We dig deep to explore the complex and timely issues of deep-seated bigotry in the deep South, as unearthed in 2019’s “Hallowed Ground”.
In this in depth look at themes of homophobia and racism in 2019’s Hallowed Ground, we explore how the film aims to carry horror’s long legacy of mixing genre storytelling with cultural commentary, with mixed results.
I’ve lived all of my 32 years in the Bible Belt. It can be a stifling and unpleasant place to live for people who are different: anyone who doesn’t fit the standard (white, cis, heterosexual, Christian, conservative) mold; those who challenge long-held beliefs; individuals who see a wide, wonderful world that extends far beyond the parish (that’s county for non-Louisianans) line.
Growing up different in an environment that tended to discourage deviance from the norm shaped the adult I have become and the way I view the world around me.
Despite its shortcomings, this place is home. My family is here and I never want to be very far away from them. And since I can’t uproot them and drop them in the middle of whatever greener pastures I might currently be dreaming of at the moment, I’m here to stay. It’s taken a lot of years, but I’ve made my peace with that.
Professional multitasker (actor, director, professor, musician… the list goes on) Miles Doleac also grew up in the Bible Belt.
His upbringing has heavily influenced his work in film, especially his latest feature, 2019’s Hallowed Ground.
Shot in Doleac’s hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the film is a snapshot of a world that is very familiar to me. The swampy, woodland backdrop feels like home, and I can almost feel the oppressive humidity and hear the cicadas screeching in every scene. But it’s the people who bring the setting especially close to home.
Hallowed Ground attempts to expose and dismantle a distinctively Southern brand of bigotry.
It explores long-held prejudices that refuse to die even in the 21st century and the effect these beliefs have on those who are, in the eyes of people beholden to these prejudices, “other.”
A brief rundown of the plot: married couple Alice and Vera take a vacation to a supposedly peaceful cabin near an ancient Native American burial ground to repair their strained relationship. Once there, they are repeatedly warned not to cross the property line, and when they inevitably do, they find themselves embroiled in a centuries-old dispute between the descendants of the region’s indigenous inhabitants and those of the white settlers who encroached on their home.
The latter is led by a man named Bill (played by Doleac himself), the grand master of a “Dark Dragon” cult who use trespassers as human sacrifices to their lord. He takes a special interest in punishing the couple because of their “vile” nature.
Through this sensationalized narrative, the film deals with homophobia and racism in particular.
But it also seeks to explore the dangers of unchecked privilege and the city versus country divide reminiscent of films like Deliverance.
Alice and Vera are trying to rebuild their marriage in the aftermath of an affair, but their problems started long before then. We learn that Vera has issues with intimacy that stem from the internalized homophobia she developed in her youth. She tells her wife, “You have no idea how hard it was to grow up gay in the Bible Belt.”
From that moment on, I knew this film was going to get to me on some really personal levels.
I know what it’s like to grow up gay in the Bible Belt.
As a kid, I remember hearing the adults around me snickering and whispering about people who were “funny.” I remember how quickly their mocking tone could switch to one of blatant disgust. At the time, I didn’t know what it meant. But I knew that it was bad and something that I never wanted to be.
I remember the hellfire and brimstone sermons of church services and vitriolic pastors promising eternal damnation for degenerates and anyone who didn’t follow a certain path. Lucky for me, my parents were never huge church-goers. But around here, the Southern Baptist doctrine informs nearly every facet of society. It’s still a source of some of my darkest subconscious fears that I can’t shake even now that I’m a certified godless heathen.
When I was 12, I had a crush on a female classmate. This was the first time that I can remember being truly conscious of the fact that I liked girls. In retrospect, the signs were there before then, but maybe I just didn’t have the awareness necessary to understand them until I got a little older. At any rate, it scared the hell out of me.
I was afraid of being different.
That seems ironic, since this was a period of my life when I was beginning to dare to be different in almost every other aspect of my personality, from music tastes to personal style to a budding anti-authority attitude. I was trying to buck the system in so many ways. But this was a leap I was not prepared to take and wouldn’t be for a long time. I was afraid of what people would think and, perhaps more importantly, I was afraid I would go to Hell.
