The Politics of Horror in a Totalitarian Regime
By Sohini Saha
The genre of horror, in depicting a relation between the human world and the supernatural or the non-human world of spirits, has always been political. Yet the horror films have rarely been seen through a political lens. In the Indian film industry, the central figure has mainly been given to a woman, who becomes the site of horror and possession. Women’s bodies are considered as the site of penetration by the external forces in the form of spirits, and thereby a corporeal experience of horror has remained attached to the female body. However, the Netflix series Ghoul, directed by Patrick Graham and released on 24th August 2018, I would argue, offers us a new window to rethink the representation of horror in Indian films. Ghoul sets the stage for a new way of imagining horror- firstly, in its depiction of horror outside of the women’s body, and secondly, by giving it a political turn.
The series Ghoul is set in a “near future”, in a totalitarian world. The opening sequence gives us a picture of this future where “sectarian violence” is on rise and detention centers are common. The walls of the city depict messages that urge people to be vigilant as anyone among them can be an anti-government or anti-national suspect, to be detained and interrogated by the government. We also find symbols of protest written over these messages in a way of negating them. One such symbol of protest we are shown in the detention centre, represents the image or symbol that is used in the act of summoning the Ghoul, a demonic jinni. Under such a condition we come across a father and a daughter. The father’s character is described as an ‘intellectual’ figure, accused of being an ‘anti-national’ suspect for the possession of “seditious” books and lecture notes that are outside the governmental curriculum. The daughter, Nida Rahim, is a new military recruit who keeps faith in the government and sees her father in turn as a danger to the country. Nida has internalized the instructions and messages she has received in her training. Nida is distinct from her father in that she believes in the government and is loyal towards her country, although the proof of her loyalty is demanded time and again because of her religious identity. She even goes to the extent of aiding the government in arresting her father to show her absolute loyalty. However, her views start to change when she confronts the Ghoul, a demonic jinni, who appears in the physical form of a terrorist in a detention center where she is called upon to assist an interrogation.
Ghoul, in the Arabian mythology as well as in Islam (Al-Rawi, 2019), is perceived as a demonic jinni who is believed to emerge from smokeless fire when it is summoned by anyone who draws a symbol associated with Ghoul with their own blood. Unlike spirits, Ghouls are distinct in that they are summoned for a purpose. They come with a purpose, a task. In Islamic and Arabic mythology, jinns are non-human spirits. While most stories on paranormal focus on human spirits (who were human at some point of time and have died to become evil spirits), here we confront a completely non-human spirit or jinn who never had a human existence. Ghoul’s non-humanness is reflected in how it mediates through the bodies of people not through possession like spirits do but through actively taking their form. It is believed that Ghoul specifically feeds on humans and is said to take on the form of those whom it has eaten/killed last. Thus, we never confront the Ghoul in itself but always in the human form of its last victim. In Arabian stories, Ghoul is conceived as “deceitful” and “wicked”, who can change its form and deceive people (Al-rawi,2019: 46). Al-Rawi discusses that the fear and mystery behind the figure of ghoul is due to the fact that there is no surety in what its features are like. Ghoul is seen as a “kind of devil, genie, enchantress of genies, devilish genie, and spirit” (Al-Rawi, 2019: 58). Ghoul does not reveal itself or in other words, Ghoul does not have an essence in itself but always emerges in relation to the people it consumes. We confront the ghoul every time it consumes the victim (inmates) and becomes the consumed.
Generally, there is a tendency to reduce formless supernatural beings into psychological and symbolic meaning. For instance, the image of the ghoul, as is depicted in the series, can be perceived as a symbolic representation of one’s guilt. While this might be one way of perceiving the figure of Ghoul, I argue for its non-humanness that is embodied through its victims. Rather than negating the supernatural as psychological or symbolic, I would retain the Ghoul as the demonic jinn belonging to the world of non-humans. It is this interaction between the human and non-human world that situates the politics of horror.
Horror films have historically focused on the possession of the human body by evil spirits, where corporeal possession becomes central. Here, possession takes on a different form altogether. Ghoul does not possess the body but instead possesses the human mind and creates an illusion of the people whose form it takes on. For example, while the military forces inside the camp are overjoyed by seeing the trapped prisoner as coming under their power, it is later revealed that it was itself a trap for the forces. The ghoul, disguised as the prisoner, creates an illusion of its helplessness, thereby letting the state forces establish their power over him only to overturn it during the interrogation. This is also done, not through violence or intimidation, but through simply revealing one’s deepest secrets or arousing one’s guilt. The secrets are mostly dealing with one’s guilt of committing wrong or evil deeds which come to confront them. This happens through the way the ghoul plays with their minds. The narration in the series tells us that ghoul enters into one’s mind through nightmares and then slowly becomes part of one’s group before it begins controlling and tormenting the concerned. For example, for a long time, the people in the detention camp does not realize that the terrorist being interrogated is not the person concerned but instead an imposter, a ghoul. The ghoul takes over the mind of these people, making them question their own sanity. For example, the scene in which Colonel Dacunha comes to interrogate him but the ghoul simply repeats a personal conversation between Dacunha and his wife revealing the way Dacunha has abused his wife. This completely baffles Dacunha who loses his mind for the moment and gets violent. In the same manner, the initial two interrogators engage into a violent clash with one another when the ghoul reveals their hidden secret of killing an inmate’s child to extract information from the inmate. It results in the death of one of the interrogators leaving the other baffled at his own violence.
