ever (I think Dr. Who? I haven’t even seen that show and somehow that information lives in my brain), the social worker lists every single thing they aren’t to do: no candles. No friends over. No smiling. They aren’t allowed to get jobs, but they are given a piddling stipend on which to live. And be grateful!!

            Bol takes to his new home with abandoned ease: he goes to the pub and sings along to the football songs (even while sitting alone, stared at by the white football fans). He searches for typical British clothes, literally buying the same outfit as an advertisement (even while being stalked by the white security guard, Bol unaware he is being haunted by racial profiling). He commands Rial eat with silverware instead of her hands (even while she notes it makes the food taste metallic, and ignoring that she lovingly made him homey food with British ingredients). He, all the time, feverishly says that he will be “good,” one of “the good ones.” Good compared to what? For who?

            Meanwhile, Bol is driven to crazed desperation as the house fills more and more with spirits. It starts small – a voice behind the wall, footsteps. The buildup is creepy and well-done. Quickly enough, the spirits earn faces, including the spirit of Nyagak wearing a mask and a mysterious man with a knife. They live in the walls, particularly the wall in the living room, where Bol obsessively hunts for them: at times pulling out a soaked, seaweed-wrapped rope, at other times literally tearing the walls apart searching for the spirits.

            Bol, at first, tries to go through the system in dealing with the haunted house. He returns to his social worker, Dr. Who, and asks to move due to rats. Another white character, perhaps an intern, notes that Bol’s house is “bigger than” his house – something Dr. Who had also said bitterly when first showing them the place. The implication being that Bol and Rial should be grateful, even for the dingy falling apart place, and perhaps they are even getting more than they deserve. Dr. Who also attempts to bond with Bol – saying he used to work in a bank too (as Bol did, in the before), and “we all end up in places we don’t expect” – as if falling down the social ladder from banker to bureaucrat is even remotely comparable to watching loved ones and community violently die and fleeing one’s entire life only to be told to be grateful to live, materially unsupported, in a country that in every conceivable way informs you that you are not wanted as you are, and only barely tolerated if you change. The horror of whiteness asserting itself as dominant and without empathy.

Bol is punished for tearing apart the walls, even though they were already falling apart, when Dr. Who and another immigration bureaucrat come to do an inspection after Bol asked him if they could move. Out one side of Dr. Who’s mouth he promises to try to support Bol and Rial to keep them from getting deported, and out the other (outside, to the other white man) mocks the couple, how Rial is dressed, and says they are definitely getting deported.

            Good for who? To what end? Can they ever really be “good enough”?             

Rial says as the men drive away,

“It is what they want – they want to make us feel crazy. It makes them feel like big men. It makes them forget how sad, lonely, and bored they are.”

(I paraphrased that from memory).

            This film plays with time, as you learn more and more about the days leading up to Rial and Bol’s fleeing from South Sudan. I’m not going to give away the ending here, because it is a good twist, great movie (top in my 2020 list), and also going to feature in another one of my blog posts (about becoming friends with your trauma). Bol believes that they brought the spirits with them from South Sudan, and so forces Rial to burn everything they brought with him, including a small trinket from her father and Nyagak’s necklace. Unsurprisingly, this does not work – and Nyagak’s spirit returns the necklace to Rial. You can’t ever really burn up the dead.

            What is the price of freedom, if it means forgetting your original tongue? Forgoing your cultures and deepest held beliefs? Can you call that freedom?

            And, our mirror: what are the horrors we are currently inflicting on people who migrate to the United States and Europe? Concentration camps, forced separation of families, disease. What further horrors are inflicted to the people who are begrudgingly granted permission to stay (on unceded lands belonging to tribes who were here before whiteness was a social reality)? What kind of world could we build instead, where differences are celebrated and borders are just a barely-remembered line in the sand?

            A note on the culture in His House: I speed-read a few reviews of His House because I was trying to see if the South Sudanese mythology used to create some of the ghouls in this story were accurate or problematic. I couldn’t find anything by someone from the culture assessing the movie, but I did find a couple articles by people who appeared to be white men (judging from their small bio pictures and manner of writing), and I want to name that they gleefully pointed out that Rial was harassed not just by white people, but by Black teens as well, mocking her accent and telling her to go back to Africa. I feel like these reviewers were trying to say, see, “Black people can be racist and bad too!” in order to distance whiteness itself from violence and pain. But I think those reviewers miss the point: to me, this is more of the horror that is embracing whiteness as a culture to be embodied and placed on a pedestal, or more succinctly, internalized anti-Blackness (of course, we don’t know if these boys are immigrants from Africa, my guess is they are not meant to be – but clearly they are pinning her language, accent, and mannerisms as Other that they wish to not be associated with). Anyway, I am not familiar enough with the spirituality and ontology in question to know if it was treated respectfully, but it is my hope and takeaway from the movie as a whole that these ghosts were meant to be culturally specific, not scary because they were African. Please comment if others felt or know differently!

