The Skeleton Key, Historical Erasure, and Cultural Appropriation

By Max Schiersner Caodaglio

Figure 1: Hampton Plantation, Charleston County, South Carolina

Horror is an easily recognizable literary genre due to its frequent exploration of what torments our minds and anxieties. Supernatural happenings and paranormal implications are part of such stories, from books to Hollywood movies. Ghosts, cults, séances, rituals, and magic – to name a few traits – have enjoyed widespread use in the genre. While some movies may simply appear to adhere to these tropes in amorphous and universal terms, The Skeleton Key (2005) is a fine example of using the genre to its full potential to enhance storytelling tailored to an American context. Directed by Iain Softley, the movie situates horror in a way to expose socio-historical characteristics of the American South and its troubled relationship with its own past, particularly regarding slavery and post-Reconstruction white supremacy ideology. Such characteristics are not exclusive to The Skeleton Key, as these stories and specific aesthetics have been labeled “Southern Gothic”, a subgenre of thriller stories set in the American South. There are three main elements to this category: first, the topics of slavery or racial conflicts loom around the story, eventually arriving at the center of the story (or not); second, past and present are tied into the narrative in a dialectical manner; and finally, a somber and decaying aesthetic is employed, which is instrumental in highlighting the American South swamp landscape (Balanzategui, 2019; Bjerre, 2017).

While The Skeleton Key has enjoyed Southern Gothic genre-focused analyses, I am interested in how the movie approaches the themes of otherness and cultural appropriation. How does its narrative discuss African American culture and History after Reconstruction? On the one hand, the plot echoes white othering in relation to African American traditions and the unequal power dynamics involved when two different cultural backgrounds meet, especially in Southern America. On the other hand, it tells the story of an African American couple living through the years by preying on unaware people. Moreover, the narrative is told through the point-of-view of an outsider, a woman not of African American descent nor from the South. Her approach to traditions and beliefs as a white woman is the backbone of The Skeleton Key’s discussion about cultural appropriation and otherness, aspects also found throughout more recent Southern Gothic stories (Bjerre, 2017).

The Skeleton Key follows these points very closely: We accompany Caroline, a young white woman working as a caretaker for the white elderly Deveraux couple – matron Violet and her stroke-paralyzed husband Benjamin – at the Terrebonne Parish’s old opulent plantation home in Louisiana. Caroline has access to all rooms except the attic, and after confronting Violet about it, she finds out the house was the site of racially fueled violence in the 1920s: an African American couple named Mama Cecile and Papa Justify worked and lived in the house as servants to a wealthy white family. Unbeknownst to the family, they were frequent hoodoo practitioners – magic traditions and beliefs from the American South originating with the enslaved African American population. During an evening party, the white elite in Terrebonne Parish found Mama Cecile and Papa Justify conducting one of their rituals with the house owners’ children. The servants were caught and lynched by a mob at a tree in the house’s backyard. At the end of the movie, Caroline finds out that the hoodoo ritual conducted in the 1920s was meant to switch the servants’ bodies with the children, and they have been conducting the ritual throughout the years to stay alive: Violet Deveraux is revealed to be Mama Cecile, and Papa Justify now inhabits the body of Terrebonne Parish’s local lawyer Luke. After falling into her trap, Mama Cecile switches bodies with Caroline, easily manages to subdue her old body, and seals Caroline’s fate – now in Violet Deveraux’s body – by drugging her and sending her to a mental institution.

Figure 2: Moore Bayou near Gillett, Arkansas, December 14, 2019

The Skeleton Key as a Southern Gothic movie

Southern Gothic pieces of work may discuss slavery directly or simply invoke its roots and specters around their narrative (Balanzategui, 2019, p. 95). Likewise, in The Skeleton Key, it is never mentioned whether Mama Cecile or Papa Justify had any relationship with slavery themselves or not. However, such a connection is unnecessary, as racial violence has remained a stain in American History until the present day, a direct concept from the Southern Gothic style (Balanzategui, 2019; Bjerre, 2017). The African American couple’s subjugated past is vital in understanding their actions in the present, and such is the dialectical manner in which Southern Gothic stories usually operate their timelines. The movie’s final sequence shows

“Ben” and “Violet” (as inhabited by Luke and Caroline) being casually locked into the back of an ambulance by paramedics as they both writhe in distress […] It is implied that they will both be taken to a hospice center to live out their remaining days, their experiences and identities written out of the present, future – and ultimately, history – like many generations of African Americans before them (Balanzategui, 2019, p. 97).

The ending works both as a type of supernatural justice or revenge for what had happened to Papa Justify and Mama Cecile, and personally against Caroline. It is established through the movie that young African Americans are not disturbed by what they cannot understand – namely, hoodoo. Caroline as an outsider, however, pushes forward with her informal investigation, another sign of her othering process of hoodoo: Jill, Caroline’s friend of African American descent, refuses to involve herself deeply because “[she is] not just gonna mess around with it”. But hoodoo to Caroline is nothing but a mystery to be solved, not part of a cultural identity.

