Halloween Horror: His House

Our 2021 carved pumpkin

Halloween brought a collaborative effort to carve the traditional pumpkin and serve sweets to the local children dressed in costumes (that looked more endearing, than scary). I have never understood the trick or treat paradigm. Is it that they do a trick for a sweet? Or do they do a trick on you if you don’t give sweets? Well the kids don’t know either, like moths to a literal flame, they’re just after sweets I suppose.

Sweets all gone, a nice meal and a couple of games of Catan later, it was time for a scary movie. I searched for the best horror films of 2021 and correlated the list against availability on Netflix. No joy. I fell back to 2020 and one stood out, ‘ His House‘, with the synopsis: “A refugee couple makes a harrowing escape from war-torn South Sudan, but then they struggle to adjust to their new life in an English town that has an evil lurking beneath the surface.”

His House (2017) Movie Poster
His House (2017) Movie Poster

The film was apparently a directorial debut and it deserves a high score on Rotten Tomatoes, it is excellent. Worth a watch, especially before you read on; even though it is not the sort of twist-type film that could be ruined by spoilers, I personally like to see a film having just enough information to catalyse me into watching it but only enough so as it doesn’t feel I am following a well-trodden prescribed route.

I did a quick search on the film’s meaning after we watched it but nothing confirmed my suspicions as the few reviews I read took the film on the literal horror level that is more immediately apparent. It is a horror movie, don’t get me wrong but I think the horror illustrates something deeper. Perhaps it’s just me. I have a propensity to view everything through the lens of psychology (even myself as much as I can). To borrow one of my favourite Radio 4’s show titles, it’s ‘all in the mind’.

The story is about a couple who are Sudanese refugees. Now I must digress for a moment because I am sure I was not alone in my own ignorance – my terminology was brutally corrected last year, by somebody who works alongside refugees in Sheffield. A refugee is somebody who has fled their nation due to persecution (e.g. religious or political) and often due to risk of death. Beyond our moral obligations, refugees are protected under international law. An asylum seeker is somebody awaiting refugee status. A migrant has moved abroad for other reasons such as a better lifestyle.

There are other terms that exist that describe various circumstances. For example, some countries have refugee crises where people move within its borders are refugees. Uganda is a prominent example – these people are referred to as internally displaced persons. If you weren’t aware of the various terminology and distinctions, it is entirely forgivable because, at least in Britain, I suspect there are marked efforts by some small political parties to blur the distinctions when their xenophobic agendas and messages are quite obviously just ‘say no to foreigners’.

The film’s opening scenes depict the harrowing tribulations that countless refugees endure to reach safety, namely tenuous boat crossings in the dark, in cramped vessels. It moves on to show scenes at a detention centre and the cold indifference of our procedures. The couple, Bol and his wife Rial, are relieved to leave the detention centre with several conditions; one of which is to remain in the property they are allocated. Of course, the property is run-down and infested but their sense of relief from escaping the detention centre is poignant. The films shows how the refugees, abandoned in a deprived inner-city area, are left to fend for themselves but maturely balances a scene of human kindness, where a local guy provides some food, against an incident of racism from local (black) youth who exclaim “Go back to Africa”.

The ghostly horror starts quite early in the film and is certainly scary in parts. You will naturally be frustrated as you will the protagonist not to look in the wall etc. The film contrasts Bol’s readiness to become British and Rial’s need to retain her cultural identity and the most noticeable scene for me is when he wants them to use cutlery but she is reluctant. I recall eating curry in Guyana and my Aunty ribbed me for asking for a fork. I have to admit though, food (or curry at least) tastes so much better when eaten with your hands.

The portrayal of the ghost, or witch, that taunts Bol is an embodiment of the superstitions of his culture. I won’t pretend to know much about this culture nor superstitions. Bol and Rial are traumatised by both the events leading up to, and during, their escape. I think this is what the film is about: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Refugees are an incredibly vulnerable group of people in society and have complex needs. When I was teacher-training in Sheffield, which has a large refugee population, establishments would classify some students as EAL (English as another language). This Kafka-esque need to segment humans into easily memorable three-letter-acronyms never sat easily with me and seemed inadequate to describe the range of needs of these young people.

The prevalence of mental health disorders, PTSD in particular, is high amongst refugees – Fazel, M., Wheeler, J., & Danesh, J. (2005), Tempany, M. (2009). I have never formally studied sociology nor psychology so please forgive my attempt to substantiate my opinions here.

Psychosis is, with simplification, where someone loses some contact with reality and there are two main symptoms: hallucinations and delusional beliefs. Mental health assessment is made difficult because of cultural differences between people. Basically, if you subscribed to the same belief as everybody around you (for example, a great nose sneezed life into existence – in reference Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) then you would not be deemed psychotic. Here is a an intrinsic difficulty I have with conventional mental health perspectives – how on earth would we spot a mass psychosis? What happens if I didn’t place value on bits of paper sporting the face of a monarch? Could I be delusional?

This relationship between PTSD and psychosis is a complex (and relatively recent) field of study and Tull, M. (2020) cites a study that suggests psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations and sensations out of body (e.g. being touched by something not there) are as high as 20% among sufferers of PTSD. I think the characters’ accounts of supernatural events, which we see through their eyes in ‘His House’, could be explained by PTSD.

I think this film is much deeper than a simple horror movie and grants the audience a visceral insight into the extreme mental health of two individuals, brought on by trauma. The ghosts are an external manifestation of their inner-demons. I think the films does provide a social commentary on how inhumane our systems and politics, are then, in the treatment of refugees. But I think the film uses the scenario to illustrate something more universal about the human condition and while I try to refrain from spoilers, this is aptly eluded to in Bol’s, profoundly Jungian, reflection toward the end of the film: “Your ghosts follow you. They never leave. They live with you. It’s when I let them in, I could start to face myself.”

Halloween and accounts of poltergeist have never been scary for me as much as silly, even as a child. For me, this film echoes the writings of Nietzsche in that the greatest demons we fight are often those we cannot see, within ourselves. By the end, the film testifies to the core theme of Carl Jung’s work: “we must integrate our shadow into ourselves by ‘turning toward’ the darkness”.

References

Fazel, M., Wheeler, J., & Danesh, J. (2005). Prevalence of serious mental disorder in 7,000 refugees resettled in Western countries: A systematic review. The Lancet, 365, 1309โ€“1314.

Tempany, M. (2009). What research tells us about the mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of Sudanese refugees: A literature review. Transcultural Psychiatry, 46, 300โ€“315.

Tull, M. (2020) The Relationship Between PTSD and Psychosis. url: https://www.verywellmind.com/relationship-between-ptsd-and-psychotic-symptoms-2797525

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