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‘Lovecraft Country’ Review: Leti’s House on the Left

A haunting is on the horizon in the third episode

HBO/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

From the onset of “Holy Ghost,” it’s clear that we are watching a haunting. For a show that has devoted its opening entries to monsters and magic (both real and imagined), that distinction is key—“Holy Ghost” is about a different kind of horror. The show opens with a scroll, white text juxtaposed against a black background, that reads: “In the summer of 1955 a group of Negro men and women moved into a house on the North side of Chicago. Ten days later three people went missing inside the house, never to be seen again. Pioneering is dangerous …” Knowing the violent cacophony of paranormal encounters that follows, “dangerous” is an understatement.

“Holy Ghost” feels disjointed at first. Coming on the heels of last week’s outing, in which George unceremoniously perished in the backseat of his own car, Lovecraft Country makes virtually no attempt to address the immediate consequences of what happened to Tic, Leti, Montrose, and George. The episode begins in Chicago, three weeks after George’s death. We do not see his funeral and we do not find out how the group escaped Massachusetts. Everyone on screen is attempting to regain some semblance of normalcy. Initially, Tic stays with Hippolyta (George’s wife) and his cousin Diana in an attempt to support them. Hippolyta—who does not know the true cause of George’s death—spends most of the episode ripping pages out of unsuspecting books and looking generally downtrodden. Diana seems to be taking the news of her dad’s death about as well as a child could. Montrose is holed up in his apartment in a perpetually drunken stupor. He and Tic haven’t fully grappled with George’s death, and the attempt to cover up the circumstances surrounding it only complicates things.

Leti, on the other hand, at least appears to be thriving. After discovering that her mother apparently left a large inheritance for her, she has moved into a home on Chicago’s all-white North Side. The resistance she faces from her white neighbors serves as the background for this episode. (Early on, Leti’s sister, Ruby, mentions another neighborhood in Chicago where a riot almost started after a Black couple moved into an all-white building.) When Leti and her boarders move into their new home, they do so on a Sunday so as not to alert the rest of the neighborhood. It does not work: Her neighbors post signs—based on real-life resistance to housing integration—on their front lawns declaring “This is an all-white neighborhood.” Eventually they park their vehicles in front of the house and strap bricks to their car horns, producing an unceasing blare they hope will force Leti out. The police watch and do nothing.

On top of all this, there seems to be some paranormal activity brewing. The elevator in Leti’s home is obviously possessed. While Leti is sleeping, a floating, bloody hand rips the sheets off of her. A ghost of a Black woman stares at her from the bedside. At one point Leti checks the furnace and finds that it has been tampered with. Moments later she hears a chorus of desperate voices and watches as the cellar door rattles open, as if something or someone is trying to escape. During a house party, Diana and a group of kids play with a Ouija board (because that’s always a good idea) and unknowingly commune with the dead. And after multiple episodes of hinting at their feelings for each other, Tic and Leti finally consummate their relationship—while a ghost with a nail through his head lurks nearby.

By the time Leti’s neighbors burn a cross on her front lawn, the stage is set. She lashes out at her assailants by breaking their car windows and removing the bricks. As sirens blare in the background, Tic and others stand watch with rifles. Before the police arrive, they hide their guns in Ruby’s car and surrender themselves. In the police van we find out (via literally the most racist cop ever) that years earlier the police found eight dead Black bodies in the house, which they refer to as the “Winthrop” house. Later, after a brief encounter with a giant paranormal head that morphs out of a bunch of photos, Leti pieces together the history of her home.

The previous owner was a scientist named Hiram Epstein. Epstein did brutal experiments on Black Chicagoans for years, and Leti suspects that the police chief was supplying him with victims. After Leti presents her findings to Tic, they finally discuss what happened in Ardham. At the core of “Holy Ghost” is the connection between the trauma the group has endured and the history of suffering within Leti’s new home. It is not an accident that as the group buries their guilt and fear over what happened in Ardham, they are increasingly haunted by literal ghosts. Because of the circumstances surrounding George’s death, none of his loved ones have been able to properly grieve. All of them have, in their own ways, been toyed with and abused in a fashion similar to Epstein’s prisoners. For Leti, who has to deal with the personal ramifications of death and resurrection, that is doubly true. To find peace she realizes she will have to confront her own trauma.

The final sequence in the episode doubles down on this point. After hiring a shaman to cleanse the house, Tic and Leti are attacked by Epstein’s spirit. Epstein kills the shaman, possesses her, and then transfers his soul to Tic. While all of this is happening, three of Leti’s white neighbors break into the house in an attempt to terrorize the group and are themselves slaughtered by ghosts (one of the bat-wielding white boys gets his head cut clean off by that demented elevator). They—rather than Tic, Leti, and Montrose or Leti’s sister—are the three “pioneers” foretold by the opening scroll.

Leti is able to repel Epstein from Tic’s body only by calling on the spirits of the scientist’s Black victims for aid. As Epstein’s ethereal form disintegrates, the mangled bodies of the women, men, and children he experimented on gradually heal, before fading away themselves. Together, these final shots are best understood as a meditation on what happens to people and communities when they bury their misdeeds, their skeletons, their pain. From the start of the episode, the narrative is fueled by a question: What happens to us when we ignore our history? In the end, the answer “Holy Ghost” arrives at is that if we ignore our past, it will haunt us forever.

