how come these ghosts is white?

on: them, black horror, and northrop frye's theory of modes

Photo by Ian on Unsplash

Hello friends—

As I watched the racist supernatural violence unfold in the provocative but metaphysically incoherent series Them, I thought of Northrop Frye’s description of tragic irony:

If there is a reason for choosing him for catastrophe, it is an inadequate reason, and raises more objections than it answers.

Northrop Frye, Canadian literary theorist, seems like a strange place for the mind to settle in trying to understand the concept of the black grotesque for reasons that are obvious, but I had been reading his Anatomy of Criticism before putting on Them, and I was struck immediately by the resonance between what was happening on screen and what he later describes as the pharmakos of ironic tragedy:

We meet a pharmakos figure in Hawthorne's Hester Prynne, in Melville's Billy Budd, in Hardy's Tess, in the Septimus of Mrs.Dalloway, in stories of per­secuted Jews and Negroes, in stories of artists whose genius makes them Ishmaels of a bourgeois society. The pharmakos is neither innocent nor guilty. He is innocent in the sense that what happens to him is far greater than anything he has done provokes, like the mountaineer whose shout brings down an avalanche. He is guilty in the sense that he is a member of a guilty society, or living in a world where such injustices are an inescapable part of existence.

It is true that for much of American history, including the present, blackness was treated as a kind of grotesque experience. The paradox of course was that black people were the ones subjected to the grotesquerie of slavery and violence and incarceration and a social engineering project meant to destroy us. The idea that black people were some malevolent force lurking just beneath the placid white surface of America, threatening erupt into violence with their strange languages and feral religions, their dark skin and terrifying strength, was the story told to generations of white people to justify the ongoing horrors of slavery and then Jim Crow and then mass incarceration, and on and on and on. They turned us into monsters to justify doing monstrous things to us, and that cannot be denied.

But when I think about the aesthetic project of contemporary Black Horror, I don’t really know what that would look like. I don’t understand how you make a horror if you are never safe. How do you make something to terrify a people who have lived for generations in a state of constant besiegement? The worst thing short of death that could happen to black people in America has already happened. Also death has happened. Is shockingly present at every moment of our lives. There is nothing scarier than the possibility that you can be going about your business and then find your life suddenly, and for no reason at all, violently ended. That is ordinary life for black people in America. I don’t understand what a Black Horror would be like in the face of waking up this morning and finding out that Daunte Wright, 21, was murdered during a traffic stop because a police officer pulled a gun instead of a taser by accident, she says, allegedly. There was a version of this letter that I had ready to go out. And then I woke up Monday morning, and it seemed disingenuous to send out a letter on the aesthetics of Black Horror and the ironic dimensions entailed therein that didn’t pause. Because I paused. I woke up this morning and paused and thought very hard about Black Horror. And I thought, niggas is dying out here. Niggas is getting killed.

And in that way a show like Them, rooted in real historical violence toward black people, is not ironic and is not aesthetic. It is a realist project. And yet, it is ironic. It is not a realist project. And there is located my uneasiness when it comes to Black Horror, because Black Horror, I feel, can never, except at its most ironic and campiest, divest itself from real black horror. Within the genre, how many degrees of freedom do black artists get in terms of deviating from the real-world violence we face. But then, I think, well, those aren’t things white artists have to contend with, and so I don’t think we should either. And yet, there is so much black art that feels as though it were created from a defensive crouch. It is very much invested in what white people see when they look at us. And, no judgement, it’s just a thing that is true of some black art. And very present in Black Horror of the moment.

There’s Get Out and Us and Lovecraft Country and Bad Hair, which take racism out of its horrifying literal context and shifts it across a plane of irony into aestheticized horror. There’s also one of my favorite movies Tales from the Hood, but that movie is doing something…quite different. And it also has its own idiom of pastiche and remix that we see in things like Scary Movie and Vampire in Brooklyn and Leprechaun in the Hood. But again, these films are a different mode of Black Horror in that they are about black people, but the mode of horror is not about Blackness. They are horror movies for black people who live among black people, and their aesthetics feel deeply black in a way that more contemporary Black Horror does not. I also want to say that a movie like Candyman is not Black Horror, I guess, but it is a horror movie black people (including me) love, and it is horrifying and perfect. But I guess it’s more a movie about white anxiety than anything else, but I wanted to mention it just the same. Also, Bones. Who could forget Bones. Bad, but, like, scary to a ten year old, for sure.

