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.

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