The Dictator’s Ghost

Horror has always been political. In Jayro Bustamante’s “La Llorona,” the long shadow of genocide haunts the house.

María Mercedes Coroy in Jayro Bustamante's "La Llorona"
María Mercedes Coroy in Jayro Bustamante's La Llorona. Venice Film Festival

La Llorona, Jayro Bustamante’s 2019 Guatemalan horror movie on the short list for Best International Feature Film at this year’s Academy Awards, tells the story of a crumbling aristocratic family in a crumbling home as things fall apart and the chasm of the past opens underneath them. This is not an uncommon plot for a horror movie; it may in fact be the single most common plot of horror movies.

Another familiar trope in horror is that of the weeping woman who has killed her children and now demands yours, the best-known of which is “La Llorona” of Latin American folklore, variations of which are told across Central and South America. She appears in Aztec and Chumash legend, while Venezuelan interpretations tend to portray her as a mother whose children have been lost in wartime (usually, again, by her own hands out of immense frustration). The myth has spread far: Susan Hill’s 1983 novel The Woman in Black is itself fundamentally a “La Llorona” tale, lifted out from its cultural context and deposited in the English Gothic tradition.

There have been at least 10 films that specifically allude to La Llorona, including the first Mexican horror movie, Ramón Peón’s 1933 La Llorona, and Rafael Baledón’s 1963 The Curse of the Crying Woman. Bustamante’s La Llorona, whose painstaking and atmospheric scares have been outpaced at the box office by recent contenders that have mined the myth for jump-scare gold, is perhaps the most creative and chilling of its kind. Although this La Llorona has found an audience on Shudder, AMC Networks’ add-on channel pitched at the streaming and screaming demographic, it’s a weightier undertaking for a viewer than most other interpretations.

Case in point: In the same year Bustamante’s film came to audiences, James Wan’s Conjuring universe brought a specifically Mexican American La Llorona to a Los Angeles setting in The Curse of La Llorona, directed by Michael Chaves, which managed to gross $123 million on a $9 million budget. That film’s protagonist, a white social worker, has to be told a simplified version of the myth—ghost lady lost her babies, ghost lady wants your babies—before it engulfs her. No one in Bustamante’s La Llorona has anything explained to them. It explains very little to us, either. The antagonist is not the woman who has lost everything, as we have come to expect. The antagonist is instead the broken human personification of the force of genocidal actions that took everything from her.

Ever-present is the memory of historical violence committed against Indigenous Mayans.

Ever-present in Bustamante’s La Llorona is the memory of historical violence committed against Indigenous Mayans. The long shadow of the three-decade-long Guatemalan Civil War falls over his characters. Guatemalan viewers will immediately recognize the most specific reference point as the 1981 La Llorona/El Estor massacre, in which a village populated by Q’eqchi’ peoples was ransacked by military forces and large landholders, but the greater losses and disappearances of this time period, the complicity of American intelligence and foreign companies such as the American United Fruit Company, and the particular suffering of Indigenous civilians and activists inflicted by the military allow for a literally incalculable number of tragedies to come to the forefront of memory. If one had to make an educated guess at the specific dictator most implicated in Bustamante’s film, the 2015 decision to declare José Efraín Ríos Montt mentally unfit to stand trial for the genocide of Mayan Ixils is extremely close to the bone.

Genocide may seem like an odd backdrop for a myth that has usually been centered on a more granular, personal catastrophe, but horror has always been political. Economic scarcity is one of the most common excuses used by novelists and filmmakers alike to explain why their characters cannot, say, pick up and leave their haunted house. What is Rosemary’s Baby if not a film about one’s desperate need to hang onto a suspiciously affordable apartment, even as your neighbors begin to lose their mask of civility around you? Horror has tangoed with the Catholic Church, with Indigenous land appropriation and its discontents, with rape, with racism, with rent control, with landlords, with feminism, with the aftermath of institutionalization, with the particular disconnection of rural life and the end of the small American farmer, with the strictures of generational class divides, and with the new class divides constantly being invented and reinvented by tech dollars. Every generation’s contemporary horror has always found a way to blend cultural mythologies and rituals with current realities.

An achingly slow unspooling of physical possessions and clothing standards deftly untethers the characters from reality.

In Bustamante’s film, former dictator Enrique Monteverde is living in the sort of rapidly devolving fortress viewers recognize as such at once. He has managed to avoid legal punishment for his crimes due to a technicality so unimportant to us or the victims of his past that it is barely mentioned. His family and his contemporaries know his public downfall and de facto house arrest are their own, and Bustamante uses an achingly slow unspooling of their physical possessions and clothing standards—as well as the gradual disappearance of their Indigenous household staff—to deftly untether his characters from their reality.

Having paid scant attention to the staff they’ve always had, who begin to decamp as soon as Enrique begins to patrol his mansion in search of a weeping woman only he can hear, the arrival of the quite obviously spectral Alma is barely noticed. The rot is already present, it’s palpable from the opening shot, and the viewer simply waits for others to become aware of it. So, too, do the Mayan employees recognize the writing on the wall long before their employers, who can’t believe they’ve been abandoned by the help in their time of need. The household visuals (increasingly damp, increasingly shadowy, progressively separated from the world outside its walls) are reminiscent of Relic, the 2020 Australian horror movie about elder care and dementia, though Bustamante never opts to be as on-the-nose with his metaphors. This, too, is a movie about elder care, and like most horror movies about elder care (Relic, The Taking of Deborah Logan, The Dark and the Wicked), those engaged in that care begin to realize they are taking care of a monster. The difference in La Llorona, and a very effective one, is that the monster was always present—their loved one has not been possessed by a devil or a mysterious, dark force beyond their control.

This is not a movie where the past can be laid to rest by finding and burying a child’s discarded body, by offering yourself in place of an innocent, by religious rites, or by telling the undead that you see them and feel their pain. It’s just trauma. The trauma remains. It endures. Alma doesn’t want anything, and any student of horror can tell you there’s no ghost more tenacious than a ghost without a list of demands. Alma, played brilliantly by María Mercedes Coroy, who also appeared in Bustamante’s debut Ixcanul, has come solely to make you to look at her, and freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.