Nine Horror Films on Haunted Places and Contested Spaces

Ruins of old house at night.

‘Tis the season for all things spooky! In the spirit of Halloween, three Edge Effects editors take a look at the environmental dimensions of place in nine recent horror films and TV shows about settler colonialism, anti-Black racism, sexism, and late-stage capitalism. We pair each recommendation with an extra-credit reading to offer historical and political context, real-world parallels, and new frameworks for watching.

How are witch-hunts connected to climate change? What’s up with the “Indian burial ground” trope in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary? In what ways is Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite a haunted house film? Check out the recommendations below for our take on these questions and more.

Editors’ note: Beware of spoilers!

Beyond the “Ancient Indian Burial Ground”

Pet Sematary (novel, 1983; films, 1989 & 2019)

Stephen King has said that Pet Sematary is his scariest book. Here at Edge Effects, we acknowledge that everyone has a different flavor of fear. King claims the book was inspired by the true story of when his daughter’s cat was run over and buried in the town children’s pet ‘sematary,’ an ancient Mi’kmaq burial ground. The book and its film adaptations take an evil-zombie spin when the cat comes back to life, meaner and a bit strange, followed by the main character’s late son and wife later in the book.

The folx on the podcast Red Power Hour ask what evil undead pets and loved ones returning from the Indian burial ground in Pet Sematary say about settler colonialism and settlers’ relationship with the land. Horror stories that revolve around “vengeful dead Indian” tropes represent settler anxieties about violent histories of genocide and stolen land. As Red Power Hour‘s brilliant three-episode podcast series on “The Stephen King Industrial Complex” explains: “‘Indians’ are the haunting of settler empire, but it’s the fact that we’re alive that haunts. We’re the unsettled business of settlement because they couldn’t get rid of us.” So, if you plan on reading or watching Pet Sematary this Halloween season, we recommend checking out this podcast first.

La Llorona (2020)

Jayro Bustamante brings political horror to the Latin American legend in his deeply moving film La Llorona (2020). When Don Enrique, a retired military general whose character is based on real-life General Efraín Ríos Montt, begins to hear a woman weeping in the night, his family brushes it off as an effect of his Alzheimer’s disease. But after Don Enrique is put on trial for overseeing the genocide of Guatemala’s Indigenous Ixil Maya people, convicted by the court, and then released on a technicality, the women in his family—his wife Carmen and his daughter Natalia—are forced to reckon with a past that refuses to stay buried.

Early in the film, most of the family’s staff quit. The loyal housekeeper Valeriana sends word to her village to fill the empty positions, so no one is surprised when the mysterious Alma appears at their door. It quickly becomes clear that Alma is a “La Llorona” figure, the ghost of a mourning mother who lost her life and her young children in the general’s “counter-insurgency” war. Her presence—her piercing stare, her affinity for water, and her increasingly close bond with Natalia’s daughter Sara—brings Enrique’s history of sexual abuse, his war crimes, and the women’s sense of their own complicity to the surface.

La Llorona is a slow-burning drama whose terror comes not from jump scares or a vengeful ghost but rather from the nation’s real-life refusal to redress anti-Indigenous violence—a theme that should be all too familiar to audiences in the U.S. and Canada. We suggest reading Eve Tuck and C. Ree’s “A Glossary of Haunting” alongside Bustamante’s striking film. If settler colonialism is, as Tuck and Ree describe, “the management of those who have been made killable, once and future ghosts,” then Alma’s haunting becomes less about revenge and more about resistance: “relentless remembering and reminding that will not be appeased by settler society’s assurances of innocence and reconciliation.”