Contemporary (meaning in the last five or so years) Black Horror has become shifted into something more ironic, I guess. That is, making something so literal that it starts to feel ironic in character because the viewer is looking down at characters who have drastically reduced agency that is itself a replica of the drastically reduced agency that many black people feel in the real world. That variety of Black Horror is a kind of double-ringed tube like a telescope. The degree of ironic removal is different for white viewers and black viewers.  When looking through their lens, white people feel as though they are viewing a world as viewed by black people. When black people peer inside, they are perceiving a cartoonish scale model of life as they know it, and they feel, for once, how they imagine white people must feel when watching horror movies.

That’s why those shows and movies always feel a little corny, a little cheesy. It’s the metallic tang of the irony. There’s also this move that common to this particular genre of black storytelling that involves the inversion of certain visual motifs signifying wealth or status. Rich black lawyer and white man on his lawn. Black therapist and mess of a white patient. Black businessperson being a terrible boss to their white underlings. Etc. It’s a kind of racial pastiche, I guess. Jordan Peele uses it to great effect in Get Out and in several of the sketches in Key and Peele. It’s also the quietly humming engine in almost every story about black affluence. The subtle finger-point, ayyye gotcha gesture that crops up in shows like Insecure, Black-ish and Mixed-ish and blackAF. It’s also not dissimilar from some of the fringe shows in Tyler Perry’s empire that depict black affluence as the ultimate head fake in the face of white supremacy. The I’ll have you know I’m actually in first class energy of it all. But without the irony, you’d just be left with reality. And, so, well, we press on.

Still, I wonder what happens in Black Horror when we can’t just dismiss the actions as being cartoonish or over-the-top. White people really do be doing that shit! So then, Black Horror takes on this weird dual character of ironic and its close-compatriot, the low mimetic. It can never quite escape fully into irony, and at times, the reality at the heart of a lot of Black Horror comes to seem silly and over the top, and yet it still never surpasses the worst things done to us in this country.

Frye puts it this way:

Cultivated people go to a melodrama to hiss the villain with an air of condescension: they are making a point of the fact that they cannot take his villainy seriously. We have here a type of irony which exactly corresponds to that of two other major arts of the ironic age, advertising and propaganda. 

What do we do when we can’t just hiss at the bad guys and shake our heads when we know that the white people sitting in the audience next to us are very well capable of doing the very horrible things depicted on the screens. And you might be saying, but Brandon, that is true in any run-of-the-mill drama or thriller. And I would say, yes, indeed. It is very true that the white people sitting next to me could kick down a door and start blasting. The difference is that white people do be kicking down doors and blasting away. They do! There is less ironic distance in a horror movie for black people because the violence is never quite as abstract for us as it is for white people. The horror is never quite as imaginary for us.

Anyway, so I was watching Them.

The first season of takes place across ten fraught days and nights in 1950s East Compton. The ten episodes concern themselves primarily with the tensions arising from the recent arrival of the Emorys, a black middle class family from North Carolina. Their white neighbors aren’t pleased to have a black family in their neck of the woods, and they begin immediately to plot the removal of the Emorys, undertaking a series of escalating racist accosts that culminate in a bloody, fiery spectacle right out of a Flannery O’Connor/James Baldwin fever dream. But, lest you think that this is mere milquetoast regular shmegular degular racist violence of yesteryear, there’s also a demonic current running through the events of the series too.  I mean that literally, as literally as one can mean the devil. As in, Satan, who in the world of this busy and metaphysically wonky series has invented a kind of demonic redlining, utilizing an army of demons and also bankers and also real estate agents and also, strangely, the police? Indeed, I spent much of the last two episodes of Them shouting THE DEVIL! THE DEVIL IS RACIST?! at my screen. 