Historically, ghosts and spirits have been mostly portrayed as the evil non-human force that impinges upon victims and takes away their freedom by possessing them. Ghoul here represents the opposite. In the series, the ghoul in turn represents a supernatural power that is summoned to help fight the totalitarian regime, a regime where anyone becomes an anti-government suspect by disagreeing with the government. In such a world the only way out or towards freedom is shown through the summoning of a ghoul, done by none other than Nida’s father. Yet the way the ghoul spreads terror is also unique, revealing another side to the figure of ghoul. Ghoul’s terror is distinct in the way that it seeks to do justice. Although the Ghoul appears sinister, its evilness is actually a mirror to our own evil deeds. The series reveals how the purpose of the ghoul is not to practice evil deeds but to make the sinners of evil/wrong deeds realize their own guilt. By revealing the evil deeds people have committed and making them realize their own guilt, ghoul kills them with their own thoughts, fear, anxiety and guilt. The Ghoul’s eating of the flesh of the sinner, after making them realize their guilt, can be symbolically understood as the guilt that eats us from within, that consumes us. Ghoul then uses our own guilt against us. For example, whether it’s Nida Rahim’s guilt of arresting her father, or the two interrogators who killed an innocent prisoner’s wife and children or whether it’s Colonel Dacunha’s guilt of physically abusing his wife. The ghoul brings out their guilt, and one by one takes people down, except for one prisoner who is believed to be an innocent tea seller mistakenly lifted by the military forces. The innocent prisoner remains unharmed because he has not committed any evil deed like the rest in the detention center. This once again shows how the ghoul has only come to take down those who are sinful.
This series, I argue, does not merely show horror, but one that makes us rethink horror in the first place. While the horror associated with the ghoul will frighten the audiences, the activities that go inside the center are no less horrifying. We also come to know how this detention center not only interrogates anti-government/national suspects but also executes them, irrespective of their innocence, including Nida’s father. From torture to execution, the horrors we confront in the detention center makes us question who is a sinner? The dying interrogator also narrates something similar when he says, “we are all sinners here” which includes them as well as those convicted inmates. The distinction between good and evil fades, as we confront terrible deeds inside the camp which is in turn revealed to us through the ghoul. When one of the innocent inmates cries holding his baby’s blood-stained clothes, we are bound to ask ourselves what is more frightening- the ghoul which is killing these people or the interrogators who killed the baby in order to extract information from the inmate? The grim reality also strikes us at the end when Nida Rahim confronts Colonel Dacunha and fails to understand if he is really him or the ghoul. Since Dacunha was the last person to come out alive from the detention center, the question arises whether he has survived or was consumed by the ghoul, which has now taken his form. However, when he claims he is not the monster (ghoul) but instead a celebrated war hero and speaks of himself in pride, Nida shoots him. This last scene makes it clear how the film makes an effort to question who the real ghoul/monster is, the state forces like Dacunha who have killed innocents including Nida’s father or the ghoul? The flipping or overturning of who the monster is and how we understand horror comes to be the central question and theme of the series.
The series ends with Nida Rahim being taken as a prisoner after failing to prove her innocence. The ending is distinct as it not only shows a failure to fight back against a totalitarian regime that is almost suffocating, but also one which ends with a hope in something beyond human. We confront Nida, who ultimately summons the ghoul similar to her father. The story takes us towards an end that is unexpected, an end which overturns the meaning of horror we generally keep. Instead of usually bringing an end to any form of demon or evil spirit, the series ends with the summoning of horror in the form of ghoul. The politics of this act of summoning the ghoul itself, reveals that what is horrific indeed is perhaps not the ghoul but the regime. In this totalitarian regime, the only way out seems to take a different pathway altogether, not through human interventions but rather through the non-human. The importance given to the non-human entity, the ghoul, thereby reflects a place where human intervention ends, and an acknowledgement for what lies beyond humans, is called for.
Al-Rawi, A. (2009). ‘The Mythical Ghoul in Arabic Culture’. Cultural Analysis 8. 45-69
Graham, P. (2018). Ghoul [Web Series]. Netflix. https://www.netflix.com/in/title/80245450
Sohini Saha is a PhD Scholar at the Department of Sociology, Jadavpur University. She also teaches in the Department of Sociology, Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri College and Jadavpur University.
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