Get Out of Midsomer: How the Whiteness of Country Estates Should Go Bump in the Night
In American filmmaking there has been a renaissance in horror that uses genre storytelling to commentate on racism. However, following texts like ‘Men’ on patriarchy, the UK has a gap that could use horror to discuss whiteness in provincial spaces — including country estates as sites of (post)colonial violence.
Growing up in Middle England and going to school in the country until I was thirteen, it was in those formative years that I soon found that the hills have eyes — to take the namesake of Wes Craven’s 1977 classic horror film that sees a suburban family set upon by cannibals in the landscapes of California. Whiteness as culture etched into the rural landscapes of my childhood. Though, proudly of Northampton, I spent my childhood playing in the fields of Overstone and Great Houghton; my friends lived in villages like Horton, Wooton, Gayton, Yardley Hastings, Castle Ashby, and more — so even as a townie, I spent many days out in the Northants countryside.
It was in those years that I experienced the racist violence of upper-middle class whiteness. Throughout the English literature ‘canon’, especially works by Victorians, the countryside has been represented as place of idylism and escape. Jane Austen is one culpable of this. Furthermore, Emily Brontë using the Yorkshire Moors as the backdrop for her novel Wuthering Heights but we are not told how families like The Lintons made their money — neither how Heathcliff acquired his wealth later in the story which has puzzled general readers and experts for years. One reading could be ‘colonial interests’ , further complicated by how he is the story’s Other.
Whilst Brontë describes Heathcliff as a ‘Gypsy’, the 2011 Andrea Arnold adaptation casts him as Black, even possibly the Mixed Heritage child of a white enslaver and their human property.
Mr Earnshaw brings Heathcliff back from Liverpool — which in the late c18 and early c19 (when Wuthering Heights is set) was a human trafficking port. It wouldn’t be a reach to consider him to be an absentee enslaver, as some were Black Mixed Heritage. Up to 3000 absentees lived in Britain like super-rich Black Welsh aristocrat Nathaniel Wells.
My experiences out in the rural provinces tied with a recent spate of US horror films commentating on racism in the States, have allowed me to ask why British film and television are not doing the same? Especially as rural country estates are an apt setting to ask questions — through the horror genre — about these sites as a product of British slave economies in the Caribbean. If nineteenth century novels (including adaptations) and poetry have necessitated the ability for white people to ‘escape’, horror could be used to position how ‘escape’ is dependent on harm, including racism.
Though, while texts including Rural Racism (2004) and Green Unpleasant Land (2019) show the countryside to be historically multiracial, Britain’s politics of ‘remember-worthiness’ has enforced an image of the rural that is white-only. Yet, this is met while American social media trends of Black men ‘frolicking’ in fields act as a resistance of sorts to racist overtones of who ‘owns’ the country — fitting ‘somewhat’ — a British context with organisations like Black Girls Hike breaking racist boundaries that have prevented Black people from simply walking in the hills of Britain.
In consuming these stories, ‘canon authors’ tell us we must suspend all our logic and belief for the length of their story, novel or poem to not even consider that characters like Edward Casaubon (in George Eliot’s Middlemarch), Mr Rochester (in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre) and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) may have made their money through plantation slavery, their affluent lifestyles dependent on it. As Edward Said long ago discussed how the domestic spaces of Jane Austen’s landowning elites, are intimately connected with the violent economic growth of Britain’s plantation economies in the Caribbean.
“She sees clearly that to hold and rule Mansfield Park is to hold and rule an imperial estate in close, not to say inevitable, association with it. What assures the domestic tranquility and attractive harmony of one is the productivity and regulated discipline of the other” — Said
When the UK government compensated the enslavers in the 1830s to the sound of £20m (£17bn in today’s money), as many as 3000 of them were absentee enslavers living in Britain. In September 2020, the National Trust — a British charity and membership organisation situated around heritage conservation — published a report stating twenty-nine of their properites held connections with successful claims for compensation. For me, it is research like this that illustrates an opening for horror writers to use British country estates to commentate on Britain’s provincial whiteness.
