When Things Heard & Seen opened in an empty classroom with a projector flicking through paintings of the Hudson River School I assumed that it would be a film “haunted” by what T.C. Boyle terms colonial shame.
Boyle is a native son of Peekskill, the town where I live, and the author used real events in Peekskill (thinly disguised as Peterskill) as the basis for his 1987 book World's End. The book spans multiple centuries and 456 pages, creeping toward karmic retribution for the crimes of the area Dutch against the region’s natives — and, more recently, the Peekskill riots.
At least Boyle did the research. But whatever self-awareness white writers can bring to literature about stolen land is lost by the time it makes it to a screen. Colin Dickey’s 2016 article in The New Republic, “The Suburban Horror of the Indian Burial Ground” summarizes this perfectly:
“Time and time again in these stories, perfectly average, innocent American families are confronted by ghosts who have persevered for centuries, who remain vengeful for the damage done. Facing these ghosts and expelling them, in many of these horror stories, becomes a means of re-fighting the Indian Wars of past centuries.”
This is just a long way of saying that when the Claire couple relocates from New York City to an upstate farmhouse at the beginning of Things Heard & Seen, the absence of these cliches was genuinely shocking. (The film is based on the novel All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage. I haven’t read the book so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the adaptation.)
Instead of ghosts, George Claire’s academic focus on painter George Innes, who was inspired by spiritualist Emanuel Swedenborg, supplies the psychological creep factor. The epigraph of the film is a quote by Swedenborg: “This I can declare...things that are in heaven are more real than things that are in the world.”
This is the second film in five years I’ve seen that uses an actual spiritual artist as a plot device. The first was Personal Shopper, in which Kristen Stewart as Maureen reads all about Hilma af Klint while mourning her dead brother, Lewis. As far as horror movies go, it’s a victimless trope. Zero ethnicities are stereotyped, no sassy sidekick dies in the first ten minutes, and not a single ancestral tradition is butchered.
Maybe it’s refreshing, this haunting through mystical art rather than white guilt, because in the case of Things Heard & Seen the patriarch(y) fails on his own terms. George Claire, a Tom Ripleyesque pretender, is struck down by his narcissism. And the function of art is to confront the ghost of the self, not the Other. — By Daisy Alioto