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Culture Shock (2019): the Veiled Threat of the American Dream

Stepford Wives, Matrix, Pleasantville, and Don’t Worry Darling (before it even existed), wrapped up in an impactful and dark bow. Culture Shock is a science fiction horror film that leans a bit more into non-fiction, addressing the many layers of horror surrounding Immigration. Ghouls unpack the horrors of immigration, ICE in America, and America's history of destabilizing countries.

Sources in this Episode:

Other Reviews about Culture Shock:


Media from this week's episode:

Culture Shock  (2019)

This thriller follows a young Mexican woman in pursuit of the American Dream, who crosses illegally into the United States, only to find herself in an American nightmare.

Writers - Efrén Hernández, James Benson, and Gigi Saul Guerrero


Culture Shock: Horrors of Immigration & ICE

by gabe castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Synopsis: Stepford Wives, Matrix, Pleasantville, and Don’t Worry Darling (before it even existed), wrapped up in an impactful and dark bow. This science fiction horror film leans a bit more into non-fiction, addressing the many layers of horror surrounding Immigration. A film where no matter how gross or gory it could get, the horrors there pale in comparison to the ones experienced in reality. Director Gigi Saul Guerrero takes us along for the journey with protagonist, Marisol (played by Martha Higareda), a pregnant woman seeking the American Dream across the border. Starting in Mexico, we meet Marisol long after a failed attempt at crossing the border. During her first attempt, she was assaulted by someone she trusted, her boyfriend Oscar, who abandons her and makes his way across without her. Now incredibly pregnant and still eager to cross, she seeks out the coyote to take her over again. Later, when we see the struggles and dangers Marisol faces in crossing the border, we wonder what could be pushing her forward despite the dangers. We catch glimpses of what Marisol is leaving behind, her mother and a community of women who struggle with their own insecurities, restrictions, and fears. Marisol’s mother is encouraging them to carry birth control, the unspoken danger evident in Marisol’s current condition and dire situation - it’s dangerous out there. Still, the women refuse explaining they are Catholic. Further, there’s no ignoring the distrust of brown women regarding birth control which has historically been experimented on Latine and Black women, often resulting in health complications, sterilization, and even death. (For more on this, please listen to our episode on Population Control). 

Marisol explains to her mother that there is nothing here for her child and that she has no plan of raising her in this place. She has her eyes set on a dream, a fabricated ideal world called America. If you need more information to understand Marisol and other women like her’s journeys, I encourage you to watch Tigers Are Not Afraid by Issa Lopez and check out our episode about it and the femicide happening there.

Whatever the reasons, Marisol pushes through the tumultuous journey. She encounters others as desperate as she, a young Guatemalan boy named Ricky (Ian Inigo) and a killer with tattoos and a history, Santo (Richard Cabral). Despite the dangers and the tension, each stop on the journey is ripe with men taking advantage of the situation for money or other horrifying things. In the night, when they are making their last run to the border, they are confronted by the terror of the Cartel and the American Border Patrol, stuck between a rock and an arguably worse rock, they try to make it only to be ultimately captured by the patrol. 

Here is where the film takes a quick turn into science fiction. Marisol awakes in a pristine house, no longer pregnant and dressed in pastels to match the entire town. She meets Betty, an unexplained white woman (Barbara Cranston) holding her now-born daughter. Betty takes Marisol out on the town, showing her the tranquil Pleasantville suburbia that, in true American melting pot fashion, features people of all races. Even the young boy Ricky, the caring killer Santo, and the disgusting villain Oscar are here, living their best life. Each day is a blur of conformity and pastel dread as Marisol fights against the glitching universe. When she protests or asks questions, she’s lectured about culture shock and told to shut up and fit in. 

