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Oh, The Horror: Historical horrors

Hana Shafi

Providing actual historical or scientific context is an excellent way in bumping up a horror movie’s credibility. Throw in some real science, or something spooky that actually happened, and suddenly everything gets a lot creepier. You start thinking “whoa, that could totally happen.” Gulp.

Unfortunately, far too many horror movies seem to revisit the U.S. slave era or North American colonization—a.k.a. the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Though a historical context in a horror film can be beneficial—and intelligent—in a lot of ways, I find these two backdrops lazy at best and racist at worst.

Amityville Horror is one of the most recognized horror movies that uses the suffering of Indigenous people as an origin story for its hauntings. The house is haunted, apparently, because it was built on stolen land—more specifically an “Indian burial ground.” The term alone is problematic, relying on the mistake of the original ignorant dudebro Christopher Columbus—yes, let’s name a people based on someone’s inability to read a map! Worse, though, is the common storyline: “We’re white people on stolen land, but please don’t haunt us because that’s so mean!” When you watch these movies, you don’t like these spirits tormenting the protagonists, usually a wholesome American family. In one of the Amityville films (there are a lot, by the way), the story behind the haunting is that a white man used the house to torture Indigenous peoples. So, therefore, a negative presence manifested.

But here’s the thing, films like Amityville Horror or The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia, which is based around the ghosts of the underground railroad from America’s slavery era, forget a key thing: you don’t have to add ghosts or ghouls to make slavery or colonization scary. They already are scary. They are the most terrifying parts of our history, especially because their remnants are still ever present today via the entrenched systemic inequality in our society and government institutions.

By adding monsters and demonic presences into the mix, we trivialize the injustices of the past and assert the misconception that it’s just that, the past. The ghosts of slavery and colonization are not rattling cupboards and ghouls in the basement. We have real horrors of inequality today: police brutality (think of what’s happening in Ferguson); racialized poverty; the legacy of residential schools; discrimination within social services, and on and on.

Take Skeleton Key —the ghosts are a malevolent black couple, who, to avoid being lynched, used voodoo to swap their spirits with two white children. So when the lynching occurs, it’s still happening to black bodies, only two white children are inside;  the “evil” black couple gets away with it. I’m astonished  this movie was even produced. The lynching of black people is, needless to say, a horrific and disgusting practice; these were innocent people brutalized by white supremacist mobs. Who wouldn’t want to escape that? The entire film also pushes the stereotype of the African voodoo queen who uses black magic to inflict terror upon others. These are exactly the kind of stereotypes that contribute to the dehumanization of black people, Indigenous people, and other racialized folks, and therefore act as justifications to the disproportionate violence they face in their lives.

It reminds me of an episode from Buffy The Vampire Slayer where spirits of Indigenous men rise from the grave and begin attacking Buffy and her friends. And as you watch this episode, you cheer for Buffy, Xander, and Willow to save the day and vanquish the evil spirits, without realizing that these are the spirits of people who had their land stolen, their people murdered, and who underwent forcible assimilation. So who’s really the bad guy here?

Next week I look at heteronormativity and horror. Where all the gay people in scary movies?

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