Between the Living and the Dead
Recognizing Your Dead: On Ancestors, Storytelling, and Coalition-Building Between Life and Death
Everybody has somebody dead, somebody dead they miss every day. Or don’t miss, but remember, think about, maybe curse. In fact, everybody has so many dead they don’t or can’t remember them all, have never even heard all their names, don’t know the first thing about, all connections seemingly severed. Lost and then lost again, if the forgotten dead call out, who will hear? Who will learn what the forgotten dead know?
Sometimes I feel I can’t even go on the internet without seeing Ancestory.com ads, 23andme ads, these services that promise to look into your body, look into your family, your history, and tell you who you are, where you came from, how you came to be, and how that might affect or inform your chances in the world. But what if, in turning to your dead, the mystery to be solved was not only to understand yourself better, to gather clues for a clearer vision of your personal story and possible fate, but also to understand better your dead and the world that you share, not to locate them at their proper distance temporally, far off branches on a family tree, but to sense them, feel them right behind you and right in front of you, too. What if, when we try to recognize our dead, it’s not to fill a hole in our self image, heal or not and then move on, but instead, it’s so that we might better recognize the agency, activity, and desires of our dead, so that we might then do better by them, so that we might form a coalition with them across being and nonbeing, between the living and the dead, for the future and for justice, so that we might, as Derrida proposes in Specters of Marx, through recognizing our dead, finally learn to live.
But how to relate to the dead in the first place? To explore one possible answer, I will focus on storytelling, first in Octavia Butler’s Kindred and then in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, by considering how both writers make storytelling a door that the living can open, a door through which the dead can emerge, new coalitions can form, and new and old understandings can grow. I want to ask, when we tell tales of the dead, when we remember the dead through stories of their lives, stories of their deaths, tragic or horrifying or mundane, and stories of their afterlives, what work are we doing? Storytelling is not a way to awaken the dead, who I would argue never sleep, but rather to awaken both the storyteller and the reader/listener to the presence of the dead and to our relation and responsibility to them, a way to invoke and uplift their power. What happens to the time or the space in the room (lecture hall, woods, etc) where a ghost story is told? Does it quake and flicker, as if by candlelight? What happens between absence and presence, the imperceptible and the perceived, the real and the unreal? What possibility is unearthed or unveiled, what feelings of kinship called up? What do these stories do? What are they made from? If we follow them, where will they take us?
In Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, Avery Gordon writes, “Following the ghosts is about making a contact that changes you and refashions the social relations in which you are located. It is about putting life back in where only a vague memory or a bare trace was visible to those who bothered to look. It is sometimes about writing ghost stories, stories that not only repair representational mistakes, but also strive to understand the conditions under which a memory was produced in the first place, toward a countermemory, for the future” (22). A moment of contact between the living and the dead, when precipitated by a ghost, could be a haunting. A moment of contact, if precipitated by a member of the living, could be in storytelling, that play with presence and absence, that expressive way of remembering together, that enlivening of memory or countermemory through narrative, through feeling shared back and forth. More than evocative reminders, what if we consider ghost stories as the presence of the dead made perceptible? Leslie Marmon Silko recalls, “When I was a child in the Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico, the old folks used to tell us to listen and to remember the stories that tell us who we are as people. The old folks said the stories themselves had the power to protect us and even to heal us because the stories are alive; the stories are our ancestors. In the very telling of the stories, the spirits of our beloved ancestors and family become present with us” (“Expression” 152).
Through a history of domination, genocide, and erasure, many people, especially those who benefit from and perpetuate settler-colonial histories, now see only loss and death and absence in such stories, a fantasy version of remote ancestors long gone, quaint but irrelevant, with stories no more spirited than inanimate objects. Silko and the “old folks” who taught her reject that irrelevance. Instead of absence, there is power and possibility, a lively fullness, great and growing. Storytelling in this understanding brings with it a capaciousness vibrant enough to trace through both words and ancestors, weaving them together and us together with them, with the strength to change, heal, and protect. Through these stories, stories that are one and the same thing as ancestors, it’s possible to come to know who we are and how we are to live, over and against the dominant narratives that tell very different stories, about who Native people are, who settlers are, who Americans are, and how we all must live.