Blood Quantum (2020)

Jeff Barnaby’s fast-paced zombie film isn’t shy about its conceit. Set in the 1980s on a fictional Mi’kmaq reserve called Red Crow, Blood Quantum opens with a fisherman who realizes his fish won’t stay dead. Soon, a zombie virus rips through a nearby town and then the world, leaving only Indigenous peoples unaffected. Red Crow becomes a heavily-guarded compound for Indigenous community members and the settler refugees who come in droves seeking asylum, presided over by the tribal sheriff Traylor, his ex-wife Joss, and his two troubled sons, Lysol and Joseph. Aside from the obvious threat of flesh-eating monstrosities, the film’s plot centers two concerns: teenaged Joseph’s worry for his unborn child (not to mention his pregnant white girlfriend, Charlie, who is most definitely not immune) and Lysol’s grappling with rage and internalized cycles of violence. Often compared to George Romero’s social commentaries, Barnaby’s film turns the concept of “blood quantum” on its head by representing settler colonialism as a virulent disease that eats away at settler humanity but is no match for Indigenous survivance.

Watching Blood Quantum for the second time in a month, we were struck by how it resonates with Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen’s recent article “Beyond Wiindigo Infrastructure.” LaDuke and Cowen describe infrastructures that work to destroy Indigenous life and safeguard settler colonial futures as the body of the Wiindigo—a cannibal monster of Anishinaabe legend. “If Wiindigo economics is theft and greed,” they write, “Wiindigo infrastructures are the material systems that engineer and sustain that violence. . . . Wiindigo infrastructures underpin social organization and its reproduction in logics of capital, property, and accumulation over life.” Watching the film for its commentary on settler colonial infrastructures brings new significance to the fact the first human zombie we meet attacks Lysol and Joseph as they’re locked up in the town’s jail cell. And it suggests an alternative way to interpret the collapse of the compound near the end. Written, directed, edited, and co-produced by Barnaby, Blood Quantum also features an almost exclusively Indigenous cast. It’s by turns fun, bleak, and blood-spattered, and it’s perfect for zombie fans this Halloween.  

Witches, Women, & The Deep, Dark Woods

The Witch (2015)

It’s 1630s New England and a young family has been cast out from the Plymouth Colony community over religious differences. They build a family farm and their infant son Samuel mysteriously vanishes while under the care of his older sister Thomasin, whom the family later suspects is a witch. This is the set-up for The Witch (dir. David Eggers), a period horror film set on the edge of a dark, foreboding wood.

With rich and haunting cinematography, it’s not hard to see how place plays a central role in The Witch, but you may not have guessed that there’s a historical link between witch-hunts and climate change. As Emily Oster demonstrates in her article “Witchcraft, Weather, and Economic Growth in Renaissance Europe,” the intensity of witch-hunts in Europe between 1300 and 1800 coincided with periods of colder weather. The worse the climate, the more trials there were.

Our colleagues Erin Isaac and Kapri Macdonald at NiCHE further underscore this connection between witch-hunts and climate in their piece “Bewitching Environments in 2016’s The Witch.” In it, they write that director David Eggers’s storytelling in The Witch “falls strongly in line with the kinds of climatic stressors historians know to have been attributed to witches in the past,” referencing the work of Wolfgang Behringer and Edward Miguel about witch-hunts in Germany and rural Tanzania, respectively. Throughout the film, as in history, “environmentally-driven anxieties manifest themselves as fears about witchcraft.” This gives a whole new Halloween dimension to climate anxiety.

Shirley (2020)

Shirley Jackson’s work has come back into the cultural spotlight over the past few years, first with the 2018 Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House (dir. Mike Flanagan) and this year with Shirley (dir. Josephine Decker), a semi-biographical horror film that takes creative license to imagine the time when Jackson was writing her 1951 novel Hangsaman. The novel was inspired by the true story of a young college student, Paula Welden, who disappeared on a hike along Vermont’s Long Trail. Throughout the film, Shirley has visions of her new housekeeper, Rose, playing the part of Paula and running into the woods. Shirley herself, a shut-in for most of the film, wanders the wooded area just outside her house in search of inspiration. In one pivotal scene that reads like a fever dream, Shirley sensuously feeds Rose a mushroom that she earlier claimed was poisonous in front of a fallen, moss-covered tree.

