By Juan Valencia
I. The Psychoanalysis of Colorblindness
Beginning in 2009, horror films underwent a major thematic shift with the popularization of the “haunted house” subgenre. These new films attracted American audiences very much familiar with the threat of home loss. Around the time of the 2009 wide release of Paranormal Activity, at least 6.9 million American households with subprime loans faced impossible-to-pay charges. Approximately 2 million households were projected to be lost, the numbers increasing each year thereafter (Ernst & Goldstein 273). The instability of homeownership was horrifyingly palpable, and on the screen, these fears were projected with an unsettling familiarity. In the haunted house film, typically white, perceptively middle-class couples and families live comfortably in their affluent, pristine suburban homes. Such stability is soon threatened by a demonic entity which seeks to rob them of their peace, or, often, a family member. The wife and sons are typically the main targets. The mass appeal of the subgenre in America experiences a boom after the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, which soon evolved into the historic Great Recession. The Blumhouse film production company took the lead on the reproduction of this subgenre, releasing 16 haunted house films between 2009 and 2016, many becoming significant box office successes. The Paranormal Activity (2009-2015) and Insidious (2010-present) franchises raked most of the revenue.
The horror film’s adaptability to this nationwide crisis makes it a reactionary genre: writers and directors perceive what people fear, and work to embody that fear into the celluloid. Horror films about the loss of the home seem a logical result of the nationwide crisis regarding housing. The very nature of this anxiety about the house however, raises many questions as to what affective responses this horror subgenre incites in its audiences. As Robin Wood writes in “the American Nightmare,” the horror genre is “the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses, its reemergence dramatized, as in our nightmares, as an object of horror, a matter for terror” (75t). The social machination of repression, which is to restrain and hide desires and fears in the unconscious, is a process that the horror film labors to undo. What repressed anxieties and fears, then, are embedded in the American collective unconscious regarding the threat to the house being portrayed in these films?
Borrowing from Wood, I go beyond the surface-level of a reactionary reading regarding the haunted house subgenre as a simple iteration of the subprime mortgage crisis. Instead, I argue that taking the elements of the subgenre and analyzing them against the backdrop of U.S. housing history and legislation reveals the deep-rooted racism, classism and narratives of segregation and redlining embedded in the symbol of the house. Demonic presences in these films always appear as disrupting home comfort and stability, and are always represented as black, looming figures. Demons are thus affectively-charged iterations of a threat to the American home. Based on this, I assert that the true horrific subject matter explored in these films is that of contemporary American, fear-imbued colorist divisions around housing. This will be a symptomatic reading of the subgenre’s components as telling revelations of something much more monstrous lurking beneath the surface. As David Cronenberg states, horror filmmakers undergo the process of reaching into the “dark pool of the unconscious” to see the reemergence of a repressed monstrosity (Cherry 98). His description is an especially salient one when it comes to the analysis of the American haunted house films I will be undertaking, in which this “darkness” becomes all too literal.
To demonstrate the complex relationship between anxiety, desire, fear, race, and housing in America, I turn to concepts of colorblindness and the discipline of psychoanalysis. Colorblindness, defined by Richard Bonilla-Silva, is a contemporary cultural understanding in which “most whites assert ‘they don’t see any color, just people’; that although the ugly face of discrimination is still with us, it is no longer the central factor determining minorities’ life chances” (1). I therefore oppose this “colorblindness,” which in relation to the haunted house subgenre, is an assertion of blindness to the deeply racist history of discrimination, segregation and racist language involved in the very construction of the American home. In other words, I seek to undo Oliver and Shapiro’s perception that “class perspectives usually wash away any reference to race” (37). In my analysis, class and wealth are the most revealing factors that point to lingering racial inequality. If the “house with the white picket fence” is evocative of the American dream, the foundation upon which it is built is evocative of a true “American nightmare.” If we understand that “racial considerations shade almost everything in America (Bonilla-Silva 1), and that this shading is repressed, hidden, or ghost-like, we must look towards a non-colorblind language that allows us to unveil these American ghosts present in history and in the mind of every citizen, whether acknowledged or not.
I also turn to psychoanalysis and affect studies to describe the racial feelings motivating the political forces of discrimination. Psychoanalysis will be important to understanding how American history and legislation are embedded with symptoms of fear and anxiety, as critic Paula Ioanide claims that “the terrain of politics depends primarily on triggering and shaping affectively charged beliefs” (180). The horror genre itself, like Ioanide’s analysis of politics, also operates in evocations of affect, particularly those of fear and terror. Frantz Fanon’s own formulations on blackness as a “phobogenic object” that produces anxiety around the concept of whiteness (129-130) will prove useful in approaching the affect found in racialized housing legislation. I argue that racist beliefs constructed by redlining and moral panic regarding the home portray blackness as a monstrous threat to white homeownership, and by extent, stability, and comfort
Throughout this argument, I analyze the highest-grossing and most critically well-received Blumhouse haunted house films from 2009 to 2014: Paranormal Activity (2009), Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), Insidious (2011), Sinister (2012), and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014). Having raked in the most revenue and having had the most positive reception among audiences and critics, these films are an accurate sampling of the major exposures of haunted house film conventions America had during this time. Section 1, “This Is Your House: Housing and Wealth in the Haunted House Film,” analyzes the concepts of homecoming, wealth, and property, which are in full display in the setup of these films, and their relation to white racial identity. Section 2, “A Shadowy Figure: Racialized Demons in the House,” concerns the racist formulations around housing, such as redlining, moral panic, and subprime mortgage, in relation to the demonic forces threatening white stability in the films, also paying attention to actual, racist depictions of minorities in the genre. Section 3, “It Wants Your Children: How White Innocence Breeds Black Monstrosity,” explores the symbolic meaning of women and children in these films, both in terms of the reproduction and transferring of wealth, as well as affective symbols that construct white innocence. I will also look at the relationship between the victims and the attackers as an evocation of a monstrous, racial blackness and its threatening force against the idealized suburban, white home space. The fourth and final section, “Beyond the White Picket Fence: White Monstrosity as Subversive Horror,” turns to more recent horror films and their attempts to stray away from the formulaic haunted house film. These films contain a much more subversive take on cultural fears and anxieties based on the house, and prove horror film’s prowess as a critical force. They pose the question: What would it mean to depict whiteness as the true American monster?
This analysis is important in questioning the problematic notion that race and fear are intrinsically tied, in even the most quotidian aspects of our lives. By coming to understand the source of these fears, we can also come to understand how the dichotomy of good vs. evil, in the American sense, is only another iteration of the oppressive structures of racism.
II. This Is Your House: Housing and Wealth in the Haunted House Film
The revamped reproduction of the haunted house subgenre in the late 2000’s is best illustrated, thematically, as a retreat into the home, away from the outside. Previously, the horror film genre privileged the reproduction of “torture porn,” dominant during the earlier half of the decade. Films like Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), and the Devil’s Rejects (2005) were often seen as a reactionary genre in the wake of 9/11, dealing with subjects relating to public sphere. As Alexandra Heller-Nicholas observes, the genre shifted, beginning with the release of Paranormal Activity in 2009, away from films “linked to post-9/11 America and the supposed ‘War on Terror’” (130). If what scared us during the early 2000’s was international conflict, terrorism, and war, as represented in torture porn through hyperviolence and foreign villains, the beginning of the massive reproduction of fears imbued in the home space in the later part of the decade is telling of the calamitous social and emotional impact the Subprime Mortgage Crisis and the subsequent economic recession had on the American public. Film audience and production trends alone reflect this massive shift. Before, American haunted house films received rather sporadic releases, with the Amityville Horror (1979) and Poltergeist (1982) being the only ones matching the late 2000s films in terms of financial success, and 1999’s remake of the Haunting, although financially successful, is more infamous now for being critically panned. Post-2009, however, haunted house films became the norm in the United States, and among the best-reviewed horror films ever.
The popularized conception of anxiety over the home space through the haunted house film is telling of the massive amount of economic, social, and emotional investment that the U.S. has historically placed on homeownership and the conception of the American dream. Issues around the home space are as emotionally potent as those of terrorism and war, as American horror film audiences are telling of. Analyzing the American history of homeownership reveals that a threat to the house, as the Subprime Mortgage Crisis was, for the American public means a threat to the very essence of American identity. We must examine, however, how this value of the home in turn displays an exclusively middle-class, white, heteronormative American identity, and how these anxieties affectively resonate with an American identity fixated on consumer goods, wealth, and property to an obsessive degree.
Homecoming, and by extension the concept of homeownership, is always expressed in the opening sequence of the post-recession haunted house film. These opening sequences right away stress the importance which the house represents for our main characters. Paranormal Activity (dir. Oren Peli, 2009) is a film centered on a white, perceptively middle-class couple experiencing increasingly violent supernatural attacks in their suburban San Diego home. Before such paranormal attacks take place, however, the film opens with the tranquil setting of the suburbs in full view. It begins from the perspective of the male character Micah filming his girlfriend Katie returning home from school. His handheld camera captures her pulling into the driveway, lingering on a shot of her convertible, the sparse garage, and the identical suburban houses briefly seen in the distance as Micah utters, “Hey, baby.” He holds the door open for her, in turn welcoming us, the audience, home as well. After our brief glimpse of the surrounding outside space, Micah shuts the door as Katie questions him about his new camera. This small, two-second glimpse of the surrounding suburbs, as well as a brief scene taking place in their backyard later in the film, are all we ever see of the outside world for the film’s duration. The audience is thus invited home, and simultaneously isolated within the four walls where all the film’s action takes place. The welcoming of the haunted house film is an obsessive lingering in the home space, central to all escalating action and dramatization. Nothing else is offered but the thrill of being welcomed home, where one is to stay put.