Who is haunted and who does the haunting is a shifting, active question in both Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, two versions of historical fiction novels written in the late 1970’s. Life and death, the now and the long ago, are far from static in these texts. As storytellers, Butler and Silko guide us into relation with the dead, with the land, with the ghosts of unbelievable violence and destruction through enslavement, genocide and, in the case of Ceremony, the most monstrous bombs ever devised. Butler and Silko guide us, their readers, from whatever may be our starting point, into an accountability to the dead through remembering them, honoring them, and recognizing their continued influence on the world we share and co-create. Through the weaving and opening and temporal disruptions Silko and Butler create, the act of storytelling does not produce a tidy teleological narrative meant to train the reader in normative lifeways; it is not an effort to make something legible and, in so doing, consumable or containable; it does not divulge secrets in a style of confession meant to absolve or conclude the ongoing consequences of colonialism and enslavement. Instead, storytelling as they practice it is a call to life, a call to live better, a binding that links us to something more than our own individual, atomized experiences of living. It’s an active transformation through recognizing interconnectedness. As Gloria Anzaldúa writes in Borderlands / La Frontera, “The ability of story (prose and poetry) to transform the storyteller and the listener into something or someone else is shamanistic. The writer, as shape-changer, is nahual, a shaman.” The storyteller, as medium, guides the reader or listener into that role as well. Just as ghosts are everywhere, and everywhere is haunted, so ghost stories and their tellers are everywhere too, not only in the canonical literary stories I will first discuss. Stories about ghosts, about the dead and the living interacting in various contexts, to various ends, are not uncommon in broader popular culture as well and, to conclude, I will visit two such examples from recent Hollywood films, Coco and Hereditary. But first, Kindred.
Octavia Butler had some questions about how to live, how to survive, how to save a life, how to remember, how to be accountable and hold others accountable, too. To think through these questions, as well as questions of loss, distance, debt, and what is never gone and never far, she created a time-traveling storyteller, our hero, Dana, a Black woman living in Southern California in 1976, the bicentennial of the United States, who finds herself on her 26th birthday suddenly and mysteriously transported to antebellum Maryland to save a young white boy from drowning.
Kindred, written in the first person, follows Dana as she travels back and forth across space and time—“More than three thousand miles. More than any number of miles” (46) as she explains to her husband, Kevin. Each time Dana is hurled to the past she must save the same boy, Rufus, who becomes a man who rapes an enslaved woman, Alice. From this act of violence, Alice has a daughter, Hagar, who becomes Dana’s great-grandmother. In the many descriptions of the book I’ve come across, Hagar is described as Dana’s “direct ancestor,” but of course, so is Alice, and so is Rufus. Through saving Rufus—from drowning, from a fire, from his own incredible selfishness and foolishness—Dana saves everyone who comes after him, including herself, and anyone who might come after her, too. Her responsibility, as she comes to understand, is both to everyone enslaved on her ancestor’s plantation, sometimes her past and sometimes her present, and to those yet to come, to their possibility, to a future forever entangled with the past.
Who haunts whom in this book? Who does the haunting and who the remembering? Who is alive and who is dead, and when, and what difference does it make? On her second trip, her first extended conversation with Rufus, her long dead ancestor, when he is still a child starting accidental fires, they try to unravel the mystery of the relation they have found themselves in. Rufus asks, “But how did you get there?” And Dana responds, “Like that,” snapping her fingers. Rufus, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not satisfied by her explanation, “That’s no answer,” he says, but Dana says it’s the only answer she’s got. For a moment then, he becomes afraid he might be speaking with a ghost, this boy who will have been dead over a hundred years, but Dana assures him there is no such thing, though in this conversation there are many ways in which they are both ghosts, haunting each other in their speaking together. (23)
One thing I love about this book is that this question, how did she get there, goes largely unanswered. It’s not the point, it’s not that important. Belief isn’t even so important—what’s real is all around, whether or not we believe it, and what’s real is demanding action. The “no answer” of “it’s the only answer I’ve got” doesn’t allow for simple resolutions. What matters are the relations, the connections, and what Dana does about it, what Alice does, and what Hagar does, or what they will do. They survive, as long and as much as they can. They save lives, as many as they can, even if only their own, making more living possible. Dana says there are no ghosts while speaking to someone long dead because there are none in the sense of chain-rattling, spectral apparitions of the sort Rufus is most likely imagining. In Kindred, the ghosts are as alive as the living, as dangerous, and as powerful.
