Strange Country

His House (2020)

His House | Netflix
Netflix

In the beginning scenes of His House, a Black man walks into a department store. In the periphery, a white security guard clocks him and follows. Trekking down a sidewalk, a Black woman is closely followed, too, by a white teen. He calls, but when she turns to answer, he dashes away. 

She continues through labyrinthine concrete walls—turning one corner, the next, another wall, a white boy kicking a ball, a dead end with no end in sight. Looking out her window, a white woman stares down at the Black man as she strokes a cat. The Black man looks up at her, smiles, waves hesitantly. She continues stroking the cat, face still as a portrait.

Later, reversed—peering out their own window—the Black man and Black woman both watch an old white woman in a turquoise coat shuffling over the cement. They pretend she is the Queen of England, and the Black man laughs. What a strange country.

*

Late October my social media was filled with people making travel plans, checking passports, inquiring about the infrastructures of Canada or Europe, doing the grim work of deciding which country they would flee to if Biden lost and Trump was re-elected. Mercifully, it was all for naught. By November 7, Biden had won and their plans, hastily drawn, feverishly declared (as if seriously considered), were tossed aside and forgotten, everyone heralding the return to a country of civility, common sense, and “kindness.”

I’m pleased with the results too, but still feel uneasy—it has been a long four years, and one positive step forward does not easily erase pronounced divisions and pundits still preaching misinformation. I’m still left with bitter scars both public—the fact that we are still in a national pandemic and experiencing environmental collapse that does not seem to be a prime concern to the government—and personal—the number of immigrants who voted for Trump, including my two Nigerian parents, despite the president famously calling their home country a “shithole.”

This country despises immigrants (regardless of what Hamilton might tell you), each year only serving to prove this more and more. Discussing my parent’s conservatism often led to arguments between us, creating distance and making us find new ways of dealing with each other. I knew what they thought: I was being selfish and ungrateful. I didn’t know how good I had it. But if I am ungrateful, I can’t help it—I’m American.

I watched Kyle Rittenhouse get out on bail, receiving millions in donations from around the country. I watched one of Breonna Taylor’s three killers sue her boyfriend for emotional distress. I watched Trump pledge to label the KKK a terrorist group (an already empty gesture made emptier as it included the labeling of Black Lives Matter as one, too)—but only if he was re-elected. I think about what a joke everything is. 

During the George Floyd protests, my sister described racism as a bad smell in a house, emanating from a room occupied by Black people while white people occupied another. We would try to tell the white people about the smell, but they either didn’t think the smell was that bad, or worse, thought it was just a “phantom smell”—one that lingers but has no clear source or explanation. It wasn’t until they stepped into the room that they could actually smell it. “Jesus,” they would say. “That’s so bad. Why didn’t you tell us that it was this bad?”

Phantom smells are often described as hallucinatory, but these days I get stuck on the “phantom” part, thinking about how much of this country’s dark history feels almost spectral, haunting, an essence that remains. To ponder America is to wonder why there are those who think a country filled with so much death and misery could not, even on a tiny level, end up haunted. 

*

In Netflix’s His House, a Sudanese couple is being haunted by an apparition—a Night Witch also known as an Apeth, Rial tells her husband, Bol. In her tale, a thief—a poor man from her village—built his home after stealing from an Apeth who lived on the river. The Apeth moved in with him and terrorized him as punishment for his crime.

Rial’s story reminds me of another—a country’s theft, a people who remain, displaced. A haunting as a living manifestation of their crime. It’s a very British horror movie, Esquire says about the film in an interview with the writer/director Remi Weekes. It’s a very American one as well.

Arriving in the U.K. and gifted a large house, Bol and Rial are shocked and humbled by their good fortune. Their escape from war-torn Sudan had been harrowing, regrettably resulting in the deaths of their daughter and other passengers during a storm over the Mediterranean. Bol and Rial understand that their luck comes on the tails of others’ disaster, and they should treat the house—all theirs—as the welcome honor that it is. 