So I shut that shit down. I am honestly amazed by my preteen self’s ability to repress something so important, but somehow I managed to block it out. I kept this unwanted secret to myself and launched headfirst into a very public (and very embarrassing) crush on a boy to prove to myself and everyone around me that I was not “funny.”
When Vera talks about how completely she believed that something was wrong with her for so many years, about having self-hatred ingrained into her by the culture that raised her, her words resonated with me.
She describes her past relationships in purely sexual terms, suggesting that she never felt a romantic or emotional attachment to another woman until she met Alice. These relationships always left her feeling “dirty,” a stigma that she still struggles with after falling in love, getting married, and having a previously active sex life with her wife.
Being made to feel “dirty” and shameful for our sexual desires is a form of homophobia that many queer people deal with and internalize, and Vera’s journey toward self-acceptance might have been a very compelling one had her personal narrative not been completely forgotten after this one scene.
The scene left me with the feeling that Vera’s journey would be at the heart of the story, a logical assumption given the link between her upbringing and the story’s setting.
The film overall might have been much stronger if had been about her coming face-to-face with the bigotry that shaped her perception of herself, if we had been given the chance to actually see the growth that we’re supposed to assume happens by the end of the story. Instead, Vera’s internal struggle takes a backseat to her wife’s journey.
Alice is the partner who had the affair that prompted this attempt at reconciliation, and Vera’s sense of betrayal is exacerbated by the fact that the affair was with a man. Very briefly, the film seems to highlight issues between bisexual women and lesbians who adhere to the exclusionist “gold star” standard — that is, they refuse to be in relationships with bi women or even other lesbians who have previously had sex with men.
Alice defends her bisexuality, and follows it up by insisting that she is a “carnal person,” putting her in stark contrast with the frigid Vera.
Alice’s entire arc plays into stereotypes of bisexual people, especially bisexual women, who are often accused of being sexually “greedy” and incapable of monogamy.
Many lesbians defend their prejudice against bi women by saying that they will always “go back to men.” Alice defends herself against verbally against these stereotypes, but the narrative doesn’t entirely back her up.
The portrayal of these women’s sexuality might have had a little more depth if the film were actually written and/or directed by a queer woman. It seems like Doleac is trying to handle the subject with care, but at the end of the day, these are experiences that he hasn’t lived and can never truly understand.
This is made clear by the fact that he doesn’t allow enough space in the narrative to fully flesh out the issues that he presents in this scene.
Action takes over, and when the couple emerges victorious, we’re simply told that they’ve worked through their issues and are stronger and closer for it, despite not really getting to see this unfold on screen.
Alice’s affair — with a sleazy photographer named Thatcher, who shows up at the couple’s romantic getaway to sow further discord — is purely physical, a response to the lack of sexual fulfillment she gets from her marriage to Vera. Though she does display guilt over the affair and perhaps some lingering feelings for Thatcher, she appears to be fully comfortable in her sexuality, which makes it so odd that it is her identity and her internal struggle that takes precedence over Vera’s.
Vera’s personal history and hangups seem the most relevant to the overall scope of the film, and I can’t fathom why the focus is so disproportionately on Alice.
Ultimately, Alice’s journey overshadows all other issues that the film attempts to come to grips with, even things that, had she not been in the wrong place at the wrong time, would have had absolutely no personal impact on her life.
A narrative about racial prejudice and the plight of indigenous Americans becomes a white woman’s story.
Bill and his “Dark Dragon” cult are just a mildly dramatized version of the Klu Klux Klan. I’m not sure why Doleac did not simply portray the KKK outright. Maybe he thought it would be a little too on the nose. I’m also not sure why he chose to give them a fictitious pagan religion, when the very real radical Christianity prevalent in the Deep South is sufficiently frightening and might have made the narrative more effective.
Regardless, it’s clear who these men represent. They gather for their rituals under the veil of darkness, clad in red robes, an American flag hovering tellingly in nearly every shot. The group carries a lineage of prejudice and violence that blossomed in the aftermath of the American Civil War.
Anyone who lives in the South can tell you that, in a lot of ways, the Civil War never quite ended.