Psycho-geography, first coined by the Marxist Guy DeBord in 1955, essentially refers to how different places make people feel or behave. In the context of country estates, this links back to the relationship between the motives of rich landowners and what they are prepared to do to hold on to their assets. So, are the estates haunted by colonial ghosts of empire? This legacy today sits in the violence of the economy, and the wealthy elites who won’t give up the ghost, further as the debate over reparations continues.
When I was nineteen, I did the first year of an A-Level in Film Studies. In our unit on British horror, we were told to watch Hammer Horror classics including Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein. Adjacently, we considered modern horror including The Descent and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. In concept, I have no qualms with these films. However, it was in this classroom I observed the whiteness of British horror; the whiteness of my cohort that did not challenge it; and the whiteness of those teaching me.
In this white-man-ageddon, I was reminded how ‘definitive’ works are mainly dictated by white men, even good white men — but still white men nonetheless. Horror centring people that looked like me and my family were few. Two years on, then partway through my creative writing degree, I witnessed Jordan Peele’s Get Out. It was bitter sweet: this was the sort of film I would have liked to have studied in that class but with a lens of provincial white supremacy that I had routinely experienced in Britain.
Last month, I tweeted my thoughts, as I think the British film and television industry is missing a trick: horror is a genre that has the capabilities to commentate on the (subtle and overt) racist practices in Britain’s rural whiteness.
More recently, Alex Garland’s Men depicts the countryside as I remember it growing up — a reproduction of the white male gaze that can swallow up those viewed as The Other. It revisits white male entitlement to space, even in proximity to white women who have their own set of privileges. In Men, the rural is another character compounded by Harper’s (Jessie Buckley) experiences that can come by accepting the ‘kindness’ of strangers.
What were men prepared to do to ‘protect’ their privilege? Coincidentally, set in a rural village, this reproduction of the white male gaze revisited my school days where the country positioned me as the ‘emotional’ Other in need of taming. Men makes me think about the many shades of masculinity: Rory Kinnear plays several roles that considers everything from micro-aggressions to terror, using the rural ‘calm’ as the setting.
Harper rents a country house … haunted by patriarchy — thus psycho-geography — how do places make people behave? The Haunted House is a staple of the gothic, as far back as Dracula. What about the haunting of country estates? In relation to COVID-19, Boris Johnson said ‘let the bodies pile high’ — in the same mentality of absentee enslavers. To tell these stories, one only need follow the precedent made by period dramas — all-white worlds of lords and ladies, simply add in the ‘horror as feeling’ threaded in the trail of blood money between Britain and the Americas.
Most Black and Brown people will know all too well the experiences of Harper (Jessie Buckley). The British country landscape has so far borrowed itself to period dramas to romantise country houses and grounds via escapist fantasies. Why can’t horror be used to realise fantasy? What period historical drama already does so well is whitewash colonialism. Tweaking this model just slightly would take it into horror’s psycho-thriller territory, including the violence of the economy, land, and ownership detatched from the phsyical violence in the colonies. The escapism depicted in period dramas would be removed in horror, because ‘escape’ comes at a cost of removing the very real racist actualities that arrived with the colonial money that sustained many of the buildings used in British period dramas.
Amanda-Rae Prescott tell us
“Regency England was a time of established institutional racism. Although the British slave trade was outlawed in 1807, British industries continued to profit from goods produced by slaves from their colonial holdings in the Caribbean and also in America.”
Following the examples given in American films like Get Out and Us by Jordan Peele, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman sequel, as well as TV’s Lovecraft Country, Britain is in a position to use storytelling on screen as vehicle to make horror stories that challenge this country’s role in the ongoing imperial violence at home. For those of us who cannot hide our visible difference in a colour-conscious society that is overtly and systemically racist, to navigate provincial Britain can still be a terrifying experience.