[1] American more correctly refers to North and South America, as I learned from South American comrades. Referring to things or people from the United States of America as “American” unjustly and incorrectly centers the United States as the most important place in the Americas. I use the term here for that effect – the horror of hegemony, if you will.

[2] Let it be known now, before we get too far into this blog, that I fucking love a jump scare. I want that adrenaline and I don’t believe it will ever get overplayed.

Gentrification is Horror

            It turns out it is hard to have a blog that requires me to be independently motivated while also dealing with chronic depression and hustling to pay bills without a regular job during a pandemic. So… another week without the kind of in-depth post I was hoping to have.

            What I would like to do instead is just tell you to watch a great movie. Lately I have been on a vampire kick with a friend (we watch movies at the same time while video chatting), everything from A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (moody Iranian black and white revenge fantasy) to Lost Boys (campy 80s romp). If vampires, then yes. So far we have also watched What We Do In the Shadows, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Let The Right One In (the original Swedish version), Interview with a Vampire (the gayness of it! Also though the sexualization of a girl, not ok)… and, the favorite by far, Vampires vs the Bronx.

            In much of horror social commentary is understated. Exploring that subtext is what interested me in starting this blog. What might a vampire represent? Ableism, fear of a shadow self, fear of sexuality and pleasure.

            In Vampires vs The Bronx, there is no subtext. Vampires are rich, white gentrifiers intent on taking over the Bronx for themselves. Who stands in their way? Plucky Black and Brown teenagers of course, and their devotion to both their community and vampire slaying as depicted in Blade (the next on my vampire movie list).

            I’m not going to go much into the details of this movie because it doesn’t require pulling apart – it is set right in front of you to enjoy. I do want to bring up, lest you think this is all in fun, the way gentrification truly is blood-sucking: real estate vampires clamp their teeth into a “struggling” or “underdeveloped” area and suck out everything of value, leaving it white, bland, and full of stores that the original community members can’t afford or sometimes even fathom needing (the movie has an artisanal butter store – when I lived in Portland, OR, there was an artisanal salt store in a formerly Black neighborhood). The movie nods to both the structural elements of gentrification (the vampire real estate company with a logo that is a clear homage to Vlad the Impaler) as well as its individual foot soldiers: a white woman runs into the main teenage characters and insists she won’t call the police! In real life, of course, we know what white women do. And let’s never forget the original gentrification that created the United States – when white settler colonialists came over to steal land and resources from the land’s original community, using as a tool of state-building the kidnapping and enslavement of Black people – when they couldn’t kill all of them, displacement to a reservation and disenfranchisement from the new state finished the job.

            Anyway, watch this movie. It’s fun, it’s silly, the evil in the movie is actually something evil so you don’t have to feel conflicted watching it. There is also a bodega cat (kicked out for violating codes, another tool of gentrification). Also, drop your vampire movie recommendations!

            For a great resource and case study on gentrification, check out How To Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and The Fight for The Nieghborhood by P.E. Moscowitz.

Abuse is Horror Teaser Post

Hello, and welcome back to Horror. I’m going camping today, and haven’t finished a full blog post in advance of Friday’s regular posting schedule! To keep the content flowing in this new project, I am going to post a teaser, some stream of consciousness notes I wrote after watching the second to last episode of The Haunting of Bly Manor. It probably won’t make a ton of sense if you haven’t watched it, but maybe it will? Spoiler alerts for that show as well. If you haven’t watched it… it’s gay, watch it. Then get back to me.

*Content/trigger note for discussion of intimate partner abuse, child sexual abuse

Someone doesn’t have to be a monster to be an abuser. They just have to want something, and not care how they get it.

(Carmen Maria Machado, paraphrased)[1]

            The Haunting of Bly Manor is about so many elements of trauma and being a human – survivor guilt, being closeted (figuratively and literally), self-blame for tragedy, denial, adultery, secrets, childhood sexual abuse, and abuse, generally. It is the abuse generally I am thinking of now, and that I want to discuss in this post.

            Peter Quint is a slippery character. We see his pain, especially in Episode 7, and we see the way his pain creates an excuse for him to harm others. A major element of the show is repetition – seeing things from other character’s perspectives, and characters being forced to relive memories, good and bad, when they are “tucked away” through a ghost taking over their body, or when they are pulled back into memory as a ghost.

