Written and directed by publicist Ted Geoghegan, We Are Still Here (2015) has been described as many things: a ghost story, a New England folk tale, and an homage to body horror – due to its bloody climax and casting of horror ‘scream queen’ Barbara Crampton, who appeared in cult classics such as Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). The combination of these three elements, as well as the way in which the film draws on the history of New England, suggests that the film is a commentary on colonisation.
It is 1979 and Paul and Anne Sacchetti (Andrew Sensenig and Barbara Crampton) have moved to New England from New York after losing their only son, Bobby, in an automobile accident. Neighbours Dave and Cat McCabe (Monte Markham and Connie Neer) are surprised when they call on the Sacchetti’s and discover that they have been in the house for two weeks. Cat covertly slips a handwritten note to Paul, telling him to leave, as the ‘Dagmar’ house, still named after its original owners, ‘needs a family’. Paul, of course, ignores this warning.
In addition to the strange behaviour from the locals, the couple begin to experience a ghostly presence in the house. Anne believes that her son is responsible for the spiritual activity and invites a family friend to visit who claims to be clairvoyant, May Lewis (Lisa Marie) to stay. Arriving with her stoner husband Jacob, (Larry Fessenden) May has in turn invited her son Harry (Michael Patrick Nicholson) and his girlfriend Daniella (Kelsea Dakota). Harry was Bobby’s roommate at college and May believes that his presence will comfort Anne.
It is revealed that the local community woke an ancient evil on the land when they erected the house for Lassander Dagmar (Guy Gane) and his family in the 1800s. Dagmar had relocated to the area to serve as the town’s mortician. When the evil entity demanded that a family must be sacrificed, lest the town be consumed by the evil, the community conspired against the Dagmar family, murdering them in a house fire that was reported to be accidental. The ancient power resurfaces every thirty years, feeding on a new family supplied by the townsfolk.
Geoghegan himself was kind enough to confirm that the film is set in the fictional town of Aylesbury, Massachusetts. Aylesbury is of course taken from H. P. Lovecraft’s short story The Dunwich Horror (1929). Lovecraft’s Dunwich, which pays homage to the earlier use of the name in Arthur Machen’s The Terror (1917), is an imaginary town located in the fictional Miskatonic River Valley of Massachusetts, often referred to as Lovecraft Country. His writing alludes to Aylesbury being close by.
Thus, the references in the film to an ancient evil awoken on the land, one that must be sated with sacrifice, immediately call to mind monsters from the Lovecraftian universe, in particular Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Initially appearing in Lovecraft’s short story The Call of Cthulhu (1928), Cthulhu is described as a primeval cosmic titan – part dragon, man and octopus – and is worshipped by cultists. However, the thematic references to regional curses and colonisation, coupled with the geographical location of the town, suggest that the ancient force derives from Native American folklore.
New England is one of the earliest sites of European colonisation in the United States, with settlers arriving in the early 1600s. The indigenous population of New England was made up of several Native American tribes, including the Abenaki, Mahican, Mohegan, Pocumtuck, Penobscot, Pequot and the Wampanoag.
Massachusetts is itself an Algonquian Indian word, derived from the Wampanoag word Massachuset (“by the range of hills”). The Wampanoag, or Massasoit, are one of the federally recognised Indian tribes still living in Massachusetts today. In the 17th century they shared the region with the Mahican and Mohegan tribes, until British settlers arrived around 1620. As the British colonies grew, they gradually usurped the Wampanoag. Using such tactics as plying the men with alcohol and taking advantage of their intoxicated state, the settlers manipulating the indigenous population into signing away land ownership.
A resulting war broke out between the tribe and the settlers. Many members of the Wampanoag community were killed and survivors were sold into slavery. Those who escaped went into hiding as the remaining tribe members were inevitably converted to Christian values and British culture. The Wampanoag language and tribal names were forbidden until 1928, and it wasn’t until 1987 that the Wampanoag was federally recognised as an Indian tribe.
The persecution and displacement suffered by the Wampanoag, as one example of injustice against indigenous populations in the region, is reiterated in the film’s titular reference to colonisation: We Are Still Here. The title doubly references the ghostly activity within the house itself, as well as the folkloristic horror in the cultist behaviour of the townsfolk. The residual or spiritual energy of the Dagmar family, sacrificed by the townsfolk to the ancient entity, believe that in death they are the rightful owners of the land. In refusing to leave and murdering the families put up in the house by the townsfolk, they are agents of this primal evil, feeding it victims.
But what was this sinister entity? In Wampanoag mythology, Hobbomock is the spirit, or manitou, of death, often associated with the Devil after the emergence of Christianity within the New England region. He appears throughout Native American folklore and in one incarnation is said to be a stone giant. Stamping his foot in anger at the persecution of his people, this in turn affected the natural landscape. To prevent further destruction, the powerful, virtuous manitou Keitan cast a sleeping spell on him. The ancient being in We Are Still Here slumbers until migrant people who have taken the land from the indigenous population wake it. It thus demands that the families of migrants are sacrificed on a recurring basis or it will wreak havoc on the town. Given the colonial past of the region, can this entity be read as Hobbomock?
The final credits of the film reveal further details of the town’s backstory to support this idea, with newspaper clippings reporting plague-like symptoms throughout the town, accompanied by the failure of crops. Further articles reveal that these anomalies then vanish suddenly, followed by a prosperous agricultural yield. This suggests that the townsfolk have struggled with the idea of sacrificing families in the past, but desperation led them to do so eventually. The Dagmars have taken away the direct act of murder from the townsfolk; since their deaths at the hands of the locals, they have remained in the house and kill the families who take up residence there. However, this begs the question, as asked by the townsfolk: why have the Dagmars not claimed the Sacchettis?
One explanation is that the deaths of May, Jacob and Harry, as a family unit, sate the entity but this theory raises even more questions. Harry arrives later than his parents and enters the empty house with Daniella, only for the pair to meet a grisly end at the ghostly hands of the Dagmar family, despite the fact that Paul and Anne have been spared in the short time that they have lived in the house. Jacob is then possessed by Lassander Dagmar, killing himself, before May is shot by Dave as the townsfolk descend upon the house. This leads to a bloodbath, as the Dagmar family pick off the townsfolk, who in turn are trying to murder Paul and Anne, believing that this will satisfy the ancient evil.
While revenge is a potential motive for the Dagmar family killing the descendants of the townsfolk who betrayed them, this does not explain why they killed Daniella, as she was not part of May, Jacob and Harry’s family unit. The fact that the entity ‘needs a family’, in addition to the bloody climax of the film, suggests that there is a blood curse upon the town. It appears that the bloodline of the victims – the lineage of a family unit – must come to an end in order for this sacrificial blood, symbolic of life spirit or force, to fertilise the land upon which it is spilled. Paul and Anne survive and the ending of the film suggests that Bobby’s presence has been there all along. Did Bobby’s spirit prevent the Dagmars from hurting his parents or, in regards to the blood curse, did the fact that their family lineage was already ended with the death of their only son save them?
The final scenes of the film similarly suggest that the Dagmars do not see the Sacchettis as a threat; there appears to be an affinity between the Dagmars and the Sacchettis before Lassander grasps the hands of his family and vanishes. As the Sacchettis state, they can feel that the Dagmars’ spirits are still in the house, just as Bobby’s appears to be. Perhaps it is this recognition of legacy and genealogy that counteracts the blood curse, a metaphor for colonisation, and allows the living and spirits of the past to co-exist. When considering the film’s focus on spiritual haunting, residual energy and folklore in relation to the colonial history of the area, the somewhat political message of the film is clear: We Are Still Here.