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His House (2020)

His House is a film that focuses on a couple from war-torn South Sudan, and their journey to England. It is a phenomenal work of social horror that encompasses the empathetic power of the genre. In it, we can find fear but not of the things that go bump in the night, the monsters hiding in the shadows but rather the darkness that dwells within our own hearts.

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South Sudanese Asylum Seekers & Their Traumatic Immigration Experiences

Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

His House is a film that focuses on a couple from war-torn South Sudan, and their journey to England. This story is based on real things, which is what we see often in our media. There are many Sudanese people trying to enter into the UK because of dangers and violence in Sudan. For many, seeking refuge in the UK is an essential means of survival, and worth the risk of a very dangerous journey; a journey many don’t survive. In an ODI article titled Why So Many Sudanese Are Prepared to Risk Their Lives to Reach the UK by Margie Buchanan-Smith, an interview with a migrant from Darfur that took place in 2017, explained “They choose to migrate because staying in Darfur means a slow death. Because of this, quick death is better than a slow one”. The risk is deemed worth it, to avoid the persecution in Sudan.

I vaguely remember learning about the Darfur genocide when I was in High School, so I remember learning a bit about the violence happening there. In a quick google search, wikipedia gave me some numbers for context. In 2013 the United Nations (UN) estimated that up to 300,000 people had been killed during the genocide; in response, the Sudanese government claimed that the number of deaths was "grossly inflated". By 2015, it was estimated that the death toll stood between 100,000 and 400,000. There was an agreement formed between the rebels and the government in 2011 but that did not end the danger. In addition to Darfur being affected, this has also spread to other parts of Sudan, such as neighbouring Kordofan, and Blue Nile state. A study completed for the Why so many Sudanese are prepared to risk their lives to reach the UK article, provided substantial evidence that there was persistent and systemic persecution, attack, arrest and surveillance of young men from those regions of Sudan. Especially if they were from an ethnic group associated with the rebellion against the former dictator President Bashir. The article goes on to cite that many Darfuris who left Sudan to migrate to Europe had “spent much of their lives in camps; some had experienced multiple displacements within Sudan. They also faced discrimination in the workplace. Effectively living in a police state, the depths of despair experienced by many young Sudanese was striking.”

So, why the UK? There are a handful of reasons. The UK has colonial ties with Sudan, which has resulted in many Sudanese people having knowledge of the english language. Since many other European countries don’t have English as their primary language, the UK is an easier transition. For many, Europe is thought to abide by international conventions and human rights, so there is a hope for safety and refuge there. Since many Sudanese migrants travel to the UK it is also an opportunity to reconnect to friends and family that had previously migrated there. There are a few BIG problems with this though. The journey to the UK is extremely dangerous. There are laws that make it more challenging to claim asylum in places outside their original landing in Europe. If they arrive in another country first, they would be required to claim asylum there, which isn’t preferred because of the language barriers. In an interview with Darfuris in the UK in 2017, they had records claiming that to reach the UK people would travel under buses, in the backs of lorries (google informed me this means big trucks), and in unsafe rubber boats.

In another article I read on Independent, titled What’s Next for Asylum Seekers From War-torn Sudan by Paul Peachy, it is further confirmed that the journey to the UK is treacherous. It in many ways aligns with the deaths we see in the film, and how real the trauma of the journey hits for those who survive vs those lost along the way. A quote from it that hit especially hard was, “Some who make the crossing by sea say there is murder and rape on the boats, and that traffickers order people to jump overboard to their deaths to avoid everyone sinking. We’ve spoken to some who’ve clung to the bottom of trucks, paying traffickers the last of their money to risk their lives and make the trip. Having faced all that, it’s awful that they’re treated like criminals here and their claims for asylum are distrusted.” In the film we witness this distrust of migrants and asylum seekers on UK soil. The things shown in the film such as the horrible living conditions offered to asylum seekers, the detention centers, the vilifying of those seeking help is a very real thing. There is a very real disregard for their trauma, their post-traumatic stress, and their need for mental health resources in addition to the abysmal stipends and inhumane housing offerings.

In an article on the BBC titled Migrant Crossings: What Happens to Migrants Who Reach the UK?by Alice Aitken, it goes through some of the struggles asylum seekers face in the UK. When arriving in the UK, asylum seekers are often placed in hostel-like accommodations, before long term housing can be arranged. They are not able to choose where they live, and are not able to establish themselves outside of their stipends of 37.75 pounds per week per household member. This translates to about $51.77 US dollars per week. Which is an abysmal amount, considering outside work is not permitted. Overall, the conditions of individuals seeking asylum in the UK reflect how the UK feels about helping them. After the intense trauma these individuals are experiencing, they deserve better.


Media from this week's episode:

His House (2020) Director: Remi Weekes

Starring: Sope Dirisu & Wunmi Mosaku

Summary by IMDB: A refugee couple makes a harrowing escape from war-torn South Sudan, but then they struggle to adjust to their new life in an English town that has an evil lurking beneath the surface.

His House: Exploring the Horrors of Desperation & Trauma in the Immigrant Experience

Gabe Castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! --tear up the planks! here, here! --It is the beating of his hideous heart!"

Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

Remi Weekes’ His House is a phenomenal work of social horror that encompasses the empathetic power of the genre. In it, we can find fear but not of the things that go bump in the night, the monsters hiding in the shadows but rather the darkness that dwells within our own hearts. Weekes sought out to tell the story of the immigrant experience, one wrought with tragedy, impermanence and loss. This film is the first film in quite a long time that genuinely scared me. Featuring whispers, fast inhuman footsteps, creatures of the Del toro persuasion and an even more frightening battle of morality.

This film seeks to accomplish many things, which, in my experience, is a set up for failure and disappointment. However, each of these goals is so naturally intertwined that it never missed a beat. In this story we have a yearning to belong, a desire to start anew, a grappling with our identity and a reconciliation with our most intense acts of desperation.

We are introduced to our characters during their harrowing journey to Britain on a boat, taking on water and in utter chaos. As a viewer you can’t help but ask “Why? What happened to them back home that they risked their lives to come here?” You get that answer in small trickling moments and then one giant wave of realization in the end. But you never doubt, something disastrous brought them here. Why else would they fight so hard to stay in the decrepit home surrounded by strangers who want them gone?

In an article on Collider, ‘His House’ Director’s Ending Explanation Finds Hope in the Haunting by Perri Nemirof, Director Remi Weekes discusses his intention to include the creeping and tantalizing fear trauma can leave you with. “Yeah, and part of the story was the dangers of ignoring it, that you can try and ignore trauma but the more you ignore it, the more it gets to you. It’s more of the emotional invisible pain of mental illness, which is what I guess the creature more represented.”

Honestly, the PTSD representation in this film was really gut-wrenching. You can really empathize with Bol, long before you even know what exactly caused his distress. It’s enough to know he is in pain, he is grasping for any holds and quickly losing the battle.

There are some truly amazing things in this film. What I enjoyed was the use of South Sudanese mythology and religion which grounds these characters. Rial’s story about the Apeth, Night Witch, and how a good man stole from them, bringing about their own demise later, would otherwise feel out-of-place or too on the nose, but here it felt right. Like a confirmation and it inspires the viewer to ask just what has this good man done?

I found a strength in Rial, played by Wunmi Mosaku (of Lovecraft Country), who is not frightened by the ghosts in this house nor even, the Apeth Night Witch that seeks retribution. She explains, quite candidly, that after all she has experienced, there is no way these spectres could frighten her. Rial is a character I haven’t seen in horror in sometime and can’t honestly recall one now. She is strong but also vulnerable. And yet, the truly unsettling scenes with her are very real - her getting lost in the cement labyrinth of her new neighborhood or her confrontation in the end with her own memories of what happened to lead them here in the first place. Truly horrifying and yet in her stern fortitude seems untouchable by any of the traditional haunts and horrors. She casually explains her survival technique of scarifying her skin to blend into each tribe. She knows what it takes to survive, that sometimes it means conforming to your environment and stripping away your most personal allegiances.

Later, we see Bol, played by Sope Dirisu, do something similar when he burns their clothes and belongings (Rial exclaiming that one item is all she has of her father) even going so far as burning the last connection to their daughter, Nyagak. He is later found in a department store and looks at an advertisement of a white family, he even replicates this ad by buying those exact clothing items. This reminded me of Jordan Peele’s US where Winston Duke’s Gabe is featured as someone who aspires to be what he believes wealth to be. He buys a boat and replicates the dress of his “friends” albeit white. Because to him, that’s what wealth and success looks like.

I would be remiss to cover this film and not comment on the absolute stunning imagery and cinematography. There are some phenomenal practical effects that add to our sense of dread. It’s honestly an incredible film. A scene that will remain in my mind rent-free is where Bol is seated at the kitchen table of his crumbling new home. The camera is slowly panning out as he angrily stabs at his dinner with knife and fork (which they are still getting accustomed to). We see that the sky is peeking out from the wall and you wonder, was it always like that? Where did the wall go? And as it continues to pull back we see that he is now on a piece of his home floating in the ocean surrounded by orange mist and sloshing waves. It's dreamlike and awe inspiring. It’s a great reflection of the instability occurring in Bol’s mind, his realities are folding in on themselves and blending his past traumas with his current anxieties.

Throughout this film, I found the scenes that stuck with me weren’t the creatures, whispers and haunts on the other side of the wall. Though they were unsettling. What was truly terrifying was how helpless it all felt. Bol is spiraling. In the most heartbreaking scene, we find him in the social worker’s office as he asks for help, he needs a different house because there’s something wrong with this one. He is clearly unwell, unhinged even. Instead of being met with compassion, understanding, an ounce of sympathy - we get snide remarks like “It’s bigger than my house.” and more emphasis on Bol’s need to behave like one of the good ones.

In an article on Indiewire, ‘His House’ Review: Remi Weekes’ Thrilling Debut Sees the Immigrant Experience as a Horror Movie writer David Ehrlich agrees with me, Weekes’ conceit works best when shining a light on how the most vulnerable members of a society are those who can’t risk asking for help. Bol is seduced by the promise of a new life, only to spiral into a Babadook-like battle against the trauma that followed him across the world. There is a power in battling our demons, it is a war that doesn’t end but we have to keep working through. Weekes shows us this throughout as Bol continuously rips at the walls and yells at the haunts - he will not back down. And even when he does, there is strength even then - in his acceptance and acknowledgment of his own sins brought by desperation. In the end, can we even blame him? And that I feel is the beauty of this film and the horror genre as a whole. That we can have truly terrifying monsters as stand-ins for the monsters in our minds. That we can watch a character look that monster in the eye and accept their fate and fight back.


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