            Most characters – the children and Rebecca, namely – get to experience multiple different memories. Peter Quint only goes back to one: when his mother appears at his door, out of prison or an institution and asking for money. He is irate at first, being pulled away from “something important”, and gradually, as it happens again and again, he breaks down.

            Finally, he confronts his mother, or himself showing up manifesting as the memory of his mother. He asks himself, why this memory, and not the memories of his childhood, in the night, when his father did what he did those nights? The abuse is not named but it is present. He asks himself/his mother why she let it happen. How could she know what had happened and let it happen? How could she let other children spend the night? And finally, he blames her for his death. Whether it is because he stole the money in part for her or because he felt he had to run to America to escape this childhood trauma, it is not revealed.

            Peter Quint is wallowing in his pain. When he visits Rebecca as a ghost, they lament not being together, and still he seems only to use her to try to escape Bly Manor. When he realizes that will not work – she runs to the gate at the end of the drive, only to have him repelled out of her body – he hatches another plan.

            He says they will be together, as equals. Instead, when he enters her body with her permission to meld, he tucks her away in a memory that sickens her – when he forces her to undress and wear a fur coat, then take pictures of her – and, inside of her skin, he wades into the lake.

            She wakes up, back in herself, just at the moment of drowning. She doesn’t want to die. She is also forced to experience the pain of drowning- why couldn’t he have taken that pain for her?

            When she finds him again, now as a ghost herself, she is beside herself. You said equals. You left me. He responds, I had to, I had to. Later, when he takes over the boy’s body without warning him, because they were letting Dani free, he says, I had to, I had to.

            Watching him crying, convincing the siblings to give up their lives to let Rebecca and himself live through them (no one in the writer’s room was concerned about the incest implication? Or was it purposeful, reenacting that trauma again and again through the life of another?[2]), this is what struck me: Peter Quint does not care how he accomplishes what he feels he needs to accomplish. He is lonely, forced to relieve one of his most painful memories: so he murders the only person he claims to love. He wants to be free, and he wants his prize of a woman beside him: so he lies to children, tells them he can help them be with their parents, pain-free, forever.

            Peter Quint isn’t a monster. He is traumatized, in denial of his own deep pain, and he does not care how he gets what he wants.

[1] In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is an incredible, beautiful, haunting book about abuse in a queer relationship written using horror tropes. I recommend it so highly, but with a caveat: as a survivor of a queer relationship with abusive dynamics, it was both affirming and triggering. But ultimately it was healing to read another who has gone through similar things as me written so tenderly, and in a language I understand: horror.

[2] I noted as well that Peter was essentially forcing himself into a young boy, just as his father did to him. He had told the child he would only use his body with prior consent – and then he goes ahead and does it without the prior consent – because “he had to.”

Bystanders Are Horror

*Trigger and content warning: police violence against Black people, violence against Black people and other people, rape and sexual assault, violence against children, violence against mentally ill and/or intellectually disabled people, medical trauma, mention of COVID-19, climate catastrophe, and the 2020 US presidential election.*

            A reminder that this post and future posts will contain detailed spoilers, this time for the movies Ghost Stories (2017) and Shutter (2004).

            “I did nothing!!!”

            “Exactly. You did nothing.”

            Hello, and welcome to Horror. You will notice I’m holding a mirror. I look into it and see myself, and behind me, or on my shoulders – you, too. All of us.

I started my first post to No One is Innocent in the midst of global uprisings against white supremacy and police violence against Black people. It was the sixth month of a worsening pandemic (now, what – the ninth??) and I live in one of the earliest hardest hit states, Louisiana, where a category 4 hurricane (there are only five categories) just devastated the southwest Louisiana coast. Chemical fires raged there in the aftermath, as a huge portion of the country’s oil and gas industry is situated there – with communities of colors bearing the brunt of the danger. Jacob Blake, a Black father, sibling, and son, was shot in the back seven times in front of his young children in Wisconsin. In the ensuing protests, a young white man armed with an assault rifle killed two protestors, and the police chief blamed the protesters. That white 17-year-old was allowed to leave and sleep in his own bed before being arrested. Jacob Blake is paralyzed from the waist down and, until public outcry, was handcuffed to his hospital bed. The names George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more echo in my head even as I learn the names of so many more Black people killed by white supremacists in and out of uniform, and as I remember that there are so many more whose names I will never know.

And what do I do about it? What do you do about it? Is it enough?

