Writer James Baldwin ends his book-length work of film criticism The Devil Finds Work with a searing dismissal of The Exorcist which also functions as a dismissal of the entire horror genre. Baldwin watches the beds levitating and the fluids spurting and the little girl grunting and he concludes that “the mindless and hysterical banality of the evil” in the movie is the most terrifying thing about it. White Americans, Baldwin says, “should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise they are lying.”
Tananarive Due’s latest novel, The Reformatory, is also about hauntings and can be read as a kind of response to Baldwin’s call for a more honest horror that doesn’t hide behind Catholic trappings and elaborate effects. After an impressive three-decade career, which started long before the current wonderful post-Get Out flowering of Black horror, it also may be Due’s best work. At the least, it’s arguably the fullest and clearest encapsulation of her own much-quoted insight: “Black history is Black horror.”
Reformatory is set in Jim Crow Florida. The main character is Robert Stephens, Jr., a twelve-year-old whose father, Robert Sr., tried to organize a union of Black workers. The white community framed him for rape and he was forced to flee from Gracetown, Florida to Chicago. Robbie’s mother had already died of cancer, and he is being cared for by his sixteen-year-old sister Gloria. Both siblings feel abandoned, confused and angry at the injustice that has left them effectively orphaned.
When a wealthy white boy makes a crude remark to Gloria, Robbie kicks him. Jim Crow justice remorselessly swoops down and sentences Robbie to six months in the Gracetown reformatory. Robbie barely enters the place before the dead start to haunt him. All the boys know the ghosts are there, but Robbie is the only one who sees them all the time.
The ghosts, or haints, in the reformatory are as terrifying as you’d expect if you had to deal with the dead rising. Their skulls are exposed; they have knives in their backs; they can stretch and shift their forms so they look like distorted parodies of the living. And they can do real harm, shutting their breathing peers in freezers or dropping deadly branches on them from above.
Bad as the haints are, though, they aren’t really the source of the terror in the novel. As one of the other boys tells Robbie early on in the novel, “There’s worse things to worry about than haints. Way worse.”
Those things include the sadistic Warden Haddock, who whips and tortures the boys—white, too, but especially Black—for minor infractions. Haddock’s just a catspaw himself, though, for the real terror, which is the weight of white supremacy.
That weight is especially acute in the prison of the reformatory, but even outside it crushes Gloria as well. In fact, the novel makes it clear that the entire Jim Crow South is a prison, with its smiling judges and jowly cops, its snitches and vigilantes. “Welcome to Florida,” an NAACP lawyer tells Gloria after explaining that he can do little for Robbie. “That sick feeling’s gonna stick with you all the way down to Lake County, and probably get worse after you get there.” A world created by white racists is just a nesting doll of prison cells.
You can hear the doors clanking shut as you turn the pages. Due’s novel is one of those where you hold your breath because you know that even the characters you like best aren’t necessarily going to escape the worst. But, again, and especially in the second half of the book, the haints aren’t that bad.
The novel often feels more like dystopian fiction than a gothic ghost story. You’re forcibly reminded that all those books warning of fascism—1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games—aren’t really about the future. They’re about the past and present authoritarian terror that in the U.S. is rarely visited upon cishet or Christian white individuals, but often is on Black ones. (In Due’s novel, there are white lesbian and white Jewish characters; Jim Crow hates them more casually than it hates Black people, but it hates them nonetheless.)
Robbie and Gloria are heavily policed first because they’re Black, but secondly, because they’re seen as troublemakers by virtue of being related to Robert, Sr., and as possible leverage to force him to come home. They’re constantly watched; they can be punished for speaking wrong, looking wrong or thinking wrong. The ugliest, most frightening scene in the novel is a police traffic stop which escalates swiftly and inevitably, even though Gloria does nothing. “You’re his daughter, ain’t you?” spoken by a cop, is louder than the loudest scream a haint can make.
Besides, haints know what it is to die violently and what it’s like to lose loved ones. Robbie at various points feels like he has more in common with the unseen, traumatized ghosts than with the Warden, who is feared by all, living and dead.
Baldwin argued that the horror of The Exorcist was essentially a distraction—the movie trundled out an exotic devil so no one would have to think about the devil closer to hand. But Due doesn’t use haints to draw the eye away from horror. Robbie sees the dead, but he still has to navigate the harm visited upon him, in the first place, by white people in the past, and by many white people still walking around.
Gloria tells Robbie over and over that he didn’t do anything wrong. He doesn’t need to be reformed. But as Baldwin pointed out, the horror genre itself could stand some reeducation. The Reformatory is moving, and convincing because it knows that no one needs to possess America to force it to do evil. And it also knows that real evil is a lot worse than the classics would have us believe.