Interview: Richard Ledes on Haiti and Horror Movies

Richard Ledes is an award-winning New York City-based filmmaker. His films include A Hole in One (2004) and The Caller (2008), which won Tribeca Film Festival’s Made in New York award. His current project, Foreclosure, is a horror film about a broken family that struggles to remain together as the ghosts of a haunted house threaten to keep them apart. As the title “Foreclosure” suggests, Ledes’s film draws on the current economic crisis in America. While Haiti and Vodou are not directly related to his film, Ledes recognizes an important relationship that American horror cinema shares with Haitian culture, which he proposes in a short video with hopes of raising awareness in the film community. The video points to various horror films and discusses aspects of Haitian culture, such as Vodou and zombies, which inspire American horror movies.


YouTube video: []


Visit the Foreclosure homepage here.
Kristina Huang: Could you expand on the connection you made between Haiti and the horror genre?
Richard Ledes: Well, there are a couple of different ways of approaching it. I once studied with a Jamaican poet named Kamau Brathwaite and what he was teaching was based around the figure of Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The name “Caliban” is an anagram for “cannibal.” The Uruguayan writer José Enrique Rodó had written about North America as being like Caliban, on the one hand, and on the other, Latin America and the Caribbean as being like Ariel. In contrast, the Cuban writer Roberto Retamar had written an essay about the Caribbean as being like Caliban. That is to say, the enslaved, oppressed figure who is seen as a monster. The Tempest has always interested me and I was fascinated by this approach to The Tempest. When it came to work on this current project, Foreclosure, I had considered for a time using Haitian “Voodoo” in some way — the more correct pronunciation is “Vodou.” I have a friend, Kim Ives, who runs a Haitian newspaper, Haiti Liberté, and I thought of him, of course, because I knew that voodoo came out of Haitian culture. So I thought I could ask him if he could give me some help in finding someone who could provide me with information about voodoo. Perhaps, I would use Haitian dance, which I knew from the work of Maya Deren, in her film Divine Horseman. There was a rich cultural background and material connected to voodoo that I could potentially use in this film I am preparing for. I was thinking mainly of voodoo through a movie that Val Lewton had made with Jacques Tourneur, I Walked With a Zombie. Kim Ives put me in touch with a Vodou priest who acted as an advisor on Jonathan Demme’s Beloved. We spoke a few times, but it never got past that. And in the meantime, I had a change of heart. I was not sure how to navigate the tensions between Hollywood “Voodoo” and Haitian “Vodou.” Because, quite frankly, part of what I find appealing is Hollywood’s tradition Hollywood’s tradition is a tradition with a certain eroticism attached to it, a certain view of the “other,” you could say. It is a tradition that is familiar in popular culture. I like to work with and against expectations that are drawn from popular culture. Then I decided to go in a different direction with my story; consequently, Voodoo became something I wasn’t focused upon. Then there was the earthquake in Haiti. Because I am currently working on a horror film, I’ve been very focused on the blogs that cover horror films. What struck me was that despite the tremendous amount of ink spilled on the subject of horror films, there seemed not an iota of acknowledgement of the historical roots of zombies, for example. I could be mistaken in that, but I didn’t find any. I was really struck by this: that the horror of Haiti didn’t have the slightest appearance in the blogs, or in the world of horror for that matter. Haitian culture is an important source. There are some filmmakers who — to their credit — have acknowledged the influence of Haiti. I think George Romero’s work is obviously informed by the issues that come up about Haiti and race in America.  Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie acknowledges the subject of slavery. But I was disappointed to not see acknowledgement of what had happened in Haiti in connection to the contribution Haitian culture has made to horror films. I mentioned this to a few friends of mine. They found the subject really interesting; they actually didn’t get what I was talking about at first, but when they did get it, they were very interested. I thought, well, it’s worth communicating. So, we put together that video.
KH: Why do you think the horror film community has not made the connection between Haitian culture and horror?
RL: It’s a very good question. I think one can get the impression that there’s so much coverage; there is so much being written at any given moment about any particular subject that it’s all being already covered. But a lot of it is very redundant. It’s very interesting to me that you could still use the concept repression, or something not being spoken about. Even in this day and age, where everything is being reported on all the time, that there are still ideas or concepts or historical connections or relations that are not acknowledged. I mean, you may find them, for example, in academic journals.  But all this coverage on a popular genre in the popular media and still, in some way, those who love that genre, cinephiles, or those that offer coverage aimed at them appear to show little interest in being more knowledgeable about that passion or that love. I thought there was a need that I could help to address through that video.
KH: Your movie blog and your YouTube video connect race with ghost stories. Can you talk a little about this connection? 
