Films that explore our fears have long been an excellent channel for our shared social anxieties, and for subverting, inverting or questioning those anxieties. The Netflix horror movie His House (2020) is a good example. Directed and written by Remi Weekes, based on a story by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables, it stars Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku as the south Sudanese couple Bol and Rial, fleeing war and coming to London.
One of the perennial questions of the haunted house story is always going to be, why don’t they just leave? There are many answers, ranging from the beliefs and mental states of inhabitants (Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is the classic example of this approach) to some clever twist (The Others,2001), to leaving simply proving insufficient to escape the horror (The Grudge,2004). His House posits, at least initially, that the unfortunate couple merely cannot leave.
Indeed, ghosts are the least of their problems. As they are placed in a dilapidated but large home on the city’s outskirts, they encounter prejudice and hostility. Their caseworker, aptly played by Matt Smith, is a resentful small bureaucrat who in any case shows little capacity to help were his stunted empathy to ever provide him the necessary motivation. When the supernatural becomes more noticeable, the social horror experienced by Bol (who attempts to assimilate) and Rial (who tries to hold on to what she has lost) outweighs anything ghosts can seem to marshal against them.
This is the pivot for much of the story. The ghosts are ambiguous, the origins and meaning of them, although more and more is revealed throughout. There is a Mephistophelian dimension to the forces pursuing our protagonists, one deeply rooted in the carnage of war and survivors’ guilt, bringing the audience back to visions of a child named Nyagak and the home from which they fled. Jo Willems’s increasingly dreamlike (nightmarish?) cinematography and Julia Bloch’s editing does a lot to take us into an increasingly claustrophobic world of memory and trauma, which plays on the claustrophobia of all narratives about being haunted.
Dirisu and Mosaku give two wonderful performances in challenging, emotionally varied parts. So much of the film has the resonance of a stage play, depending on set pieces and the dialogue between these two, the unravelling of the history they share and the question of their mutual loyalty to each other. Bol and Rial are not presented as thin political metaphors, even as the film exposes various inhuman systems and the complicity and cruelty that sustains the British state’s disregard for those who have need of its help. Rather, they are depicted as morally complex and as agentive as any of the side characters. Agency is, after all, paramount to a Faustian fable.
Moreover, the monsters are not transparent allegories either. It is generally a copout in speculative fiction to make of the more fantastical aspects some purely didactic cipher, and with horror that usually has the result of stunting the terror the work needs to invoke to be effective. While it is true to say that the asylum system is presented as more monstrous than the monsters, the monsters in this fictional world are genuine and scary for it.
The boat at sea at night, the peeling walls of the titular home, the couple fleeing gunfire in South Sudan, particular moments and places repeat. The film often feels like the exploration of a psychic disturbance and emotional wound, in how it deliberately struggles to progress from the source of the hurt, deliberately reveals that source but not fully, teasing us as we discover the terrible truth behind past events. This is what horror gets so well, the language of the repressed that returns as morbid symptoms, that can only be temporarily hidden if it is not eventually confronted.
The political subject matter of His House is all the stronger for being tackled indirectly. One of the most chilling parts of the film is when Rial is compelled to leave their home to visit a doctor, and becomes lost in a maze of identical looking backstreets. This scene gives an eerie sense of just how trapped she is at that point in the film, where everywhere becomes hostile and threatening territory, where there is no safe heaven or comfort. This contrasts strongly with Bol’s experiences accommodating to the UK, although both have to navigate a London defined (again without authorial sermonising) by poverty and layered resentments.
Humanising refugees, giving their experiences so much subjective and psychological weight, is a counterbalance to the way the outsider is typically depicted in horror. Whether it is the foreign vampires of everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Let the Right One In to the cosmically foreign alien of Lovecraftian fiction, horror has often been defined as the outsider themselves. Here, instead, the horror is what is carried within, the accumulated weight of pain, the impersonal, as well as unfriendly systems that offer only additional inhumanity. This approach is therefore also a good counterbalance to how the outsider has come to be depicted in contemporary Britain, in the moral panics of conservative media, as animalistic and a burden.
Given horror’s typical subjects, it may seem strange to call it humanising, but since fear and anxiety are amongst the most human of experiences, since trauma is so crucially constitutive of who we are (at least as much as our capacity to dream and imagine healing futures), horror can be deeply empathetic. This is an example, one that dares its audience to question embedded myths that altogether lack empathy. And one that finds its hard-won hope in the possibility of human autonomy, and in building new lives that no longer need to repress the past.
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