The Horror of Racism

Let’s start with an admission: I am not exactly the target audience for Lovecraft Country, the new supernatural horror show from HBO that debuted two weeks ago. One unfortunate middle-school gathering that involved watching Insidious with a blanket over my head and my hands on my ears left me with an aversion to the horror genre. But the premise intrigued me: Lovecraft Country explores the racism that plagued the United States in the 1950s with as much, if not more, of its horror coming from the racial injustice and violence the protagonists suffer than from the elements of Lovecraftian horror woven into the story. I thoroughly enjoyed HBO’s superhero miniseries Watchmen that similarly examined racism in America’s past through an unexpected genre, so I decided I’d see if Lovecraft Country could succeed on this front as well. With two episodes out right now—and the third airing tomorrow night—thus far it has. 

The show’s lead is one Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a young African-American veteran of the Korean War, who returns home to Chicago to find his estranged father has gone missing. His only clue is a mysterious letter his father sent him encouraging Tic to find him in what the bespectacled veteran initially misreads as “Arkham, Massachusetts,” the fictional setting for much of H.P. Lovecraft’s oeuvre. Tic’s uncle, George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance), reads the letter and corrects his mistake: His father claims he is in a town called Ardham. George writes travel books that guide black Americans through the country by informing them of safe towns, restaurants, and other businesses and warning them of which to avoid. He searches through all his maps and documents he’s accumulated in his work, only to find that Ardham hasn’t been on a map in more than two centuries, a finding that prompts uncle and nephew to set out in search of Ardham with Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), a friend of Tic’s in need of a ride across the country. Along their quest to find Tic’s father, the trio is met with racism and horrific monsters ripped from the pages of Lovecraft’s stories. 

It would be easy for the show’s intended messages about racism to be lost in the spectacle of Lovecraft horror stories. But the Lovecraftian elements allegorically reinforce them. Racism and horror are inextricably linked—in the first episode, Tic, George, and Leti are nearly lynched by the racist sheriff of a sundown county and his deputies. They’re taken out to the woods, only to be attacked by a pack of Shoggoths—a grotesque, bestial Lovecraft creation covered in eyes—that kill all the corrupt officers of the law and turn some of them into fellow monsters while Tic, Leti, and George narrowly escape. 

The parallels are clear: Shoggoths, like the sheriff and his deputies, waited to attack until night and inspire fear not just through violence but because they infect and turn some of those they attack. It is not enough to merely hold Shoggoths or racists at bay, the show reminds us, care must be taken to prevent their numbers from multiplying, an important message at a time when hate crimes are at a 16-year high, internet conspiracies with racist undertones like QAnon are attempting to move mainstream, and racial tensions in America are ever growing. The second episode is about the importance of cultural memory and how complacency with inequality occurs when the horrors that created it are forgotten, with a magic, mind-wiping cult that attempts to exploit Tic in an occult ceremony serving as the metaphorical stand-in for racism. (The second episode completes the first narrative arc of the anthological show, so I won’t give away too much more here so as not to spoil anything terribly important to the plot.)

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  • I haven't watched Lovecraft Country yet. I am not sure I will. People are perfectly bad enough on their own to horrify me, without introducing monsters into the mix. All that the monsters do is reinforce that what I am watching is make believe and undermine the punch of the series as a result.

    1. I watched the first episode. Truly, it's a horror movie. And there is some gore. If that's not your thing, you should pass. The heroes (and even the distasteful characters) do fight back...and although distrustful, both sides realize the true danger is "out there". It's got some true Lovecraftian menace in there and I like that being explored more than the gore. But...there it is. If you enjoy that stuff..well, I was entertained.

      It was a bit more harsh on the nature of racism in the country than you would usually see, but I'm not convinced that a lot of that wasn't going on. The sheriff thought they were burglarizing nearby properties...and truly, that's how some LEOs in the South dealt with some crimes they thought were committed by Blacks. Take 'em out in the woods and kill 'em. Is that really something that is in contention?

      I now can see clearly that the Jim Crow South is the backdrop, not the point, of the show. It was pretty entertaining actually.

