Haunted Native America and the Pleasures of Horror

Literature faculty blog

by Eric Anderson

Haunted Native America and the Pleasures of Horror

I love horror. But what's to love? How and why does a genre that maps, explores, reflects, and sometimes even generates deep fears and traumas also inspire affection? How can something so intent on making readers and viewers uncomfortable possibly be pleasurable, too?

These are some of the questions my students and I are exploring this fall in English 352: Haunted Native America. In a class such as this one or my 200-level Vampires! class, we also notice early on that horror stories detail the aloneness of their characters and/or the unraveling and destruction of communities. But horror stories also enable and even encourage the formation of new kinds of communities both within texts and among readers, viewers, and listeners.

On screen and on the page, horror is horrific in various ways and for various reasons, but one of its strongest driving forces is that it zeroes in so relentlessly on the isolation and alienation of its protagonists and antagonists, the splintering of families and other social groups, and sometimes even the annihilation of cities, countries, and worlds. Horror also dismantles a community's sense of itself—how it works, what holds it together, what it thinks it knows about itself. Often arriving in the form of a question (why are the dead rising up? why are these ants so big?), horror brings about a loss of certainty, a new reality that shifts paradigms so radically that it can be difficult to understand as a reality, let alone as a critique of prevailing social and cultural practices. And a film such as Night of the Living Dead (1968), dramatizes not only the horror that the new paradigm presents but also the realization that older racial and cultural paradigms live on, too, in all their horror.

And yet, much as horror captures what is broken, wrong, and unsettled about its characters' and consumers' day-to-day lives, it also forges continuities and shared experiences. There's much to say here about, for example, best practices for horror characters (work collaboratively! don't split up!), familiar conventions of the genre (we share the knowledge that basements, attics, and mirrors are scary), and the pleasures and challenges of fan culture. Granted, attempts to work together to fend off horrors sometimes fail; in slasher films, for example, the killer ruthlessly winnows groups of friends or campers or students until the only person left standing is the aptly-named final girl. And of course, the communal pleasures of horror do not in any way make the larger questions of why we take pleasure in horror in the first place any easier to answer. Still, though, these pleasures seem to have something to do with continuities both expected—the conventions of the genre—and perhaps unexpected—the ways horror stories tear communities and cultures apart but also promote cultural continuities and even optimism, about which more soon.

Speaking of horror communities, the questions I'm posing in this post are fascinating to explore with others who share this interest in spooky things. In my classes on the undead, from the first meeting on, my students bring a good working knowledge of the basics (how vampires reproduce and how they die, for example), a willingness to be scared, and an openness to explore the unexplainable. In Haunted Native America, we regularly circle back around to three pressing questions: What do ghosts want? Why should we listen to ghosts and reckon with them? And why are there so many ghosts, hauntings, and monsters, in very recent Native American and Indigenous literature? As Avery Gordon argues in her brilliant and moving book Ghostly Matters, "When a ghost appears, it is making contact with you; all its forceful if perplexing enunciations are for you." And so it seems important to try to understand what Indigenous ghosts want and what they have to say to the Native and Indigenous characters they choose to visit and haunt. As it turns out, these ghosts reflect and speak to Indigenous traumas and horrors as they quite literally take place—that is, as they play out on stolen land, remember dispossessions and removals, and understand sites of trauma as themselves traumatized. Like non-Native ghosts, Native ones choose their locations carefully and so, as historian Coll Thrush observes, "examining ghost stories can be a sort of place-based methodology, in which hauntings gesture toward salient conflicts and patterns in the history of conquest. A ghost, in effect, is a place's past speaking to its—and our—present."

But, importantly, Native and Indigenous ghosts also have much to say about both the possibility and the promise of Indigenous futures. This might seem counterintuitive: surely ghosts rise up from the past and haunt the present and that's the extent of spectral time travel. But, from a ghost-centric point of view, ghosts rise up from something like an extended present, an afterlife that postdates their actual lives, and when ghosts visit what is for us the present, they are actually traveling into what is for them the future. It's much more complicated than this, though, and one of the ways we approach this complexity in Haunted Native America is by talking about how and why Indigenous writers create Indigenous ghosts and monsters that haunt living Indigenous people. Why are these ghosts not white?

And why are many of these Indigenous ghosts not scary? What's the point of a Native ghost that's actually pretty sociable and helpful? During fall 2018 and spring 2019, I was on sabbatical working on a new book project, The Indigenous Undead, that takes up precisely that question. In this book-in-progress, I argue that the Indigenous undead bring consolation and even healing to living relatives and also reaffirm powerful ancestral connections that empower Indigenous resistance and survival. Indigenous hauntings raise the Indigenous undead in ways that acknowledge difficulty, tension, uncertainty, trauma, and loss, but that also affirm Native presences and staying power. Raising the Indigenous undead is less a frightening than a hopeful endeavor. Ghosts both carry and sustain culture.


Grass Dancer book jacketTo get to know these spooky yet helpful Indigenous ghosts and hauntings better, you can start by reading some of the course texts for Haunted Native America: The Grass Dancer by Susan Power (Standing Rock Dakota), How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle (Choctaw), LaRose by Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), and Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson (Cherokee). Most anything by Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet) would also be good. Please email me if you'd like more suggestions!

And keep an eye out for future spooky courses such as the two I'm offering in Spring 2020: English 202 (Ghosts and Monsters) and English 458 (Broken Homes: Hauntings and Monsters).