Refusing to settle and growing agitated at her inability to hold her own damn child, Marisol begins to explore and test the confines of this new world. What she finds is that this isn’t the American Dream but rather, An American Simulation. She and the others who’ve been caught trying to go over the border are now in a shabby, disgusting facility, understaffed and inhumane. This facility is a lab that has them strapped into makeshift VR contraptions (What I imagine the Don’t Worry Darling girls are in). They’re fed brown goop by way of a feeding tube, which explains the ravenous and unsettling imagery of the folx eating within the simulation. Marisol continues to fight against the simulation, fearing for her baby’s life and enlists the help of Santo. The two hatch a plan that has them escaping the facility. They release all the others and as they make their way to this country of dreams, Marisol turns back home. She tells Santo she’s going home, there’s nothing for her in America. That dream she had, the fantasy of the greener grass has been expelled, she sees America for what it is, not a dream but a nightmare.

As gross and unsettling as the film can be at times, it is rather subdued. This was intentional, as director Gigi Saul Guerrero wanted to cover the heavy topics with care, working to not re-traumatize her audience with the real horrors of the immigration system here. In an interview with Variety ('Into The Dark: Culture Shock' Director on 'Timeless' Qualities of Border Crossing Film) she said, “The brutality and the inhumane subject matter is there, and unfortunately we see that every day for a while now and it’s quite heartbreaking. I didn’t want to make something so heartbreaking that we’d have trouble watching —because we already have enough trouble watching it every day,” 

The Horrors of Immigration and ICE in America:

I appreciate the care the director and her team took with the film. As far as Into the Dark, Hulu films go, this is definitely one of the best. It is an instance where we see the power of sharing the screen and opportunities with new voices. Imagine if this film had bigger studio backing and Olivia Wilde money? I absolutely understand the decision to hold back on some of her punches. To show us without traumatizing us. As a horror lover, there are many times where I simply have to say, “enough.” Or to ask, “Who is this for?” before promptly turning it off (‘not for me’ is the answer). (Looking at you Them). But I think for a film like this, working to address some truly horrifying realities, her pulled punches can hurt more. Without the full knowledge of the horrors of this complex situation, viewers may be left wondering why Marisol makes such a dangerous trip and while 9 months pregnant, no less. For us, she’s the hero, to another she could be seen as a reckless mother. But she is not unique in this journey as so many women find themselves on the same one and just as pregnant as she, with the same desperation grasping at that dream.

So since Gigi won’t go there. We will. Let’s talk about the horror of ICE and immigration in America. An article on the Guardian, aptly titled, Death in the sands: the horror of the US-Mexico border, writer Reece Jones describes the sad tale of a group of young boys making a run for the border, only to end up dead on their side never making it to America, gunned down by border patrol. They explain the rampant growth of patrols saying, “In the early days (1800s) the border patrol was small and underfunded. There were initially 450 agents, who provided their own horses and uniforms… By 2010 the border patrol had more than 20,000 agents.” The usual order of operations doesn’t end in so much death but instead in deportation. The process is not exactly quick but still defeatist. Jones shares the growth in this process too, “Before 1986 there were rarely more than 20,000 deportations a year; by the mid-2000s, the number was 400,000 a year. The number of migrants in detention facilities increased from 85,000 in 1995 to 440,000 in 2013. Surprisingly (not to me), more people have been deported from the US during the Obama presidency than during any previous administration.”

The increase in staff and the hyper-militarized state of the border patrol has resulted in a spike in killings. The funding for the border surveillance growing exponentially and with little to no accountability. Further, Jones provides us with a glimpse into the dangers Marisol and those like her were facing during her trek. The two rocks they find themselves between equally dangerous and brutal. “Unfortunately, direct violence, including killings by the border patrol and on the Mexican side, as cartels work to solidify control over profitable smuggling routes, does not even scratch the surface of the violence that surrounds the US–Mexico border. The border patrol has recovered more than 6,000 bodies there since the 1990s, deaths attributable to the construction of the border wall and the massive border patrol presence. Migrants are funneled to more dangerous and remote locations, just like migrants at the edges of the EU. Instead of crossing in a city, migrants are making the arduous journey through the deserts of Arizona, hiking 50 or more kilometers through arid and desolate terrain.”