      1. Its frustrating for me, because I would be in on the premise (journey to find lost father/unknown town) if it weren't for the monster element. I think there are two types of people at the end of the day, those who enjoy "add monsters" and those who do not. I am in the second group. Somehow, I can suspend my disbelief for the pure make believe of Game of Thrones, but as soon as you throw monsters into a more realistic setting I get bored. No accounting for taste...

  • My main issue with the show is that it takes two issues, racism in the US and Lovecraftian horror, and blends them in a way that's highly misleading. Most of the Lovecraftian stuff is perfectly fine for what it is (there's one very good story involving a mysterious observatory coming up), but too many reviews of the show that I've read seem to posit the 'fake' horror of the supernatural against the 'real' horror of racism in the US in that time period. But the elements of racism that the show includes are hard to take seriously. Even in just the first episode, I'm to believe that racists in a town in the 'midwest' (I believe it was PA in the book) isn't content to just run unwanted blacks out of town, but to actually enter a high-speed chase while firing weapons and risking their own lives to kill a few black people who were already racing out of town? Did these racists have nothing else they intended to do that day, allowing them, if they were successful, to spend all of their time disposing of bodies and a busted-up vehicle?

    Or how about the idea of a sundown county in Massachusetts (in the 1950s, not the 1900s) in which blacks are not just driven out after dark, but in which the sheriff and his deputies literally hunt them down and lynch them as a matter of course? Something like that would be a stretch for the Jim Crow south, much less MA. (In the book, the sheriff's ancestors literally "caught secession fever" and moved south to fight for the confederacy. I couldn't say that something like that *never* happened in MA, but it's still wildly unlikely). And this town is made up of transplants from a town in England that burned a woman as a witch for having sex with the devil, who was in the form of a black man? How many people in small towns in England in the 1700s would have so much as seen a black man? The whole set-up is laughable.

    The gamut of white characters runs from very racist to pathologically, insanely racist, as though white people in the 1950s spent most of their day pondering how very much they hate and want to hurt black people. The fact is that most white people just weren't thinking about black people that much. You don't need to deny the reality of racism in the US's past or present to see that the picture painted of this history is a lot closer to caricature than fact. And if it were clear that that element of the show were as fantastical as the supernatural plotlines, that'd be fine. But there are going to be a lot of viewers who watch the show and nod sagely, thinking, "Indeed... the supernatural isn't nearly as terrifying as true US history." But in fact, both sides of the show are absurd.

  • What gets lost in these reviews when content is overtly political is the Roger Ebert principle - movies (or TV shows) are not what they are about about HOW they are about that. Is the story compelling, the acting solid, the story taught. Sometimes this gets lost. "Get Out" was an incredible move that had twists, turns and a message about racism.

    There are however two interesting points here. Can a nation separated into tribal identities endure? And what does woke saturation look like? Watchmen had a racial storyline but looking at their other recent shows, it is more about leftism that just racism: Curb Your Enthusiam, John Oliver, Bill Maher, Bill Little Lies, Euphoria etc.

  • Todd is an out-and-out CSA flag waving troll who's looking to downplay racism itself. Vlad M. and filmklassik both seem to paint this site, Alec Dent, this article, "Lovecraft Country", and any posters that like any of the above as their enemies and the enemies of this country.

    Those enemies are labeled as woke, America haters. They paint with a broad brush on all they speak of. And assuming they aren't just trolling, they're looking at the world where there is little room for nuance or differences of degree.

    HBO is left leaning. Jordan Peele is left leaning. Slate likes "Lovecraft Country". "Lovecraft Country" shows images of racism from the fifties. All of this is damning evidence that they hate America and are bad guys. And since some on the left are extreme and go too far, then they all are.

    This is the equivalent of shouting "white supremacist" at any conservative. They don't seem to realize that they have more in common with those BLM rioters I bet they despise.

    But then again, they might just be trolls.

  • Awesome review! I've been waiting to start my subscription to HBO Max until a few more things I'm waiting for make it to the service. I can't wait to start watching this.