Caroline’s journey reveals a dark and hidden story about the plantation house where most of the movie takes place and the horrors therein. Although one can still attest to its impressive and opulent nature, the plantation scenery is somber and rotten in the present. Not only does it match the audiences’ common aesthetic expectations of a horror movie, but the plantation house is also established as a mysterious and even cursed locale in most Gothic stories (Balanzategui, 2019, p. 103; Bjerre, 2017). The walls are filled with stories and truths, but getting to know them is uncomfortable and unnerving. As Jessica Balanzategui points out, the movie’s narrative exposes how whitewashed official American history often covers up perspectives of oppression and racial inequality.

Moreover, audiences on their first viewing might believe the house to be haunted. Nevertheless, the movie interestingly subverts this by revealing that there are no ghosts, but Mama Cecile and Papa Justify have just swapped bodies. The supernatural is present in The Skeleton Key but in a way to highlight the real horrors of American history. This is why some authors argue that the American South is the perfect landscape representation of the American Gothic, as it was considered by Allison Graham (2007) as a “repository of national repressions”.

Add this to Benjamin Fisher’s definition of the literary Gothic as something that evokes “anxieties, fears, terrors, often in tandem with violence, brutality, rampant sexual impulses, and death,” and it becomes clear how the tradition of the Southern Gothic plays into already established ideas about the South as an “ill” region. (Bjerre, 2017)

Objectification of culture and otherness

Figure 3: Family on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, circa 1862.

The Skeleton Key works effectively as a story about an African American couple being historically vindicated every time they switch bodies, especially with whites. It also acts as an interesting discussion between faith and belief in the supernatural, and scientific skepticism. While Violet Deveraux/Mama Cecile is the personification of spirituality, Caroline seeks to understand hoodoo through a distant scientific interpretation, symbolizing her approach to African American culture throughout most of the movie. As a white woman, Caroline is an outsider to the African American practices and culture that she later comes to understand better when investigating the house. When meeting for the first time, Violet Deveraux/Mama Cecile states clearly about Caroline: “She’s not from around here. She’s not gonna understand my house.” And further on, directly to the young lady: “You’re not from the South. You won’t understand it.”

Caroline’s terrible fate arises from the fact that she treats hoodoo as an object of ‘otherness horror’: hoodoo culture is scary or intimidating to her simply because she is an outsider and does not understand them. We first follow her impressions of being haunted by the rituals, until eventually using them against Violet Deveraux/Mama Cecile. However, her encounter with hoodoo culture did not help her sympathize with Mama Cecile and Papa Justify’s killings or Southern traditions altogether. Caroline’s objectification of hoodoo magic rituals disconnected from their context draws from the definition of cultural appropriation:

The Cambridge Dictionary (n.d.) defines cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” […] This definition implies that the “appropriator” is not part of the group to which the cultural element itself belongs. […] Whoever is engaging in this process can engage with the culture on their own term, thus indicating that power dynamics are at play. Third, and perhaps most important, the cultural element is taken out of its context in a way that either does not credit its origins or is disrespectful to its meaning (Cherid, 2021, p. 359)

Before working as a caretaker in Terrebonne Parish, Caroline worked as a hospice nurse. Caroline carries several items from her last patient after he passes, all of which show the latter’s taste for Rock n’ Roll music: Caroline’s car keys now carry a small guitar token that once belonged to him. The semiotic decision is conscious, since some scholars consider Rock music as culturally appropriated from African Americans in the 1950s, with White musicians reaching fame and profits far beyond any African American musician (Balanda, 2020). Thus, cultural appropriation has been present since the beginning of The Skeleton Key’s plot.

Because Caroline was sick of throwing away her patients’ belongings when they died, one could interpret Caroline’s actions of keeping her patient’s mementos as justified or in good faith. This establishes the main character’s conflicting nature with a “color-blind ideology,” since she sympathizes just enough to keep their memorabilia but not dive deeper into their personal accounts. Such a fallacy enables cultural appropriators to reap social or financial benefits while maintaining racial and ethnic hierarchies between marginalized groups and oppressors (Balanda, 2020; Cherid, 2021). After all, Caroline sought hoodoo magic on her own terms to fight Violet Deveraux’s threat against her own husband Benjamin. Even then, Caroline still fails to acknowledge African Americans’ struggle and their exploitation history in the South, personified by her patients, Mama Cecile and Papa Justify.