Paranormal Activity 2 (dir. Tod Williams, 2010) opens in a similar fashion with another homecoming. This sequel, released a year later, deals with a similar premise, this time with the same demonic presence haunting Katie’s sister, Kristi. The action is only moved a few miles away from the first film, to Carlsbad, CA. The similarities in setting and opening premise are at once striking, and telling of the haunted house film’s formulaic obsession over isolating its characters in the home space. As the film opens, Ali, the daughter of Kristi’s husband, Daniel, is recording her front yard as she sees her parents pulling onto their street. She exclaims, “Welcome home, Hunter. This is your house!” as her parents return from the hospital with her newborn baby brother. Ali then turns the camera to reveal a beautiful, suburban two-story house, a towering wooden front door highlighting this homecoming as we get a view of the colorful plants and neat, trimmed lawn that surround the property. Much like the previous installment, this is the primary glimpse of the outside world that the audience receives, aside from later, fenced-in backyard scenes. Kristi’s family, as the idyllic white, middle-class, traditional nuclear family, thus becomes the central American identity which is to remain comfortably positioned within the house.
The tranquility and neatness of suburbia becomes our permanent setting. The tone of these films evolves into an obsessive treatment of white, middle-class suburbia. As we retreat into the house, we are isolated in a world entirely made up of property and consumer goods. This seclusion limits our view, and constructs the perception that affluent, pristine suburbia is an exclusive world, isolated to only the white, heteronormative couples and families we see in these films. What the films begin to represent, then, is not a national housing crisis sprawling across all American identities. It is instead the idea that the suburban world which will, as the film progresses, be put at risk from outside forces, is an exclusively white, middle class world.
Insidious (dir. James Wan, 2010) and Sinister (dir. Scott Derrickson, 2012) also open with homecomings, as they both introduce us to two new white, middle-class families moving into their new homes. This representation of homecoming is different from those in the Paranormal Activity series in that it evokes of homeownership much more strongly. Whereas the previously discussed films merely show us family members returning home, these films portray the actual arrival and experience of beginning to own a home, and thus obtaining its wealth and benefits. In Insidious, the familiar story of a family being attacked by a demon attempting to steal the eldest son, begins with harmonious shots of the central family, the Lamberts, performing morning rituals in their new home. Move-in boxes are scattered throughout the house as the wife, Renai, briefly occupies herself with the unpacking of her personal belongings, longingly handling and sifting through them, before directing herself to the kitchen to make breakfast. We vicariously experience, along with Renai, the thrill of settling into a new space. It is useful to imagine the audiences, among them thousands if not millions who had recently experienced the loss of their home, being fed this idyllic iteration of comfortable homeownership to a fascinating, deeply emotional result. It is also of interest to point out that both Insidious and Sinister show the family moving into a new house not once, but twice, as both families in these films flee to a new home after the first one displays paranormal activity. To be shown a move-in twice in the same running time is telling of the excessive extent to which homeownership is languidly portrayed. The haunted house subgenre thus feeds us a romanticized homecoming that evokes American suburban pleasures and security, while ominously promising its audiences to disrupt it in later scenes.
Why would audiences pour into theaters by the millions to spectate this romantic portrayal of homeownership and the threat to it during a nationwide housing crisis? Do American audiences, in their compulsive drive to witness the pleasure and anxiety of homecoming in the haunted house film, reveal their own emotional and historical investment in what the house represents nationwide: wealth, whiteness, and citizenship, and a simultaneous, ever-present threat to them? As Christine Herbes-Sommers’ historical documentary, The House We Live In, explains, the American fixation on the home is decades old and directly tied to economic and racial identity. The homecoming of soldiers after World War II and the consequent high demand for housing called for the construction of new neighborhoods as veterans took advantage of the opportunities provided by the newly enacted G.I. Bill. One of the many benefits which army veterans enjoyed was low-cost mortgages. The Federal Housing Administration’s introduction of mortgage loans simultaneously provided more affordable housing at lower rates. All these elements aided in the construction of suburbia as the emblem of American opportunity. It was now possible for the “average American” to afford housing. As the documentary states, beginning with this legislative shift, “the American dream had a new name: suburbia.” The goal for American prosperity was now to take advantage of this homeownership opportunity. Historically, the cultural importance of the house thus begins to take on the meanings of comfort, opportunity, and above all, wealth. However, also implicated in this cultural shift towards the house as a sacred space was the idea of race: that indeed, housing was the principal way in which wealth and property all became concentrated within white America, as the opportunity of owning a home at low rates was exclusively extended to whites.
Thus, the portrayal of the obsessive, isolative homecoming that the haunted house film shows is only an iteration of this historical isolation of the house as a white, middle-class American concept. A catastrophic event for housing such as the subprime mortgage crisis, as embodied by the demonic hauntings which the disrupt the home in the haunted house film, is thus a horrific attack on the American dream, which soon descends into a nightmare. This disruption of American stability is exclusively constructed as a disruption of middle-class white identity.
Primarily, the representation of a house larger than life in these films breathes even further meaning and emotional investment to the concept of the home. Like the very notion of the American dream being synonymous with the house as an owned object, these films make a point to show that wall after wall, room after room, the house is embedded with symbols of wealth. This is evident in Paranormal Activity and its sequel in their use of the “property porn” aesthetic. “Property porn” is defined by James D. Stone’s own analysis of the two films as “images that advertise desirable homes—viewed online, on TV, or in real estate flyers,” and more specifically in reality shows featuring properties for prospective buyers, that result in a fetishized portrayal of property and consumer goods (54). The use of this aesthetic makes it obvious that the primary concept endangered by the demons’ disturbances in these films is that of capitalist wealth.
Paranormal Activity starts with the question of wealth and value itself. As Katie notices Micah using a new camera, she asks, “how much did this cost you?” bringing economic concern to the forefront of the opening sequence. Later, when a spiritual consultant, Dr. Fredrichs, arrives at their home as Katie looks for answers on how to get rid of the demonic entity, the evident use of “property porn” comes into full play. As they walk through the house, the walkthrough and display of the property is one suggestive of American solvency. Even Dr. Fredrichs claims, “I never hesitate when someone says, ‘will you come to San Diego?’” noting the idyllic comfort which the home’s very geography represents.
As Katie and Micah walk Dr. Fredrichs through the house to show him where the paranormal activity has taken place, the sequence is unnervingly reminiscent of a real estate walkthrough. Their first destination, the living room, shows neat, leather furniture, the cheetah print rugs lying on the wooden floors and the zebra-print cushions on the couches, a wooden coffee table, and a large flat-screen TV at the forefront of the area. As they go on to explain happenings around the house, in each room we take in in full detail the plethora of decorations. Beyond the living room there is a big, imposing bookshelf stacked with material and Micah’s own work station consisting of a double-monitor set up. As we go into the kitchen, we get a shot of a large, stainless steel fridge, and the kitchen’s very own built-in counter. Katie then takes us to her bedroom, where we see their large, king-size bed crowned with an ornate headboard and two bedside tables, looking towards a window lined with wine-colored curtains. The bedroom has its very own bathroom, complete with shower (masked with equally ornate shower curtains) and a double sink. Katie then takes us down the hallway across her bedroom to two other guest bedrooms which we never even get into, suggesting that there’s even more property to explore, but we are cut short due to lack of time. Micah longingly records everything, showing us detail by detail the entire makeup of his wealth. This use of property porn essentially expands the house in terms of meaning and devotion. It is no longer a simple setting where the film’s action takes place, but rather a world of excess of commodities and an emblem of conspicuous consumption.
Paranormal Activity 2 takes this a step further by giving us a literal rundown of the house as Ali and then Daniel record the house for their new family member, Hunter, to see once he grows up. We begin outside, being shown the large, two-story façade of the exterior of the house. As we move in, we see the wooden floors, the decorations lining the walls and the many coffee tables spread across the house. The kitchen, with its own built-in island, has a stacker of pots and pans raining down from the ceiling, the walls lined with towering kitchen cabinets and cupboards as the front leads to the living room, with yet another ridiculously large flat-screen TV (Daniel even takes a pause to describe this as his “fifty-inch monster”). Next to the kitchen, we see a glass sliding door leading to the backyard, where a pool, with its own jacuzzi built in to the side, rests with clean, chlorine water. As we go upstairs through the carpeted staircase, we are shown the bedrooms, one for Kristi and Daniel, complete with vanity dressers and another king-size bed. We then go to Ali’s room, with its own built-in bathroom, and finally, Hunter’s room, lined with new toys and decorations and an antique crib in the center. This extensive camera work devoted to present property in its full, affluent glory in both films is reflective of the obsession our main characters have with the hoarding and documentation of wealth which, as described before, is an iteration of the long white American history of wealth and property. The world which our characters inhabit is a fully consumptive, decadent one. Their introduction in the film cannot be done without the introduction of the property which comes to define them.
We understand that within these homes is imbued the very concept of wealth, a concept which Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro define as “the command over financial resources that a family has accumulated over its lifetime along with those resources that have been inherited across generations” (2). We begin to question the fact that Micah, a day trader, and Katie, a college English major, have been able to easily gather wealth and property, and we must question where such wealth comes from. Their incongruent youth and affluence is perhaps evocative of the racial privilege which easier loan systems and extensions of opportunity have historically granted young whites (Oliver & Shapiro 105). Even simpler still, however, the film might just be demanding us to realize that they own such a large, wealthy home simply because it “clicks” with their middle-class, white identity. Indeed, their youth evokes the feeling that opportunity and wealth are easily available to everyone, even day traders and college students. However, we cannot shake the fact that, historically, they represent epitomic benefactors of the wealth which America generates and grants only to whites.
Daniel, a fast food corporate manager and Kristi, a stay-at-home mom, possess an even larger amount of wealth, reflected by their larger home and their backyard pool, due to their higher standing in the corporate ladder. Again, this is evocative of the exclusivity of their privilege. That they live in comfort, isolated and unbothered, is to say that they live basking in the long American history constructed to benefit middle-class whites. Thus, the house inhabitants become synonymous with their houses because the audience understands that whatever may begin to threaten the house will not only damage them, but also the property that they have so painstakingly shown us in detail. The hoarding of wealth, kept within the same family across generations, is anxiously and viciously guarded by the homeowners to maintain the inhabitants’ privileged comfort.