The show has a lot of style, and almost every shot would make a gorgeous picture. The costuming and interior work are stunning, too, and there’s a feeling of great dimension and depth to the design. The camera work is so smooth and rich that you want to dip your fingers through the screen and touch the fabric or let your fingers brush down through the grass of the lawns. The show wears its visual style in the same casual but noticeably pointed-up way we’ve come to expect from prestige period dramas. It doesn’t feel quite lived in, but you forgive it because it’s just so goddamn pretty. There’s also the highly punctuated use of red and focused shots. Or the brassy blare that points to moments of intensity or suspicion. Close-ups on eyes and quivering mouths as we swoop in and catch a character’s reaction to something (usually racism). All of these little flourishes glint above the surface of the film, epigrammatic, the kind of potentiated realism that reflects the reality of double consciousness.

Episodes pass easily enough. There’s the day the Emorys arrive in Compton after an implied tragedy. Henry, the Emory patriarch, is a veteran and works as an engineer at a firm designing planes where he struggles to fit in because, well, yeah. Luck, our matriarch, is nervy and doubtful about the move. She spent their first night sleeplessly loading a handgun and preparing to use it on the white people who lurked outside. Ruby Lee, tall and anxious about outward appearances, is the older of the daughters. She has a teenager’s keen awareness of social order. Gracie Jean is the youngest of the Emorys and is obsessed with the book Miss Vera says and may or may not be seeing ghosts. There are references to Watts, and Luck and Henry have a heated, whispered exchange about whether or not they should move—Luck wants to leave, Henry to stay. He says something like, “That’s where they want us” referring to Watts, where their family lives, in the sectioned black part of the city. He wants his slice of the American dream that he’s paid for and earned. Meaning, of course, a right to live where he wants. Right there next to the white people.

Meanwhile, the white characters do devious things to apply “pressure” to the Emorys and force them to pull up stakes and leave. They poison the beloved Emory dog Sarge. They blare racist music and one morning, the Emorys emerge from their home and find it decorated with an array of black dolls lynched in effigy. There’s later an incident involving a white boy pissing on Luck’s freshly laundered sheets and NIGGER HEAVEN gets burned into their lawn. Betty Wendell, the head of the gang of WASPs of Compton, is determined to get the black people out of their neighborhood before the worst befalls them all--decreasing property values.

Strangely, I think that Betty might be the most...well-rounded character in the entire series? I mean, motivations for her racism aside, we do come to understand why at least to some degree she’s so tightly wound. We come to understand what status means to her. We see her betrayed by those closest to her. And we watch as she grows more socially isolated as she tries to save her community--via horrible acts of racism. I guess, she is not sympathetic because, well, she welcomes the family with a sidewalk concert of racially explicit music, but from a narrative standpoint, she’s the one character we get the full 360 on. We’re with her in a variety of contexts, and her character coheres out of real, specific character beats. Whereas the other characters, including the Emorys, are just kind of there. Things happen to them, but their motivations aren’t as clear to us. They’re passively moving through the horror show that the show establishes for them. I kept thinking, who are these people? What do they want? What’s going on in their heads? What specifically do they need, do they fear? They started to feel, indeed, like Frye’s pharmakos. Mere scapegoats.

The devil comes in many guises in Them. Henry is haunted by a psychic projection in the form of a minstrel character who spreads his gums wide in a sinister smile and shucks and jives across the screen. It’s a macabre vaudeville act right out of your worst nightmares. Luck starts having vivid hallucinations that we are invited, at first, to imagine being the fallout from the traumatic violence she endured in North Carolina, but which quickly grows more sinister as the series progresses. After Ruby Lee is bullied in a mortifying racist incident for knowing about Emily Dickinson, she is given detention, where she meets a white girl who says she’s pretty...for a colored girl. This girl later lures Ruby Lee into the school basement for a cheerleading try out that is among the show’s most arresting and disturbing scenes. Gracie Jean is the youngest of the Emorys and is obsessed with the book Miss Vera says and may or may not be seeing ghosts. Early in their stay in Compton, she is attacked by a supernatural entity and spends much of the series pointing at shadowy corners that may or may not be harboring evil.