    Also, Dispatch overlords......can you please put an intern on comment moderation? This is ridiculous. Please don't let this place turn into NRO.

    1. I agree completely about comment moderation. This has been disheartening. I've actually been watching the show, and am enjoying it so far!

  • I'm new to the Dispatch but I was definitely not expecting to find a defense of racism in the comments.

    1. Is what Harvard is doing to Asians racism? If you think racism means discriminating against people based on their race, it is hard to deny that. (although a judge did just that) But, of course, we try to redefine whatever we think is OK as somehow not "racism." The judge would never say ok I support racism but for those arguing for the Asians that is exactly what she did. The thing is the facts really weren't that much in dispute.

      That is part of the question the person asked. That is why I proposed a definition of racism based on believing people are inferior based on race. That is the sort of racism I think most everyone can agree is wrong. But I point out I get my view that it is wrong from my christian religion. I hope others can develop their own foundation for supporting it is wrong but I can't speak to how that would be done.

      But there are other views on what racism is. It does seem like certain people on the left do think it is ok to treat people differently for no other reason than their race. They are quite explicit about it. Sometimes they say it is ok to do that if those you are treating more negatively have power or something. I am not sure how that helps Asians in America but whatever.

      Then we have "institutional racism". It is very hard to know what that means. David French offered a definition that read like scrambled eggs. Institutional racism is sometimes described as something that exists despite people not being culpable. So if people are not culpable for it does that mean it is not immoral? Maybe you can explain.

      I think there are many good discussions to be had about racism including what it is and then depending on how we define it, whether it is morally wrong.

    2. Nobody is defending racism but I guess you are functionally illiterate and do now understand the comments you've read.

      1. this is a quote from the comments: "Is it even a bad thing? I don't really think so."
        Good day to you, sir.

        1. A single comment is hardly what I'd call "a defense of racism in the comments". There was no "defense of racism" - you've only found a single comment which mused over what racism is and what danger it presents to society. I missed that part of the comment and its not a discussion I am interested in.

          That being said, I don't lose sleep over A comment left at a article, regardless if I agree with it or not. I'm more bothered by the acceptable racism, the kind espoused by the betters in politics, media, universities and NGOs. The kind of racism masquerading itself as anti-racism. Some of the most racist people around are in the anti-racist camp. Instead of being criticised for it, they're being applauded for their work.

          1. Well that is gonna have to be called out. You tell me how people in the black lives matter movement or those that want police reformed because of racism, are racist?

            That is the silliest thing I ever heard of of.

          2. You're making an apology for a poster that has a Confederate States of America bio pic.

      2. Todd has most certainly been defending racism. You've been attacking a critic of racism.

        1. Well, to be fair there is only one post where he explicitly defends racism, when he basically channels Steve King when he rhetorically asks, "Is it even a bad thing?", but then goes one step further by actually answering in the negative.

          But to reassure Antebellum Whig, this is the first time I have actually seen anyone doing this. I believe there was a prior episode of someone posting even more blatantly racist content, enough for TD staff to take the rare step of deleting it and warning the poster that if it happened again, a ban (and refund) would follow. But I didn't see the post before it was deleted.

    3. If it's any consolation, the chief instigator literally joined over the weekend and *is* new to The Dispatch. If this is the first thing they have to contribute, then their character is clearly laid bare. At best, they clearly did not understand that to which they subscribed. At worst, they're trolls coming out of the woodwork in the closing months of the election.

    4. Three commenters who have never commented before suddenly appeared and all of them had the same opinion. I have to believe, however, that they are not part of the GRU or the Trump campaign.

    5. I’m not new to the dispatch, but I wasn’t expecting to find that either.

  • I’m shocked by the vitriol at both this show and the review. There isn’t enough of the show out to have such strong feelings and any show in the 50’s with Black characters will have plenty of racism.

    In any case I will check it out though I generally like lighter fair. But I’ve heard good things from multiple sources.

  • People, people! It's just a TV review! Zomg.....It's ok! There are bigger culture war things to fry!

    Man, normally Alec Dent's fact checks don't even get 20 comments! (O_o)

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