M. R. James was the master of the ghost story in which an evil from the distant past persists into the present and is visited upon as as a legacy. – David G. Harwell, introduction to “The Ash Tree” in The Dark Descent, p. 40
When I purchased the first season of American Horror Story last year, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to do so. I’m not all that impressed with contemporary horror on film. I was pleasantly surprised by the creep factor in this show, the surprises that weren’t always clear until they occurred, and the way there were even factions in the ghost community in the house. A rewatch this past spring confirmed that, even knowing the story and character arcs, the chills and creeps were still there. That, my friends, is the sign of well-done horror.
And it surprised me to read Harwell’s comment on M. R. James, because it sums up not only the driving force of that first season of American Horror Story, but so much of what passes for contemporary horror on film. It all seems to revolve around this exact axis: the discovery of some past wrong that leaves the present vulnerable to an ongoing injustice. It dawned on me, as these things do (and I’m sure someone far more observant than I will ever be has already written the definitive thesis on this), that such horror is trying to teach us Americans about the necessity of knowing and claiming our past, our history, the ties that bind us both as individuals and communities in this organic process of living through time and being structured by a particular set of circumstances we call history.
We Americans tend to celebrate our ignorance of the past. We wear our urge not to look back as a sign of our national uniqueness. I will confess that I am no different in this regard. I think I too often am mindless in my celebration of innovation and the possibilities of the future without the needed countervailing weight of the most necessary understanding of our past as prologue to what is to come. When we are confronted by our past as unresolved injustice – whether slavery or our genocide of the native peoples; our treatment of women, immigrants, minority religions, etc. – so many of us become defensive to the point of belligerent that we forget this past is real, these injustices are real, that we are who we are as a people precisely because of these injustices, rather than despite them.
At the same time, genealogy is huge, particularly now that doing it is as simple as a few mouse clicks on websites. Just yesterday, Mother’s Day, I posted a one hundred year old family photograph showing four generations of my paternal grandmother’s family. It had my aunt as an infant sitting on her great-grandmother’s lap. Behind them stood my grandmother and her mother. In that photo, taken in late 1914 or early 1915, was a living memory that stretched back before the Civil War. My grandmother told me stories of her childhood and youth. My aunt, a baby in these photos, lived until 2005. The connections, living memory represented not only in that photo, but the ongoing lived reality of our family, crosses much of the life of our country, including the Civil War (my paternal great-grandfather and great-great-grandfathers were both veterans of the GAR), the assassination of Pres. William McKinley in 1901, at the Niagara Exhibition (my grandmother had been taken there by her grandmother as a reward for her good grades in school), both world wards, the Great Depression, which continue to be living memories from my parents, and now stretching off in to the 21st century, as I know my children will live will past its midpoint, and their children perhaps in to the next.
For the most part, though, we shy away from the past being a real thing. Philosophers are at pains to set to one side any claim upon the present made by the past. Christians often quote Jesus’s saying, “Let the dead bury their dead,” as if it meant what they think it means. We are people of The Future, and that future will always be a complete break with the past. In that horror fiction in which a ghost from some past, never-recognized injustice (or at least one yet to be made right), or perhaps from an object or heirloom that holds some kind of infernal grip on the present (Oculus, that concerns both a cursed mirror as well as a past murder not adequately explained) is perhaps the perfect mixture of these two themes. Until and unless we are willing to own our past, which would involve knowing it for what it is, no matter how difficult that may be, these films seem to say, we can never move forward. These films are morals about the necessity of history, personal and communal, in being who we are, and becoming who we could be.
Confronting our past, personal, familial, and communal, can be difficult. My grandmother, for example, could never fully come to terms with the fact that her mother had not only been conceived out of wedlock, but that the man who had married her grandmother was not the father of her mother. I once noted this odd and, to me at least, funny family factoid and was told my great-grandmother was a bastard. Which is a bit like saying, “Gee, I guess you have Negroid ancestry because of the size of your lips.” (This latter is also the case; the words “Negroid ancestry” however are not only offensive in and for themselves, they really don’t matter all that much because it isn’t like I care all that much about the fact). It seemed a big deal to the person who made the observation, as if this particular bit of my family’s provenance was some horrible moral weight that attached itself to me.
Except, of course, I don’t see it that way at all. I’m actually proud of it, in some ways. It shows that folks in the mid-19th century were in many ways, well, just folks. People going about their lives, making decisions, and sometimes mistakes, that they can and do overcome with the course of time. The issue isn’t whether or not my great-great-grandmother was some kind of whore; it is, rather, that she was a woman trapped in a very difficult situation and made the most of it, and her life, despite those difficulties. Owning it, calling it by its name – and not “bastard” – and saying, “Yes, indeed. This is part of who I am” helps release any negative moral claim the past might hold over my own present.
So, too, with our collective past: When we acknowledge that much of our national wealth is the product of stolen labor; that at one time we promised our former slaves recompense that was never given; then denied how much of our national wealth continues to be influenced by slavery and that, as such, is a living debt we owe to the great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren of slaves. Until we as a nation do this kind of contrition- among the many owed to so many for our unjust actions – that past will haunt us, an avenging spirit that will continue to exact its toll on our lives, our fortunes, and our name.
Such horror fiction offers us the opportunity maybe, just maybe, to recognize the injustice and curses in our pasts, claim them as having a hold on our present lives and hopes for the future, and perhaps take the opportunity to make amends. That is always what seems to end the haunting, settle the spirits, and quiet the threats they pose.