But, when the vaudeville ghost clown starts haunting Henry, I wondered just what he was meant to represent. I mean, I knew schematically that he represented all the boiling rage that black men face in white society. That part of you that feels you have to perform and ape along and hope they don’t hurt you, etc. It’s a very Southern projection, in a way. But Henry was a soldier. Most of his character development involves his trauma from the war. The way they treated black soldiers in the trenches. When the ghost minstrel shows up, I thought, how does this connect specifically with his baggage. Henry didn’t seem particularly southern. We didn’t see the particular context out of which this clown emerged. Would this be the image his inner horror takes on? But then, I guess, it is said that he likes picture shows, and the whole minstrel vaudeville act of it all maybe ties it together? And yet, it didn’t seem coherent to me. It felt like shorthand that was still one step too general to work. Like a white person’s idea of what a black person’s racial baggage might look like. I wondered why the black people were the ones uniquely haunted by the supernatural in this series. The white characters don’t escape unscathed, but the supernatural seems uniquely interested in ruining the lives of the black characters. As though they were carrying some undue spiritual burden, and like, yeah, racism do be like that.

The series does raise the possibility that all of the characters are enduring the weight of personal and social traumas. Luck and Henry both have experienced violence first hand and their children are growing up in a household greatly shaped both by the racism outdoors and the psychological burden of two wounded parents. So, sure. Jane Eyre and all that. But again, I would say that the last four or so episodes of the series depart from this. The black characters are both haunted by race and also haunted as in, by Satan. The metaphysics don’t shake out.

I don’t know how to explain why the idea of a racist devil is so funny to me. Especially in the context of this show, which ultimately ends on the idea that the redlining and exclusion of black people from Compton radiates from some malevolent supernatural force targeting, specifically, black people who are foolish enough to move there, all executed by a middle-manager who is, I think, a fallen prophet from a sect of Mennonites who took up residence in the deserts during the westward expansion in the nineteenth century. It just seemed silly, in a way, that in addition to dealing with all the racism from the white people who didn’t want them there, the Emorys also had to contend with the literal devil trying to force them out of Compton. 

In this case, the devil stands in for racism, I guess. But if there are already racist white people present. If we already understand that they hate black people and will do just about anything to see black people torn from their homes, then, what is the function of the literal evil ghosts? Like, one could argue that many of the supernatural events of the series only seem to affect the black characters because it is the black characters who bear the brunt of the psychological terrorism that is the aftermath of slavery and Jim Crow. The black characters act out the horror of the black condition in America. Okay, that seems plausible enough. But then, why the literal devil? And you could say, but the devil is but a metaphor. But I would say that the series, especially toward the end, departs from that possibility. The possibility that the evil is psychological is foreclosed by episode six or seven.

There are often moments in American horror films when the film overplays its hand, and when the mystery central to horror is flattened under the weight of overly determined storytelling. It is possible to reach this point via under or over specification of the lore in which the story is embedded or by spending too much time trying to explain your set up or lingering on details that don’t matter.

In the case of Them, the problem seems to be that the series cannot make up its mind about what horror sits at the center of its world. There is the horror of slavery and its aftermath. There is the horror of community ostracism. There is the horror of devils and the supernatural. In the Gothic tradition, all the scary bits get explained in the end one way or another. We come to understand the ghosts and the talking heads as mere extensions of perfectly reasonable phenomena in the world. It’s only our psychology playing tricks on us. Where we exit the mere Gothic and edge into Horror is that such a safety net drops away. There is no way to explain away everything as mere psychology, and the supernatural that pervades much of horror is real. In a meta sense, the supernatural in horror often falls into analogy. We come to understand what the devil stands in for. But in the context of Black Horror, I have to say that the devil is much less terrifying than the vast and evil conspiracy that has been at work in this country for centuries to destroy and ruin the lives of its citizens.