Black and Brown lives out in the stix are not unused to seeing the macabre — a day trip to the beach; Sunday lunch in a village pub; or even walking around country estates — are all acts of resistance to images of the rural that have been psychically written as white in the popular imagination, despite a multiracial history. As someone that grew up doing all these things as an uncontested norm, this did not come without harm: the sideways glances, feelings of unease, and being viewed as abnormal like monsters that go bump under the bed sound like horror stories. We are viewed as monsters, as space invaders upsetting the good vibes of pastoral country greens.
Black people are not unused to being seen as monsters. As a man racialised as Black, even self-expression of authentic emotions of ‘upset’ can be viewed as angry. In our complaint, one is always thinking of white feelings — ‘what if they think I am an angry Black man?’ We are restrained on psych wards for less. This goes back to cultural imagery too: on the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, a white angel is drawn standing on the neck of the devil — and the devil is drawn as Black. This imagery is uncomfortably familiar, and can be used to commentate on whiteness as terror.
In 1976, James Baldwin shared his response to ‘The Exorcist’ in the book-length essay ‘The Devil Finds Work ‘— an essay about racism in American cinema. Baldwin thought it was simply fiction designed to scare white Americans:
“The mindless and hysterical banality of the evil presented in ‘The Exorcist’ is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any Black man … can call them on this lie; he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.”
At this point in the 1970s, there were white writers who were writing Black people into this image of monsters, including Blacula (1972) and Blackenstein (1973) — all done through racist stereotyping. However — as someone born and raised in Britain — I don’t need to look to America to see what the devil looks like. Black lives in Britain have long been a source of fascination for white people. For example, the exoticisation of Dido Belle in Belle could well have been made as a horror film, but obvious slippery slopes into Black trauma narratives are all too easy there.
Yet, there is an opening in British film and television to tell stories about white people — including aristocrats as terrorists — in what bell hooks writes about America that “… associated whiteness with the terrible, the terrifying, the terrorizing. White people … as terrorists, especially those who dared to enter that segregated space of blackness.” These legacies still appear, with country estates in the afterlife of colonialism. They do not give up the ghosts of empire, as these estates are a lasting legacy.
Black Britain knows the horror of whiteness all too well — from enslavement and colonialism that follow contemporaries of the Windrush to the white terror gangs that roamed the streets in 1919 — to police violence in the killings of Joy Gardner to Chris Kaba — and the historical amnesia existing to harm like it’s the first time. It will be years before I understand the meaning of James Baldwin’s statement — “Life is more important than art, that is why art is important” — but the combination sits well within the realm of horror as a vehicle to tell colonial histories and realities.
Horror could well fall down the slippery slope of trauma narratives — but to flip the script and commentate on white people in an intentional way, about spaces coded as white, would go a long way in doing something Black and Brown people have known for centuries. That white people are now (somewhat) coming to terms with the fact they are racialised. The screen has a role to play in educating people about white supremacy, something I see every time I visit one of those country estates. British horror then, could be useful in telling the stories of the evident postcolonial dysphoria of whiteness that sits between the lines of the National Trust report forcing white people to see the whiteness of escape, including country estates.
If something as symbolically British as country estates was considered as a setting of horror films and television series, there would be unlimited potential for horror filmmakers to tell stories that critique British provincial whiteness, not only in their calm — but also in their violence.
Horror has long been considered within the remit of oddness; for Black and Brown people to take up spaces coded as white, hasn’t our very presence been viewed as strange, abnormal, or unseemingly? Country houses, like our institutions, harbour dark recesses of violence … but coloniality at home has appeared beyond the interest of such interpretations. Country estates possess such dark recesses of horror as symptoms of the white terror produced by enslavement and colonialism.