Sonya Renee Taylor, the brilliant author of The Body Is Not An Apology, notes in one of her “What’s Up Y’all” Instagram stories that white people are far less likely to be harmed by police than Black people or other people of color. This was before the killings in Wisconsin, but she brought up Dylann Roof, who famously was apprehended alive and unharmed after his killing spree in an African American church. He was apprehended without brutality or harm – which is not to advocate for police mistreatment, but instead to shine a light on how differently police officers react when a Black man, for example, sells individual untaxed cigarettes or illegal homemade CDs. In case you don’t click on the links, or don’t know the names of Eric Garner or Alton Sterling: police murdered them.

Sonya’s point is that George Floyd was surrounded by people when he was murdered – murdered by being choked to death with an officer’s knee for nearly nine minutes. Observers screamed and cried for the officer to stop. I was not there, neither was Sonya, but Sonya asked: why did no white people jump in there and try to PHYSICALLY stop the officers? Would George Floyd still be alive today? I have asked myself what I would have done almost every day since.

Today I write about the films Ghost Stories (the British 2017 film directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman) and Shutter (the original Thai 2004 version directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom). I loved both of these movies: they were scary, fun, and thoughtful. And both of them were not what they seemed.

Ghost Stories stars an absolutely infuriating white man, Phillip, who is a professional skeptic. The movie opens with his personal trauma: his Jewish upbringing and his father throwing out his sister for dating a South Asian man. We then learn what he channeled his trauma into: “debunking” the paranormal, beginning in the movie with Phillip rushing onto stage to debunk a famous psychic who professes to be communicating with the deceased son of a sobbing mother in the audience.  Phillip walks away smugly as the woman realizes the loss of her son, again.

He is then contacted by another professional skeptic, Charles, who disintegrates Phillip’s excitement at meeting him when he calls Phillip and his work entitled trash. Charles tells Phillip that there are three paranormal stories he cannot explain, and essentially dares Phillip to investigate them.

The three stories are seemingly unrelated, and feature some classic horror tropes: abandoned psychiatric asylum (this one guarded by a night watchmen beset with guilt over not visiting his hospitalized daughter, who has locked-in syndrome), poltergeists, the uncertainty of whether an entity was really seen or imagined by a person with severe mental illness or trauma (the second case involves a highly anxious teenager who broke down in the woods after running over a goat-like Devil). Each has some strange elements that catch in the throat, whether in the story itself or in the re-telling of it to Phillip: the night watchman is terrified by a ghost of a young girl, who after embracing the watchman, sticks her finger in his mouth. When speaking to the teenager who saw the Devil, Phillip sees only the backs of the teen’s parents, doors are slammed in his face, and he sees a mysterious young boy upstairs: only to be told by the teen that they are alone in the house. The teen opens his door to a dark and empty hallway to prove it.

What began as a classic “skeptic investigates the unexplainable paranormal case” slowly unravels, as the viewer might begin to notice strange similarities between the tales. The third case, a father who experiences creepy poltergeist activity the night his wife is in labor, shows a doll with a yellow dress, mirroring the first ghost child’s yellow dress. At every turn, Phillip is derided for being a person who “only believes in atoms and molecules,” with characters saying “you people” never understand or believe. The last case has the strangest setting for the telling: the businessman telling the tale (Mike) leads Phillip into a field, to a locked wooden closet in the middle of the field, containing shotguns. They are being followed by the modern cloaked figure – a person in a hoodie, whose face can’t be seen (I can’t help but remember the name of Trayvon Martin). Suddenly, after telling the story (which culminated in Mike’s wife appearing to him as a ghost after giving birth to an apparently inhuman child), Mike blows his head off with a shotgun.

Phillip returns to Charles indignant, triumphant. He says there are rational explanations for each story: guilt, anxiety, trauma. Charles responds by saying Phillips can’t find the humility to admit that not everything is as it seems. Phillip yells that everything is EXACTLY as it seems, and Charles questions whether he is sure: then slowly tears off his face, revealing himself to be the character of Mike, smug as all hell. Phillip looks to the side, asks if we can cut, and for a second the audience is left hanging, wondering whether this was all a trick or twist. But Mike asks him who he’s talking to, and we are still left to figure it out.

Mike, as a sort of all-knowing devil/angel type, brings Phillip back to a childhood memory he would sooner forget, and as Phillip realizes his angle, pleads with Mike: “I don’t want to. I’d rather not.” Regardless of what he wants, he is led to a stream and a small tunnel, where Phillip as a dorky child walking home from school is bullied mercilessly, violently, by two anti-Semitic kids. The torment only ceases when a child even lower on the popularity ladder – an intellectually disabled Russian child with an accent – appears. The bullies trick the boy into going into the tunnel to find “the tenth number” written on the wall, which Phillip and the audience knows is not there. The child is taunted further into the tunnel, with Phillip too scared to intervene, although he clearly considers it. To our horror, as the tunnel gets smaller and smaller, the child collapses into a seizure. We are forced to watch his body shake until, worse still, it stops moving at all. The bullies run away, and Phillip calls the child’s name once, maybe twice, only to run away himself – until he crashes into the body of his demon asking him why he left that child to die.