While Stone is right to point out the abundance of the “property porn” aesthetic present in these films, his visualization of wealth in the haunted house is not complete, for he ignores that the house not only symbolizes wealth, but also produces it within its walls. As Oliver and Shapiro state, “the purchase of a home has now become the primary mechanism for generating wealth” (41) due to its ability to increase in market value and provide geographic advantages in regards to where labor is located. Historically, “taxation policy, for example, provided greater tax savings for businesses relocating to the suburbs than those who stayed and made capital improvements to plants in central city locations” (Oliver & Shapiro 40). Suburbia in the United States has meant not only the symbol of wealth and stability but also its producer, a concept which these films take head-on as they construct the home as a microcosm which neatly encapsulates both wealth and labor production.
Perhaps an even stronger bond between American audiences and these films emerges because the home space encompasses not only comfort and material possessions, but also the stability of a well-paying job. In most of these films, wage-labor is performed in the house. As discussed previously, Micah works as a day trader and the home includes his office set-up. The evocations of wealth and consumerism are salient in the setting: Micah is surrounded by a flat-screen TV, leather couches, wooden floors, and innovative technology. At the center of the house is his office set-up from which all this wealth emanates.
Renai, the mother from Insidious, is an aspiring musician who works on her music from home while caring for her three children. We see her at work in front of a piano and abruptly distracted from her task to check on her children. Her job, although creative and unconventional, is challenged by increasing childcare demands. When her son Dalton seems to fall into a coma, an entire hospital set-up is placed in his room. Renai must learn to check his blood pressure and administer his injections in addition to her other motherly and professional duties. Imbued from wall to wall is the devotion to labor production at a frenetic pace, as embodied by Renai’s constant undertaking of different labors, sometimes all at once. The home represents a center within which this frenetic representation of laborious duties flourishes.
In Sinister, the protagonist Ellison Oswalt, the father and head of the household, also labors behind closed doors. As a true-crime novelist who works from a home office, within which a major part of the film takes place. we see the home as a sacred place of labor. Ellison’s entire endeavor is to finish his latest novel, one that he repeatedly claims will bring his family unlimited riches. Unbeknownst to his family, the novel he’s writing concerns a series of murders that have taken place in their new home. His daughter, Ashley’s initial concerns, however, are with the new home itself, claiming that she will miss her old school. Ellison simply replies, “If we don’t like it here, once I sell my book we’ll move back.” The importance of Ellison’s labor is deeply imbued in the ability to obtain property: the labor produced in the house is the same that makes the obtainment of the house (and future ones) possible. We see that the home not only embodies and contains wealth, but also produces it within its walls through enclosed labor. The inside of the house expands not only as a center of American property and consumption, but also the labor which upholds it. Ellison even recites various monologues throughout the film concerning how rich the family will be once he finishes his novel, and how they’ll be able to live anywhere they want.
At this point, one cannot examine all the American values of homeownership and wealth implied in these films and ignore the racial implications behind them. The exclusion of ethnic minorities as homeowners in these films is particularly telling since, as discussed previously, the iteration of homeownership in the films, and by extension, in American legislation, is a racially exclusive one. The “property porn” aesthetic, stable employment and wealth as encapsulated neatly within the homes in these films constructs the issue of homeownership and all its benefits as a strictly white endeavor. The historical context of housing legislation is key to understanding how the haunted house merely reasserts what has already been embedded into the collective conscious of American society as to who can own a home. As the House We Live In documents the legislative procedures through which homeownership becomes the primary concentration of American wealth, the documentary also details that, to put it simply, “whiteness means living in the suburbs,” and thus the very concept of racial whiteness grows to be synonymous, equal to, exclusive to, the ownership of a home.
Racist legislation, from redlining to white flight, which I explore in the next section, demonstrate that in the realm of housing, white families are favored and the same access is denied to people of color. We see that the demon that invades the house in these films embodies not only the disruption of homeownership due to the subprime mortgage crisis, but also a white, middle-class anxiety about white dominance of wealth and property being threatened by outside forces that are represented as nonwhite and non-middle class.
III. A Shadowy Figure: Racialized Demons in the House
The American home, as constructed in the popular haunted house films primarily from 2009 to 2014, is the center of middle-class American labor, security, prosperity, and life. The demonic entity that haunts the house however, is of equal importance, for it disrupts desirable comfort and stability. These “boogeymen” enter the house and desecrate, one could say, the very symbol of the American dream. They often break things, thrash rooms, and turn home life into a nightmare before revealing their more “insidious” agenda. Often, they attempt to take away a family member or simply kill everyone in their way. What then, is the cultural resonance of these beings in contemporary American culture? If the home is the symbol of wealth, prosperity and dreaming, what is at the flipside, excluded and marginalized? To answer this, we must again turn to the history of housing legislation in the U.S., and more specifically, what or who it leaves out and how, and which concepts America has deemed as the threat to the production of wealth that the films so religiously celebrate.
First, we must observe how the demons’ arrivals are always portrayed as antagonizing the safety and structure of the house. While the family members are always welcomed, in the same way white, middle-class American audiences are invited relish in the film’s display of wealth and property, the demon always enacts a forceful break-in that provokes white, middle-class, and suburban “moral panic.” Stuart Hall defines moral panic as “[coming] into play when this deep-structure of anxiety and traditionalism,” that is, the same traditionalism and anxiety built around the conservation of suburban tranquility, “connects with the public definition of crime by the media, and is mobilized” (165). This mobilization of moral panic, which Hall also argues is deeply embedded in class and racial divisions, is precisely the same intrusion enacted by the demon’s arrival in these films.
In Insidious, the demon’s break-in is literalized. As the Lamberts sleep peacefully at night, the security alarm goes off. Josh, the father, runs downstairs to find the front door broken open. He runs back upstairs to warn his wife and children to stay put and lock themselves in the baby’s room. The demonic haunting is correlated with the threat of a criminal break-in, of an outsider intruding into the home space, threatening to rob, or harm its inhabitants. What we come to understand is that although demonic haunting is the thing of fantasy, in the haunted house film it is grounded in moral panic and real anxieties over protecting the home.
Moral panic is explored further in Paranormal Activity 2, where everyone in the house is impacted by the demon’s initial attack and the damage that it has caused to their property. Daniel, the father, walks through the house as he documents with his camera every single transgression that has occurred against his material goods for insurance reasons. The tour lets the audience see the violence that has desecrated what at first had been longingly and obsessively introduced to us through the “property porn” aesthetic: broken glasses and cups, overturned furniture, clutter from the tables and cabinets now lining the floors. As we move into the bedrooms, we see ransacked drawers, thrashed beds, torn bedsheets, toppled dressers, flung clothes all over the room, unhinged paintings, and torn portraits. Despite the violent and intrusive assault, Daniel is most relieved to learn, “The watches are still here.” He then turns to his wife Kristi and says, “All your diamonds are here.” What the family seems most concerned with is the threat to their wealth and status symbols. The invasive force has attacked family’s wealth accumulated within and through their house. We instantly realize that the demonic presence symbolizes a facet of “anti-wealth,” seeking destroy or undo symbols of affluence embedded in American capitalist culture.
The film incites the audience to wonder: who would do something like this? Legislation about exclusion and segregation enable us to examine what is perceived to threaten the stability of suburban space. “Moral panic” is also useful in helping us to understand the divisions drawn by these break-ins. This division is precisely one racial in nature, as the protection of wealth and property is synonymous with the protection of white symbols of status and affluence. The wealth of the families, as mentioned previously, is encoded in their race: wealth gathered through privileges and legislations made to advantage whites. What threatens them, then, must be figured as the exact opposite, class-wise and racially speaking. These configurations of race, although only symbolized by moral panic, are also often literalized in colorist terms.
These white families, when made uncomfortable by an otherworldly presence, often highlight the horror-based colorism that divides them from this demonic entity. Even in literal terms, monstrous blackness is present in the films, given that horror antagonists are always presented as “black,” described as “dark” or “shadowy” demons. Even the figurations of racial difference are present, encoded either symbolically or literally. For example, the demon that haunts the entire Paranormal Activity franchise is, in Katie’s own words, “a shadowy figure,” a black mass of ethereal goop lurking through the corners of the house. Even more is that in the franchise’s third installment, its name is revealed to be Toby. Evocative, perhaps, of Kunta Kinte from Roots, the allusion to black representation in American popular culture is evident through the demon’s blackness and the popular resonance of its name. “Blackness” is exclusively represented as monstrous within the haunted house, and indicates tensions in racial relations in these films which fully formulate historical racial divisions around housing.
The symbol of the tall, looming black figure is also evoked through the speechless, purely evil entity of Buhguul in Sinister. The framing of this entity is further evocative of moral panic: outside in Ellison’s backyard, Buhguul stands menacingly in the distance, a suggestion of impending crime or violence to be perpetrated by the “menacing black figure.” These symbols of “blackness” as dangerous and threatening to white wealth and labor are easily recognizable, for, as Hall states, they are popular media evocations of what the crime that threatens traditional stability looks like (165). This is not to claim that “light vs. dark” is a new form of antagonism created in this subgenre of films. However, in terms of wealth and the threat to that wealth in the U.S., the colorist tensions drawn by these films reflect the racialization of crime and the history of racial segregation.
I call this colorist dynamic “horror-colorism,” or the color-based tensions that these films construct through demonic presences and their broader implications regarding U.S. race and class relations. Robin Wood notes the particularly problematic nature of the representation of the monster in many horror films. He views “the presentation of the monster as totally nonhuman,” noting that “one can feel little for a mass of viscous black slime” (Wood 192). In this quote, Wood refers in part to horror’s refusal to afford human considerations as to the monster’s origins or motives. Micah, as he researches demonology to get answers as to what could be haunting their house, illustrates the difference between demons and ghosts, congruent with Wood’s evocation of the sympathy-less monster. When Katie says that the haunting presence “doesn’t feel human,” Micah replies, “Well that sounds like a demon. Ghosts are spirits of human beings. Which is bad, cause demons suck. Basically, they’re these malevolent, evil spirits that only exist to cause pain and commit evil for their own amusement.” Not only is Micah’s description of the monster in agreement with Wood’s, but Toby, the dark demon, and Wood’s viscous black slime point to the figuration of horror-colorism: that part of the monster’s lack of sympathetic evocations, besides its asymmetry and abject physicality, always ties back to its demonic black color. Horror film constructions of blackness, therefore, are popularly tied with monstrosity, and such an evocation of monstrous blackness is telling of its significance in regards to American housing: that it is outside of the human, white realm of comfort and stability which housing produces, and directly antagonizes it.