Frequently, horror is considered within the remit of the ‘abnormal’. Yet, in a UK context — country estates entirely normal (to some) — could be sites of horror. In a United States context, Krystin Ver Linden’s Alice and Nia DaCosta’s Candyman sequel have used horror to commentate on US racism — while Jordan Peele’s Get Out won Best Original Screenplay at the 2017 Oscars. Additionally, Midsommar and The Neon Demon are both American horror films about “white people as terrorists” and the devouring of bodies.
The perpetuation of the message that the countryside is a space of calm is one legacy of the English literary canon. Poets such as Wordsworth and Blake are culpable here — with works like ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ and ‘Jerusalem’ — that show the white privilege to escape, without the colonial violence that allowed the rural to expand and maintain escapist fantasies that are present, even in the work of authors like Enid Blyton and C.S Lewis with Famous Five and The Chronicles of Narnia. Northampton’s own John Clare also wrote ‘On Lane in Spring’ while there have been further poems by Christina Rossetti, and Thomas Hardy.
Violence of the economy that allowed huge investments into the country show how British slave economies in the Caribbean were intimately connected to the lives of white aristocrats. For characters like Emma Woodhouse and Catherine Earnshaw to ‘escape’ in Victorian novels, one must ask what forces allowed them the privilege? And with historians at University College London having digitised the compensation records showing the claims of 46,000 enslavers (3000 living in Britain), there lies opportunties to tell horror stories about the violence of the slave economy.
Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat and Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor show how Guy DeBord’s conceptualisation of psycho-geograpy may be applied to places like country estates as sites of inter/national terror. With many period dramas whitewashing colonialism, lots of these characters living on large estates could well have been absentee enslavers — indivudals who lived in Britain and had ‘business’ in the Caribbean, but had scarcely visited if ever.
British stories like The Woman in Black and Gaslight — both of which I have seen on stage and screen — show psycho-geography is already used in the horror genre. How do certain places make us feel or behave? Alex Garland’s Men follows such provocation in its provincial escape into patriarchal violence. Harper goes to the English countryside to heal after a personal tragedy. However, she is stalked by a person or otherworldly entities— this film takes us from the slow-burn of dread in the lands surrounding a small English country house to full throttle patriarchal terror in rural England, where the horror genre uses pastoral country greens as a site of violence.
Regurtiated maleness in Men lends itself with persistent possible reproductions of whiteness in horror flicks made about country estates as sites of coloniality. Ever since Men was released, it has been abundantly clear that those most in need of seeing this film — were the ones who would refuse to watch it. Harper arrives in this postcard picture village but everybody is weird — the landlord of the cottage she’s staying in; local police; the vicar; strangers — all played by Rory Kinnear suggesting that #NotAllMen shows it is enough men to sustain a violent culture.
Alex Garland’s psychological thriller shows us, that misogyny like racism at its most extreme, presents itself in the macro elements of sheer terror. But at its most subtle, these microaggressions shows us misogyny as feeling — and the gut rarely lies. This story presents things women experience on a daily basis — the horror of patriarchy and misogyny with the #NotAllMen of the terrifying, terrorising Rory Kinnear etched into the landscape.
When you are the visible Other, the hills can truly have eyes. Garland’s film has several messages and the lack of payoff is relatable to anyone that has been victim of discrimination — there is rarely any feeling of justice.
Sara Ahmed writes:
“Complaint: a path of more resistance. The institution becomes what you come up against. At times it felt like we were getting somewhere. At other times the wall came down and we realized, however far they were going to go, they were not going to go far enough. We could not even get public acknowledgment from the administration that there had been any inquiries. It was as if they had never happened. To hear complaint can be to hear that silence: what is not being said, what is not being done, what is not being dealt with. It was during one of those times, walls coming down, the sound of silence can be walls coming down, that I decided I wanted to conduct research on other people’s experience of complaint.”
