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). 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.
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?
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. 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.
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.
 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?
 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 email@example.com with any more up to date and inclusive resources!
 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
 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.