Psychoanalysis is helpful in understanding the neurotic “negrophobia” constructed in these films — the idea that blackness is the antagonistic force directly opposed to white comfort. Frantz Fanon discusses the figurations of racial otherness in relation to collective catharsis: “In every society, in every community, there exists, must exist, a channel, an outlet whereby the energy accumulated in the form of aggressiveness can be released” (Fanon 124). In his description of how this catharsis is embedded in cultural products, he argues that the figurations, authored by white men for white children, of catharsis exist as “the Wolf, the Devil, the Wicked Genie, Evil, and the Savage” which are “always represented by Blacks or Indians” (Fanon 124-125). This further gives credence to the concept of a horror-colorism as embodying racial anxieties and fears from white audiences in the form of blackness. This resonates with James Baldwin’s figurations in “Stranger in the Village,” where he comes to understand that the Swedish children that run from him in fear do so because “other children, having been taught that the devil is a black man, scream in genuine anguish as I approach” (171). The figurations of black demonization through the racial other are, as these examples illustrate, culturally resonant across global definitions of whiteness. We come to understand Wood’s “black viscous slime” not only as a generic, nonhuman “other,” but as a very specific form of racial otherness. In the example of the haunted house, blackness is specifically pitted against the American symbol of dreaming and prosperity: the home. The lack of empathy or sympathy for such a being leads to a monstrous embodiment of racial otherness in relation to their involvement in home desecration.
Besides symbolic representations of blackness and racial otherness, when characters of color are present in these films, they embody racial stereotypes congruent with definitions of demonization. In Paranormal Activity 2, Martine, the Mexican nanny hired by the Reys to care for their new baby, embodies the mysticism and demonic power embedded in perceptions of other races. As soon as Toby makes his presence known, Martine ritualistically cleanses the house of his presence, lending an exotic understanding of the demonic forces at play. She knows how to perform ceremonial cleansings, so that when Kristi becomes possessed by Toby, Daniel goes looking for Martine and admits, “she tried to warn me but I didn’t listen.” Martine, her culture, and her otherness are presented as being in the same realm of otherworldliness as the villainous demons. Kinship seems to exist between minorities and demonic entities.
This kinship is illustrated to an even more severe degree in the Paranormal Activity spin-off, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (dir. Christopher B. Landon, 2014). The film takes place in the “barrio” of Oxnard, California, where our entirely Latino cast falls victim to the hauntings of Toby and its pawns. The main character, Jesse, becomes possessed by a demonic entity after performing a ritual inside a church. What’s curious is that the relationship between Jesse and the demon plaguing him is not so much one of horrific invasion, but one of familiarity amongst the two. The principal signs of possession that Jesse displays are levitation and superhuman strength. His friend, Hector, after witnessing such abilities, exclaims “this is fucking awesome!” and “that’s insane, Jesse!” again illustrating the familiarity between the demons and the racial others whom it visits, as their interactions always incite amazement and laughter. When Jesse’s possession gets particularly nasty, his grandma, like Martine, knows exactly who to go to for advice and what to do to battle the demon. The familiarity between ethnic minorities and demons reduces people of color to the same level as demonic entities.
Racial otherness is also present in housing legislation and residential segregation which the films also embody through demonic and literal ethnic representations. The haunted house film comes to reflect a racist facet of American culture that has existed for decades in relation to property. It often portrays “realms” inhabited by either actual ethnic minorities or by demonic entities as entirely antithetical of the pristine, comfortable microcosm which the suburbs embody. These “anti-suburbs,” spaces entirely opposed to the idyllic representations of suburbia, are fully embedded in actual histories of American segregation. The account of the “construction of the ghetto” in its early stages, as Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton describe in American Apartheid helps us to perceive the racist forces imbued in living spaces:
As the tide of violence rose in northern cities, blacks were increasingly divided from whites by a hardening color line in employment, education and especially housing. Whites became increasingly intolerant of black neighbors […] Those blacks living away from recognized Negro areas were forced to move into expanding “black belts,” “darkytowns,” “Bronzevilles,” or “Niggertowns” […] in white eyes, black people belonged in black neighborhoods no matter what their social or economic standing; the color line grew increasingly impermeable (30).
Denton and Massey’s observations of the construction of the ghetto and the rise of northern segregation in the U.S. point to the fact that social and economic standing are always secondary to race when it comes to separatist housing actions. In other words, the very geography of housing is embedded in racist segregation, and the idea that suburbia, in its idyllic construction of housing, is always intrinsically separated from racial otherness, much like the human vs. demon separations enacted in these films.
These films also represent an unconscious manifestation of “redlining.” Redlining, which Oliver and Shapiro describe as “institutional mechanisms that help to destabilize black communities” by “making it difficult and/or expensive for homes and businesses to secure coverage” (43), is the central racist procedure through which suburban housing communities became segregated. Redlining is the practice of “rating” communities and neighborhoods based on the scale of “financial risk” or poverty which they represent, with the objective of seeing who would obtain mortgage loans and at what rates. Historically, however, racism is evident in this ranking system, for the simple fact of being a person of color was enough to devalue property, and for whiteness being favored in the system. As the House We Live In explains the process of redlining:
Those communities that were all white, suburban, and faraway from minority areas received the highest rating, and that was green, while those that were all minority or in the process of changing, those got the lowest rating, which was the color red. Most of these mortgages went to suburbanizing America, and they suburbanized it racially.
In the process of suburbanization blackness becomes “undesirable” and “anti-value.” In other words, the physical condition of a home was as much a factor of its value in the market as the racial makeup of who lived in or near it. What this does, primarily, is construct blackness as a “blight” on neighborhoods and against wealth. The proximity of blackness to one’s home signals the decrease in value and depletion of wealth.
With this information at hand, understanding the dynamic of the racially other demon vs. the house in our set of films becomes clearer. In Insidious, for example, demons emerge from the Further, “a world far beyond our own, yet it’s all around us, a place without time as we know it. It’s a dark realm filled with the tortured souls of the dead, a place not meant for the living” (emphasis mine). The figuration of this demonic realm is the figuration of where demons ought to stay and where they belong, and their infiltration in the realm of the living (where our white characters live) is what sets in motion the film’s central disruption of the house.
When Josh travels to The Further to rescue his son, we see even further configurations of horror-colorism, this time also imbued with notions of anti-wealth: The Further is just like our own world, but darker, less glamorous, and less vibrant, and filled with vengeful entities anxious to escape and invade the world of the living. Insidious constructs a version of redlining while invoking the anxiety of a violation of borders as demons begin to pour out of the Further and invade the Lambert house. As Oliver and Shapiro state, “materially, whites and blacks constitute two nations” (3), and the Further acts as a literal embodiment of this idea. If the demon enters the house, it will inevitably disrupt wealth and labor production, because its very existence, in our understanding of race-based housing legislation, is what haunts the possibility of a decline in comfortable living. When a white homeowner in these films stands his ground, raises a crucifix, and implores, “leave my house, demon!” therefore, our understanding of this struggle is one steeped in a history of racist segregation.
Insidious and Sinister, which show us that the result of these hauntings is the white family’s attempt to flee, is evocative of the concept of white flight that, like redlining, contribute to segregation. White flight is the departure of many white families from increasingly non-white neighborhoods to ensure that their property does not suffer an unwanted decrease in value. The Lamberts and the Oswalts opt for a literal representation of this when things go awry: they pack their bags and leave. They do so in hopes that this will result in the finding of a place where darkness is not so predominant, where demons do not bleed through into their realm. Their main desire is that the stability of their comfort and wealth can flourish once more, without demonic disruptions, which illustrates the separatist nature of suburbia in terms of escaping the tightening grips of otherness.
The Marked Ones once more proves useful in understanding the racial and economic separations that come because of redlining by its evocations of the Oxnard barrio as a place completely antithetical of all iterations of suburbia previously shown in other films. Like Massey and Denton’s study of the construction of the ghetto, we see the construction of the barrio in more contemporary terms. Everything about the environment that ethnic minorities inhabit portrays anti-value and anti-wealth. Jesse’s family is unconventional in contrast to the Lamberts: his father is a working-class man who only comes home to sleep and his grandmother is often busy with household chores. Jesse lives in a small, cramped apartment that is decorated in dull beige and gray colors. His best friend Hector also states that he cannot take romantic interests home because “there’s like 50 people” residing in his home. Furthermore, Ana, the bruja that lives below Jesse’s apartment, is evicted after a mysterious murder takes place in her home. As Jesse and Hector enter the now empty apartment, we see its squalor: filth and waste lining the walls and floors, discarded litter, dust everywhere, as well as the various grotesque brujería objects: voodoo dolls, human, jars with mysterious contents. Ana’s apartment, in the heart of the Oxnard ghetto, is the antithesis of the “property porn” displayed in our other films. Like Hector cleverly formulates, “if she can travel through time why did she stay in this nasty ass apartment?”
Besides this, the film also constructs the barrio as the source of moral panic which is a constant source of white anxiety in relation to suburban stability. Two main acts of violence are seen in the first two Paranormal Activity films: the first film ends with the death of Micah, and the second begins with a break-in at the Reys’ home. In the Marked Ones, these assaults are revealed to have been perpetrated by Mexicans. The film introduces the concept of portals, which allow one to travel across great geographic and temporal distances. Hector and Jesse travel through a portal that lands them in Katie and Micah’s living room, seven years in the past in the final moments of the first Paranormal Activity, where they soon encounter the homeowners and a struggle ensues. The scene depicts Micah’s unconscious, suburban white worries as being materialized: that, indeed, minorities have broken into his home, and one of them, the possessed Jesse, is now a demonic accomplice to the now possessed Katie who then kills him. Essentially, all the troubles that plague their San Diego home are figured to have emerged from the Oxnard barrio.