Shirley (played by Elisabeth Moss) feeds Rose (played by Odessa Young) a mushroom in front of a fallen, moss-covered tree. Film still by Thatcher Keats, Sundance Institute, 2019.

In Shirley, the forest functions as both an escape from the burdens of patriarchal society and a site of gendered fear, danger, and death. Elizabeth Parker traces a cultural history of the woods in her new book, The Forest and the EcoGothic: The Deep Dark Woods in the Popular Imagination. “We all know that Little Red, made up though she is, has every reason to fear the forest,” she writes, “and though we may like to think ourselves beyond fairy tales, there is much evidence to suggest that we continue, indeed, to be ‘terrified by the wild wood.'” In the case of the film, though, the manipulative machinations of Shirley are perhaps the thing to be feared (and maybe even admired) most. After all, the woods are an extension of her psychology: complex, dark, and deep.

Lovecraft Country (2020)

The creator of Lovecraft Country, Misha Green, equated the anxiety of life-defying moments in horror to the everyday Black experience. For her recent fantastical HBO series, she teamed up with Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams to mix sci-fi and horror for a social commentary about white supremacy and the intergenerational magic of Black women. The main characters, Atticus (Tic) and Letitia (Leti), travel through space and time to fight off the wealthy white Braithwaite family whose power (and magic) is built through the sweat and blood of Black bodies. They confront violent monsters: H.P. Lovecraft’s Shoggoths, bigoted neighbors, Klansmen, white feminism, and racist cops. Moving from the Tulsa race massacre in 1921 to the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 to the daily dangers of driving, walking, and working while Black in the United States, Lovecraft Country makes a powerful contribution to current national conversations around anti-Black racism and the resurgence of emboldened white supremacist groups.

We particularly loved the themes of Black feminism and Afrofuturism that emerged in episode 7, “I Am,” which took Hippolyta, Tic’s aunt, on a multidimensional strength-giving journey. In this episode we see a shift in Hippolyta as she reimagines her own identity on her own terms. Hippolyta’s transformations amidst uncertainty and oppression remind us of Octavia Butler’s famous line in Parable of the Sower, “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change.” In that light, we encourage you to read Ytasha L. Womack’s Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture as you watch (and rewatch) Hippolyta rewrite the rules of time, space, gender, sexuality, and race. As Womack explains: “Afrofuturist women are obviously shaped by modern gender issues, their creations and theories themselves emerge from a space that renders such limitations moot.” While Lovecraft Country has been described as having an uneven season and has been criticized for treating its only Indigenous character with troubling and gratuitous violence (a mistake Green has apologized for), it is largely successful in centering Black women and the creative power of Black feminist pasts and futures. It’s no mistake, we think, that the final episode ends with Hippolyta’s daughter in the ruins of the Braithwaite mansion, reclaiming that space—and the Shoggoth—for the struggles to come.

(Un)safe Spaces

Us (2019)

After the success of his debut feature film Get Out, Jordan Peele returned in 2019 with Us, a critically-acclaimed horror film about the often-invisible structures of American inequality. The film centers on the concept of “tethered doubles”: one person who lives comfortably in the world aboveground and a “shadow-twin” who lives a life of deprivation belowground. One of the many ways to understand this famously ambiguous film is as a critique of capitalism. Through on onslaught of gore and surprise twists, Us portrays how those on top have access to everything they need and want. They live the “American dream,” blissfully unaware of the people on the bottom.