Confederate flags abound, re-enactments are frequent, bumper stickers and t-shirts declare that “the South will rise again.” Bill even once refers to the conflict as “the War of Northern Aggression,” a phrase that I have heard my own dad use only half-jokingly. The shadow of the war and the stark racial divides that endured in its wake have hung heavy over life in the South for over a century, from lynchings to Jim Crow to the racial violence that persists even in the 21st century.
After the Civil War, western expansion set white settlers against indigenous Americans, with catastrophic results. It’s this conflict that is at the heart of the property dispute in Hallowed Ground. Bill believes the “sacred soil” rightly belongs to him as the descendant of settlers who claimed the land in the late 1800s. In opposition to him is Nita, a Choctaw woman descended from the region’s original inhabitants, whom Bill allows to live on her ancestor’s land provided that she stays on her side of the property line.
If Nita as a character is meant to represent the hardships that Native Americans have endured since colonization, then it is incredibly unfair and problematic that she doesn’t get to be the hero of a battle that impacts her life much more directly than the lives of the white protagonists.
Indeed, she doesn’t even survive the story.
When we meet Nita, she is the stereotypical serious, spiritual Native woman. She speaks as if every word out of her mouth is imbuing listeners with some kind of ancient wisdom. Immediately, it’s clear that even the supposedly progressive, cultured, “city” women visiting her home have little respect for her way of life.
Alice openly laughs at Nita’s unintentional innuendo and later mocks her frequent references to her ancestors. Vera, an archaeologist who specializes in Native American culture, has a little more reverence than her wife, but even she seems to view indigenous people as specimens to be studied rather than real human beings. “I study these people for a living,” she tells Alice, casting Nita and her community firmly in the role of “other.”
There’s an indigenous heritage site about an hour from my hometown. It’s the only proper tourist attraction in this neck of the woods, and I visited it several times as a kid, with my parents and on school field trips. I remember visiting the mounds and watching members of the local Native community perform rituals.
I can’t help feeling that most of the (white) people who visit the site leave with no greater understanding or genuine respect for the people or culture they’ve just encountered.
It’s a fun day trip, but when it comes to the injustice that indigenous Americans still face to this day, these people simply turn the other cheek. Watching Vera and Alice interact with Nita’s history and culture invokes a very similar feeling.
Miles Doleac has a PhD in ancient history, so it’s safe to assume he probably knows more about indigenous culture than I do. That being said, the representation of it in the film feels a bit generic and indiscernible from many other portrayals of Native Americans in film. Again, he’s representing experiences that he hasn’t lived and I think it shows. I don’t doubt his intentions, but the message he’s trying to send just doesn’t get across as effectively as it could.
Nita takes a passive role in the fight against Bill; she offers information, insight, and tools to the protagonists, but refuses to take decisive action. This is somewhat understandable given that she has a family of her own to protect and Bill’s faction far outnumbers hers. Still, it’s disappointing that Alice and Vera get to be the heroines of a war that has nothing to do with them and everything to do with Nita.
They are both treated to visions of Nita’s Choctaw ancestor, who gives them the push they need to emerge victorious, while Nita stands on the sidelines and is ultimately killed as a result of her inaction. Her death is a disservice to her character and to the culture she is meant to represent.
Hallowed Ground is full of noble intentions.
By Doleac’s own admission, he was aiming for the “high bar” set by films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out. I think his heart is in the right place, but he’s just trying to say so many things at once that he fails to follow through with any of them.
In the film’s nearly two-hour runtime, Doleac opens doors to many different aspects of culture in the Bible Belt: racism and white supremacy, homophobia, religious radicalism, fear of outsiders. He attempts to challenge Deep South bigotry while also challenging the idea that everyone in the Deep South is a bigot.
There have always been marginalized (and progressive) people living here who suffer doubly from both widespread oppression and the popular belief that everyone below the Mason-Dixon Line is a hateful, ignorant redneck and the entire region should just slough away into the Gulf of Mexico.
(Many stereotypes about Southerners and other “country” dwellers are rooted in classist notions about poor people in general, but that’s a can of worms for another day.)
In the end, Hallowed Ground starts more conversations than it is able to finish.
The film may not be great and it may not deliver on its grand intentions, but it gives you something to think about – or at least, it gave me something to think about. And maybe that on its own is a small step in the right direction.