In Paranormal Activity 2, we find out that the only thing that was missing after the apparent break-in at the Rey house was a box of old videotapes stored in the family’s basement. These tapes, we later discover, contain evidence of Katie’s and Kristi’s demonic hauntings from childhood. These same videotapes are one of the many things that Jesse and Hector encounter when they break into Ana’s now-abandoned apartment. We as audiences are meant to figure that Ana, or one of her possessed Mexican henchmen, were the ones who forcibly broke into the Reys’ home to disrupt their peace and steal their belongings. The film series seems bent on confirming white anxieties to a full-blown extent: that the barrio produces a monstrosity bent on transgressing against the domestic tranquility of the suburban home space.
“No other recent economic crisis better illustrates the saying ‘when America catches a cold, African Americans get pneumonia’ than the sub-prime mortgage meltdown,” Melvin Oliver writes in “Subprime as Black Catastrophe” (The American Prospect, 2008). The subprime mortgage crisis is conceded to have resulted from the “toxic and predatory loans” that plagued African-American homeownership. “Households of color were more than three times as likely as white households to end up with riskier loans with features like exploding adjustable rates, deceptive teaser rates, and balloon payments,” Oliver continues. “Good credit scores often made no difference, as profit incentives trumped sound policy.” Eventually, when the housing market collapsed, “in hindsight, many critics now describe the sub-prime mortgage crisis as the consequence of bad loans to unqualified borrowers.” Indeed, the language employed by many critics is to blame black people for being ‘irresponsible’ in their homeownership. Even popular news media outlets like CNBC often concentrated on the usage of this language of personal responsibility. Rick Santelli, CNBC editor, famously proclaimed in a fury during a news broadcast on February 19, 2009, that there should not be a break for the “losers,” and instead rewards should be given “to those who can carry the water, and not drink the water.” Santelli’s outbursts reflect a deep, yet “colorblind” resentment towards financially unstable, victimized homebuyers. The perceived “black blight” of homeownership reflects the resentment, hatred, and fear that such blackness seemingly introduces to white homeowners. “It just feels gross, knowing someone was in here,” Ali, the daughter in Paranormal Activity 2, proclaims as she observes the wreckage made in her room after the break-in. The subprime mortgage crisis, then, is synonymous with blackness in the sense that they both embody the violent transgressions against white homeownership and prosperity, as we completely forget that people of color suffered the biggest blows. “Gross,” “losers,” and “blight,” connote the overt abjection central to the racially divided housing market of the U.S. The darkness of the demons in these films is the harbinger of the racial sentiment that sprouts from housing legislature, leaving racial otherness as something undesirable and grotesque that must be done away with.
A great source of anxiety in many of these films is the idea that something dark, evil, and previously lurking below has risen to take revenge. Although the demon’s intentions in relation to the white family will be explored in the following section, it is crucial to stipulate that its homecoming is perhaps a manifestation of white audiences’ projections of their modern racial fears; “at one point, we had explicit laws that said whites are on top and blacks on the bottom,” the House We Live In states, continuing that “today we have many of the same practices without the explicit liners, and those practices are largely inscribed in geography.” The demons emerge from the Further, their own realm, and intoxicate and infect the pristine realm of white suburbia. These anxieties are partly imbued in the history of recovery from the housing crisis. Sarah Burd-Sharps and Rebecca Rasch explain that “white home equity began to recover quickly after the housing crisis stabilized, this was not the case for blacks; again, this difference likely emerges because of blacks’ disproportionate exposure to predatory loans and other deceptive mortgage schemes” (13). White recovery and black struggle represent the normative dynamic in which black homeowners are “crawling out,” emerging from their debt, and suffering the biggest blows. However, as in the films’ devotion to presenting the demons as evildoers, their “crawling out” is not an action of self-sufficiency, but rather evocative of a figuration of blackness that has gained the awareness that the housing market has transgressed against them, and perhaps now wants revenge. Thus, their violation of segregated borders reads not as an attempt towards upward mobility, but as an act of abject violence and danger.
The haunted house film thus serves as a reminder that white homeownership is not at peace, that something angry is always within its periphery, and perhaps wants revenge. As Oliver and Shapiro state, “the disadvantaged status of contemporary African Americans cannot be divorced from the historical processes that undergird racial inequality. The past has a living effect on the present” (52). The past reemerging into the present, very much like ghosts do, is the enactment of a legacy that continues to haunt people of color and white wealth.
IV. It Wants Your Children: How White Innocence Breeds Black Monstrosity
The construction of “horror-colorism” within the haunted house film allows us to see clearly the economic and even psychological racial divide that still “haunts” modern American legislation regarding housing and wealth. The division between who is white and who is other in these films constructs a rigid set of roles as to who owns wealth vs. who covets wealth or seeks to destroy it, who lives comfortably vs. who disturbs that comfort, and most importantly, who is the victim and who is the villain. If whites remain at the top and blacks at the bottom, how can these films construct a narrative in which the opposite is seemingly true, with whites being the victims and blacks the oppressors?
The construction of this villain/victim dichotomy is one that is especially guided by affective responses in relation to the way white people are portrayed in the films. White women and white children are consistently the main targets of the films’ demonic entities, evocative of a patriarchal notion of fragility and innocence, and thus we must explicate what this means in terms of the construction and passing on of wealth, as well as the construction of an American white innocence and a black demonization. In short, I argue that these films allow for continuous transgressions against people of color, such as being blamed for the subprime mortgage crisis and being constructed as monstrous criminals, to remain by masking said transgressions as a facet of white innocence. What this means is that by heightening the way in which blackness in the films is made monstrous, the film leaves no choice but to consider whites to be the true victims of the various demonic transgressions depicted on the films.
Women and children in the films, and by extension, in American capitalist notions of wealth, represent not only a fragile innocence, but a reproduction and continuation of the wealth established within the haunted house. They are often depicted as mere extensions of the consumer goods and property shown in the films. A particularly telling scene from Paranormal Activity depicts this notion, in which Micah, having grown tired of the demon’s imposing powers and its effects on his comfort, and particularly its accosting of his girlfriend Katie, denounces, “Nobody comes in my house, fucks with my girlfriend, and gets away with it.” The figuration here is clear: Micah places “my house,” and “my girlfriend,” on equal terms and as extensions of the property under his ownership. Moreover, the inflection on “fucks with my girlfriend,” while referring to the demon harassing her physically, can also be read as an allusion to the demon’s sexualized haunting of Katie. Indeed, most of the film’s haunting happens in the bedroom. Even Dr. Fredrichs, upon his visit to the house claims “Most of the activity’s in here, isn’t it?” while pointing to the couple’s bed. Micah’s anxieties over his white girlfriend (who, through the inflection of “my,” is presented as being part of his property) being “fucked with” by Toby is equally about a threat to his property as to his masculinity and patriarchal leadership. Even as Micah says that he has everything under control regarding the demonic haunting, Katie lashes out at him and insults his masculinity saying, “No, you haven’t been making progress and you’re not in control! It is in control. If you think you’re in control you’re an idiot!” The entire narrative of the film is thus a portrayal of white anxiety over who is “in control” of the house and of the woman.
The narratives of racially othered demonic possession and white masculine (re)possession of the white woman are at play here. In Micah’s articulation of Katie as his property, it follows that the demon’s attempts to possess her are attempts to both disrupt his property as well as his masculinity. The word play here suggests that possession films in this context are films of re-possession: repossessing the house, its wealth, and its inhabitants. Psychoanalytically, this resonates with white anxieties over the black man and his sexual transgressions on the white woman. Frantz Fanon offers an extremely appropriate articulation of what this “negrophobia” means at the sexual level among white men and women. As he states, everything in relation to the fear of blackness “takes place at the genital level,” as he further articulates what he figures must be the anxieties of whiteness in relation to black threat: “Apparently, they fornicate just about everywhere and at all times. They’re sexual beasts. They have so many children they’ve lost count. If we’re not careful they’ll inundate us with little mulattoes. Everything’s going to the dogs” (135). “Black” transgressions against white women in these films, thus, speak of a usurpation of the white man’s dominant stance. As Fanon explicates, this white anxiety is sexual in nature, yet his writing devotes even more importance to reproduction. The true source of Micah’s anxiety is the possibility of a miscegenation of demonic mulattoes, through the claiming of his white girlfriend by the black demon, which transgresses and poisons his idyllic, white, suburban space, and his hopes of continuing this white purity. As Fanon also explains, a black man’s desire to be with a white woman is supposed to represent a black man’s desire to be white himself (45), further asserting the idea that what Micah is truly fearing is that the black demon will grow to take his place as the white man of the house.
Women and property are also congruent in these films because women are literal reproducers of wealth. In Paranormal Activity 2 the wife, Kristi, has already produced an heir for Daniel in the form of their newborn son, Hunter. Children, like women, are an extension of the patriarchal notion of wealth because they are implicit in its transfer between family members. The female reproductive system, in this sense, can be read as another center of wealth production. As George Lipsitz explains in the Possessive Investment in Whiteness, regarding the hoarding of wealth among white families, young whites “can often rely on gifts and bequests from family members for transformative assets that help build wealth, for money that enables them to pay for an education, start a business or buy a first home” (107). In other words, the production of wealth that is emblematic of American solvency, is also paired with the equal importance of hoarding the spoils of racist legislation through the intergenerational transfer of wealth and assets. Women’s implication in this as the (re)producers of wealth, is essentially to produce this heir that will continue to uphold white wealth. This is explicitly evoked when the Reys display their property in the family video being recorded at the beginning of the film. As Ali begins the video, she explicitly says, “Welcome home, Hunter! This is your house!” (emphasis mine) before they walk through the property. Hunter, the first male born of Kristi’s side of the family, is emblematic of the continuation of the patriarchal notions of the production and transfer of wealth. As we later find, being the first male born in Kristi’s side of the family is what makes him Toby’s target, thus increasing anxiety over the endangerment of the patriarchal homeowner system. In another scene, Daniel points his camera at his large flat-screen TV, and describes it as his “fifty-inch monster,” an obvious reference to the phallus. Thus, wealth and material goods are here constructed as the patriarchal figure’s extension of his own masculinity, a doctrine which he plans to further inculcate in his son when his time comes.