Aside from two moments of real unnerving supernatural activity, I spent most of the latter half of the series laughing at how ridiculous it was. I mean, a racist supernatural entity? Is there not enough to worry about in the after life? I kept thinking, if Satan don’t get back to his celestial business and leave these negroes alone. The comedic effect of the supernatural occurrences in Them is in step with Frye’s theory too. He says:

In ironic comedy we begin to see that art has also a lower limit in actual life. This is the condition of savagery, the world in which comedy consists of inflicting pain on a helpless victim, and tragedy in enduring it. Ironic comedy brings us to the figure of the scape­ goat ritual and the nightmare dream, the human symbol that con­centrates our fears and hates. We pass the boundary of art when this symbol becomes existential, as it does in the black man of a lynching, the Jew of a pogrom, the old woman of a witch hunt, or anyone picked up at random by a mob, like Cinna the poet in Julius Caesar

So of course it was funny. The show which starts in the realm of realism as experienced in the aftermath of tragedy and violence moves slowly, inexorably through the ironic mode, exiting out of tragedy and into comedy. Frye describes this as a cycle of modes:

Irony descends from the low mimetic: it begins in realism and dispassionate observation. But as it does so, it moves steadily towards myth, and dim outlines of sacrificial rituals and dying gods begin to reappear in it. Our five modes evidently go around in a circle.

The show ends, quite literally with the black family facing off with a white mob across a ring of fire after the black family has experienced racism both in the real world and also in the spiritual world. The Emorys, via this transformation, become Christ. The mob becomes the fallen God, so to speak, representing a vanished world of old evils. The fire is as pagan a symbol as there exists.

There’s a discourse around this show that insists that we’ve had enough of our history. That stories about racism are played out. That we want shows about affluence and ease. Joy. All that. I’m not sure that one need negate the other. There’s something so meager about this attitude, that black art can only operate in one mode at a time and that we only get so many pieces of art and we have to support everything until such a time as we have the resources to do the real stuff. It’s silly. Come now. I think when we evaluate black art from a place of abundance rather than scarcity, we are doing the real stuff.

It is possible to want more stories about black joy and black pain and black trauma. Sure, I say bring it all on. I think where Them falls apart for me is that it ultimately felt confused about what it was and whose gaze presided over everything. It felt like a show constructed out of received notions about history and pain and suffering and violence. And that part wasn’t great. But there were genuine moments of provocative art-making here. And that’s interesting. But at the same time, there was something relentless and exploitative and, at times, kind of anti-black running through the impulses of the series. There are moments when the provocative became stomach-turning, when there was no critique, just violence and vitriol, and that in itself could be interesting. Black Excess as aesthetic. But woweee, it was hard to watch and harder to take, and it left the series feeling unresolved and incoherent. Some of which felt intentional. But most of which did not.

But, you know what Black Horror I want to see? There’s this moment toward the end of Them when a black woman, in fury and suffering, curses a crowd of white people. And you might think that her curse might mean something. That the white people who go on living there and who occupy that land generation over generation might be subjected to her curse. Or to the curse of all those black people who their ancestors caused to suffer. But it doesn’t in Them, which has other agendas, fair enough.

I guess what I’m getting at is that the operative curse in Them stems from white people’s pain and their suffering, etc, and the show is very interested in teasing out its effects. What happens when black people move to a place where white people do not want them. But those same black people were driven from the South by white people who did not want them to know peace. Throughout Them, I wondered, What about the black people’s curse. What about the curse flung from the mouths of the enraged black people stripped of their liberty and forced to endure untold humiliations. I want a Black Horror about that curse.

Not blackness as eternally afflicted and suffering. But black wrath visited upon our enemies and their children and their children’s children and on. Let’s see their heads roll for once. Give me a furious black ghost.

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