Of course, time moves strangely in this novel. Not only that Dana travels through it, bringing with her anyone who might be touching or holding her at the moment she departs, but also that while she is away, time in 1976 nearly stops. At one point, she’s in 1816 for three months, and when she returns only eight minutes have passed. From here on, time doesn’t add up, doesn’t draw a straight line anymore. Rather than being somehow outside the world, containing the world, time is exposed as being part of it, entangled, moving, uneven. In “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World,” Denise Ferreira Da Silva writes, “Exposing Time as it is inscribed in the onto-epistemological tools that sustain the Subject recalls its worldly-ness without the primacy of temporality… Between the past and future, the old and new, asking the question of the World, toward the End of the Subject’s apprehension of it, interrupts the desperate reaction—of the questions—before a Time seemingly caught in a deadly knot.” (89). Dana, like Butler in the writing of Kindred, is certainly between past and future, old and new, asking questions of the World, violating basic truths of history and science, wondering what else might be true, or what might all be true, even in fiction, even in stories. Just as ghosts rupture time, so, too, do storytellers disrupt linearity, and in showing that such a rupture is possible, they beg the question of what else might be or might have been possible.
Upon returning to the present for the first time, Dana’s notion of “home” is already altered. She explains to Kevin, “‘I don’t have a name for the thing that happened to me, but I don’t feel safe anymore’” (Butler 17). She doesn’t know the word or words for her experience, but it has nevertheless changed her, her understanding of the world and its limits. When she returns the last and final time, it is an incomplete return, symbolically and literally. Her arm is stuck between the worlds, caught in a wall. She loses the arm, she is changed. We know this will happen from the beginning, it’s the first line of the book. After recovering in the hospital, she and Kevin travel to Maryland, to see what remains of the home of her ancestors. They find that nothing does, “But Rufus’s house was gone. As nearly as we could tell, its site was now covered by a broad field of corn. The house was dust, like Rufus” (262). The records are brief and limited: the house burned down, Dana’s friends and family are described as “sold” or not described at all. Because Dana is still there, we know her great-grandmother Hagar survived, made it somehow to Baltimore, somehow through Emancipation. With their backs to a Historical Society museum in a converted antebellum mansion, Kevin and Dana talk about what happened to them, to her, to Rufus and the people he enslaved:
“It’s over,” [Kevin] said. “There’s nothing you can do to change any of it now.”
“I know.” I drew a deep breath. “I wonder whether the children were allowed to stay together—maybe stay with Sarah.”
“You’ve looked,” he said. “And you’ve found no records. You’ll probably never know.”
I touched the scar Tom Weylin’s boot had left on my face, touched my empty sleeve. “I know,” I repeated. “Why did I even want to come here. You’d think I would have had enough of the past.”
“You probably needed to come for the same reason I did.” He shrugged. “To try to understand. To touch solid evidence that those people existed. To reassure yourself that you’re sane.” (264)
But of course, everything they touch, including each other, is solid evidence that those people existed. And of course there is no “enough of the past,” there is no getting full and moving on. Instead, there is living with it; there is understanding, or the attempt to. The justice possible here is not one of endings, but rather a justice of binding endlessness, accepting an accountability that transcends time, and lasts forever.
I like to imagine that Octavia Butler wrote Kindred as the book that Dana wrote, after surviving what she did, not to “close the book on it,” but to understand what happened, to show herself that she’s not crazy, to keep her relating with Alice and Hagar alive and unforgotten, in response to the question of how to live in and after crisis, what is possible, what can change.
Leslie Marmon Silko’s debut 1977 novel, Ceremony, tells the story of a young Laguna Pueblo man, Tayo, returning home from his service in WWII. His experience of violence, both enacting and surviving it, his time as a Japanese prisoner of war, and the death of his cousin, Rocky, with whom and for whom he enlisted, have all left him deeply sick. Tayo returns from the war more dead than alive, closer to the dead than the living. He can neither speak nor be seen, so another from within him speaks for him to answer the doctor’s question about why he can’t stop crying, explaining of himself in the third person, “He cries because they are dead and everything is dying” (16). Tayo is both haunted and himself a ghost, one of many for whom a lack of adequate care, both for the recent traumas of war and the multigenerational trauma of settler colonialism, lessens the life he survived the war to lead, both shortening his years and shrinking his energy, his spirit, and the fullness of his living.
