The Indian Burial Ground Trope

Excavating Projections of Colonialism
in the Horror and Paranormal Realm 

Being a Native viewer of horror films, often means making a choice to acknowledge or dismiss our role of self-awareness and ultimately being cognizant of our place within the realm of horror.  This introspection is not only limited to realizing the barriers of exclusion we face, but also the the constant normalization of dominant paradigms that are so prevalent and typically molded to fit a broader audience. Those paradigms reveal themselves through the frequent use of tropes and symbols that have become so repetitive it becomes near impossible to ignore; And it brings about the question, are these tropes utilized as filler for a plot device? Or do they act as a blanket projection of collective fears from a societal culture that has been built upon, and sustained by settler colonialism?

One of the tropes most blatantly representative of settler colonialism is the “Indian Burial ground” trope. This trope had reached its peak within popular culture in the 1980s where it was most associated (but not limited to) horror classics such as Pet Cemetery,  Amityville horror and The Shining.  While it could be argued to be a product of its time, that doesn’t explain the ongoing usage of Indian burial grounds and “Indian curses” that persist even today.

Paranormal shows such as Ghost Adventures, Ghost hunters, Paranormal Witness, Paranormal State, Dead Files, have all included Indian Burial Grounds or Indian curses as an explanation of paranormal phenomena at some point. That is not to relegate the fact that it could be a possibility of spiritual unrest in the afterlife, (for those who believe in the paranormal) but it is also possible that too often this explanation is an easy answer for every paranormal experience. Upon realizing that this trope is so pervasive, it then becomes evident that there is some sort of collective infatuation in these mythologies, and when being mindful of the various levels of genocide (past and ongoing) this trope represents many meanings and unconscious associations that extend beyond the horror genre. This trope is not a product of horror, but simply a westernized paradigm that has been normalized within horror, the paranormal, and accepted as a nostalgic device, so much to the point it has also become a punchline for satire within popular culture.

The idea of building on top of Native remains is polarizing, because of the nature of injustice fuels settler guilt while also establishing Indigenous peoples as “the other”. Horror as a genre works to play on the primal fears of their audience, and those who enjoy the paranormal, tend to be attracted to it because so much of it represents what it unknown and cannot be explained. The Indian Burial Ground trope is successful because of its ability to stir up supernatural trepidation while also appealing to collective societal fears that have been ingrained into public consciousness for centuries.

On that note, there are further presuppositions to the ways the Indian Burial ground trope is inherently anti Native and reflective of settler colonial attitudes. One reason is the fact it furthers the vanishing Native trope; One that originated out of the era of Federal Indian policy that had the assumption that Indians would eventually vanish.  While this trope is not so explicitly stated, its often vocalized and upheld through the misinformed perspective of many Americans who assert that Natives are extinct. It is alluded to in the constant imagery of dead Natives such as through the ever popular skull in headdress image. The idea of the vanishing Native has acted as a justification of colonization, where Native dispossession, displacement, and acts of post mortem violence such as building on Native burial grounds or stealing Native remains, goes unquestioned when the popular assumption is “they’re all dead anyway”.

Most disturbing is the parallels that can be drawn to desecration of remains and sacred grounds in real life (such as what is occurring right now with Dakota Access Pipeline) which I classify as an act of Post Mortem Violence.  Natives have been resisting against the desecration of Burial grounds as well as the unjust theft or remains for centuries. Another negative aspect of the Indian Burial ground trope is that  it paints Settler Colonialism in the light that corruption that has already been committed, and that genocide is a process of the past. It ignores that settler colonialism is ongoing, upon Indigenous peoples who have a thriving presence and ongoing existence.  Pipelines are still being forced onto sacred grounds and corporations are still building upon burial grounds. Tribes are still fighting to have their relative’s remains returned home, even the remains of famed Native Olympian, Jim Thorpe.  In God Is Red, Vine Deloria Jr describes the many instances of grave looting and unearthing of grave sites in the name of archaeology and other state institutions. These acts of injustice are not simply residual haunting of American guilt, but an active presence in the treatment of modern Indigenous peoples.

One of the most prevalent criticisms about the Indian Burial ground trope is the fact that it is representative of settler guilt. Like the crying Indian commercial, it has come to represent the fact that settlers may be pondering the tragedy of genocide and projecting as a way of grappling with that guilt. But one of the ways that can also be interpreted, is not so much that it’s about the process of unpacking that guilt, but to dissociate from it. The primary red flag in identifying that dynamic is by acknowledging the stigmatization that occurs in tandem with the burial ground trope.

Every time there is a demonic entity, whether it be through the resurrection of evil pets in Pet cemetery, or through a malevolent entity haunting American families, it can easily be explained as a vengeful spirit because burial grounds were tampered with. But if that fear were so real would Hollywood still be profiting off this trope while continuing to commit the same transgressions? Why do films like “The Darkness” exist where the focus is on demonizing Native cultures to the point where tampering with sacred ground is no longer an allegory but an excuse to act upon dehumanization, Anti Native sentiments and more erasure.  Overall if we were to go with this logic, it could be said that all of America is one mass burial ground, as so many have pointed out at this point that it has lost its severity as a political rhetoric point to becoming a comedy punchline.   

These reactionary plots are the same typical response colonizers have fostered since the beginning of their invasion, to deem Indigenous peoples as angry, hostile, savages, and it seems they are still projecting that idea upon the spirits of the undead. Colonizers thrived on religious violence as an impetus of conquest and the noble thought that they were saving souls. Years later during the civil rights era and even up until modern times, there have even been segregated cemeteries; Therefore, the assertion that settler colonial projections have been extended upon the dead, aren’t that far off.

That Idea of anti-Native tropes existing as a matter of projection, can be furthered when discussing the history of Native spirituality being historically stigmatized and even made illegal, in attempt to be wiped out by the US government, through the process of assimilation. Currently that is what tropes like Indian burial ground further represent, when Indigenous spirituality is otherized with negative connotations of mysticism; Whether through projections of the noble savage or the idea that Native culture exist as a symbol of the past, as an imaginary ghost. Culture is further co-opted and mystified with the constant appropriation of Indigenous cultural customs to eradicate violent spirits. (Such as through the burning of sage, in the context of Native cultural traditions is referred to as smudging). That in itself is paradoxical where Native culture and spirituality is stigmatized yet consumed and appropriated in the same breath. While some may argue those appropriating are validating those practices, what is actually occurring when demonization and mysticism is present, is the dispossession of those practices from their actual cultures of origin.

In conclusion, if the point of these tropes is to enact guilt from historical injustice but is carried out through stigmatization, then that guilt boils down to another level of the white savior complex. The white savior complex can be defined as one’s belief in the divine right to “save” indigenous peoples. But in matter of doing so, that also takes place through the veil of paternalism that says that Indigenous peoples are primitive and need to be saved. Alluding to an Indian burial ground isn’t a direct illusion to this, however it beckons the guilt of saviors that says it’s their jobs to draw light to injustice regardless of the matter in which they are doing so, it is dehumanizing and consumptive. Many times this trope is merely used as a story plot but the director or author doesn’t even care to acknowledge the issues of Injustice happening with Indigenous communities in real life. Ultimately the savior complex acts out of opportunistic motives, and in the context of the horror genre, acts simply as a filler; Regardless of whether there is a genuine attribution of “Indian Burial grounds” to other acts of post mortem violence, sacred desecration. When there is a completely disregard in dynamics for respecting the cultures from which those supposed associations originate, it comes off as a replication of the same violence its purportedly meant to condemn.

In conclusion, it can be said that its time for creators to move beyond these tropes, not only for the sake of respecting Native horror fans, but also to renew dusty plotlines and unveil new possibilities for horror. Questioning these tropes is not just a matter of race baiting or stirring up guilt, but can be seen as a genuine opportunity to revamp and enrich Indigenous involvement in horror. Rather than repeating age old cycles we can all move beyond that and lay the burial ground trope to rest.