Panel 5: The Ghosts of Capitalism: Neoliberalism and the State


Isolated Families and Spectral Surveillance in Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018)
Caitlin Duffy (Stony Brook University)

Near the end of Ari Aster’s 2018 film Hereditary, Peter Graham (Alex Wolff) attends an American history class where the teacher discusses the “many ups and downs, economically speaking,” which the country has faced, including the Great Depression. The teacher shares that the federal government responded to the economic hardships of 1929 by creating programs to support the public, which it “still has” in place. Aster’s choice to include this classroom discussion of American economic catastrophes and twentieth century public support systems might be read as a hint to audiences to view this film through an economic context. Our understanding of the American haunted house film genre is largely based on twentieth century films such as The Exorcist (1973), The Amityville Horror (1979), The Shining (1980), and Poltergeist (1982), all of which were created prior to the nation’s dismantling of social and economic support programs. In these twentieth-century films, families faced with paranormal attacks and invasions receive help from the outside. Recent haunted house films like Hereditary, however, exist within the brutal and unforgiving neoliberalism of twenty-first-century America. Because they were created and produced following this dramatic shift in America’s dominant rationality, the twenty-first century horror film captures the specific anxieties and rationalities spawned by neoliberalism. This presentation is primarily interested in the twenty-first century haunted house film’s representation of family values and surveillance symptomatic of existence within the neoliberal era. Three haunted house motifs in particular, including the fractured family, the maternal clairvoyant, and spectral surveillance, are remodeled from their earlier twentieth century forms and serve vital roles in the way that twenty-first century haunted house films approach neoliberal subjectivity. Ari Aster’s 2018 film Hereditary uses these motifs to explore such issues as the gendered dynamics of late capitalism and the anxieties surrounding the middle-class nuclear family as it exists under neoliberal networks of thinking and living. Through a close reading of Hereditary, this presentation demonstrates twenty-first century neoliberalism’s tremendous impact on the American haunted house tradition.


The Grip of It – Women and the Capitalist Invasion of Their Bodies
Conner McAleese (University of Dundee)

The home holds a unique position in the history of feminism. It is the sentimental enclave that was prescribed to them until WW1 exclusively, and continued to be thrust upon them (arguably still today). In horror, the home is a staple that conjures images of ghosts in the attic and invasions from maniacs outside. This presentation submits a new reading of the haunted house, one done through the female gaze and based on a close reading of Jac Jemc’s novel, The Grip of It (Titan Books, 2019). Jemc is a renowned European writer and academic who currently teaches at UC San Diego and her insight into femininity in the home throughout The Grip of It is based on the bond between Julie and her best friend and the complex narrative between Julie and her husband James. The economic interests of her husband drive her into a home that slowly and violently begins to mutilate her body from bruises on her skin to damage of her cervix. This presentation will take those economic concerns and present them in a way that shows how the horror of the home is powered through her need to deal with the consequences of her husband’s mistakes. The violence against Julie’s body is symptomatic of a society in which the female form is continually offered by both sides of modern capitalist politics as a feature for discussion – often by men. The role of the ‘woman’ in modern society is continually changing with prominent social media movements such as #MeToo being one of the most significant in directly reforming the language and attitudes used to describe a woman’s body. This evolution in respect is met at both sides with a hostility that presses the role of the female in “victim” or “survivor.” These tropes are show continually in horror media through a feminine passivity in its characters or a triumphant “final girl.” This is one of the reasons that horror has become a genre that “has moved from taking pleasure in victimising women to focus on men as survivors and protagonists” (Este). I propose to show how the home is utilised as a capitalist mooring in modern horror and a gothic cage for women regardless of era and specifically how The Grip of It manifests this phenomenon in relation to Julie’s body. This will extend to other institutions such as marriage, while also dealing with the idea of being “doubly feminine” and operating in a socially acceptable way, despite the misgivings in her home, in order to be taken seriously.