But the titular house in His House, Weekes’ horror debut, is distressing long before anything frightening actually happens. The yard overflows with stained furniture, detritus. Inside: maggots and roaches squirm in old fast-food pizza boxes, gutted walls present exposed electrical wires. Bol, while not exactly pleased about these nuisances, seems more than prepared to tackle them, unaware that a stranger pest hides inside the house’s marred walls. Bol and Rial experience mysterious happenings: staccato footsteps—soft and quick, then sudden and deafening. Shuddering floorboards, dust sprinkling from the ceiling. Rooms bathed in sudden darkness. Unseen voices whispering, shouting. 

Living in the house will push Bol to his extremes, sending him after the unseen spirit with a hammer, going after the fleshless eyes which peer at him through the plaster gaps, stripping off faded wallpaper, the pale brown speckled, like a map.

*

In the stories of our parents, we typically imagine ourselves as the main character—their lives non-existent before having us. I feel guilty when I realize how infrequently I consider my parents’ experience as new immigrants to the United States, young adults optimistic and scared, hoping to start a family. To learn completely new ways of living, of eating, new forms of entertainment, new landmarks. I wonder what they must have felt when they received their first unfriendly look in this country. 

It’s a privilege to be here—my parents have imprinted that in me often enough that I know it to be true. Out of their families, my parents had been the ones to come and succeed. They were the ones responsible for sending money back home. They were the ones responsible for making it as best as they could in this new American landscape. 

When they came to America, America had barely shuddered through free love towards the free market. My parents lived through the Cold War, the Challenger explosion, the Central Park Five trials. They moved to California before I was born and worked hard: my father went to college for fashion design, and my mother studied nursing. To this day, they believe in America. Despite their successes, I don’t know if I still do.

*

Of the pair, Bol is better at assimilating, or at least more willing to. Using an advertisement of a white man in a gray polo as a model, Bol buys new clothes. He eats happily with a fork, reproving Rial for still eating with her hands. He sings songs about football players he doesn’t know at a bar with a group of his newfound countrymen. He wants to be “one of the good ones,” to show them that he belongs.

Rial is resistant to all of this, existing in the country like someone wearing ill-fitting clothes. Unwilling, mostly, because the notion that assimilation means the total disposal of her own culture feels insulting. Why should she change when others could just be more accepting? 

His House | Netflix

I expect my parents would relate to Bol and his dogged Americanism, his need to make it all work because it just has to. After all the things they’ve gone through and experienced, it can’t all mean nothing. It all needs to matter.

It’s strange to still feel like I’m struggling to assimilate to a country I was born into. It’s strange to have spent my entire life trying to be “one of the good ones,” aware of what I should be representing—good American values and loyalty—and understanding that people are looking for any form of weakness. 

“I feel like in many places in the West you’re pulled in two very different directions,” Weekes says in Esquire. “There’s part of you that really wants to assimilate and fit in…another part of you that feels very suspicious that the place doesn’t particularly feel welcoming to you.” The tension I feel comes out of this awareness. The understanding that you are expected to respect a country that you know at its core does not respect you. To want to belong to a place that has never actually learned to live with you. 

My parent’s road into this country was not easy, but my trauma is different from theirs. They accept America because it presents opportunities they did not have access to in Nigeria. But over the years I’ve observed much of the grand promise of equitable opportunities is anything but; caveats and subtle (or overt) discrimination remain well and active behind the attractive guise that we are all created equal. 

In the beginning, it’s a love affair born of our innocence—pressed against your youth, America is older, more experienced, with a history presented to you at face value. You move in together and discover tendencies incompatible with your own: toothpaste cap left off, systemic racism, dishes left in the sink for days, sex and gender discrimination.

Some people don’t realize they’re in a toxic relationship. Others seem fine pretending it’s still the relationship they remember. Some look for a way out, only to realize there is no way out, there is no better home. This is the home you live in now.

“Why don’t you just leave?” People gleefully spout to the critics who speak about problems with the country. I truly wish it were that simple. But that’s not how you get rid of ghosts. You could attempt exorcism, getting rid of them by force, or you could reconcile yourself with them—and understand why those ghosts are there in the first place.

*

In His House, the spirit which terrorizes the couple cannot hurt them (cannot even really lay a hand on them, as Bol confidently discovers), but that does not make what it can do less insidious. The spirit haunts. It inhabits space the same way a thought might take up residence in the mind. Worry, fears—in His House, these are ghosts. There and not there. False and yet very real. 