In his memories, when he has access to them against the “white medicine” that attempts to silence everything rather than answer to anything, the faces of the dead shift around. The face of his beloved Uncle Josiah, who died while Tayo and Rocky were at war, appears among the faces of Japanese soldiers Tayo fought and killed and was eventually captured by. He feels responsible for the deaths of his uncle, his cousin, the Japanese soldiers he’s killed, and for the drought that blights the land, because he had prayed for a break in the merciless rain that beat down on himself and Rocky, infecting Rocky’s injuries while they were prisoners of war. Tayo can barely get out of bed when he is returned home, deposited back into his aunt’s care. For a while, he remains confused as to whether or not it is he who died, instead of Rocky. Silko writes, “It didn’t take Tayo long to see the accident of time and space: Rocky was the one who was alive, buying Grandma her heater with the round dial on the front; Rocky was there in the college game scores on the sports page of the Albuquerque Journal. It was him, Tayo, who had died, but somehow there had been a mistake with the corpses, and somehow he was still unburied” (28). Tayo and Rocky are both ghosts, but they haunt the family home in different senses—Rocky through the family’s grief and disappointment, Tayo as a symbol of their collective shame, loss and fear for the future.
Tayo’s healing, his return to the living, finally begins when his grandmother sends for a local elder, Ku’oosh, to begin a ceremony for Tayo, in spite of his aunt’s displeasure and the Army doctor’s demand, “No Indian medicine” (34). Ku’oosh clarifies that the ceremony is not for Tayo alone, but for the entirety of this fragile world. Silko writes, “The word he chose ‘fragile’ was filled with the intricacies of a continuing process, and with a strength inherent in spider webs woven across paths through sand hills where early in the morning the sun becomes entangled in each filament of web. It took a long time to explain the fragility and intricacy because no word exists alone… [and] the story behind each word must be told so there could be no mistake in the meaning of what had been said; and this demanded great patience and love” (35). The ceremony Ku’oosh is proposing does not require Tayo to enter into this web, because he is (as we are) already entangled within it, already constituted by it. Rather, it requires Tayo to embrace his place within that web, to accept the responsibility of telling its story, keeping it going, protecting its fragility, its gorgeous intricate entanglement.
This entanglement is most palpable at Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was dropped, an experiment precipitating death at a scale that before was incomprehensible. Tayo unintentionally flees to Trinity Site while being pursued by white military doctors who seek to capture and incarcerate him in a military hospital, thinking him insane and dangerous. Once he recognizes where he has found himself, he knows he has reached the climax of the ceremony. Silko writes:
There was no end to it; it knew no boundaries; and he had arrived at the point of convergence where the fate of all living things, and even the earth, had been laid. From the jungles of his dreaming he recognized why the Japanese voices had merged with the Laguna voices, with Josiah’s voice and Rocky’s voice; the lines of cultures and worlds were drawn in flat dark lines on fine light sand, converging in the middle of witchery’s final ceremonial sand painting. From that time on, human beings were one clan again, united by the fate the destroyers had planned for all of them, for all living things; united by a circle of death that devoured people in cities twelve thousand miles away, victims who had never known these mesas, who had never seen the delicate colors of the rocks which boiled up their slaughter…
He cried the relief he felt at finally seeing the pattern, the way all the stories fit together—the old stories, the war stories, their stories—to become the story that was still being told. He was not crazy; he had never been crazy. He had only seen and heard the world as it always was: no boundaries, only transitions through all distance and time. (246)
Not an origin, neither end nor beginning, Trinity Site is, for Tayo, a convergence where the separations manufactured to maintain colonial and national violence fail. Tayo is brought to tears by this revelation, not from the relief of finding some type of peace or satisfactory answers, but from the recognition of the vastness of this interconnection, that expansive coalition between all the living and nonliving and the dead. In “Beyond the Life/Not-Life Binary: A Feminist Indigenous Reading of Cryopreservation, Interspecies Thinkings, and the New Materialisms,” Kim TallBear describes “an indigenous metaphysic [as] an understanding of the intimate knowing relatedness of all things… the co-constitutive entanglements between the material and the immaterial” (187). At this point in the ceremony, what remains for Tayo to do is to make it through the night, to survive, and although this night is marked by terror, he does. Or perhaps here the question is not of survival but survivance, something beyond the spectrum of life and death. Gerald Vizenor writes in Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance that survivance “is an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories… Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy and victimry” (vii). Here, instead of absence and senseless loss, we find power, strength, continuity and possibility.
It is, of course, not only in late ’70s historical fiction that departed ancestors are turned to by the living in an attempt to survive themselves, to learn how to live. Consider the crucial ceremony in Black Panther, where to become the Black Panther and King of Wakanda, T’Challa takes the “Heart-Shaped Herb” and accesses Wakanda’s collective memory in what is referred to as “the ancestral plane” in the movie and “D’Jalia” in the comic books. There, in a perpetually starry gloaming, T’Challa receives guidance and wisdom from his deceased father, T’Chaka, on how to be good and how to be king at the same time, and how to live with loss.
