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Digging Up the Indian Burial Ground Trope

“An ancient Indian WHAT?” – Homer SImpson
Pet Sematary Indian Burial Ground
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on October 15th, 2020

Through a Native Lens is a column from film critic and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Shea Vassar, who will dive into the nuance of cinema’s best and worst cases of Indigenous representation. This entry looks at the tired trope involving haunted houses built on an Indian burial ground.

The Indian Burial Ground, also known as the IBG, is a trope that has a history of mediocre usage in horror cinema. Many who think of the IBG immediately recall little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) in Poltergeist; however, that 1982 film doesn’t have any ancient Native cause for its haunting. In fact, it goes out of its way to state that the mysterious happenings around the Freeling house are not caused by an IBG.

An IBG Poem

Death is a part of life, so the concept of funeral practices in some format has been around as long as humankind. A late 18th-century poem entitled “The Indian Burying Ground” by Philip Freneau speaks to a ghostly afterlife believed by the unnamed Native community he observed. The poem is a romantic one; it ponders the existential question of an eternal spirit after the fleshly death. 

Freneau considers the ways of the Native people who at the time were being murdered, having their land taken, and losing their cultural ways. Obviously, Freneau didn’t do much in protest other than writing this flowery work, but it is the earliest use of the IBG that I could find.

The Cinematic Beginning

Cinematically, the IBG trope goes back to the story of The Amityville Horror. The book was released by Jay Asen in 1977, and the rest is history. There have been twenty-one movies (so far), and tons of controversy surrounds the ordeal. While a murder did occur at the house found at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York, the book was supposedly based on true events, many of which have been disproved. Some speculate the entire haunting of the Lutz family that followed the original murder was invented as a ploy for money.

In the original film adaptation, which debuted in 1979, George and Kathy Lutz, played by James Brolin and Margot Kidder, purchase a house whose previous owner murdered his entire family. Soon, glowing red eyes and a room full of flies are seen on the property. In a claim consistent with Asen’s book, Kathy finds out the house was built on a Shinnecock burial ground. OH NO!

All land is Native land, but the Shinnecock tribe never occupied the area on which this infamous house was built. I mean, if you’re going to use a specific nation, then at least name the correct one. The erasure and inaccuracies of Native cultures within the movie industry are made worse by mixing up the names of our communities. Many might think that Navajos are like Mohawks or Ojibwes are like Cherokees, but our names are not interchangeable because each nation has its own unique histories, traditions, and cultural ways that exist today.

Two Stephen King Adaptations

The Shining, a book by Stephen King, was first adapted by Stanley Kubrick in 1980. Several details were changed from the source material, one of which is Kubrick’s addition of an IBG backstory. A single line of dialogue explains everything while the Torrance Family is touring their new residence. “The site’s supposed to be on an Indian burial ground.” 

Wall art and Native-inspired designs are found throughout the film. These Indigenous details have inspired a number of theories. Some say the entire plot is a metaphor for Native genocide, citing the waves of blood flowing from the elevators as a pathway to those who lay beneath. 

The ultimate question remains: Is the IBG the reason Jack Torrance and the caretakers before him go mad and try to kill his wife and child? While The Shining never revisits the specifics of this detail mentioned in passing at the beginning of the film, the addition of the IBG by Kubrick is not a mistake. The filmmaker is known for his perfectionism as well as his repetitive nature that ensured no misstep would make its way into the final product.

The next adaptation of King’s work with an IBG was Pet Sematary, released in 1989 (and remade in 2019). Its story relies on an ancient burial ground that brings the dead back to life. This ritual is first demonstrated with a cat named Church who is hit on the nearby highway. Sure, Church comes back to life, but he is smelly, mangy, and an evil version of the pet he once was.

While some have reported that King used a tribe not originally from the Maine setting of the story, this is untrue. The Mi’kmaq, also spelled Micmac like in Pet Sematary, do have one federally recognized tribe in the United States: the Aroostook Band of Micmac. Of course, the setting of the story is a town near the University of Maine, which is the traditional homeland of the Penobscot Nation. While the Penobscot are a part of the Wabanaki Confederacy with the Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Mi’kmaq, however, these are all different peoples.

