Horror movies draw in millions of viewers every year with devoted fans expecting creepy atmospheres with memorable gore and scares. The premise behind the genre comes from filmmakers asking “what if” questions to create terrifying stories. What if someone invaded my home? What if someone kidnapped my child? What if a killer targeted women and no one listened? But, what if one person’s imagined nightmare was another person’s reality? At Fantasia Festival 2021, a Zoom lecture called HAUNTING THE NATIONAL CONSCIOUSNESS: THE RISE OF INDIGENOUS HORROR analyzes how non-Native filmmakers rely on their settler-colonialism privilege (and ignorance) to create horror, and how Indigenous writers, performers, and directors can and have been challenging Hollywood’s concept of horror and developing their own approach to the genre.
In the lecture, Dr. Kali Simmons takes the audience through the various depictions of Native cultures in film, specifically in the genre of horror. Her talk focuses on the various stereotypes of Indigenous people often seen onscreen and what lead to these often offensive portrayals. Simmons asks horror fans (and really any audience) to question “Who is telling the story?” and “Why are they telling the story?” She further points out how these representations are less telling about the actual people and their culture, but more telling about outsiders to the culture. However, Indigenous writers and directors more recently have turned to the genre to recreate the native voice in horror. Aside from bringing attention to this marginalized group of filmmakers, the lecture also gives the opportunity for generations descending of the European colonizers to rethink their perspective of an entire group of people.
When most genre-enthusiasts think ‘horror’ they most likely conjure images of various genres from the last 50 years. Or perhaps, if they possess a more diverse taste in movies, they might imagine old films from the black and white or even silent variety. Simmons touches on all these eras of film, but also goes long before any type of moving picture. Pilgrim horror dating back to 1493 uses diaries and lithographs to tell stories of cannibalistic killers and Native ghosts. The Pope at the time wanted the ‘barbarians’ to be overthrown and forced into Catholicism, so painting the Indigenous people as cold-blooded savages motivated the colonizing settlers to fear and mistrust the native inhabitants. Once printed word became a major form of entertainment, America’s first big novel came from the imagination of Mary Rowlandson who wrote a captivity narrative claiming she lived as a prisoner for a local tribe for 11 weeks. This book further perpetuated the notion of ‘savages’ and highlighted the dangers which could befall the white settlers (specifically women). These long-ago rooted stereotypes became the first depiction of Native people in the imagination of European settlers, and centuries later not much has changed.
One of the most insightful parts of the lecture focuses on how horror revolves not so much around the culture or physical presence of Native people, but on their remains. The phrase Ancient Indian Burial Ground became almost synonymous with horror in the 1980s (The Shining, Poltergeist, Pet Sematary). The very overused trope not only serves as weak story development but pairing the word ‘ancient’ and ‘Indian’ and allowing Native representation to be seen only as long-dead people gives the impression Indigenous people only exist in the past as long-gone cultures. This lazy explanation for supernatural occurrences proves more damaging than most people might assume because the trope not only erases the cultures and people who are still very much alive, but pretending Natives no longer exist also removes any discussion of the genocide which occurred across the nation. “Ancient” implies the deaths occurred long before the white colonizers, and therefore removes any blame.
Even when filmmakers attempt a more sympathetic portrayal of Indigenous peoples, the embracement of Native culture creates the new stereotype of the Medicine Man or the Magical Native trope. In horror films, when white people become faced with a supernatural villain or occurrence they cannot fight, they call on the powers of a local Native (usually a man and usually elderly) to use herbs and special words in a never-revealed language. The figure serves no purpose outside of progressing the story, and once the problem becomes solved, the Native character disappears from the film. Simmons believes this proves horror culture and films have room for Indigenous traditions and remedies, however, the people themselves remain unimportant.
In the Q&A portion of HAUNTING THE NATIONAL CONSCIOUSNESS: THE RISE OF INDIGENOUS HORROR, Dr. Simmons says she hopes new narratives and new voices get their say in horror films with an expansive list of stories. Over the last ten years or so, there have been more and more horror movies from Indigenous writers and directors and these filmmakers use the genre to discuss real-life horrors of violence, forced assimilation, and colonization. Such films as Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Blood Quantum, and Edge of the Knife break from Hollywood’s stereotypes. The lecture provided a great understanding, not only of the history behind the various stereotypes, but also provided info on several Native artists to bring additional exposure to numerous Indigenous horror films and books. Luckily, for those who missed the lecture at the Festival, you can catch the entire talk and Q&A on Youtube. So, for more background and insight into Indigenous horror and more film/book suggestions, listen to the brilliant Dr. Simmons and expand your understanding of not only art from a marginalized group of people, but about the entire horror genre.