In Sinister, Ellison undertakes a new writing project about the murders that occurred in the house which he has now moved into. Ellison is primarily concerned with amassing a fortune and restoring his sense of celebrity through his writing, while his wife Tracy worries about her children and the potential psychological damage the home’s previous history can have on them. Herein lies the amalgamation of white, middle class America’s most pressing concerns regarding wealth: who produces it and who is there to pass it on to. As the couple argues over what’s best for their children, they debate whether to stay in the house so that Ellison can finish his novel and make his family rich, or leave to protect their children from any harm the home’s environment could cause. Ellison urges, “Don’t you understand that writing is what gives my life meaning? These books are my legacy,” to which Tracy retorts, “Writing isn’t the meaning of your life. You and me, right here, this marriage, that’s the meaning of your life, and your legacy, that’s Ashley and Trevor [their children].” Ellison is evidently confused as to what “the meaning of his life” is: Is it the production of wealth, or those who will uphold his legacy by having his wealth transferred to them? In the machinations of how white, patriarchal notions of wealth are produced and sustained, one could say that both are correct answers, as labor, wealth and children work together to produce the cycle of white wealth. Ellison juggles producing wealth and protecting those who will sustain it, for if the production of wealth doesn’t run smoothly on both accords, the entirety of his existence as a white, middle-class male will overwhelm him.
The evocation of endangered children is one that undoes notions of the “bootstraps” mentality by showing where the real production of wealth takes place. This bootstraps mentality, as the House We Live In defines it, is the belief that wealth and success are accessible to anyone who works hard. However, this is an articulation to justify white people’s hoarding of the spoils obtained through a deeply racist system. Wealth is transferred intergenerationally and stubbornly protected. The final moments of Sinister, which show Ellison’s daughter, Ashley, being carried off by the demonic Buhguul, is evocative of this formulation of white anxiety over wealth: That this and other demons carry as their purpose the stealing of women or, in this case, the eating of children (as Buhguul is aptly subtitled “the eater of children”) is figured the same as a foreign, appropriately black entity invading and appropriating white wealth and property. The true white anxiety over wealth, therefore, is not over disruption of hard-earned property, but a disruption of the generations-old hoarding and transferring of wealth.
Having thus observed the roles women and children play in the symbolic representation of wealth, we must also observe how they are implicit in helping to protect said wealth. More specifically, I seek to define how exactly children have a hand at controlling the affective responses that audience members have when viewing these films. These haunted house films are so provocative and telling in relation to racial injustices in contemporary America, yet they are often viewed as tales about the victimization of whites at the hands of monstrous blackness. I turn, then, to the following schema that helps us understand this process by which white victimization is produced: White adults in these films opt for ignorance, which in turn produces white innocence in their children. White children, upon assimilating this white innocence, heighten the sense of black monstrosity that threatens to destroy them.
I borrow Charles Mills’ own definition of white ignorance, especially in relation to memory, as most of these films’ white protagonists enact an individual amnesia which then translates into the larger implications of a collective white amnesia. As Mills states:
“As the individual represses unhappy or embarrassing memories that may also reveal a great deal about his identity, about who he is, so in all societies, especially those structured by domination, the socially recollecting ‘we’ will be divided, and the selection will be guided by different identities, with one group suppressing precisely what another wishes to commemorate” (29).
Mills’ definition of a collective memory, in short, is a useful tool for understanding dominant power structures, so that a cause (such as racism, as he later articulates) is validated both by what we remember and what we choose to forget. In these films, then, when characters choose to forget a troublesome history, they are opting to do so out of protecting and inculcating innocence in their children.
In a particularly telling example from Insidious, to save his eldest son, Dalton, from the demonic being which threatens to devour him, Josh undertakes the task of traveling to the Further by means of astral projecting, an ability which he himself possesses due to having been victim of a similar haunting when he was young. We find out that the psychic medium helping them, Elise, has prevented Josh from knowing the truth about his ability to astral project, and therefore about the existence of the Further, where dangerous demons lurk. “I kept those photos hidden from you ever since,” she says, referring to photographic evidence that depicts a demonic entity haunting Josh. “I advised Lorraine [Josh’s mother] to hide them, to stop taking your picture, to just let you forget.” Elise explains here both that Josh’s mother was always aware of the existence of demons and that she kept Josh ignorant of this information. Lorraine is aware that there is a disturbing, demonic past that will probably reemerge and danger her son’s children, which it eventually does. However, she chooses to “just let him forget,” have Josh lead a normal life, fully aware of the negative implications this could have. Likewise, this figuration of white innocence is the same as real-life scenarios regarding the passing on wealth. To pass down comfort (which is tied to wealth and solvency) to children, is to pass down the racist doctrine of discrimination and segregation which is the wealth’s source. However, for the comfort to remain, children must be made unaware, innocent of the racial tensions that plague the origin of their wealth.
White innocence, created thus by parents’ opting to let their children “forget,” is then heighten as they make first contact with the monstrous otherness that endangers them. In all these films where children are present, they are always the first to witness, even befriend the demonic presences that later jeopardize their well-being. In Insidious, Dalton, as an astral projector, is the first to be able to travel to the Further and encounter the demons that put his soul in peril. In a scene from Paranormal Activity 2, Hunter, as he cries alone in his crib, ultimately quiets down at the sight of something off-camera, which the audience can assume is the demonic presence of Toby. In Sinister, as well, Ashley, the Oswalts’ young daughter, is the first to be able to see Buhguul and his past victims’ ghostly apparitions, and an apparent friendship is stricken. “I wanted to paint her picture,” Ashley says as she shows her parents the ghostly finger paint she’s made on the wall. The children’s contact with the demons, and by extension—since demons are a manifestation of the deep, troubled history that runs in these families—their contact with history is one which the films have carefully fabricated as an enactment of white innocence. Whereas people of color’s proximity to these demons is a heightening of the exoticizing and othering of their race, children are always portrayed as victims, being perverted, or taken advantage of. Whereas Jesse in the Marked Ones giggles and stands in awe at what his demonic possession has enabled him to do (float in midair, even give him the confidence to go pick up some girls), the children in these films do not know what they are facing, and when they find out, the films opt to portray this reckoning through a rigid predator-prey dichotomy. Children, upon realizing what they’re facing, scream and cry, in Hunter’s case, or remain in a catatonic trance, in Ashley’s case, highlighting her role as a submissive prey to the demon’s influence. Their parents, even fully knowing that they implicit in the misfortune that has befallen their family, continue this narrative, inciting audiences to affectively respond, along with them, “think of the children!”
The psychological process through which this predator-prey dichotomy is formulated, even at the face of whites’ own implications in the monstrous aspects of the film narrative, is best exemplified by Frantz Fanon in his own description of an encounter with a white child on a train. After repeated exclamations of the child saying “Look maman, a nigger! I’m scared!” Fanon comes to realize the following:
I couldn’t take it any longer, for I already knew there were legends, stories, history […] As a result, the body schema, attacked in several places, collapsed, giving way to an epidermal racial schema […] I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered by blackness, my ethnic features; defined by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders […] Peeling, stripping my skin, causing a hemorrhage that left congealed black blood all over my body (92).
Fanon offers the gruesome depiction of becoming of the monster, through the ignorance and fear that the white child enacts and uses to lacerate Fanon’s very skin. The white child also undergoes the transformation from aggressor to victim. “Maman, the negro’s going to eat me” (Fanon 93), he exclaims as he runs to his mother’s arms. Fanon describes the process through which white monstrosity and black victimization are inversed. The white child is the aggressor in this scene, enacting what Fanon examines as the historical, racial stigmas that translate to physical assaults against his own body. However, by exclaiming, “the negro’s going to eat me!” the child effectively flips the roles, and presents himself as the victim to the black monster which, just seconds ago, he created. Thus, the fabrication of white innocence is fundamentally tied to the construction of the black monster. One cannot be sustained without the presence of the other.
When the parents in these films opt for ignorance, they effectively choose to ignore the monstrosity which they themselves have assigned to the racial other, in favor of playing the victim. In the Paranormal Activity series, we find out that Hunter, Kristi’s son, is destined to be Toby’s prey, for he has been promised, as the first-born male of her side of the family, to the demon by his great-grandmother, a witch in exchange for riches and fortune. Past generations are implicit in the dangerous, threatening history that now victimizes their children.
In Sinister, Ellison, who knows very well the dangerous history of the ancient Buhguul and the potential threats he represents to his family, for he has been researching it extensively as he attempts to write his novel, willingly chooses to keep his family ignorant until the demon arrives and kills them all before taking Ashley away. Although Ellison chose to hide the dangerous history from his family, the audience assigns blame for the tragedy to the existence of the demonic presence itself. The subgenre thus relies on audience’s active “forgetting” of the white characters’ implications in their own demise, and must choose to see white innocence for the films to fully realize their villains as all-evil, and without any evocations of sympathy. The audience is thus directly involved in an enactment of white ignorance.