The trek to this American Dream, one which we know is false and designed to oppress and erase cultures and peoples, is only half the battle. Once here, having survived against all odds from both sides of the border, migrants find themselves still in danger. Marisol, motivated by her child whom she hoped to give a better life, would be terribly disappointed to find not only the lack of care but the danger of moving your child across the border. She risks losing her child altogether. In an article in the Times they brought to light the case of 85,000 missing children explaining, “While H.H.S. (Health & Human Services) checks on all minors by calling them a month after they begin living with their sponsors, data obtained by The Times showed that over the last two years, the agency could not reach more than 85,000 children.” Meaning 85,000 children had been shipped off somewhere and are now unaccounted for. With no way for their real parents to find them or make certain they are safe. The young boy Ricky traveling on his own to America is not a far-fetched idea either. Just last year, a report by the Council on Foreign Relations stated that more than 152,000 unaccompanied minors were found at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2022. (Under Joe Biden, Have 85,000 Undocumented Children Gone 'Missing'?).

Families aside, America’s Immigration facilities have been revealed to be inhumane and dangerous too. After fighting for many years, NPR was able to obtain documents detailing the treatment of migrants in these facilities around the US (Government's own experts found 'barbaric' and 'negligent' conditions in ICE detention). One report revealed that in Pennsylvania, a group of correctional officers strapped a mentally ill male ICE detainee into a restraint chair and gave the lone female officer a pair of scissors to cut off his clothes for a strip search. Upon reviewing this, a federal inspector remarked, "There is no justifiable correctional reason that required the detainee who had a mental health condition to have his clothes cut off by a female officer while he was compliant in a restraint chair. This is a barbaric practice and clearly violates ... basic principles of humanity."

Honestly, the horrors go on for migrants in this country. The American Dream is so far removed from possibility, the melting pot a veiled threat. The horror stories behind ICE Detention center have no end. From violence, cruel treatment, and inhumane conditions. Cases like the, “The ‘uterus collector’” seem unshocking, a situation not off the beaten path for America, where a nurse came forward as a whistleblower detailing instances where there were forced hysterectomies and medical neglect at an ICE center in Irwin County, Georgia. What’s even more horrifying about ICE is that they are a brand new institution (founded in 2003 to ‘promote public safety and national security’), that is outfitted with military weapons and equipment. Military-Grade weapons and equipment they use on the civilians in American cities and towns. No longer are we just a threat at the border, but here on our countries soil. 

All this to say, I understand Gigi Saul Guerrero’s need to approach the film this way. To have us empathize with Marisol and twist the American Dream into the monster that it proves itself to be. While researching for this episode, there were so many horrifying things I found about America’s Immigration system. My only consolation was that the Shut Down Berks Coalition was able to do just that, shut down the Berks ICE Detention Center in Pennsylvania. It’s one small step for the whole of America but it’s massive to the populations here. For the aspiring Marisols, Rickys, and Santos out there, it can be a small win, and a chance at maybe not the American Dream but a dream nonetheless.


The United States’ Long History of destabilizing Nations and acting like Surprised Pikachu when migration increases

by Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

We have discussed the seeded history of the US playing puppeteers in other countries before, so the unpacking of this topic will not be anything fundamentally new to this show. We did this in our episode on La Llorona, covering US intervention in Guatemala, among others. As on the nose, and quirky as this film was, a lot of it was intentionally in your face. In processing the context and reality of what millions of migrants face at the US border, this film's more silly moments where we may ask why. Hold purpose, because they don’t want us to miss the point, the nods, and the cues to information. This is why we love some media analysis! 

A character that really impacted me and really broke my heart in Culture Shock was Ricky, a young boy from Guatemala who was seeking safety in America, only to be detained and murdered at the border. The loss of this character was intentional, and an unfortunate reminder of what happens to many children who arrive at the US border. His background as a Guatemalan migrant, also calls attention to the many Guatemalan migrants who risk their lives in trying to reach the US, fleeing a situation that the US helped create. In an article titled: Fleeing a hell the US helped create: why Central Americans journey north by Julian Borger, they explores the historical context of the dysfunctional relationship between the US and its southern neighbors, particularly Central America. They highlight the root causes of migration, including inequality, violence, and historical US interventions. They also call attention to the loss of “Jakelin Caal Maquín, a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in US custody in 2018.” They go on to say “The forces driving ordinary people to leave their homes and put their lives at risk crossing deserts with smugglers to get to the US border are deeply rooted in Central America’s history of inequality and violence, in which the US has long played a defining role.” 

