The lead up to Halloween this year has been interesting to say the least. Besides it being a time for children to dress up and trick or treat the night away for candy it has also been an interesting examination of the social politics of race as it exists in America. More than any other celebrated holiday, Halloween seems to be the holiday that gives the most license to overt acts of racism.
Across the country White America is given a reason to dress up in the garb of so much of it’s culturally ingrained racism. Much of it conscious most of it subconscious, which makes it that more troubling. From blackface, “dressing up” as a Native American to invoking the image of slain teenager Trayvon Martin, no holiday provides us with the external manifestation of American racism better than Halloween. It is in fact, truly horrifying but not for the reasons most people think of.
Halloween, is a throwback to the “Old World”, the beginnings of its modern popularity finding its roots in the influx of Scottish and Irish citizens immigrating to the US in the 19th century. Its well known characters also immigrants from a different world. The vampire from Eastern Europe, the zombie- an exaggeration from Haitian vodou culture as personified and popularised in its current manifestation by George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”.
For some, superficial assessment of these characters and Halloween itself qualifies the holiday and its characters as demonic. However, these tropes: the vampire, the zombie and the cast of others have over the course of history represented cultural angst and anxiety about various social changes. For example, many of us can feel like zombies in the midst of a vampiric corporate culture.
These narratives have been well recorded in book and film. Bella Legosi’s “Dracula” & the aforementioned “Night of the Living Dead”. While these images and narratives are clearly and distinctly ingrained in the American national psyche and cultural narrative in recent times I have noticed a trend in American film that represents an image that is truly horrifying and distinctly American in its portrayal and relationship to actual events in American history. Unlike the coded imagery found in the zombie or Dracula, this imagery is truly representative of the American horror story and it is found in the imagery of the mask and what I believe to be its relationship to the white sheet of the KKK.
Two films in particular, “The Strangers” and “The Purge” invoke imagery that is eerily reminiscent of the terror that permeated the land during the era dubbed “Jim Crow” where Black Americans were preyed upon with impunity by the “White Knights” of the KKK.
The formless faces of the villains in these films appearing at the homes of their white victims, hunting knife or axe in tow recall a brutal horrifying history in America that is distinctly American. For millions of black Americans across the country this narrative wasn’t for “entertainment”. It was a real fear that gripped hearts and minds in the same way that the villagers of Eastern Europe lived in fear of vampires or wolf men that preyed on human flesh. According to recorded data from the Tuskegee Institute 3,446 blacks were lynched between the period of 1882 and 1968.
Both films are representative of white angst concerning fears about home invasion and being attacked in the middle of the night by the other, the monster. It is in part, this very same angst that fueled white flight from American cities in the 1950s to the gated suburban communities of privilege that exist across the country.
These films then are about the fear of the black savage, the long criminalised “other”. Of course, we only have to look to early cinema in films such as “Birth of a Nation” where the KKK, depicted as heroes of the republic, protect the land from maurading black savages out to steal and rape white women to see the source of all this fear. It’s captured in the Republica backed campaign image of Willie Horton in 1988 and used to great effect to disarm young black boys of their innocence and paint them as criminal when they were the one’s being attacked as in the case of Trayvon Martin.
We have to read between the lines of the formless faces hidden behind masks. Masks that are representatives of “the other” but in white face. Masks that paradoxically speak to a narrative in American history that is closer to the truth.
The Purge, in part, is the only film out of the two that gets it right and comes close to presenting a image that closely represents this grisly history accurately. Both films continue the Hollywood formula of white bodies in distress however it’s in “The Purge” that we see the nameless masked faces of its white assailants wanting the life of a nameless black man, for reasons unknown, that capture the heart of the American horror story.
The white family is of little consequence, they only become the focus of this marauding band of killers once they have interfered with their plans for the black body that they desire in earnest, an interference that only takes place due to an unbelievable act of conscience by the child of the main protagonist.
This narrative more accurately depicts the horror of what has taken place here. Any excuse was needed, a disrespectful glance, a whistle at a white woman, a night trip to the store for some Skittles, a search for help after a car accident or no excuse at all. Just because. Just because you exist. Just because you’re not white. It gives validation to dressing up in the guise of people’s lived experiences on Halloween and speaks to the lack of knowledge, reverence and respect for what has taken place there. Your culture and history commodified into an outfit that can be put on and discarded, a blackface to be put on and wiped off. It sends a message that you are as disposable as the garbs people dress up in.
The connection between the formless white faces hidden behind the white canvassed sheets of the KKK or the masks that currently proliferate American cinematic horror is the face of American horror and it’s accompanying ideology, white supremacy, as a lived experience for the vast number of the nations residents. It tells a tale of tremendous inhumanity, brutality, killing and murder that is quintessentially American. This makes sense. Our masks don’t make us more human. They strip us of it, allows us to hide from what and who we truly are. It is only when we remove them that we can begin to scratch at the surface of ourselves.
The film “Funny Games” is such a film. It isn’t a film that one would qualify as “horror” in the traditional sense but it is horrifying all the same. Like “The Purge” and “The Strangers” the focus is on a white family, however the assailants in this film are disguised in the beguiling innocence of whiteness in the form of two tennis sweatered, white golf gloved, prep school boys. The plot is simple but powerful in its enactment. A simple request to borrow some eggs is all that’s needed. The request is met by the wife, played by actress Naomi Watts, with an invitation to come inside. The response is implicit as it is automatic, she is clearly not threatened.
It is the modus operandi by which White Society by and large operates- you look like you belong therefore your are part of the club, no questions asked. It is an example of white privilege personified. It’s the same unconscious invite that misses a Jared Loughner, Adam Lanza, or a James Holmes. It’s the same privilege that attempts to explain away their actions and doesn’t create a profile for them afterwards. “They were such sweet, innocent boys. What went wrong?”
I found myself wrestling with this notion as I watched the film as it begs the viewer to rethink what our monsters look like. Not to categorise, but to include. To shift paradigms in regard to what evil looks like within the American horror story. To illuminate the fact that in as much as profiling exists it should be all inclusive instead of consistently falling upon the shoulders of people whose skin is of a particular hue.
Needless to say, after she lets them in they never leave and the results? Truly terrifying. Evidence to the fact that the “monsters” among us are those who tend to look most like us. Those bodies that we’re most comfortable with.
The land of the American horror story fails to acknowledge this. It lives in a fantastical, mythological land that dresses itself up in masks or hoods of democracy and freedom but revealing something darker, odious and much more horrifying.
Like the mythological monuments and holidays that fallaciously posit themselves as odes to acts of heroism: The Alamo, The “Battle” of Wounded Knee, Columbus Day, Halloween finds a fitting place in the perverse cultural pantheon.
For the victims, our monuments lay on the shoulders of slain and silenced black bodies: a literal trail of tears in the form of the unmarked graves of lynched slaves. Their bodies, like those of the Native people of the land roil in turmoil for justice, their voices and stories laying silent in between the mitigated paragraphs of our “national” history books, Emmitt Till, James Byrd, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin and more recently Renisha McBride. All victims and unwillingly participants in what is the American Horror Story.