The opening sequence of Jeremiah Kipp’s The Geechee Witch: A Boo Hag Story comes heavily overdetermined. In the Georgia Sea Islands, a young black man (Duane Cooper), returned from war and still wearing his dog tags, finds his sexual overtures to his wife (Danielle Cathcart) interrupted by the crying of their baby son. Later that night, he wakes in bed with a monstrous hag (Nikelola Balogun) on top of him sucking out his very breath. As he struggles and lashes back violently against this demonic assault, he wakes again to discover that he has just killed his wife in his sleep – with the baby’s crying audible once again in the background.
This prologue can be rationalised away with one or other straightforward psychological reading: the husband, whether out of sexual frustration or combat shock or both, has enacted while asleep his confused aggressions and desires, with lethal consequences. Yet the film’s very title, and the brief text that opens it, point to a more otherworldly interpretation: that this couple has fallen victim to a boo hag of the local Gullah culture – a skin-stealing, literally breath-taking witch summoned by a malign curse. Perhaps both readings can be true, paradoxically coexisting as two very different aspects of the same tragic experience – after all, Kipp has already deftly ambiguated the figure of a witch in his previous Slapface (2021). Either way, the title appearing on screen immediately after this sequence is written in capital letters that are red, white and blue, suggesting that this ‘boo hag story’ is also a chronicle of America.
Cut to some decades later, and urban architect Asa Robbins (Stephen Cofield Jr.) is returning to his childhood home on one of the islands for the first time in years, together with his artist wife Leah (Tryphena Wade) who has never been there before or met his family. The immediate occasion for this visit may be the recent death of Asa’s mother, but Asa and Leah have their own marital problems, and are “looking for change” in leaving their stressful New York life. So they move into the big old house where Asa’s mother lived – and died – even as her now widowed husband Dwaine (Lance E. Nichols), wanting his own change, heads off to Florida for retirement. Yet the troubled sleep that had afflicted Asa’s mother up to her death – and that is, according to local doctor Zoe Quade (Ernestine Johnson), “quite common around these parts” – quickly begins to affect Leah at night too.
Once again, two competing explanations are offered for this condition. Dr Quade insists that it is sleep paralysis and night terrors, attributable to recent calamities in Leah’s life and treatable with prescription medicine, while the house’s old groundsman Jacob (Basil Wallace) is convinced that she is being ridden by a ‘hag’ at night, and requires the ‘root work’ of Hoodoo ritual to counter this witch’s insidious presence. At the same time, Leah is also prey to the stresses of an overworked husband with wandering eyes, of her own frustrated desire to have a child, of creative block, and of Jacob’s ubiquitous granddaughter Naledi (Sinclair Daniel) who clearly wants Asa to herself. So the tensions here come with multiple motivations. Dr Quade’s mother Mary (Janee Michelle) even suggests what plagues Leah may in fact be part of her husband’s convoluted genetic legacy – a curse passed on from his parents.
There is certainly something unsettling, maybe even supernatural, going on here, as Leah is confronted in the witching hour with her husband’s roots and inherited local history – but that history, though very specifically localised (the furthest that this film ever strays from the confines of this Lowcountry Island is on board a ferry headed there), is also national in nature. For buried in this story is the spectre of slavery, and the shadow of trauma that it sends to haunt subsequent generations. This is conjured not just by the film’s focus on the Geechee people – an ethnocultural group originally transported from West Africa to work the Georgian fields – but also by the Robbins’ property, comprising a white, colonnaded manor and (as Naledi points out) “the five acres around it”. For this was clearly once a plantation house belonging to wealthy slaveowners, and indeed still maintains certain of the old divisions (the family’s long-standing retainer Jacob lives in a beat-up caravan on the edge of the property). And looming over all these signifiers of the slavery era is a literal loom, once used by Mary’s own late mother to weave the cotton from the fields, and also seen in Leah’s dreams with a horrifying weft of bloody skin to underline the device’s historic associations with human suffering.
Featuring an all-black cast, The Geechee Witch: A Boo Hag Story is concerned with twisted inheritances, and in particular with the still-standing estates of the Antebellum South Period era. Here slavery, though an institution of the past, keeps sending its ramifying ripples washing ashore in the present, its price paid in the heavy wages of military service, in the encroachments of neo-colonial gentrification (as Naledi points out, the north side of the Island is now all holiday resorts), and in the retraumatising invasions of these characters’ sleeping subconsciouses. Towards the end of the film, Leah tries to put an end to this harrowing legacy, declaring, “That’s in the past, let’s just focus on the future” – but the screenplay from J. Craig Gordon, Phoenix Higgins and Jason Walter Short suggests that, unlike Count Orlok undone by simple sunlight in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), the parasitic, soul-sapping Boo Hag is not so easily dispelled, and will still be around for at least the next generation – perhaps even for a sequel. That is, after all, where (folk) horror and generational trauma intersect, as both keep disinterring and resurrecting an uneasy past that refuses to remain forever buried or forgotten.
strap: Jeremiah Kipp’s supernatural psychodrama carefully confounds folk horror with the generational trauma of slavery
© Anton Bitel