Terror-based horror is something many of us have experienced in our complaint of institutions, and in our existence within institutions. Earlier in this article I talked about the country estates that were built from enslavement, and Black Welsh gentleman Nathaniel Wells. In the compensation records, the UCL historians reference aristocrat Nathaniel Wells who lived at Piercefield House in Monmouthshire — magistrate, enslaver, gentleman, Mixed-Heritage — he himself born into enslavement in Saint Kitts as his father was a plantation owner, his mother enslaved.
At nine years old he was sent to be educated in Britain. On the death of his father, Nathaniel inherited his father’s plantations and the human property that worked them — he in fact was shielded in Britain from the slave codes of Saint Kitts where he was born, and the wider Caribbean — becoming by today’s definitions, wealthy and successful, his own upliftment built off the suffering of people that looked like him, including his mother’s relations.
There is bleak matter-of-factness in the story of Nathaniel Wells that blends history with horror — perhaps in the torment that one may experience knowing your very existence is built on the enslavement of others. The story of Nathaniel Wells could lend itself to this genre. These estates are places I visited, innocently, as a child of Northamptonshire — with the pastures, the lakes, ornate gardens — designed to show that colonisers believed that the British Empire would never end. As a Black person visiting these places today, I am forced to remember my own grandfather telling me how he himself was also born on a plantation in Grenada, 1943.
Growing up in Northamptonshire and having visited other places in the Home Counties, I am constantly reminded of how Middle England was built by money that underpins whiteness as property. Visiting the village of Mirsden in Gloucestershire, I was told by locals that there is also a history of enslavement here —with white landowners as terrorists. The breadth of horror interpretations of Britain’s villages has no bounds when you follow the money. As the closer you are to the source (of empire), the less you see.
American filmmaking has a long history of horror commentating on racism, but Britain has yet to reach this depth. Reading between the lines of the National Trust’s report shows the unlimited potential of purposeful filmmaking and television production that articulates the white terror of the British economy that uses/d the labour of Black and Brown people under racial capitalism. There would undoubtedly be critiques due to the potential of trauma. However, like British colonialism itself, one way to mitigate this would be to export the violence out of sight out of mind.
By setting these horrors in Britain — where as many as 3000 absentee enslavers never looked their human property in the eye — this would be one way to commentate on white terror beyond the plantation. What Guy DeBord coined as ‘psycho-geography’ — meaning how do different places make us feel or behave? — could inform how stories of this nature are told on screen. Period dramas have set a precedent of depicting these places as ‘nice places to go’, but there sits untapped potential of using horror to represent the cultural murder and whitewashing of colonialism that has occured in the mythmaking around many of Britain’s country estates.
British colonialism through the lens of horror sounds obvious, but there is a lack of screen texts that commentate in this way. Jennifer Kent’s 2018 film The Nightingale set in 1825 Tasmania, is a horror film situated around the violence Britain inflicted on the Indigenous people of Tasmania and the convicts that were sent to the island. Yet, The Nightingale takes us into the heart of where the overt physical violence was.
What I am asking for are films and television series that subvert how popular media represents country estates here in Britain — depicting them as sources of trauma, not part of the romanticisation that occurs in period dramas and other programmes, like Antiques Roadshow. The occupants of many of these houses were colonial profiteers — further bolstered by the stories told in The ‘19th Century Novel’ giving white characters the privilege to escape in their untroubled lives of English ease. All whilst that ‘ease’ was sustained by the existence of global colonial whiteness.
Being an avid film and TV watcher, I have often asked why British dramas have found it easier to talk about about racism, but not horror? Yet, seeing National Trust members threaten to cancel their memberships in 2020 in response to the organisation’s report on colonialism may ask — ‘is Britain ready to confront this colonial legacy?’ Perhaps horror is a little too real, compared to drama. Storytellers are progressing elsewhere. Would horror using such an iconic institution push things a too much?