We could look to another Disney movie, Coco, which also tells the story of a family and their dead in Santa Cecilia, Mexico on the Dia de los Muertos where Miguel, our twelve-year-old protagonist, though still a living boy, accidentally passes over to the Land of the Dead. While there he finds his ancestors, relates with them, connects his story to theirs, and learns why it’s important to recognize and remember your dead. In the universe of Coco, it is through the memories of the living, the passing down of stories, that the dead maintain active social lives in the spirit world, and when the last memory of a dead person disappears from the land of the living, either through death or forgetting, then that spirit also disappears from the land of the dead. In Coco, a haunting isn’t something the dead do to the living, not as revenge, and not for some unfinished business. Rather, it’s something the living must actively participate in, they must remember, it’s their responsibility to keep the dead alive, and the dead in turn watch over them, love them, and guide them as far as they will listen. The theme song of the movie, “Remember Me,” makes the argument that distance, even between the dead and the living, means nothing. It instructs, “Know that I’m with you / The only way that I can be / Until you’re in my arms again / Remember me.”
Being together the only way that we can be, across presence and absence, across life and death, requires storytelling and memory work in order to move us towards other ways of knowing and of being. As Avery Gordon writes, “And so we are left to insist on our need to reckon with hauntings as a prerequisite for sensuous knowledge and to ponder the paradox of providing a hospitable memory for ghosts out of a concern for justice ” (60). The coalition made possible between the living and the dead, even when imperfect, fleeting and strange, has great transformative potential. While the past cannot be transformed, injustices cannot be undone, and the dead remain dead: they need not remain buried or be lost again, need not be disempowered or dehumanized again. While being responsible for and to the dead cannot right wrongs or provide second chances, it can revitalize a power and sensuous knowledge that would otherwise be erased. Recognizing our dead has everything to do with recognizing how things came to be as they are, how they might have been otherwise, how they might yet become. Our responsibility to the dead reflects our responsibility to the living, that is to say, each other. It enables us to see what else is possible, to make the world we share otherwise.
From time to time, a scary movie is popularly described as the scariest movie ever made, unwatchably scary. At the time of my writing, one of the most recent movies to earn that honor is Ari Aster’s 2018 Hereditary. It tells the story of the wealthy white Graham family grieving for their recently deceased grandmother, living in a vast and empty Utah in a beautiful home surrounded by ever-eerie birch trees, the birch bark a crowd of blank eyes. Although the grandmother is dead before the movie begins—indeed, the first image that fills the screen is her printed obituary—it is her ghostly activity, begun in her own lifetime and continued from hell, that propels the movie forward.
After mounting stress and another more terrifying loss begins to consume the family, Annie, the mother (played by Toni Collette), loses all emotional restraint and screams over a particularly miserable dinner, “Now I can’t accept and I can’t forgive, because nobody admits what they’ve done.” The questions of who is to be blamed, who needs to confess, and who can be absolved, permeate the story, in part because for this family, unknowingly carrying an ancestral curse, all souls already lost, the answers to these questions ultimately make no difference. It doesn’t matter what they do because it’s already too late. The one who is to be blamed came before them: the grandmother, who we gradually come to realize made a pact with the king of hell, exchanging her children and grandchildren for the promise of fabulous wealth for herself and her fellow believers. Unlike in the novels Kindred or Ceremony, where ancestry is an opening, in Hereditary ancestry is destiny, and destiny is a trap. For the Grahams, the cursed path is laid by their ancestor’s bargain, and now that they are bound to it, all their efforts unintentionally propelling them ever closer to what the doom they are attempting to avoid. The film is an argument against the possibility of escape. It warns, Learn your evil history, but don’t expect salvation, because your damnation is so much bigger than you. Betrayed by those who came before, any hope for another future is lost.
Two seances are at each key plot points of Hereditary. In each, someone looks under the table being used as a stage for the ritual, hoping for some giveaway that will reassure them that none of this is real, that the world remains as they thought it was. But, in each instance, the one who looks for a “logical explanation” finds nothing, only air pulsating, more mystery. The first seance nefariously deceives the grieving mother, Annie, leading her to believe the dead are harmless, full of nothing but love, sending only messages of painlessness and peace. She’s being sold a fantasy by those who are preparing her sacrifice, members of her mother’s violent church. Leaving the seance, Annie’s mysterious friend Joan assures her, to her horror, “You didn’t kill her, Annie. She isn’t gone.” The first statement returns us again to the question of blame. The second statement, we already know. For the Grahams, the dead aren’t gone, the dead never even left the house. Joan further explains that if Annie ever wants to try the seance again, she need only light a candle, say a few words in an unknown language, and make sure her entire family is in the house while she performs the ceremony.