The United States has destabilized Central American countries for various reasons, including economic and geopolitical interests. Some key points are as follows:

  • Cold War Era:

  • During the Cold War, the U.S. pursued policies in Central America to counter perceived communist influences.

  • Guatemala’s long civil war can in turn be traced back to a 1954 coup against a democratically elected president, Jacobo Árbenz, which was backed by the US. Washington backed the Guatemalan military, which was responsible for genocide against the native population. An estimated 200,000 people were killed between 1960 and 1996.

  • The U.S. supported authoritarian regimes and military interventions in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua during the 1970s and 1980s to curb leftist movements.

  • El Salvador is also trapped in a cycle of violence that can be traced back to a civil conflict in which the US was a protagonist, training and funding rightwing death squads in the name of fighting communism. “The civil war really destroyed the economic base of the country and any sense of a functioning democracy,” said Thornton. “It left a massively militarised society.”

  • Nicaraguan Contra War:

  • In Nicaragua, the U.S. supported the Contras, a rebel group, in their efforts to overthrow the Sandinista government during the 1980s.

  • The Contras were accused of human rights abuses, and the conflict led to significant destabilization in the region.

  • Economic Interests:

  • Economic interests, such as the demand for resources and corporate investments, have played a role in U.S. interventions in Central America.

  • Multinational corporations, often with U.S. ties, have been involved in industries like agriculture, mining, and energy, leading to disputes over land and resources.

  • Drug Trade and Violence:

  • The demand for illegal drugs in the U.S. has contributed to drug trafficking and violence in Central America.

  • U.S. anti-drug policies, such as Plan Colombia, have had unintended consequences, pushing drug cartels into neighboring countries like Honduras and Guatemala.

  • Migration Crisis:

  • The economic and political instability resulting from past interventions has contributed to a migration crisis, with people fleeing violence and seeking better economic opportunities in the U.S.

  • Impact on Indigenous Communities:

  • Indigenous communities in Central America have often been disproportionately affected by U.S. interventions and economic activities, leading to displacement and land conflicts.

This is not even touching on the historical context of the American and Spanish impact on Mexico in the destabilization and economic disenfranchising of the country. 

The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) had severe and lasting consequences for Mexico. Here are some ways in which Mexico was harmed by the war:

  • Territorial Losses:

  • The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war, resulted in Mexico ceding vast territories to the United States. This included the present-day states of California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.

  • The loss of these territories significantly reduced Mexico's size and natural resources.

  • Economic Impact:

  • The war left Mexico in a state of economic devastation. The loss of territories meant a reduction in valuable resources, agricultural land, and access to key ports.

  • The indemnity paid by the U.S. to Mexico under the treaty was not sufficient to compensate for the economic losses.

  • Social Disruption:

  • The war contributed to social upheaval in Mexico. The conflict strained the Mexican economy and resulted in widespread poverty and social unrest.

  • Indigenous communities and peasants were particularly affected by the consequences of the war.

  • Political Instability:

  • The defeat in the war intensified political instability in Mexico. It led to changes in government, with different leaders and factions vying for power.

  • The loss also fueled anti-American sentiments and nationalist movements within Mexico.

  • Impact on Mexican Identity:

  • The war had a profound impact on Mexican national identity. The sense of humiliation and loss contributed to the shaping of a strong Mexican nationalism that emphasized resistance to foreign aggression.

  • The war became a symbol of Mexican resistance and a rallying point for national pride.

  • Relationship with the U.S.:

  • The war strained relations between Mexico and the United States for many years. The territorial losses and the perceived injustice of the conflict created lasting tensions between the two nations.

  • The historical memory of the war continues to influence bilateral relations and perceptions in both countries.

  • Legacy of Injustice:

  • Many Mexicans viewed the war as an unjust aggression by a more powerful neighbor. The perception of the U.S. taking advantage of Mexico's internal difficulties and expanding its territory fueled resentment.

  • The legacy of the war is often remembered as a painful chapter in Mexican history.

The Mexican-American War had far-reaching consequences for Mexico, impacting its territorial integrity, economy, social fabric, and national identity. The scars of the conflict continue to shape Mexico's historical narrative and its relationship with the United States.

