Hulu’s Into the Dark
Season 1, Episode 10: “Culture Shock”
Directed by Gigi Saul Guerrero
Written by Guerrero & James Benson & Efren Hernandez
* For a recap & review of the previous episode, “They Come Knocking” – click here
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “School Spirit” – click here
Although Father Gore’s done recaps / reviews for the other episodes throughout Into the Dark, this article on Culture Shock will be a traditional article like others on the site. Why? Because, despite there being other instalments of the series with heavy, important messages, Gigi Saul Guerrero’s horror film is especially important in 2019.
Right now, there are men, women, and children kept in cages, denied the most basic human rights many of us take for granted. While most are content to post on social media platforms, some artists— like Guerrero— are using their own creative platform to send a message via fiction.
Culture Shock isn’t subtle in its execution. A great film with intentions that are clear, strong, and rightfully vicious. Guerrero intelligently keeps a focus on character + story rather than descend too far into gratuitous horror for horror’s sake. The terror remains strong in how the protagonist, Marisol (Martha Higareda), must navigate an existential predicament after crossing the border illegally to find a slice of the American Dream in a town called Cape Joy, where she winds up in an American Nightmare instead.
Marisol’s journey deconstructs said American Dream using genre cinema, eclipsing the boundaries of horror and mixing in science fiction. After she crosses the U.S. border she winds up in a dream world, where the transition into U.S. culture is made easy, except it’s a world where all other identity— apart from White American— is effectively erased, and a new, more compliant identity is formed. The illusion of America is ever present in Guerrero’s film. She vividly illustrates the painful path many immigrants must walk when they’re unable to wait for the lengthy, expensive legal immigration process to turn its wheels. What so many see as a criminal act is actually, in many if not most cases, an act of desperation, of survival, and of the human spirit refusing to be extinguished.
“Don’t worry about what you’ve lost,
of all that you’ve gained.”
One of the immediate things Guerrero focuses on is the media. Reports about the “nationwide crisis” of immigration in America bookend the film. At the start, it’s a lot of reporting on the “migrant caravan” and other anti-immigrant rhetoric. News anchors talk about a “hot zone of illegal terrorist activity“— illegal + terrorist is redundant, as is often the case with conservative coverage. This reactionary reporting is juxtaposed against images of real horror, glimpses of what’s really happening to immigrants seeking a better life. What the U.S. media does is, both purposefully and inadvertently, help right-wing views filter into the mainstream, in turn allowing the erasure of identity.
The more xenophobic media out there, the more nebulous immigrant identity becomes. It’s easier for people to make rash, uneducated decisions about immigration when individual identities are diluted to a set of numbers / graphics blasted across a chyron and misinterpreted by reporters, or when Ann Coulter and her ilk refer to poorer countries as “the Third World” / “festering hotbeds of tribal warfare.” These are tactics of dehumanisation. The general public, who are less vigilant about what sources they trust, see a depersonalised view of immigration, viewing it as a political issue when it’s a humanitarian one. Immigrants have complex identities, not to mention rich cultures and traditions that have helped form the foundation(s) of America.
One chilling moment concerning identity comes in Marisol’s dream. She has a vision of her border crossing pal, Santo (Richard Cabral), stabbing himself. He’s literally unable to recognise himself in his own skin, believing he’s someone else. His self-mutilation is a gruesome image of the self-destruction imposed on an immigrant by the American identity that’s forced upon them.
Another interesting scene to consider in light of immigrant identity is when Marisol sits for dinner and traditional U.S. food is served. The food choices themselves are worth noting. One night it’s pizza, then another night there’s steak and potatoes, and dessert is usually apple pie with ice cream. The irony is the only thing genuinely American there are the steak and potatoes.
Pizza comes from Italy, apple pie originated in England, and ice cream was first made in China. This epitomises the ignorant U.S. attitude that ‘white culture’ (a racist admission in its own right) comes from America, when immigrants from all over the world have helped synthesise what many of them consider elements of the national cuisine. So much of the country’s culture is predicated on immigrants, right down to food.
Conservative America doesn’t want immigration, even those who appear ‘soft’ on the issue. They want assimilation. They’d like an immigrant to give up their culture / identity at the door, to all but renounce everything they are and stamp the U.S. flag directly onto their soul, despite immigrants helping to build the country / its infrastructure. The supposed American Dream is not anybody’s dream, it’s a dream prescribed by the white American patriarchy. The reality is an American Nightmare for anybody not the right colour / class / gender. Marisol’s journey is made all the more perilous due to the intersection of race, class, and gender.
There’s an interesting Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland quality to Marisol’s time in Cape Joy. The whole place is ethereal, the colours like candy. Marisol becomes like Alice, lost in a strange place she doesn’t understand. Betty (Barbara Crampton) is a dominant figure, the Queen of Hearts in this twisted Lewis Carroll America. But, unlike Carroll’s story, ruled over by a queen, this nightmare’s run by men. The two doctors who run the whole experiment are, not coincidentally, male. Before she ever actually reaches America, Marisol is preyed upon by one of her own people, showing the universality of misogyny. Betty, while initially appearing like she runs the place, is only a simulation designed by men. She operates as an engine of internalised misogyny + white nationalism— Crampton’s platinum blonde hair and blue eyes evoke an eerie cross between Nazi Germany’s twisted vision of perfect Aryan beauty and Village of the Damned.
An obvious parallel in Culture Shock leads to The Matrix. What the immigrants experience in Cape Joy is a simulation, exactly like the world Morpheus and his people introduce to Neo. This simulated reality encapsulates the illusion of an American Dream. The Dream is a projected image, a mirage. In one scene, Marisol witnesses a dinner table in Betty’s home glitch then disappear. America is like the system of the Matrix, in that it’s two vastly different worlds at once— one known to the working class / immigrants / women, another known only to the white wealthy class. The country and its Dream are like the 4th of July fireworks Marisol sees in the sky after witnessing the real, ugly face of the country: all spectacle, no substance.
“The American ideal, after all, is that
everyone should be
as much alike as possible.”
— James Baldwin,
Notes of a Native Son
In his collection of essays We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that “white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.” Many white people baulk at statements such as these, unable or unwilling to look honestly at the devastation racism has caused in their country. Partly because they’re afraid to admit the privilege their skin has afforded them. Father Gore’s a white man, and though his life has been difficult in many ways it’s never been made difficult because of skin colour— the essence of privilege, from which so many of us have benefited by virtue of nothing other than the existential lottery of birth.
Culture Shock depicts a horrific vision of a dystopian America. It’s also a painful metaphorical look at where the nation is currently. A story such as Marisol’s is all too real, despite the use of genre to explore her experience crossing the border. Many conservatives and neoliberals act like crossing the border illegally is an easy decision, when it’s often a life / death thing, especially for women and children.
Guerrero’s film embodies the brutal process immigrants must endure to find a better life, and also the processes working against them to ensure they assimilate entirely into American culture. The U.S. has never been a place where dreams come true. It has, for a long, long time, been a country where nightmares come alive to consume society whole.