There are two horror films recently released to different streaming platforms that use the familiar structure of the ghost story to tell deeply felt human stories about the lingering aftereffects of trauma on the mind, the body, and the soul. His House on Netflix and La Llorona on Shudder both use their respective haunted houses and the specter of death as larger metaphors for life in the aftermath of unthinkable violence. While the films’ approaches to this subject matter is radically different from another, both films ultimately arrive at the same emotional truth, burdened by matching senses of unfathomable sorrow.
His House and La Llorona at times feel like they are tackling the exact same themes in the exact opposite fashion from one another, each film flipping the other’s perspective and pacing. His House opens in a frenzy of supernatural activity and relentless jumps, only to simmer down in its final stretch and become much more somber and reflective than outright scary. By contrast, La Llorona is structured as a pressure cooker, paced as steadily and patiently as any one of its numerous lengthy oners. Rather than throwing ghouls and nightmares at you right from the start, as His House elects to do, La Llorona lets dread and doubt build and build and build before finally releasing its tension in its breathless, terrifying finale.
And while both films concern themselves with reckonings following in the wake of civil war and genocide, their focus is sharply slip. In Remi Weekes’s His House, we follow the victims. Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) flee the violence of the South Sudan and arrive safely in London as refugees, though they lose a child in the perilous ocean crossing. As Bol strives to assimilate and Rial grieves for what has been lost, their guilts and griefs for what they experienced and what they themselves did manifests in various ghostly assaults against their new home.
But in Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona, the subject of the haunting, and the film, is not the victims but instead the victimizer. Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) is a former military dictator on trial for genocide and war crimes against the native people of Guatemala (a fictionalized version of real-life dictator and war criminal Efraín Ríos Montt). Now an infirm old man teetering on senility, Monteverde’s spacious house is replete with groans and moans and phantom wailings.
Before the film has even begun the staff (comprised of the same native people that Monteverde victimized) are openly aware that they labor inside of a haunted house, even as the general’s family, including daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) and wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), remain oblivious and in denial, respectively, to this truth as they were to Monteverde’s crimes.
Shortly after the general escapes from justice on a technicality, the house becomes surrounded by hordes of angry protestors and all the servants quit, having finally had enough of the fiendish things both supernatural and all-too-real prowling the hallways. A new young maid called Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) turns up, only for her presence to exacerbate not only the friction between family members but also the energies of whatever vengeful thing it is that has targeted the household.
In grappling with this subject matter, both films also engage with questions of complicity and responsibility. Even as victims within a larger tragedy, Bol and Rial are themselves guilty of certain abhorrent actions taken in desperation that only become clear as His House wears on. It’s the knowledge of what they had to do to survive that tears at them more than any ghost, a gnawing cancer that eats away not only at each person but also at the relationship that should be the bond that strengthens, not weakens, both parties.
These questions also plague the characters of La Llorona, specifically the women who live in the orbit of a monster and now have to interrogate their own relationships to that monster. Monteverde’s shattered mind and stony visage betray nothing, leaving his wife in full-throated stubborn denial and his daughter lost as she tries to make sense of the man she thinks she knows and the heinous ‘thing’ that the rest of the world sees him as.
There are no easy answers to inner turmoil like this, and so each film physicalizes the conflict through folklore and legend. The various specters and spooks that set up shop in each film’s respective haunted house force these characters to confront truths and pains that would otherwise never have the chance to be addressed. But by weaving in the supernatural, Weekes and Bustamante afford themselves the ability to literalize emotional and spiritual dilemmas into visceral, physical struggles. The characters may be grappling with boogeymen of various sizes and shapes, but the true soul of the conflict is never in doubt.
And both films make it clear that these monsters must be confronted. Neither His House or La Llorona offer easy answers, preferring instead to leave the audience afloat in melancholy and dread. Wars don’t end, trauma doesn’t heal. Not all the way. An unambiguously happy ending to either story would be a betrayal.
But in distinct but similar ways, both His House and La Llorona offer measures of hope in the face of the terror and tragedy they depict. A war might not end, and trauma might not heal, yet the films argue that individuals can still find degrees of peace and happiness. But these can only be achieved from looking squarely and honestly at your past: what was done to you, what you did, what you knew, what you allowed yourself not to know.
The terror of both His House and La Llorona (and it should be re-affirmed that for all the thematic stuff I’m talking about here, both films are wildly successful as straight horror movies. His House is a rollicking spookablast prior to its more somber second half, and La Llorona is a gorgeous cauldron of inky dread) is ultimately revealed as a healing energy, allowing their characters, and audiences, to face up to those truths that would otherwise be too dark to speak aloud.
Only by facing a ghost can we hope to survive it.