It’s spooky season in the United States. We’re putting on costumes, eating a ton of candy, and voting for the least scary devils on the ballot. Plus, we’re breaking out the spine-tingling tales! Today, we’re going to talk about why White people are the monsters in several notable horror stories of the past few years. It goes back, in part, to a nineteenth century geneticist who thought we could breed humans like dogs.
I’ve been working on an article about satirical horror for the New York Times, and during the course of my “research” I finally watched Midsommar. You know, the indie flick about a group of American grad students studying “pure” White people from an ancestral Nordic culture of the sort fetishized by Nazis? Yeah, that one. So in Midsommar, the aforementioned students go with friends to a remote part of Sweden so they can participate in summer rituals with a small pagan commune. Pretty quickly they discover that the fertility festival they expected actually involves human sacrifice, as well as coercive sperm donation from “outsiders” to prevent the commune from becoming too inbred.
Though the tone of the movie is sombre, it’s also full of trippy, gory freakouts that are occasionally so absurd that I laughed out loud. Partly that’s because of the film’s social context — it came out in 2019, at a time when White nationalists were crawling all over social media, promoting the idea that “Western civilization” is the pinnacle of culture. In Midsommar, however, we see clearly the murderous savagery at the core of this notion of Whiteness.
Good horror stories often pivot around a key revelation: a seemingly nice thing (like a doll) turns out to be Satan; or an inexplicable terror (like a ghost) turns out to originate with a perfectly explainable though traumatizing event. In Midsommar, the revelation is that White people, who have long accused Black and Brown people of savagery, are in fact the real savages.
In this scene from Midsommar, they’re just doing some White people stuff, you know like human sacrifice and runes and red hats.
They’re also obsessed with good breeding; the Midsommar cultists are willing to kill for some good White sperm. And this brings me to an interesting historical point about how storytellers represent White monstrosity. We’ve had a whole crop of fascinating stories over the past few years that explore the horrors of White supremacy — from Get Out to Lovecraft Country. That’s partly due to the rise of Black and Brown filmmakers, and the cultural urgency of Black Lives Matter. But it’s also not new. There are certain tropes about specifically White monsters in fiction that go back at least a century, and one of them is that they are connected to breeding experiments that will produce super-beings.
I blame Francis Galton, the British race scientist who popularized the idea of eugenics in the 1880s. Galton lived at a time when slavery and colonialism had produced generations of mixed race children, often under horrific circumstances. He was against slavery, but believed that Black people were inferior and should be used exclusively for manual labor. In an 1857 letter to the editor in The Times, he suggested “deporting vast numbers of Africans to colonies where they will do us good.”
Galton’s dubious proposition grew out of a racist interpretation of his half-cousin Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution. Galton and his followers — and there were many, especially in the United States — believed that racial groups represented different branches on the evolutionary tree. And so they proposed that eugenics, or the science of good breeding, could be used to keep those branches pure and separate. Basically, eugenics would be one giant breeding experiment, conducted by White men on everyone else. Out of this repulsive idea, which comes from magical thinking rather than scientific truth, an iconic White monster was born.
In the 1932 movie Island of Lost Souls, a White scientist is experimenting with turning animals into people for cheap labor, in an obvious metaphor for eugenics and colonialism.
This White monster wants to breed a pure White race. He wants to do medical experiments on Black bodies. He cuts people up and sews them back together to suit his ideas of what a “better” human should be. He calls himself a geneticist; he claims that evolution justifies his ideas. But by the end of the story, we know he’s worse than a demon, because in his oh-so-rational worldview there is no hell. There are only humans and the things we do to each other.
An interesting twist on the White monster comes in a cluster of stories about a supernatural version of redlining. I’d trace its modern origins back to the incredible 1992 film Candyman (soon to get a reboot), which is about the ghost of a Black man who haunts the Cabrini Green housing projects in Chicago.
But ultimately the White gentrification monster still goes back to Galton and his ilk — remember, Galton proposed “deporting” Africans to the colonies. Redlining, like deportation, is about the power to control Black and Brown bodies — at the geographic level, rather than the genetic.
Oh look — it’s a White lady’s face looming over the Chicago skyline in Candyman. Her power to shape the landscape is about to meet its doom, thanks to a powerful ghost from Black history.
Contemporary tales about urban displacement are sometimes staged as supernatural warfare. N.K. Jemisin’s latest novel, The City We Became, gives us a transdimensional, tentacled adversary who is buying up New York real estate. The new Netflix movie Vampires vs. The Bronx has a title that says it all. Indeed, the chalk-white vampire has long been represented as a gentrifier — even Bram Stoker’s Dracula is about a rich immigrant trying to buy up real estate in London. And The Haunting of Hill House will give you another peep at the fiendish forces at work in the souls of White people who flip real estate.
Truly, we are living in the age of the White monster. It’s been rampaging through our imaginations for centuries, and recently it has come out of the mausoleum to hold us over the fire and remind us that this is all far from over.
Last month I was lucky enough to be on a panel about speculative fiction and progressive politics at the Bay Area Book Festival, with the brilliant authors Aya de Leon, Ishmael Reed, and Shanthi Sekaran. Now you can watch the video of our conversation, and check out all their books!
On the most recent episode of Our Opinions Are Correct, Charlie Jane Anders and I chatted with historian Haris Durrani about whether Dune is an allegory for imperialism — and why author Frank Herbert thought it was a satire of the “chosen one” trope.
And just in case you need to know about necromancers in space (which — obviously), environmental journalist (and my former colleague) Maddie Stone explains it all to you this week in her newsletter, “The Science of Fiction”!