How many horror stories out there revolve around the setting being built upon an “ancient Indian burial ground” or some other sacred First Nations site?
Quite a few. It’s that much of a trope these days that it’s become a joke, with even shows like American Dad and Family Guy relying on it to fuel an episode.
Back in 2015, Until Dawn took the gaming world by storm when it combined that typical “survive the night” teenage horror with the First Nations myth of the wendigo, and this year the wendigo has reappeared on our screens in the recent adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. It was even a recurring motif in Hannibal, one of my favourite shows, which ran from 2013-2015.
Do you know what they’re all missing? A First Nations character.
Sadly the First Nations people of North America have long been erased from history and fiction both, or their stories changed to put white people at the centre of them. Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) turned Pocahontas’s meeting with John Smith into a romance (uncomfortable considering the real Pocahontas was only around 12/13 when John Smith supposedly met her). I can still remember telling a classmate that Pocahontas was real during a history lesson, when we were around 16, and his disbelief at discovering it wasn’t merely a Disney story.
When Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was released J.K. Rowling annoyed a hell of a lot of people when she released her version of the history of magic in North America and revealed that America’s wizarding school (because apparently a country that freaking big only has one???) was set up by white settlers. Because sure, it’s not like First Nations history isn’t as full of magic as European history is.
(Also don’t even get me started on how they’re using women being burned at the stake to illustrate the history of witch hunts in North America – witches were NOT burned in North America, England or Wales, they were hanged.)
Let’s not forget (as much as we might want to) films such as The Lone Ranger (2013) and Pan (2015) in which Johnny Depp and Rooney Mara were cast as the whitest First Nations characters I’ve ever seen. Seriously, whoever did the casting for those movies needs a good talking to.
When it comes to horror in particular, writers and directors and creators of all kinds seem to want to use First Nations mythology and culture without actually integrating it into their stories with any nuance or letting First Nations people participate in their own stories. 99% of horror basically follows the plotline of “stupid white people do dumb shit and are somehow surprised by the consequences”, and it’s boring. Not because white people are portrayed as stupid – let’s face it, a lot of us are – but because there’s so much opportunity to do more than just take a mythological creature and turn it into something for shock value.
Not every horror story needs to be a thought-provoking glimpse into the darker side of society, but when did it become so basic?
I recently went to see Us, Jordan Peele’s latest film, and adored it, but I also realised while watching it that I’d never before watched a horror film centred around a black family. Granted I don’t actually watch that many horror films – I’m far too much of a wuss for that – but it means I want the ones I do watch to be good.
And friends, Pet Sematary was not a good movie.
It did some things with disability that I was not a fan of and, despite the family we follow being white a black guy was still the first person to die in this film. No joke.
What disappointed me most, though, and what disappointed me about Until Dawn, was the complete lack of First Nations characters in stories that relied so heavily on First Nations mythology.
We can’t even argue that Pet Sematary is trying to ‘punish’ this white family for inhabiting land that once belonged to these First Nations people, because the story makes it clear that these people left this particular area willingly and LEFT WARNINGS ALL OVER THE TREES about not messing with the land and the creature that inhabits it.
In Until Dawn we meet a man who hunts wendigo who is also a white dude.
Why? It makes so much more sense to me for that character to have been a First Nations character, because surely a First Nations character would know better than anyone how to hunt a creature like a wendigo.
Now Until Dawn is still a lot of fun and there are certainly hints that the family who own the house in that game have some First Nations ancestry, but then so, apparently, does Johnny Depp – that doesn’t mean he should have been cast in The Lone Ranger.
Enter Trail of Lightning.
Trail of Lightning is marketed as an urban fantasy novel and it is an urban fantasy novel as well as a post-apocalyptic novel and, to me, a horror novel. The folklore in this book and the creatures from First Nations mythology in this post-apocalyptic North America are dark. This is not an urban fantasy novel with sexy vampires or up-to-no-good faeries, this is an urban fantasy novel with creatures so bloodthirsty you’ll want a transfusion just reading about them. It’s a creepy book.
It’s also a book written by an own voices author who has put a First Nations woman, a monster hunter no less, right at the centre of this story. This isn’t a story that uses this mythology as an ill-researched afterthought, a lightbulb moment of ‘Hey! First Nations people have scary stories I can use with zero thought for cultural sensitivity!’, this is a story that gives that mythology back to the people who understand it best. This is a story that lets First Nations people literally fight their own demons, instead of introducing them as a tragic side character for white readers to feel good about themselves over when they empathise with them.
This is a series that has me genuinely excited about the use of First Nations mythology within the horror genre, because I know it’s in the hands of an author who understands the need to fill that silence of generations of First Nations people better than I ever could.
I’m so excited to read Storm of Locusts, the second book in this series that was released just last month, and I can’t wait to see how this series grows.
And I really, really hope that one day Rebecca Roanhorse gives us all the wendigo story that that mythology actually deserves.