The situations that many migrants are fleeing make this travel a necessity for survival. However, when they arrive at the border, as we saw in the film, the racism of the American system treats them inhumanely, resulting in severe harm both emotionally and physically. The systematic dehumanization and othering of a population is something America has a lot of experience in, and utilizes at our border. We discussed this at length in our “Us” episode. Whether it’s validating genocide, reframing colonization, or even reinforcing white supremacy as a validation for harm…America took the playbook from Western Europe and ran with it. We see this othering on screen, in the doctor who conducts nonconsensual experiments on the migrants detained in his facility with no care for their survival or safety. This is something that is not exclusive to the movie and has happened many times in real life throughout US history. Additionally, there is an expected assimilation that is required for migration into the US, which has been proven to cause psychological harm. Cultural Assimilation—How It Affects Mental Health

Cultural assimilation can lead to a loss of identity and cause significant psychological stress for immigrants.11 These can range from homesickness to depression and severe mental illness.

In addition, the act of migration can cause an individual to experience cultural bereavement — a form of grief caused by the loss of one’s culture and, thus, a core aspect of their identity. This can be further exacerbated by the loss of key cultural markers such as language, traditions, customs, and food, which can also intensify the alienation felt by an individual when trying to relate to someone (or a family member) from the country of their origin.

In this film, we see the way the media reinforces this othering, how the news anchors discuss immigration as a crisis to US resources, and national security instead of claiming responsibility for the international harm that has necessitated these migrations. 

The article discusses a trove of more than 1,600 pages of previously secret inspection reports on immigration detention facilities in the United States. These reports were conducted by experts hired by the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties from 2017 to 2019. The findings reveal a range of problems, including negligent medical care, unsafe and filthy conditions, racist abuse of detainees, inappropriate use of force, and more.

Some specific instances highlighted in the reports include cases of inadequate medical care, racial harassment of immigrants, unjustified use of force, and incidents of mistreatment. Most immigration detention facilities are managed by private, for-profit corporations, and the conditions documented often resemble those of prisons.

The inspections also uncovered problems with the treatment of mentally ill detainees, instances of falsification of medical records, and a lack of transparency. The reports were obtained after a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by NPR against the federal government, which resisted the release of these documents for over three years.

The Biden administration, despite campaign promises of transparency and independent oversight over Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), continued the previous administration's opposition to making these reports public. The article notes that the problems identified in the reports persist, and conditions may have even worsened, according to experts and immigration attorneys. The Biden administration has claimed to rely more on alternatives to detention but has faced criticism for doubling the number of people in ICE detention since President Biden's inauguration.

The article provides a review of the horror film "Culture Shock," which is part of Hulu's horror anthology holiday series "Into the Dark." The film explores the theme of the American Dream, particularly in the context of immigration and the harsh realities faced by those attempting to cross the Mexican-American border.

The story follows Marisol, a pregnant Mexican woman, as she tries to cross the border and faces horrific challenges, including rape and exploitation by coyotes. The film vividly depicts the struggles and dangers of attempting an illegal border crossing, emphasizing the psychological impact of the American Dream on people seeking a better life.

The narrative takes a surreal turn when Marisol wakes up in a seemingly perfect American town, portrayed as a vibrant and beautiful world. However, the idyllic setting conceals a sinister reality, reminiscent of a modern, darker take on the classic Stepford Wives. The town's residents, a mix of Latinx Americans and white suburbanites, exhibit unsettling behavior, and Marisol gradually uncovers the disturbing truth behind the façade.

The review praises Barbara Crampton's performance as Betty, the seemingly perfect suburban housewife with a sinister undertone. The film delves into a critique of the American government's role in immigration, portraying a simulation experiment that manipulates immigrants' experiences.

"Culture Shock" is commended for its bold storytelling, social commentary, and the shift from a realistic depiction of the immigrant experience to a surrealistic exploration. The film sheds light on the dehumanization and imprisonment faced by immigrants, addressing the current social climate. The review also recognizes the contributions of women filmmakers, applauding Gigi Saul Guerrero's direction and storytelling skills.


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