“I did nothing!” “Exactly. You did nothing.” When Phillip asks, as a child, what could he have done, the demon names a few things well within a teen’s control. He could have done something, anything.

The movie ends with a twist after all: the reveal that Phillip is hospitalized in a coma with locked-in syndrome, watching the world around him but unable to interact. Characters from the stories and little details from the interactions pop up as he lays there: he is intubated, the night watchman is a janitor, the demon/businessman a distracted doctor, the teen an intern. Phillip is left there to forever reflect on the horror he allowed to unfold as a bystander.

Shutter is another haunting that turns in on itself.[1] The story begins with Jane and her boyfriend, Tun, at a party with Tun’s rather gross male friends. On the way home, a ghostly figure crosses the road in front of them, and Jane, distracted, accidentally hits her. Jane is distraught, but Tun won’t let her get out of the car, and they drive home.

Tun, a photographer, begins to notice ghostly apparitions appearing in his pictures. Jane believes they may be the ghost of the woman they hit. She also begins to get haunted by doors slamming and other disturbances in Tun’s apartment. Tun, who has been experiencing severe neck pain, goes to the doctor and learns he has somehow doubled in weight. Jane believes this is all connected to the car accident; Tun, ever the typical boyfriend, dismisses her very reasonable fears.

Through some digging, Jane learns that the woman they saw and apparently hit was Natre, a shy and bullied girl who went to school with Tun. Tun admits that he was in a secret relationship with Natre, hiding it from his judgmental friends. Natre accepted this treatment, loving Tun, and threatened suicide when he wanted to leave her, which he eventually did.

In the present time, Tun finds out these friends from college have begun inexplicably committing suicide. He believes it Natre’s ghost making them do so – and that he is next. He and Jane go to visit Natre’s mother in the country, who invites them in for dinner and lets them know Natre will join them soon. They snoop, and find Natre’s rotting corpse in her old bedroom.

It turns out that Natre’s mother could not cope with her death. The couple help the town hold a funeral for Natre, which Jane believes will settle Natre’s ghost and end the hauntings. However, that night at their hotel, Natre’s ghost returns. She confronts Tun, who falls off a fire escape trying to get away from her.

Back in Bangkok, Jane develops some pictures, which show Natre crawling towards the bookcase in Tun’s apartment. She looks behind the bookcase and finds photo negatives – which, when developed, show Natre being gang-raped by Tun’s college friends. We, the viewers, are forced to watch the brutal acts in a flashback, where Tun happens upon his friends raping Natre. His friends tell him to take pictures so she can’t tell, while Natre cries for Tun’s help. Tun, slowly, shuddering, draws the camera up to his face. Flash. Like Phillip, Tun did nothing.

Jane confronts Tun with the pictures, convinced Natre was trying to warn her, and he admits that he took those pictures. He says he was peer pressured and has never forgiven himself and begs Jane to stay. Jane leaves him.

Tun knows that Natre is still with him, and begins taking polaroid pictures of every room and space in his apartment, looking for her ghostly apparition in the pictures. He can’t find her, and throws the camera in a rage – only to have it land, taking a picture of Tun, revealing Natre sitting on his shoulders. She covers his eyes and he falls out the window.

Like Ghost Stories, Shutter ends in an institution. Jane visits a catatonic Tun, who sits at the edge of his bed, slumped over. As she leaves, the door swings, and the glass reflection shows Natre on Tun’s shoulders.

We are all haunted by the ghosts of what we did not do. What I found most striking in each of these movies is not just the protagonist being the bystander: the viewer is as well. It is easy to recognize the horror in malicious acts – but just as despicable is allowing malicious, violent, oppressive acts to unfold. How many times have you, white readers, stayed silent in the face of racist acts or words by colleagues or family? How often, straight or cisgender readers, have you ignored homophobic or transphobic words by the same? And further, how have each of you held the camera up, or stood frozen in fear (afraid to become a target yourself) in this world, built on white supremacy, genocidal colonialism, violent misogyny, and all the other harms humans concoct to hold onto power?

Hello, Horror. I am you, and you are me. We are all complicit – no one is innocent.

[1] Note: I am discussing the 2004 original Thai Shutter, not the 2008 remake distributed in the United States. I am inherently opposed to whitewashed remakes, change my mind.