Therefore, the narrative deals with two possessions, an abstract and a physical one. In the former, Caroline loses her body while attempting to dismiss hoodoo as real. In the latter, Mama Cecile and Papa Justify must swap bodies for their survival through the years. Such a metaphor subtly describes African American cultures’ struggle against extinction and marginalization – a recent trope from the Southern Gothic style (Balanzategui, 2019; Bjerre, 2017). Critical race theory scholars echo that appropriative acts function in a top-to-bottom direction, from a dominant class to a marginalized culture’s identity. It may be harmful enough to discredit targeted groups, fetishizing, misrepresenting, or offending their traditions and validity (Cruz et al., 2023). Moreover, there is a vast difference between these appropriations, as “only the dominant group is in a position to impose the value of its particularity (its identity) and to devalue the particularity of others (their otherness) while imposing corresponding discriminatory measures” (Staszak, 2019, p. 25).

Figure 4: Foster Home plantation, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

The American South and its history are troubled spaces in The Skeleton Key because the former was the stage for atrocious acts against African Americans, and they remain culturally complex and contested places in American society. The movie acts as a discussion medium for these themes, exposing longstanding social conflict in American society.

The Southern Gothic aesthetic is deployed to invoke an ever-present threat of racial violence and inequalities, where the American South is the stage for past – and present – racial conflicts. The American Gothic explores how slavery left invisible yet sensitive marks on the soil still present in American society to this day, ones that cannot be easily forgotten, such as racial tensions and social inequalities, power dynamics based on white supremacy ideology, and cultural appropriation of non-Whites.

Caroline’s attempts to find out what hoodoo is and the true nature of the plantation house – although initially well-intentioned in hopes to save “Benjamin”– only functioned in a way so that she could weaponize them, however ultimately falling into Mama Cecile’s trap. By removing the cultural practices and rituals from their context, hoodoo seemed altogether otherworldly to Caroline.

What began as another haunted house mystery narrative, gave way to a multi-layered fiery narrative of an African American couple surviving through the decades against historical erasure and cultural appropriation. It is crucial to point out that while the movie exhibits African American suffering and an American Gothic narrative, the main antagonists are still objects of otherness, portrayed as haunting because their traditions are of African American origin. This can either be due to how Hollywood has operated towards African American actors since its conception, or simply because it was stylistically more effective in this narrative. In the 2010s, though, American directors such as Jordan Peele have been able to align both social criticism and the horror mystique in a harmonious way, namely in Get Out (2017) – gathering the acclaim and careful social commentary that The Skeleton Key risked achieving years before. While not set in the American South, one could yet notice the Southern Gothic genre tropes in its story of an African American man endangered by menacing White people. However, The Skeleton Key did take part in a substantive narrative change in Hollywood and American culture in the early-2000s, by exposing and acknowledging important and multi-faceted discussions about America’s troubled and violent past.


About the Author

Max Schiersner Caodaglio received his BA in Social Sciences from Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (PUC-SP) in Brazil. He concluded his M.A. degree at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA) in 2023. He is interested in American culture, Twentieth-century American History, and Film Studies.


References

Balanda, M. E. (2020). Bodies without the Burden: White Appropriation and Exploitation of Black Appearance and Culture. Student Publications, 857. https://cupola.gettysburg.edu/student_scholarshiphttps://cupola.gettysburg.edu/student_scholarship/857

Balanzategui, J. (2019). The Skeleton Key, the Southern Gothic and the Uncanny Decay of Teleological History. In J. C. Miller & A. B. Van Riper (Eds.), Elder Horror: Essays on Film’s Frightening Images of Aging (pp. 92–106). McFarland & Company. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/swin/detail.action?docID=5650191.

Bjerre, T. (2017). Southern Gothic Literature. Research Paper – University of Oxford. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.304

Cherid, M. I. (2021). “Ain’t Got Enough Money to Pay Me Respect”: Blackfishing, Cultural Appropriation, and the Commodification of Blackness. Cultural Studies – Critical Methodologies, 21(5), 359–364. https://doi.org/10.1177/15327086211029357

Cruz, A. G. B., Seo, Y., & Scaraboto, D. (2023). Between Cultural Appreciation and Cultural Appropriation: Self-Authorizing the Consumption of Cultural Difference. Journal of Consumer Research. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucad022

Get Out (2017). Teaser Trailer. Universal Pictures. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lc9pZmkNf34

Staszak, J. F. (2019). Other/Otherness. In A. Kobayashi (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, Second Edition (2nd Ed., pp. 25–31). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-102295-5.10204-5


Images

Header / Figure 1: Hampton Plantation, Wambaw Creek, South side, McClellanville, Charleston County, SC. Image courtesy of Library of Congress

Figure 2: Image courtesy of the author.

Figure 3: Five generations on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina. Image courtesy of Library of Congress

Figure 4: Southern US plantation house – Foster House, Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. Photo credit: Betsy Hayslip, 1984, Wikimedia Commons via Addendum to US National Parks National Register of Historic Places



Cite this blog post
The Editors (2024, April 24). The Skeleton Key, Historical Erasure, and Cultural Appropriation. HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w9kg

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search