The interesting aspect of the IBG in Pet Sematary is that the Native connection is not what causes the malice in the beings brought back to life. As the story explains, the ground was made sour by a windigo. The windigo is a malicious demon spirit that is believed to be fueled by its lack of cultural roots. It feeds on anything and everything, including people, and its greed knows no satisfaction.

Some believe that bankers and other investors that are involved with the oil industry, which is a constant threat to Native land, are under a windigo psychosis, which is why they display a constant need to devour and destroy.

So, what does this mean?

Other than a couple of outliers, like 2003’s Identity and 2012’s Silent Hill: Revelation, most of the IBG stories in cinema came out of the 1980s. Big Hollywood features weren’t the only plots that utilized the trope, either. The low budget 1983 B-movie Scalps and the 1986 Italian slasher Body Count each dealt with an IBG.

The popularity in this era could be due to the current events at the time. The Indian Civil Rights Act was passed in 1968 which ensured concepts like freedom of speech and press, right to due process, and protection from double jeopardy. However, ideals like sovereignty and the right to fish and hunt are still issues that Native communities face to this day.

In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act reversed the outlaw against specific practices and ceremonies. The fear of non-monotheistic religions and beliefs has ironically been evident since the first Americans settled on Native land for the reason of spiritual freedom. The sudden allowance, at least on paper, of practices that had once been seen as too mystical and esoteric could very well have led to the popularity of the IBG in the following decade.

Since then, there’s been more a continuation of the trope on television. Many shows, like The Simpsons, specifically its second season Treehouse of Horror Halloween special, have included episodes with an IBG. Other series include Family Guy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Supernatural, all of which include an IBG in at least one episode. These are all works of fiction, but turn on any instance of Ghost Adventures, a paranormal investigator reality show, and every fifth episode or so deals with some sort of IBG.

No matter the specifics, all of these examples are annoying mainly because they are done without any Native involvement. Even in the case of Stephen King and the windigo, something he has used in more works than just Pet Sematary, the creature is taken out of context and put forth for a non-Native audience. Essentially, the IBG and all the stories that involve this underdeveloped explanation for a haunting presence is a form of cinematic cultural appropriation. It erases any sort of specific Native cultural belief about the afterlife while spreading false information.

Plus, the IBGs don’t add something to the plot that a regular cemetery could not — as seen with Poltergeist. All final resting places have a creepy factor that could and should be utilized. So why has the IBG trope continued so specifically and exclusively? Native activist and writer Terri Jean gives us five possible theories:

  1. The IBG plot-line worked in one movie, so it’ll work in others, and so they’ll write it in as long as it sells.
  2. Graveyards are well-marked, while an IBG could be anywhere. This allows for endless possibilities without explanation, so it’s a screenwriter’s dream.
  3. A Native villain, or a Native inspired spirit that haunts the vicinity, plays into stereotypes that have been around since colonization. The attitude towards Native people as lesser than or as equal to evil is reinforced.
  4. People are afraid of what they don’t know, and the general public is undereducated about Native people.
  5. Guilt, specifically settler guilt. There is a fear that Native people killed by European settlers might come back for revenge on their murderer’s descendants.

The most frustrating aspect of the IBG is that we are talking about a bunch of dead Native people. This adds to the incorrect narrative that all Native Americans are extinct. The historical — and therefore non-existent in a modern time — image of the warrior chief and all his maidens and children that just need some flute music to play in the background is the common misconception of the Native American.

I am here to tell you that we are still here, and I am evidence of that. We are not all buried in some unmarked grave, driving a stepfather to murder like in The Amityville Horror, or turning your dead cat into some sort of demonic being like in Pet Sematary. For the most part, we are working to fill the gaps where the American educational system has failed to teach about our existence and are attempting to reverse the harm from underdeveloped plot devices like the IBG.

The IBG is a watered-down portrayal of Native cultures as a monolith that existed in the historical past instead of the vibrant and diverse umbrella that the term “Native American” covers even today. This isn’t to say tropes can’t be used correctly. I am hopeful that eventually a Native filmmaker will use the IBG in a satirical way and point out some of the issues with using it in new media today.

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Shea Vassar is a ᏣᎳᎩ film nerd & huge fan of coffee, cats, and the OKC Thunder.