In addition to the underground/aboveground physical space dynamic that occurs through the characters’ relationships with their shadows, much of the movie takes place in a contested beach space in Santa Cruz. Although Southern California beaches are ostensibly open to everyone, they are less accessible for poor and working-class people in the region. The movie not only serves as a commentary on class more generally but also relates specifically to place-based class dynamics in which access to spaces of leisure and play are reserved for those with the money and the ability to get there. Still, there’s something “magic” about the beach as a place of transition and change. The movie extends Robert Preston-Whyte’s description of hybrid and liminal beach spaces as “calm, tranquil, and soothing or agitated, unruly, and frightening” to socioeconomic hierarchies. The door to the Tethers’ subterranean prison is found, fittingly, in the house of mirrors on the boardwalk—where the supposed inevitability of the “American dream” begins to look like something else entirely.

It Follows (2014)

It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell) was hailed by critics as a new classic in the horror film canon for its gender and sexual politics and stylish call-backs to 1980s horror movies. Also interesting to consider, though, is the film’s setting: deindustrialized Detroit. At one pivotal moment, when the characters are en route to the public pool where they plan to trap the monster, the suburban teens discuss how their parents never used to let them go to this area of the city south of Eight Mile, invoking racialized narratives about danger and abandoned spaces. And, as Benjamin Balthaser observes in his recent article “Horror Cities: Contesting the Ruins of Capitalism in Contemporary Genre Cinema,” we’re first introduced to the shape-shifting monster in the ruins of a Ford factory, suggesting that the abandoned spaces in the city might actually be haunted.

A teenage girls stands in front of an old house with broken and boarded windows.
Jay (played by Maika Monroe) and her suburban friends check out the Detroit home of a man who passed her the monster/haunting/disease. Promotional film still, 2014.

Films like It Follows, contends Balthaser, radically suggest that “we cannot begin to have a serious discussion about Flint or Detroit until we view the horror city as a site in which real people live and struggle and with whom we share a common fate. . . . The horror city is our city, and we live or die by how we understand its fate.” The message of It Follows is much more interesting and nuanced because of its Detroit setting and what that says about the landscape of post-industrial horror. (Extra credit if you noticed the significance of Lake Erie throughout the story.)

Parasite (2019)

Earlier this year, Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite made Oscars history by being the first non-English-language film to win the award for Best Picture. The film was also a box-office success story, pulling in $205 million globally and becoming the fourth highest-grossing foreign language film in the U.S. of all time. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re in for a Halloween treat. Come for the satisfyingly twisty plot and stay for the pointed social commentary.

Much like Jordan Peele’s Us, the themes of Parasite center around an underclass/overclass dynamic, as illustrated by the two main families’ respective living spaces. The Kims, who we meet in the first scene, live in a cramped half-basement home, which “really reflects the psyche of the Kim family,” as Bong Joon-ho related to Architectural Digest. “You’re still half overground, so there’s this hope and this sense that you still have access to sunlight and you haven’t completely fallen to the basement yet. It’s this weird mixture of hope and this fear that you can fall even lower.” In creating the Kim home, production designer Lee Ha Jun visited empty “ghost towns” to capture this feeling of being on the edge of ruin.

The Kims’ house isn’t the film’s most haunted place, though. Most of the central action takes place in the Park family home: a clean, luxurious, modern space with a striking glass facade overlooking a bright, green, well-manicured yard. Little do they know it’s haunted by ghosts of its own. In his book Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film, Barry Curtis discusses the connection between modern ghost stories and the architecture of home spaces and proposes the value of doing a “haunted-house reading” of a variety of texts that aren’t easily identifiable as horror or don’t include supernatural elements. The key feature of a haunted house is that it “conceals a truth that has to be symptomatically worked out.” And the modern ghost story, he argues, comes out of “a need to acknowledge what has been consistently repressed in the construction of everyday bourgeois culture and its environments.” Parasite indeed explores these questions of what lurks beneath the veneer of the modern dream home and the nouveau-riche fantasy of casting off the past without consequence. If you’re in search of a haunted house story about the horrors of late-stage capitalism, look no further.

Featured image: Ruins of a country house at night. Photo by Carlos de Miguel.