In Paul Harding’s Tinkers, a novel about an old man hallucinating as he dies in the house that he built, Harding writes about the nature of haunting in a space:  

Houses can be ghosts, too, just like people…rushing toward their being unmade and perhaps made again. Everything is made to perish; the wonder of anything at all is that it has not already done so. No, he thought. The wonder of anything is that it was made in the first place. What persists beyond this cataclysm of making and unmaking?  

The story of His House, the story on which Bol and Rial’s life is built, is one of possibilities. The people they could have been, the people they still could be. Refugees standing with one foot firmly planted in two worlds: “possibility” being a thing both unmade and made. Each moment given or taken. Received or stolen. 

His House | Netflix

Before learning of the theft which set the Apeth upon the couple, we find ourselves lost inside one of these moments: Rial inexplicably back in Sudan, reuniting with her country folk. At first, the scene feels joyous, a choiring of hugs and laughter. Then the moment cinders—chars and tenders, becomes heat which, in equal measure, warns as it warms. “I know what you are,” Rial says. This is just a dream. A false memory. When she comes out into the true one, Bol finds her, and the people she had greeted are dead, their bodies strewn about the classroom. 

Not long after, we learn of the nature of the couple’s crime. Attempting passage on a bus only accepting children, Bol, in a moment of desperation, grabbed a random girl. Nyagak, we learn, was another woman’s daughter, stolen in order to be able to board the bus and escape. A daughter they got killed during their journey, a daughter who might never have died had they not taken her. The possibility of her life (and the lives of the others lost on their journey) is what the couple has been squaring away with for the entirety of the film. What they have been trying to reconcile.

The life which Rial and Bol had made together in Sudan was unmade by war, made again with the possibility of survival Nyagak allowed them, then quickly unmade again by her death. Made again by the possibility of a good life in this new land; unmade by the shadowing of a spirit who had not forgotten, not forgiven. 

What else exists beyond this cataclysm? What else persists?

*

Visiting my friends after being home for a while, I would often hear I carried a particular scent, something heady and curried, which let them know I’ve been away. I used to feel awkward when they pointed it out. Now, I don’t know why. There’s a particular smell to every house, absorbed into its dust, its wooden bones. 

After enough time, you don’t even notice the smell. The house becomes so familiar that you hardly notice how the trauma you inflict on that space remains—where the furniture nicked the walls, where paint has cracked and peeled. Stains on the carpet. Pinpricks in the plaster from movie posters and maps and album covers. You can leave these places, but the evidence of you remains. The walls repainted. The nicks refilled. The blackened moths pulled from the lightbulbs. Each mark evidence of the past: each room like a time machine.

In His House, every visual horror remains evidence of Bol and Rial’s trauma—decomposing faces peering through holes in the walls, the living room becoming a roiling sea, an electrical wire becoming rope, then becoming coiled seaweed—a doll tied to the other end, suddenly and violently pulled back by a hand emerging from the inky darkness. “Your life is not yours,” the Night Witch mutters accusingly from the dark. “You stole it.” Their trauma questioning them: Should they have survived instead of someone else? Are they standing in someone else’s place? 

In the end, though the Night Witch leaves them, Bol and Rial’s ghosts still linger—the immigrants still cluttering their hallway, the ways in which Bol and Rial will have to live up to all those dreams unfulfilled. But they have changed. The couple once standing worriedly and expectantly at the house’s center have been altered: they have learned to live with the past. “Your ghosts follow you,” Bol says. “They never leave. They live with you. It’s when I let them in, I could start to face myself.”

I wish fixing trauma in a person was as pleasurable or visually gratifying as fixing trauma in a house. These days, I find myself lost in videos of house restorations, as if the paint spackled on the walls, the wood sanded and sanded until it blushes red, the floor waxed until it gleams like freshly lit brown glass, all serve as proxies for myself. 

In my dreams, my traumas are painted a different hue, a brush runs color smooth against my dappled surface. Wires re-threaded through my walls. My pipes humming in the night. My door gaps measured in fingertips. But I’m outside now, standing on the lawn, smelling the spice of freshly cut grass, listening to the crickets, listening to midnight trains, listening to shoes knock together from telephone wires. Craning my neck. Thinking, what a strange country.