Annie is a kind of storyteller herself, she’s a miniaturist, making perfectly scaled scenes of classrooms, hospital rooms, galleries and other interiors, as well as intricate model houses, like doll houses but even more uncanny. She’s successful at her craft: throughout the movie a gallery in New York keeps calling her, asking for updates on her progress for an impending show, adding to her feeling of being trapped, of drowning. The miniatures also add to the feeling of instability in the viewer, inducing a type of motion-sickness. Several times in the film, movement in the narrative is marked by the camera slowly zooming closer and closer onto a miniature until a full-sized living character walks through the door, suddenly the actual door of a real space. Every border blurs, but not towards liberation, not towards connection, instead towards a terrible madness, and all space converges on a single, horrible point. The only thing certain is fate sent back, or forward, or up, from the dead.
At the beginning of the second seance, a miniature we had previously only seen in glimpses is slowly circled by the camera. It seems much larger now. It’s a house, but you can see the earth beneath, and you can see another house buried just below, and below that house yet another house. It is as if to say: hiding something, or hiding from something, is no escape, as nothing stays hidden for long. Even what we bury is still very much present, it’s there in the foundation of our world, making it what it is. Gathered around a table with her family, a candle, and a water glass turned upside down to act as a planchette, Annie declares, “I’m a medium,” but she has no idea what she’s doing, how she’s being used, or what it is she’s summoning. In the end, when she realizes her mistake, she tries to use the tools of Spiritualism as she understands them to save her family. She finds a notebook that she believes to be “the link” between the living and the dead, and destroys it. But what she doesn’t understand is that the notebook—the document as written—isn’t the link, rather, she is the link, her home is the link, her family is the link, every single thing is a link in the chain dragging them to hell.
In Hereditary, as in many horror films and ghost stories, the dead are far more powerful than the living. They still need something from the living, but it isn’t to be remembered by them or held in their hearts. Like the malevolent spirits we find in the Poltergeist franchise or the Insidious franchise, these ghosts are after the liveliness or life force of the not-yet-dead. Like a house buried beneath a house, these hateful dead, this painful past, cannot be ignored away. As Heather Love writes in Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, “… it is the damaging aspects of the past that tend to stay with us, and the desire to forget may itself be a symptom of haunting. The dead can bury the dead all day long and still not be done” (1). The darkness that haunts and hounds this family, the dead grandmother who would do any harm to anyone in her project of wealth accumulation, reflects the long history of evil things done by white people for money and power. Perhaps this is the guilt and blame none of the surviving family members can confront, address, or escape. Had they acknowledged their true problem, the true evil, instead of becoming increasingly alienated and afraid, would their fate have been different? If they had looked both inwards and outwards instead of just away? The nihilism of the film apparently suggests that the Grahams are powerless against the evil that ensnares them. But it also dramatizes the fact that this ensnaring evil was also not inevitable, was brought about by the actions and decisions of the ancestral Graham. While the grandmother’s acts were triumphant in this narrative, she the author and the others mere players, it also demonstrates that it was just another story being told, not the immovable sway of destiny. If Annie and her family had responded in ways that subverted the narrative as laid before them, that got outside of its arc, rather than solidifying its power through accepting its terms, then perhaps another ending would have been possible. Attempts to escape were made, which confirms that attempting at all is possible. With that knowledge, the question then becomes what manner of attempt would be better suited for getting outside of a haunting that bares a hell on earth.
This question strikes me with a particular urgency, because the sense of a future foreclosed after forces more powerful than myself have sold it away for their own benefit feels eerily familiar. Say all the world and everything living on it has been sold to the king of hell. Say there is no escape, no salvation, it’s already over. What would the limit of possibility and impossibility mean then? With nothing left to lose, how can we turn towards those we thought we’d lost, or left behind, to help guide us to the world that comes after this one? To reach a different ending, it isn’t necessary to change the whole story, once again attempting to deny what has happened, but instead to listen more closely to those voices that, in the tellings we live beneath, seem buried. Rather than listening to the dominant stories and following those who have led us into starker atomization and terror, we could listen to those storytellers and ghosts who offer us a more profound, fragile, and boundless relationality. The end would still come, but what comes after that could be something else entirely.
Back to Between the Living and the Dead
Copyright © 2020 Laura Henriksen