History Lesson: Scientific Racism

George Washington was a great general. He learned to lead men on the battlefield while fighting in the French and Indian War, a contest that was, essentially, over which imperial power (Great Britain or France) would have the right to plunder North America. Washington was keen on surprise attacks, which were generally considered “dishonorable” in traditional European warfare. He did not cut down a cherry tree and he could tell a lie, but he did believe that a president was not a king. After eight years as commander-in-chief, he left office on a self-imposed term limit. When you see murals of Washington, he is rarely smiling. The popular conception is that he was grimacing because he had wooden teeth, but that is a half-truth. Washington may have been grimacing but his dentures were not wooden—they were made of human teeth, likely ones forcibly removed from the mouths of the captives he believed he owned. Because among all the things that George Washington was in his life, he was, first and foremost, a captor—from the time he was 11 years old until the day he died, Washington dealt in the trade of flesh. At the time of his death he commanded over 123 enslaved bodies. History—actual history—is often unflattering.

Hiram Epstein’s story brings to mind real-life corollaries like Washington’s, in which Black bodies were mangled in the name of white medical relief or advancement. In a contemporary context, the most famous of these was the Tuskegee Experiment, a government-sanctioned scientific study into the effects of syphilis on Black men in which doctors diagnosed 399 rural Alabama sharecroppers with the venereal disease, hid the results from them, and made no attempts to treat them (even after penicillin proved to be an effective combatant). At one point the nurse in charge of the program even followed one participant to a private doctor’s office in an attempt to stop him from getting treatment. The experiment lasted from 1932 until 1972, resulted in countless deaths, and even led many of the participants’ children to contract the disease congenitally.

In 2018, a statue of J. Marion Sims—who has been called the “father of gynecology”—was removed from Central Park because of his history of brutal experimentation on enslaved women. Without their consent and without anesthesia (he did not believe that Black people felt pain), Sims operated on these women up to 30 times each. Throughout the antebellum period, medical schools and doctors around the country were known to uproot fresh Black bodies from their burial grounds, using them as practice material to hone their skills. In 2017, the story of Henrietta Lacks—a Black woman who died of cervical cancer and whose cells were used (without her family’s consent) to formulate groundbreaking treatment options—was made into a movie on HBO. The truth of the history of the United States is that men like Lovecraft Country’s Hiram Epstein have never been anomalies.

Religious Studies: Orishas

Before she was unceremoniously thrown into the ceiling by Epstein’s ghost, the shaman took a moment to call upon a figure named “Momma Oya’’ in an attempt to exorcise spirits from the house. Oya is an orisha—a deity in the Yoruba religion—and the connector between the worlds of the living and the dead. The Yoruba people live on the western coast of Africa, from Ghana to Nigeria. During the transatlantic slave trade, this area was heavily mined for captive bodies. When enslaved people were taken to colonies in the Americas, they brought with them their links to Yoruban orishas. Santería in Cuba, Candomblé and Umbanda in Brazil, Shango in Trinidad, and Vodou in Haiti are all extensions of this vast and rich religion—many of them even contain explicit references to individual orishas like Oya. Yoruba is still practiced in its traditional form across the globe. Beyoncé’s visual album Black Is King, released on Disney+ last month, is steeped in Yoruban mythology and references.

Lovecraft Country’s use of the orisha is a departure from the first two episodes’ presentation as magic being something biblical. Up to this point in the show, virtually all of the references to mysticism have focused on Western conceptions of Christian theology. In centering this episode on other sources of religiosity, the show is reformulating who controls mystic power and expanding the sources from which it can be tapped. In “Holy Ghost” we find out that magic is no longer the monopoly of white men. For the Black characters in Lovecraft Country, that will, no doubt, have tremendous ramifications.

One Lingering Question: What Are We Doing Here?

“Holy Ghost” is confounding for several reasons. While the show is still drawn toward the most burlesque of villains, the social critiques that undergird Lovecraft Country are generally correct and, often, quite compelling. Chicago is still one of the most segregated cities in the country, and it is refreshing to see a piece of contemporary pop culture at least trying to grapple with that legacy. But like the other early entries in the show, “Holy Ghost” is undercut by the disjointed nature of the narrative and its overemphasis on explosive plotting. Scenes like the one between Leti and Ruby toward the end of the episode (where Leti accidentally admits that the money she got for the house was from their dead mother) feel empty. We’re now three hours into the series and we don’t know who their mother is or any of Ruby’s backstory, and—in spite of the nearly full hour we just spent with her—we still don’t really know what motivates Leti.

Lovecraft Country is moving, but I’m still not sure in what direction. By the end of “Holy Ghost,” Tic has realized that Leti’s home was paid for by Christina Braithwhite, who apparently didn’t die with her Aryan father; Hippolyta is in full-on denial about the circumstances surrounding George’s death; Montrose just wants to ignore everything that’s happened and brood in his apartment; and Leti “thought the world was one way” and is now realizing that it’s filled with a surplus of mystic white supremacists. Is anyone else wondering where all of this is going?