The rise of Indigenous horror: How a fictional genre is confronting a monstrous reality
Indigenous writers know what it's like to live in a world where the horror never stops
Shelfies is a monthly column by writer Alicia Elliott that looks at arts and culture through the prism of the books on her shelf.
When I was a young girl, the most terrifying movie I had ever seen was The Exorcist. There was something about another young girl — also on the cusp of puberty, but speaking with the voice and vocabulary of a demon, housing supernatural evil within her slight frame — that haunted me for years after I watched it. Fear of female sexuality and agency have long created social anxieties, but that wasn't the fear that drove me. What really got me about Regan's demonic possession was her lack of control. She could watch as this demon moved with her arms and legs and listen as it spoke with her tongue, but she couldn't do anything herself. She was totally and utterly helpless.
Watching the state of the world unfurl across my Twitter timeline every day, it's hard not to feel the tendrils of that old fear. I feel helpless to stop the tide of white supremacy rising within Canada; to stop the attitudes that contribute to Black and brown folks being targeted for police violence and incarceration; to stop immigrants and refugees from being treated like societal poison to be sucked out of the body politic; to stop my Indigenous sisters, cousins, aunties and friends from wondering if they're going to end up missing or murdered with the country's news editors downplaying their plight; to stop the ever-increasing rate of environmental degradation that will no doubt one day kill us all.
Considering all of these fears, it might come as a surprise that the only genre I really want to engage with these days is horror. But there's comfort in witnessing a world where the horror eventually stops — even if that world is fictional. In a horror book or movie, there's usually some sort of reason for terror to infiltrate and obliterate characters' lives: a character played with a Ouija board, or a family moved into a haunted hotel, or a housing development was built on an Indian burial ground (more on this later). There's usually some internal logic to be followed in this world until the terror is eventually overcome — the kind of logic that isn't offered by the horrors of reality.
In "Glossary of a Haunting," Eve Tuck and C. Ree explain that American horror is "preoccupied with the hero, who is perfectly innocent, but who is assaulted by monstering or haunting just the same." With this in mind, it's particularly interesting to follow modern Indigenous horror. If the creators of Western horror believe Indigenous genocide only belongs in the national consciousness as a horror trope — the infamous "Indian burial ground," which for the record should be all of this continent — and that the people (often white) haunted by our ancestors' ghosts are innocent victims, what do the descendants of those ghosts fear? What more is there to fear when you've already faced governments who have tried for centuries to wipe you out, who have used biological warfare and forced starvation to create apocalypse for your people?
It's remarkable to consider that many non-Indigenous horror writers depict situations that Indigenous people have already weathered — such as apocalyptic viral outbreaks that decimate whole populations — or use the history of genocidal violence against us to explain why innocent white folks are being haunted today, such as in Stephen King's It or the 1982 film Poltergeist. In fact, I'm not sure what scares non-Indigenous horror writers and readers more: experiencing variations of what Indigenous folks have already endured for centuries, or the reality that they have built their entire country on literal Indian burial grounds.
Indigenous writers, on the other hand, acknowledge the mundane horror of living in a country that dehumanizes you, weaving the reality of Indigenous life with fiction to scare audiences. In Waubgeshig Rice's Moon of the Crusted Snow, for example, the apocalyptic event that ends life as we know it — taking out power, internet, phones, satellites, etc. — isn't even really noticed as an apocalyptic event at first; it's just another day on a northern rez, where power can go out at any time and internet and phone signals aren't always available. As Nick, a young Anishinaabe man, points out, "We thought it was kinda funny...The blackout was only two days, but it seemed like some people were already freaking out a little bit. I was just like, 'Come to the rez, this shit happens all the time!'" Once it becomes apparent that things have changed forever, the protagonist Evan observes that "the milestones he [now] used to mark time were the deaths in the community…as people perished through sickness, mishap, violence or by their own hands." He notes that northern reserves like his are "familiar with tragedy," the result of generations of intergenerational trauma and genocide — only now this tragedy is magnified.
Similarly, Jeff Barnaby's new movie Blood Quantum takes the real-life horror of Indigenous history and plugs it into a zombie horror film. In Barnaby's film, a zombie virus ravages a non-Indigenous community that borders a reserve; the only thing that saves the Indigenous community from the same fate is their apparent immunity to that virus. The community's decision to take in non-Native survivors, who may turn into zombies and kill their people, is a fraught one for the film's characters. Considering the devastation viruses carried by white settlers have historically wrought on Indigenous communities — the 1862 smallpox epidemic is estimated to have cut the First Nations population in what's now known as British Columbia in half — it's not hard to understand why.
In her bestselling book The Marrow Thieves, Cherie Dimaline used the real history of residential schools to create a terrifying post-apocalyptic world where Indigenous children are hunted and harvested for their bone marrow. Her latest novel, Empire of Wild, similarly uses the Métis tale of the Rogarou to tell a story of religion and resource extraction. The Rogarou was originally a story told to young Indigenous children, particularly girls, to keep them from the roads near the edge of their communities, where white men would pick them up and they'd end up missing or murdered. They scared their children in an attempt to keep them alive.
What more is there to fear when you've already faced governments who have tried for centuries to wipe you out, who have used biological warfare and forced starvation to create apocalypse for your people?- Alicia Elliott
Unlike in a book or movie, these horrors haven't stopped, either. I recently heard Métis-Cree author and scholar Jesse Thistle read from his bestselling book From the Ashes: My Story of Being Metis, Homeless and Finding My Way. Thistle introduced his reading from by bringing up the Rogarou, which he originally heard about from Dimaline. "This passage," he said, "describes my encounter with the Rogarou." He went on to describe being violently and randomly attacked by white strangers —a scenario that countless white women have suffered in countless horror movies. The difference, of course, is that fictitious white women in horror movies are almost always considered innocent by viewers; Indigenous men are not, no matter the circumstances.
In Billy-Ray Belcourt's newest poetry collection, NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field, there is a poem titled "Canadian Horror Story." In it, Belcourt grapples with the deaths of Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie — as well as the injustice of their accused murderer's trials. "It feels unethical to age," Belcourt writes, summoning the survivor's guilt all Indigenous people carry when they outlive friends, relatives, even complete strangers. Then he turns his attention to non-Indigenous Canada: "An entire citizenry is implicated...How does it feel to live in an asylum you built bone by sooty bone?"
Perhaps there will come a time when white Canada will meaningfully grapple with this question, when I won't have to look to horror to find a world where the monsters eventually stop. Until then, Tuck and Ree have put it best: "Haunting is the cost of subjugation. It is the price paid for violence, for genocide...I don't want to haunt you, but I will."