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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *