In Kurtis David Harder’s Spiral, the real monster is white complacency. Picture this: It’s 1995, and a gay interracial couple is moving to an idealistic suburb outside of Chicago. The couple consists of a middle-aged, upper-middle class white man and his much younger, poorer black husband.
The white partner is recently divorced, taking on full custody of his teenage daughter as the mother escapes to Costa Rica with her new family. The black partner is a former New York City club kid with a tragic past and a desire to turn his life experience into a flourishing writing career. To see a story like this was a breath of fresh air at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival in a year when many of the entries were focused on examinations of the white middle class, with emphasis on the breakdown of the traditional family unit.
We have seen situations like this in horror before, most recently in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, but going back even further you can see the bones of horror classic The Stepford Wives and even the drama The Women of Brewster Place deep within Spiral. The conflict is based on the tension between assimilation and standing out. Get Out occurs in our current world, one that pretends to be post-racial when it very clearly isn’t. But the world of The Stepford Wives is at odds with a fantasy version of America that conservatives wanted to hold onto, one where the turning tides of women’s liberation and racial justice were seen as a threat to peace and the nuclear family. And given Spiral’s central conflict, I would be remiss not to mention the lesbian couple in the 1989 television film The Women of Brewster Place, who argue between assimilating to their homophobic religious community or maintaining relationships with their queer friends in the city. This idea that a “normal life” requires a completely straight social circle is a prevalent theme in Spiral.
Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) is suspicious from the moment he and Aaron (Ari Cohen) arrive in town with their smartass daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte). He is greeted by his new neighbor Tiffany (Chandra West) with a potted plant and an off-handed comment about how she doesn’t “see a lot of” them in town. In that moment it’s hard to tell if she’s talking about gay people, black people or both. Malik and Aaron are the only gay couple in the neighborhood, but Malik is the only black person there, period, and his isolation is constantly felt throughout the film. Tiffany and her husband Marshal (Lochlyn Munro) play on that isolation with stock phrases like “love is all that matters” that placate Aaron, while making Malik even more suspicious.
This is a dynamic that often happens with interracial couples, on and off-screen. Despite the fact that Aaron is gay, his whiteness and financial security provide him with a level of ease and privilege not afforded to Malik. He believes Tiffany and Marshal aren’t homophobic with minimal evidence, interpreting their civility as a sign of being politically and socially evolved. In 2019 — where white people from both sides of the political aisle cry for a return to civility in the face of a violent, white supremacist government — we could easily imagine Aaron as part of that chorus, ignoring the fact that politics have never been civil for people of color. Aaron is the prototype of the contemporary white conservative, a stance with little understanding of structural inequality and the way that changes shape through time.
Malik, on the other hand, keeps having recurring nightmares of a gay bashing he suffered when he was young. The details of the incident are obscured, but the trauma stays with him and he’s likely suffering from undiagnosed PTSD. As he spends more time in the suburb, he keeps thinking back to that night. In the images we see him, younger, in a car with a young white man and they’re kissing. Later on as things get more dire for Malik, we see more of the memory: White men with bats approach the car, smashing the windows and beating Malik’s boyfriend. It’s unclear how a gay black man was able to walk away from such an incident unharmed — perhaps that wasn’t considered by the film’s white writing and directing team — but the scenes are affective nonetheless, emphasizing how suburbia is an unsafe place for Malik and how inconsiderate it is of Aaron to expect him to be comfortable there.
Fueled by fear and paranoia, Malik uncovers tapes recorded by the lesbian couple who lived in his new house with their teenage daughter 10 years earlier, in 1985. Watching the grainy footage, I couldn’t help but wonder if the film had focused on an interracial lesbian couple instead, especially considering that the main events of the film are only two years out from Ellen DeGeneres’ monumentally public walk out of the closet.
Though queer themes are more likely to be represented by women in horror, very rarely are lesbian relationships given the serious tone and consideration that is at play in Spiral, as well other queer genre films such as Stranger by the Lake (though the recent Knife+Heart is a step in the right direction). Still, Spiral’s inclusion of a lesbian couple within its mythos is admirable and bolsters the film’s prevailing thesis that all marginalized people have reason to be distrustful of the deceiving perfection of suburban life.
As Spiral progresses it becomes obvious that Malik is right to be suspicious of the neighborhood and the true horror of the film comes from how easily his partner Aaron decides to side with his white neighbors, allowing them to sow seeds of doubt into his relationship. Aaron’s fatal flaw is his inability to acknowledge the validity of his black partner’s concerns, leading to an increasingly nightmarish turn of events that could all have been avoided if he hadn’t put his whiteness first. Spiral is a horror film that reminds us that love and solidarity are active pursuits and lack of empathy often leads to tragedy.