Haunted house horror stories are always built on a foundation of ambiguity. Is the evil waiting for you in those rotten, looming walls, or is the evil a rotten, looming something you bring with you? Jack Torrance in The Shining may be infected by the spirits of the Overlook Hotel. Or the Overlook Hotel may just be a metaphor for Jack’s own monstrous spirit, twisted by alcoholism, self-pity, and misogyny.
Jack’s evil may also be his whiteness—a possibility highlighted by His House, perhaps the best horror film of 2020. The feature directorial debut of Remi Weekes, His House turns the history of haunted house horror inside out, exposing slimy pipes, creatures in the walls, and a bunch of racist detritus. Colonialism and racism are the ghosts that poison the land and look out ominously from the windows in a lot of haunted house horror.
Haunted house stories have been around probably as long as there have been houses. But few have been as influential as The Amityville Horror. The book, supposedly (but not convincingly) based on a true story, was published in 1977. The movie version was released in 1979, and served as a blueprint for what are probably the two most famous haunted house narratives of the modern era, The Shining (1980) and Poltergeist (1982).
In The Amityville Horror, the Lutz family buys a new, rambling, and, alas, inimical supernatural house in Amityville, New York. The house had been the site of a mass murder some years previously, but that’s not the ultimate source of its evil. After smashing through a wall in the basement, the family discovers a room with red walls and realized that the house is built on Shinnecock burial ground. The angry spirits of the indigenous dead have corrupted the house.
As Cherokee film critic Shea Vassar has pointed out, the Shinnecock didn’t even live on the land now occupied by Amityville. The carelessness is part and parcel of the film’s broader racism—the indigenous people are conflated with Christian imagery of evil and the demonic. A priest who tries to bless the house is covered with flies (Satan is of course known as Lord of the Flies), and a nun who enters the house becomes ill and has to flee. When the room in the basement is opened, a psychic friend declares it is the passage to hell. The house is bad and malevolent because native people used to live there, and native people are un-Christian, vengeful, and bad.
The film literally demonizes native people. But it also, confusedly, acknowledges that the white people on native land have brought their own violence with them. George Lutz (James Brolin) becomes irritated, angry and threatening after the family moves into the house. When his wife Kathy (Margot Kidder) researches the murders in the house, she discovers that George looks exactly like the killer. George’s potential for domestic violence is uneasily blamed on the evil native ghosts. But you could also see the violence crawling out of the suburban white family as an acknowledgment that the white suburban dream of homeownership is built on force and theft. The house even steals $1500 from Kathy’s brother, as if exacting payment for the land the Lutz’s have dispossessed so thoroughly that they no longer even know the names of the people they have ripped off.
Stephen King did not build his Overlook Hotel on an Indian burial ground in the novel The Shining, but Stanley Kubrick’s film added one. Poltergeist goes out of its way to assert that the graveyard on which the suburban tract house stands is not Native American. But the explicit disavowal raises questions in itself, reminding viewers that all this land is native land. The cute affluent suburban families that move into all these haunted houses already have hands stained with blood. They project their sins onto those they’ve dispossessed, justifying their occupation by asserting, through cinematic ritual, that those they are driving out are devils.
His House doesn’t follow this floor plan, in no small part because its protagonists are not the standard white suburbanites. Instead, Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) are refugees from the war in South Sudan. Their daughter, Nyagak, dies at sea while they are fleeing to Europe. The film starts as they are released from detention in Britain and given a surprisingly large house in the outskirts of London.
As you’ve no doubt guessed at this stage, Bol and Rial’s house is haunted. Rial quickly concludes that the house is cursed by an apeth, or night witch, who whispers from the walls, and shows them visions of Nyagak. The witch says it wants Bol’s flesh, and that it will return Nyagak to Rial if Bol sacrifices himself.
Unlike in Amityville Horror, His House is clear that the haunting is focused on Bol and Rial, not on the house. Bol in particular wants to belong in England and to become English; he tells Rial to eat with a fork, sings English songs in the English pub, and insists over and over to his caseworker that he is one of the good ones. But Rial is less certain of their place. “I survived by belonging nowhere,” she says, and she still is caught in between, wearing Nyagak’s necklace and longing to return to Sudan, out of homesickness and survivor’s guilt.
Nor is that guilt misplaced. We eventually learn that Nyagak was not really the couple’s daughter. Bol abducted her in order to secure a place on a bus that was only taking couples with children; Nyagak’s mother was left behind and killed by soldiers. Bol and Rial promised Nyagak they would take care of her, but she drowned. The apeth is their sin, which Bol cannot expiate by hammering holes in the walls, nor by becoming an Englishman. The title His House is not really about the house, but about the sin Bol and Rial live in—just as the Amityville Horror is not the house, but the people murdered to give the Lutz’s a home.
But the evil that Bol and Rial bring to London isn’t the only evil there. One of the most coldly frightening scenes in the film isn’t even in the house, and isn’t really supernatural. Rial goes out to walk to a doctor’s appointment, and gets lost in a warren of high walls and houses. She gets more and more confused and panicked as she keeps stumbling on the same white child kicking a ball again and again, like she’s in some sort of dream maze. She finally runs into some Black teens, and asks them for help, obviously hoping they’ll feel some solidarity and compassion. But they see her as a foreigner, give her deliberately conflicting directions, and mock her when she speaks Dinka.
Bol and Rial feel like they don’t belong because no place they live can contain the suffering they’ve experienced and caused. But they also feel like they don’t belong because the British—some Black, but mostly white—go out of their way to tell them they don’t belong. They are constantly threatened with expulsion if they break the rules. Their neighbors stare at them with blank animosity; in one scene, Bol rushes from his haunted house to see one of his neighbors standing in her doorway. She cheerfully tells him she expects him to be expelled within a few weeks. The apeth isn’t the only cruel spirit haunting Bol and Rial. “This is what they want,” Rial says, referring to white people. “They want to see us crazy.”
His House is one of the most subtle and thoughtful films in the haunted house genre. As such, it brings out a lot of the buried hatreds and silences in its predecessors. Rial and Bol live in the shadow of what they’ve done. But they also live in the shadow of white supremacy, which is all around them, and which crawls into them, a witch peeling back their skins and trying to push its way in. The Amityville Horror and its immediate successors try to distract you with door banging and blood on the walls. But His House nails down the truth that haunted house stories are always about power, ownership, and a history of violence. “Your life is not yours,” the apeth intones. “You stole it.”
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.