It is precisely this very same articulation of white innocence and victimization which makes the narrative of “home loss” during the subprime mortgage crisis seem an exclusively white tragedy. As Oliver, Burd-Sharps and Rasch have shown us, the subprime mortgage crisis was an overwhelming catastrophe for families of color who suffered the major losses and still struggle to undo the damage that this housing crisis meant for their economic wellbeing. These authors are also aware that the main cause for this crisis was the predatory lending practices which plagued people of color. As Lipsitz notes, this is part of the racist legislation and American system of wealth in which people of color “are not so much disadvantaged as taken advantage of. Their unearned disadvantages structure unearned advantages for whites.” Lipsitz, also notes, however, the role which white innocence plays in this economic structure, for he says “yet [people of color] find themselves portrayed as privileged beneficiaries of special preferences by the very people who profit from their exploitation and oppression” (107). Fanon’s formulation of the white child is the same formulated by Lipsitz, albeit in economic terms. As Lipsitz further notes, “By failing to reckon with the rewards that come to them because of racial privilege, whites prevent themselves from seeing how privilege actually works in this society” (105-106). Likewise, by opting to play the role of innocents, whites are undeniably implicit in denying democracy to fully come into play to critically approach disasters like the subprime mortgage crisis. The very predatory nature of legislation and lending practices which landed people of color in still-lingering hardships around housing, are the ones that resulted in their violent, gruesome “hemorrhaging,” as Fanon would put it, into the villains of the story, the “irresponsible losers” who allowed for such a tragedy to bleed onto white homeowners.
The representation of white innocence is particularly telling in a sequence towards the end of Paranormal Activity. Katie and Micah, haunted and tired, sit in their couch, huddled closely together, as Katie says, “I can’t even be in this house, Micah. We can’t even be in our house.” The evocation of such a scene, two young Americans losing their home, was particularly provocative to audiences still feeling the effects of the housing crisis. However, what this scene chooses to erase is the history behind such a tragedy, and the marginalized people that took the most severe blows. Instead, we get the simplistic, extremely damaging view of white victimization and black monstrosity that goes on to plague later films. Such formulation is dangerous: We, along with the filmmakers, are opting to forget, to not see what lurks beneath, so that when it rears its ugly, monstrous head, we are surprised to find it so angry and threatening. Through this process, whites’ history and actions never come under scrutiny. Instead, we get the simplistic notion that whites are the victims of demons they themselves have bred.
V. Beyond the White Picket Fence: White Monstrosity as Subversive Horror
The post-recession haunted house film portrays middle-class white anxieties and fears in a palatable fashion, so that the films only work to reassure America’s obsession with wealth and comfort. The genre employs the monster-victim tactics which leave people of color and working-class groups marginalized, criminalized and demonized. Dominant, middle-class white people are left without scrutiny. As Robin Wood rightly points out, the horror film, under the constraints of major Hollywood production and “crowd pleaser” aesthetics, becomes a “puritan” arrangement of repression that only works to reassure said repression instead of subverting it (156).
The haunted house genre, with its representations of wealth and power structures uninterrogated, leaves little room to imagine a subversive perspective that challenges these repressive depictions of “white victim vs. black monster.” However, as the genre evolves, just as it evolved away from torture porn dominance into a retreat into the house at the onset of the Great Recession, so too, given the changing political climate and the passing of years, we are beginning to see films that think outside of the haunted house conventions to deliver truly thought-provoking, subversive portrayals that dismantle previous constructions of white innocence and black monstrosity. In this section, I analyze three of these recent films: It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell, 2015), Don’t Breathe (dir. Fede Alvarez, 2016), and Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele, 2017), paying attention to the way they destabilize associations between wealth, homeownership, and white patriarchal normativity. These recent films negate the construction of white victimization, ignorance, and innocence. Instead, they construct a concept of “white monstrosity” unlike any of the haunted house films discussed previously. By white monstrosity, I refer to the socially damaging aspects of patriarchy, white privilege, and wealth-hoarding which have been implicit in the unjust, racist notions of redlining and segregation which have kept racism alive and well. These issues have been hidden under the façade of white innocence and ignorance. In short, these three films perform the labor of “unmasking” white innocence and showing whites’ racist and discriminating actions for what they truly are.
The pristine, suburban setting, a staple of the haunted house subgenre, is completely absent from It Follows and Don’t Breathe. Both are set in Detroit, a city that has come to represent the antithesis of suburban American comfort and wealth. Detroit’s history of abandonment and poverty emerges from America’s history of greed and hoarding of wealth. Privatization and the extradition of labor to cheaper regions have turned Detroit into a state of abandonment. As Carlos Salazar’s “The Assassination of Detroit” illustrates, “For years, vacancy, dressed as blight, has been the bogeyman of Detroit.” The evocation of a haunting, monstrous history of capitalism and corporate greed (Salazar’s bogeyman) is portrayed through the seemingly apocalyptic abandonment audiences see in Robert Mitchell’s and Alvarez’s films. The results of capitalism and wealth-hoarding celebrated in the haunted house genre disappear from these films. Instead of prosperity the films portray a city that has been abandoned, leaving behind poverty and chaos.
From the opening shot of It Follows, we’re presented with a bleak, decaying vision of suburbia. The opening shot and most of the film take place outside. From the beginning, we’re torn from the obsessive treatment of the home’s interiors and instead forced to witness the suburban decay that has been harbored by greed. The film concerns a young college student, Jay, trying to fight off a mysterious curse she has contracted after having sex with her boyfriend, in the form of a stalking creature which relentlessly follows her and her friends and can take on any human form. As they try to find answers as to the origin of this STD-themed monster, they navigate the streets of Detroit looking for Jay’s boyfriend, who has disappeared. A melancholic synth soundtrack accompanies extensive shots of the results of massive evictions, abandoned buildings desecrated with graffiti, entire lots of empty land, and the cracked pavement and sidewalk which line the city. Even indoors, we are treated to an undoing of the “property porn” aesthetic common in previous haunted house films. Jay’s own home and its cluttered decorations are evocative of poverty and kitsch. Unlike the Reys’ massive backyard pool, jay lazily floats in a rubber pool littered with fallen leaves and tiny bugs. Her friends sit inside, huddled in a tiny, crammed living room, decorated with dull orange and avocado-colored wallpaper. The walls are lined with black and white, fading portraits.
The evocation of poverty is amped when Jay and her friends finally find her boyfriend, Hugh’s house, which is an abandoned squat, windows papered with newspaper clippings, debris and plaster peeling off the walls and ceiling, and old tin cans hanging from the rusty windowsills. This evokes a shocking turning away from the glamour and anxious documenting of property into a much bleaker depiction on the adverse effects of wealth hoarding, as represented by a city which has been literally sucked dry.
Even bleaker still, Don’t Breathe, which concerns a group of three teen colleagues who work together by breaking into homes in the more affluent sections of Detroit, follows their plight to ultimately gather enough to say, as the female member, Rocky, puts it, “bye, bye Detroit and hola California.” Alvarez’s vision is of a Detroit that is completely abandoned, and reflects the protagonists’ own anxieties to someday leave this dried out city behind. Like It Follows, the opening shot of this film lets us see the cracked asphalt, the abandoned property, home structures all around made up of rotting wood and unkempt grass that bleeds through the concrete. As Money, one of the members of the group, surveys the neighborhood surrounding their next target, the house of a blind Iraq war veteran who, after a settlement, was paid at least $300,000 in cash (we later find out this sum is much larger, at least $1 million), he comments, “at least for blocks around, the houses aren’t occupied.” The house that is occupied, that of the blind man, is represented as a property imbued with monstrosity and grotesqueness. The unconventional, dim lighting gives the inside of the house a somber, demonic feel, much like lighting techniques used to portray the Further in Insidious. However, unlike Insidious, the Further here is real, embodied in the cluttered, decaying husk of suburbia which Alvarez wants us to consider as the real iteration of American values as represented in housing: The hoarding of wealth which has produced a monstrous, marginalized realm of poverty and suffering.
With the concept of the home and the suburbs turned monstrous in these films because of the truthful unmasking of what capitalist greed has done to Detroit, we then turn to the perpetrators: white people, and more specifically, how their representation is noticeably different from those within the haunted house subgenre. The unsympathetic “viscous black slime” that Wood discusses in his analysis of modern horror monsters, which plague clean, idyllic suburbia are here given a different face, and much more noticeably, a different color. Except for It Follows, the monsters in these films are human, specifically white people, which literalizes their standing in the racial, class-based politics of their real-life scenarios, a drastic move away from the symbolic, “colorblind” depictions of black monstrosity in previous films. Even so, It Follows is usefully peculiar in that its monster, the titular “It,” despite its supernatural capabilities to “take on any form,” as the film explains, always opts to morph into grotesque iterations of white human beings. We see it briefly turn into a tall, eyeless, menacing white man, a small, white child with bloodshot eyes, a half-naked, toothless white woman urinating herself, among other forms of disturbing, aging white men and women. This monster helps us to not only combat the trend of “horror-colorism” in which darkness is placed at the side of evil and corruption, but also to ground the villainy in the horror film as a purely human(oid) facet of American suburban nightmares. We begin to understand that we have no monsters to blame for monstrosity, but rather ourselves.
More so than this, the creature’s true monstrosity comes from the explanation of how it feigns innocence. When Hugh is explaining to Jay the rules by which the creature plays, he states, “It could look like anyone, but there is only one of it. And sometimes… Sometimes I think it looks like people you love, just to hurt you.” Through this representation of feigned innocence which the monster enacts to get closer to its victims, the creature becomes emblematic of the very same supposed white innocence which is so meticulously constructed and embedded in the machinations of the haunted house film. Whereas in other iterations, and in dialogues regarding white victimization during the subprime mortgage crisis more specifically, the concept of white innocence is portrayed as real, here it is revealed as being only an ill-intentioned, reductive façade that hides the true intensions of the film’s monstrous whiteness: to accost, emotionally damage, and eventually kill its victims.
Don’t Breathe and Get Out, in turn, labor to completely embody monstrosity with a racial and social class sensibility. Don’t Breathe presents as the main villain a white, old army veteran who, at surface level, is monstrous through his physical representation of whiteness. He has milky, foggy eyes, his skin is jagged, scarred and cracked and his attire (a dirty wife beater) suggests disheveled uncleanliness, if not a gruff, intimidating masculinity. His embodiment is one which evokes patriarchal authority, reclusiveness, and anxiety over the home, as exemplified by the excessive locks and alarm systems he has placed throughout his house. These qualities are all amalgamated into a monstrous white body, so that we begin to understand that not only is the real monster in the history of housing human, but it is white in appearance.