RL: Well, recently I was watching Birth of a Nation and I had forgotten that in Birth of a Nation the inspiration for the Klan comes when the lead character, a white Southerner, who in his greatest sense of being lost is up in the woods, thinks about what he can do to possibly save the white race. And then he sees these black children chasing these white children and the white children hide under a sheet and scare the black children. This gives him the inspiration for the Ku Klux Klan. Which is only to say that the connection of ghosts and race goes back a long way. But, I guess more recently, [in] this project I’m working on now I often connect to this cartoon I saw in an English publication during the break-up of Yugoslavia. Two men sitting on a bench. One is reading a newspaper and he says, “When I read about what’s happening in the former Yugoslavia, I thank God that I’m white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.” The guy sitting next to him says: “Anglo? Or Saxon?” How in times of financial crisis, dormant or dead prejudices come back like ghosts. For example, a friend of mine recently said, in regards to racial epithets thrown at the Congressman John Lewis voting for health care: “How could this happen now? So much has happened in between.” What he was saying, in a way, was that these things are already dead, how can they come back? But this idea, figuratively speaking, of ghosts, and how in times of crisis, whether Germany in the 30s, or Yugoslavia in the 90s, or Iraq after the U.S. invasion, that a kind of splintering can happen in a culture and people begin to feel these ghosts rise up. 
KH: I think that it’s interesting you bring up Germany, Yugoslavia, and Iraq. Do you think ghost stories are part of a global narrative? Or maybe even a global project in understanding race relations?
RL: Well, I tell you, it reminds me of these films done by Guillermo del Toro, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, which are about Fascism in Spain. And I guess what’s been interesting to me is the use of these ghost stories to deal with historical truths; to deal with a historical past; to make it both entertaining to a popular audience, but also to engage them with these periods of history. I think around the world we can see, figuratively speaking at the very least, these kinds of ghosts appearing, reappearing, and the possibility of using the genre of horror to allow people to express the psychological truth of living in one time, but of having that time always, in a sense, haunted by the traumas of their own particular past.
KH: You’ve mentioned in another interview that there is this simultaneous craving and dr
eading of a loss of control in the horror genre. Can you talk about that in relation to being haunted by the past?
RL: That was in regards to why people are interested in horror. It’s not an original idea, but it’s an idea that I find enticing. Which is in fact that horror reconnects contemporary audiences with certain emotions that are otherwise repressed, or kept out of view in a society, in societies that seem focused on the “think of something positive, don’t dwell in the past” — those kinds of thought-patterns. Particularly for people in United States, who are very focused on the present and the future.  In the realm of psychoanalysis, the effect of societies putting a premature end to mourning after the tremendous losses that followed WWI has been written about. The subsequent transformation of a forced cessation to mourning as the basis for the rise of melancholy — what we now more or less call depression — is profound. In this country the Civil War and slavery have also had this kind of traumatic etiology for our collective pathologies, because there were so many dead and there was so little mourning. There was an endless amount of suffering.  On top of that, though, there was the need to get on with things, that in modern society whether it’s two days or two weeks, you have to get back to being productive and, of course, that’s not the way human beings actually work. For example, a friend of mine worked with people who were traumatized by 9/11. The clinicians he was working with predicted when the official mourning had ended that they would see a spike in people’s need for some kind of mental health services because they would be traumatized, in effect, by the need to give up their mourning. In fact, they were correct in that prediction. So, I think horror, in some way, allows for people to get in touch with parts of the human experience that are viewed as usually nonproductive or not usually made available for the consumption of the general public.
KH: You mention trauma and that got me thinking about a paradox of surviving  devastation — how a person might find comfort in surviving but at the same time must deal with the aftermath. How might the recent devastation of Haiti alter the correlation between the words of “horror” and “Haiti”?
RL: Well, trauma is something that repeats. That is the very psychological origin. After the event, it returns in some way. It just doesn’t happen once. It has effects in the future. I think if you go back to the relationship between Haiti and the United States, you could definitely see a pattern of repetition. I think in the current circumstance, the possibility is there — however slim — that a more conscious relationship could begin to evolve which would, in some way, begin to resolve the trauma.
KH: I looked at one of the articles posted on your movie blog. The article “Myths Obscure Voodoo” mentions how voodoo does not have a visible infrastructure and that American political rhetoric has borrowed the word “voodoo” as a synonym for “fraudulent.” How might voodoo be related to your current project, “Foreclosure”? Are class relations filtered through the horror genre? 
RL: Yes, and class relations are filtered through race relations. I think my current project has to do with the recent economic crisis and in a way draws a parallel [between] the current economic crisis and crises, for example, during the Depression, when in Germany we have the rise of anti-Semitism, or the collapse in Eastern Europe of the Communist Bloc, and the subsequent breakup of Yugoslavia and how the financial hardship that affected that area provoked all kinds of racial and ethnic tensions, bloodshed, and slaughter. So my current project, about which I don’t want to say too much yet, looks at these past patterns of financial collapse and the kinds of ghosts of past ethnic and racial tensions that emerged, and the film postulates what might happen in the current situation in the United States.
KH: Do you see a progression in the representation of Haiti in the horror genre? I ask you this because you draw on an older horror canon in your video. Do you see the influence of Haiti in modern horror cinema?
RL: On the contrary, well — if you look at the work of Jacques Tourneur, Romero, and if you look at the current work, my own opinion may be distorted by my partiality and lack of knowledge of the broad range of work being done. But certainly in the dominant examples that come to mind there seems to be a greater ahistoricity and a greater lack of interest in both the possibilities and ethical reasons for working with the historical roots of American horror films.

Kristina Huang