The Living Dead: Haunting Incarceration and Zombified Slavery in Sing, Unburied, Sing
Amy LeBlanc (University of Calgary)

Mumia Abu-Jamal’s essay “Teetering on the Brink: Between Death and Life” describes the “razor’s edge between half-life and certain death” that he and other inmates experience on death row awaiting execution (994). At the time of the article’s publication, the death penalty was in place in thirty-four states; today it is in place in twenty-five. Similarly, Caleb Smith describes the convict as an animate corpse in the wake of civil death, “the status of a living person divested of all civil rights,” which means prisoners experience virtual death as part of their incarceration (244). My presentation will focus on Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 novel Sing, Unburied, Sing to investigate the intersections of incarceration and ghostliness; I ask how do prisoners who are already ‘undead’ remain and haunt the living after their literal deaths? Are their virtual deaths as inmates simply an inevitable extension of an undead system? It can be argued that the prison is a new form of slavery as “such forms outlive their efficacy, their structures ossify, undergoing this endless recycling of cultural zombifiction” (Anderson et al. 6). My paper will seek to make meaning of ghosts and hauntings in the Southern Gothic, which in this case is perhaps more aptly named the “carceral gothic,” to show that the family house is only one of many potential sites of haunting in American literature (Smith 245). The prison as a site of haunting can provide alternate spatial dimensions to our readings of Gothic literature, which will push us beyond the ‘home’ as the metaphor to the nation and into the carceral where participation is involuntary and hauntings can occur before death.


If you have ghosts: Haunting Neoliberal Real Estate in Paranormal Reality Series
Karen E Macfarlane (Mount Saint Vincent University)

In American Horror Story: Murder House, the first season of the long-running television series, Constance Langdon notes that “we all live in somebody else’s history.” Stories of haunted house have historically been read as being about just that: about the uncanniness of living in a place that already has its own, often secret history. Haunted house narratives are traditionally structured around “persistent themes of loss, memory, retribution and confrontation with unacknowledged and unresolved histories”(Curtis). In contemporary television and web series that focus on discovering and resolving hauntings, though, the house is not a backdrop against which the horrors and anxieties of a culture are played out. It is, rather, the position of the house itself and the haunted relationship to the concept of ownership that is at the centre of contemporary ghost hunting series.The representations of this relation, I will argue here, embody a gothic unease about claims to ownership that are the part of the aftershocks of the crash of the mortgage market in 2008. In light of the spiralling number of foreclosures and forced sales in the U.S. since the crash, driven largely (if not exclusively) by neoliberal policies of privatization and deregulation, home ownership can be understood to be less about the ideals of stability and upward mobility that shape the American Dream, and instead as being haunted by the inexplicable, random movement of spectral and speculative capital in the mortgage market. In this sense, the shift from being a “home owner” (with the emphasis on the concept of “home” as a place of belonging) to the impossible position of “property owner” or mortgage holder under liberal capital generates a relation between the house and family that is haunted by instability, invasion and loss. In paranormal reality series, the story of the featured hauntings generally only tangentially relate to the history of the place and instead act out anxieties about the fractured nature of the contemporary home owners’ relation to their property. In the opening credits of the 2016 television series Kindred Spirits two experienced ghost hunters describe what they consider to be their mission: “to rescue families terrorized by paranormal activity in their own homes .… to help families reclaim their homes and their lives” (emphasis added). Other series use similar images of homes being “taken away” and then being restored to their “rightful owners” (Paranormal Technological Investigations). These series represent the presence of ghosts as tales of strangers who can (and do, in the age of failed mortgages) lay claim to the family home. The response to haunting in ghost hunting series, then, is shaped by an elaborate performance of a fantasy of restoration, a fantasy that is focused on technological interventions. This fantasy, I argue, is a direct response to the ways in which the house (as opposed to the “home”) has been reshaped in the popular imagination by neoliberal policies that caused the mortgage crisis.