Even more so, however, the concept of the hoarding of wealth is presented to American audiences as a grotesque form of white reclusiveness, which the blind man enacts through a monstrous drive to protect his property. As the premise of the film follows the three main characters attempting to rob his house, so, too, it follows that the blind man’s only drive is to kill them to protect what is his. The subversive twist of Don’t Breathe is its reversal of the “home invasion” thriller: the invaders are placed in the role of the victims, threatened by the blind man’s gruesome anxiety and protectiveness of his homeownership and wealth. This makes the homeowner the true monster, with those invading only desperate, impoverished individuals attempting to better their lives by obtaining the wealth which the blind man has so greedily hoarded.
Alvarez is also not afraid to profusely explore the misogynistic notions of patriarchy and the nuclear family as they are embodied in his villain. On top of his previously described exterior monstrosity, the blind man’s true intent is what truly obliterates the façade of white innocence in this film. Towards the end of the film, we learn that he has kept the girl that ran over and killed his daughter (from whom he received the settlement money) kidnapped in his basement, whom he has artificially inseminated for her to give him a new child to replace the one she took from him. After he accidentally shoots her while attempting to kill the invaders, and thus killing her and his unborn child, he decides to kidnap Rocky as a replacement. As he prepares to artificially inseminate Rocky, he explains his entire plan. “Cindy took my child away from me,” he explicates, “I thought it’s only fair that she gives me a new one.” The blind man is here explaining that the settlement money was not enough, coincidentally implying that what’s missing in this formula is an heir for him to enjoy and transfer his wealth to. Children and wealth are here confused in a grotesque way, much the same as Ellison does in Sinister, where he proclaims that his job is his legacy, while his wife corrects him and explains that his children are.
The blind man, however, is not confused, like Ellison is, but rather much too knowledgeable in the notion that wealth and children are interconnected in the process of maintaining and hoarding goods and benefits. There’s even a narrative of possession that gets constructed here, far different from the demonic one we see in the haunted house. Toby of Paranormal Activity possesses Kristi and then Katie in a symbolic embodiment of white male anxiety over the ownership of the white woman as part of his assets. Don’t Breathe, however, literalizes the concept of white possession: The blind man, quite literally, possesses Cindy, the kidnapped girl, and then attempts to possess Rocky, as part of his property, locked up in his basement along with his money. “9 months, and I’ll give you your life back,” he says as he approaches her with a turkey baster filled with his semen. This sexual transgression is, in his view, only a loan, a financial transaction in which he will see the (re)production of his wealth enacted through the female reproductive system. When Rocky protests that he cannot do this to her, he simply says, “There is nothing a man cannot do once he realizes there is no God,” further asserting his dominant, patriarchal role as the keeper of wealth and power in this encounter. Alvarez lets us see the monstrous possession and reproduction of white wealth and the protection of the patriarchal nuclear family as the keepers of this wealth. However, he lets us see this in a disturbing, subversive fashion that reveals the truly sickening nature of white wealth and power that the haunted house genre is fixated on lauding.
White monstrosity is taken to even more explicitly sociopolitical and satirical levels in Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out. White monstrosity here is no longer symbolic through implications behind actions and indirect evocations but instead takes on an overly literal form. Although not the first horror film of the decade to directly deal with racism and white supremacy in a monstrous way, it is the first to directly tackle the horrific notions of contemporary American race relations, both in class and sexuality-based terms, as well as providing a biting commentary on the problematic and aggressive nature of colorblindness as it relates to property and power structure. In this film, Chris, a young black photographer, is about to meet his white girlfriend, Rose’s family. As they travel to her parents’ secluded lake house, we are presented with an evocation of a whiteness that is monstrous through the cracks in the façade of their innocence. As one critic, John McDonald, writes, “the movie seems singularly uninterested in trying to present a narrative that addresses itself to white audiences,” meaning that conventional, mass-produced narratives of white innocence and the maintenance of black monstrosity are entirely absent at the core of this film. Furthermore, this review is right to point out that “Get Out forces us to confront the subtler aspects of racism in a supposedly color-blind society.” In other words, Get Out may well be a new facet of horror filmmaking in which the façade of white innocence and the forceful usage of colorblindness when approaching strictly racial social issues are entirely absent.
Through Chris’s interactions with Rose’s family and their friends, we see, in full, painstaking detail, the damaging nature of racial micro- (and later macro-) aggressions which they enact upon him. From comments on his genetic makeup holding the possibility of making him “a beast” at wrestling, to Rose’s father’s seemingly well-intentioned claim that he would’ve “voted for Obama for a third term,” to a later display of Chris’s otherness in front of excited whites who we later learn are plotting to steal his body and transplant their consciousness into it, the aggressive nature of contemporary race relations finally rears its ugly head, in full detail, onto the celluloid. This film presents us with a quotidian, everyday representation of whiteness, which is enough to let us see how truly monstrous it is. Even through comically calm and subdued visuals and sequences, like Rose’s father, Dean, claiming that he dislikes deer and that they should all be killed off (which, through Chris’s look of discomfort, we understand to be the encoded language of eugenics), or Rose calmly sitting in her bed, eating cereal, and sipping milk through a straw while listening to “The Time of My Life” as she looks for her next victim online, white monstrosity prevails even within its mundane, normalized setting.
Ultimately, what emerges from Get Out is the display of the racial power structure nascent in American culture and hidden away in its often-unexplored underbelly. Part of the process of stealing Chris’s body is for Rose’s mother, Missy, to hypnotize him and suppress his consciousness into a dark, vacuous area in his unconscious, aptly called “the sunken place,” losing complete control of his body. This works as an iteration of the power structure which the haunted house strives to restore in its endeavor to stop the demon from attacking the home: that the demon should stay in its place, in the Further (which is aesthetically like “the sunken place”), stored away in darkness so that we may never see suburban tranquility disturbed. This racial repression of Chris can also work, however, as an iteration of colorblindness itself: that the issue of race, and Chris’s own racialized existence must be stored away, unseen, so that whites’ own process of possession (here again, literalized, as whites seek to literally “possess” Chris’s physical prowess) can continue, undisturbed by any claims of foul play or injustice.
Pointing out all the injustice imbued in white monstrosity and its effects on American society, in relation to wealth, housing, race relations and patriarchal power structures, the three films here discussed also seem to offer a common resolution: that we must, if we want to escape these oppressive and problematic forces, “get out” of the house, as well as out of the notions of the nuclear family that must hermetically inhabit it. It Follows lays this claim through the loss of innocence. Jay, upon failing to combat the creature, instead resolves to stay in constant sexual relations with her friend, Paul, so that they may pass the curse back and forth in hopes of surviving. The final shot of the film shows Jay and Paul holding hands as they walk out into the suburbs, escaping the suffocating constraints of the definitions of white innocence and female reproduction. This sequence calls James Baldwin’s own critique of white innocence to mind, in which he iterates that “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state on innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster” (178). Yara, Jay’s friend, appropriately articulates this by quoting from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot in the film, where she says, “I think that if one is faced by inevitable destruction—if a house is falling upon you, for instance—one must feel a great longing to sit down, close one’s eyes and wait, come what may…” Jay, in a symbolic refusal to accept the traditional role of a reproducer of wealth, to simply “sit down” in her house “and wait,” as the haunted house so rigidly imposes upon its women, instead opts for an escape from these constraints, through casual sex, and through the evocation that the death of her innocence only means the protection of her life.
Likewise, in Don’t Breathe, the primary motivator for Rocky to escape Detroit is to provide her little sister with a better life, away from their abusive mother and her alcoholic boyfriend. Although the film does not do much to critique the power structures that have led Detroit to its state of decay in an overt way, nonetheless Alvarez is right to point out that Rocky is seeking to escape the constraints of a normative, traditional family structure and instead act as a confidant, sister, friend, and mother figure for her little sister. After she is successful in stealing the large sum of money from the blind man, she is bent on picking up the pieces of her family life, to overcome any emotional or physical trauma her nuclear family, and later her bout with the blind man, may have caused. If it’s too much to denote that her cooperation with her friends in robbing houses and attempting to survive through scavenging and pawning material goods is an evocation of the same community-based efforts many Michigan neighborhoods have undertaken to similarly survive, then it is at least safe to say that Rocky refuses to constrict her options to simply following the normative restraints that patriarchal structures impose for her. She is offered her life back by the blind man after 9 months, for her to sit quietly and wait to give birth to his heir, and yet she fights, escapes his grasp, and leaves Detroit with her sister, never to look back.
Get Out is much more overtly telling of a refusal to assimilate into the normative restraints of the house and the nuclear family, instead favoring a racial solidarity which Chris enacts with his black friend, Rod. The Armitages are, at first, the promise of a family for Chris, a replacement for the mother that he lost when he was a child. Even as he is about to undergo a brain transplant, the instructional video playing before him stipulates that he may still have the chance to be a part of the Armitage family (albeit with a white brain transplanted into his cranium). Like Rocky, Chris fights against this, and though the nature of his violence comes under question as he brutally murders the entire Armitage family, it is still the evocation of freedom that prevails in his triumphant escape from their home. After attempting to strangle Rose to death, his friend Rod arrives, and swiftly takes him away. Like how Micah and the Reys in Paranormal Activity 1 and 2 welcome audiences to experience a homecoming along with them, the Armitages also welcome Chris with open arms. However, as things get awry, and we realize this homecoming is the setup of a trap that threatens to continue racist violence and oppression, Rod lets us hear his concise figuration of a solution to this problem. As Chris gets into Rod’s car at the end of the film, after a moment of silence, Rod turns to him and solemnly states, “Man, I told you not to go in that house.” The solutionist message of the film is clear: if we are to comment on the racist notions of wealth, solvency, and stability in contemporary America, we must look for solutions outside these very constraints, embodied in the American home, that so monstrously suffocate us.
March 27, 2017
Advisor: Professor Felice Blake
Honors Undergraduate Thesis
For the Department of English
University of California, Santa Barbara
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