Nonetheless, these spaces are an overt remnant of enslavement, the British Empire, and imperialism at home — with at least twenty-nine properties tied to successful claims of compensation. The National Trust’s report made an impact that September, following the unjust Murder of George Floyd — and British film and television could be doing more to push boundaries on big and small screens. With many scholars leading the fight in academia, we also need people pushing elsewhere, including film.
Alfred Hitchcock reportedly said, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” Following the Jubilee, Queen’s Funeral and The Coronation — with the analysis from activists on empire — I think parts of the British establishment are in need of such provocation on film as well, not just in the media. With genre storytelling added to needed participation in this cultural analysis of colonialism and enslavement, and using country estates to do it — this would be part of a wider grift on this issue.
In 2020, I saw a film called His House: it’s a horror film about two Black refugees and their escape from South Sudan. They are then subject to the particulars of Britain’s asylum process. What’s currently happening with the Nationality & Borders Act 2022 is part of a longer history that goes back to British colonial rule and the violence that came with it. Horror is showing itself to be in a brilliant position to discuss the particulars of white supremacist systems in ways that drama is not designed to.
In the United States, horror has long been a point of view to talk about racism, including stories set on slave plantations. But in the UK, I don’t recall any such pushes in mainstream.
For much British history of the last five hundred years, including now, Black people have been treated like the monsters in your closet and the ghouls that lurk in the shadows. However, in our media white people as white people have long been depicted as justifyably racist, including the Aunt Karens and Uncle Nigels that visit for Christmas. When a person complains, the complainer is made into the problem. In Britain, we export those problems out of sight out of mind — like the British history that happened overseas, and how whiteness constructed us into beasts of burden, so white people could do beastly things to their human property.
Following Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake in the afterlife of enslavement, it shows we do not need more Black trauma narratives, but stories that ‘tell on’ white people and their guilty ghosts of empire. Contemporary Black horror has centred Blackness and trauma — and I think there is space for British horror writers to tell stories about whiteness in the style of The Crown, Downton Abbey and Austen-adjacent stories — directly confronting the white terror that lurks in systems of colonialism and oligarchy.
As an artist, I sit in author Chinua Achebe’s ethos that an artist is also a citizen. With more of us having conversations about things like racial trauma in media, we need to be asking why aren’t there stories highlighting the crimes of the perpetrators? For example, the 46,000 enslavers named in the compensation records.
There comes a time when we must see that more stories about racism are good, but as Daniel Kaluuya illustrated, Blackness and racism are not synonyms. Intentional stories about whiteness set in spaces that are basically white — may go some way into showing how whiteness manifests in less urban settings. The agenda that is currently in play situates a Black trauma narrative that by itself is not healthy. What it does not do is talk about the white superiority in Britain that pervades numerous spaces, especially out in the provinces of rural country greens and establishments.
More horror made by British filmmakers about whiteness in provincial Britain would go along way, and it is possible to do this without falling down the trap of Black trauma tropes— like police dramas, slave trade films, Blackness in the white workplace. And though this experience is authentic, how do white people act when we are not there to see? So, until we start critiquing white supremacy in an intentional way in Britain on our screens, we will always be looking to the States for a context on racism.
The arrival of organisations like Anti-Racist Cumbria, Stroud Against Racism, and Black Girls Hike — following the Murder of George — confirms the presence of racism and thus whiteness in provincial Britain. As Louisa Adjoa Parker writes: “It spreads like a pandemic, is passed down the generations like an heirloom. […] for people of colour … who inhabit this green and (not always) pleasant land, there is too much we can relate to.”
The Britain I know holds an abundance of spaces that could lend themselves as plot devices and locations for horror stories. So, if you look at the Slave Trade Compensation Records, the stories of violent 46,000 enslavers — some living on country estates — via a horror lens, has not really been told. And in this actuality of white people as absentee terrorists (their Black and Brown victims in the colonies), there is a persistent legacy in current debates about reparations. Here, we might consider the violence of the economy and modern business as worthy adversaries indeed!