Lovecraft Country S1E3 “Holy Ghost” begins solemnly with the image of Leti sitting still and devastated in church while everyone around her is dancing, praising, and singing, sending Uncle George home to join those who have passed on before him. Uncle George is gone. His part in the lives of those he loved, and who loved him has come to an end…or has it? For those left behind, life has to go on. Wanting to start fresh, Leti looks to a new town and home.
On a sunny day in the North Side of Chicago, she and Ruby walk along the sidewalk in a picturesque neighborhood where houses with carefully manicured lawns and hedges are bordered with white picket fences. It’s the quintessential American neighborhood. On the inside of those homes are people watching and listening, their white lace curtains pulled back in curiosity at the new voices. At the end of the street sits an abandoned decrepit Victorian-era house which now belongs to Leti. To her new neighbors, Leti and her new home are an eyesore. An unwanted blemish marring their perfect little world. But to Leti, it’s the symbol of finally achieving the American dream of owning her own home. It’s also her way of repaying Ruby for everything she’s given her in the past, and hopefully, a way for them to bond.
When she tells Ruby of her intention to use the house and the land it sits on as a way of contributing to the Black community, by turning it into a boarding house, Ruby questions this plan. She very rightly shows concern about bringing multiple Black people into an all-white neighborhood. But Leti refuses to have her excitement quelled, and Ruby eventually gives in and agrees to stay, claiming the largest room for herself, which might not be a good thing. But we’ll see.
On the South Side, Atticus and Hippolyta move uneasily around each other. The tension between them is filled with Tic’s guilt over losing Uncle George and Hippolyta’s grief and suspicion knowing that Tic is keeping something from her. Feeling uneasy, he goes to the apartment where Montrose is staying, finding him muttering in his sleep.
He’s dreaming about a riot that he and George were involved in during their youth where their lives were saved by a man unknown to them “swinging a bat like Jackie Robinson, hitting home runs on all their heads.” A story that influenced the dream Tic had at the beginning of episode one. They argue about telling Hippolyta the truth about how Uncle George died. Montrose doesn’t want to reveal the existence of the Braithwhites and people like them. It ends when Montrose aggressively shouts at Tic, who decides to leave to check on Leti, before moving on to Florida.
At Leti’s new home, her new tenants are moving in and repairs are being made. While she and Tic are getting caught up, a car horn begins to blare incessantly. Outside, white men glare at the house’s new inhabitants. Silently threatening those inside with their presence. It’s obvious a new season of torment and horror has begun, in more ways than one.
The next morning, and as Leti lies in bed, a bloody skeletal hand pulls the sheet off her body. Beside the bed, a frighteningly disfigured face appears, rising slowly. And as the hairs on my arms rise and my back tenses with memories of supernatural events experienced, I knew “Holy Ghost” was going to be an episode I wasn’t prepared for. Leti suddenly awakes, shivering, to find condensation on the inside of the window, which she opens to cool the room down. Unfortunately, the horn can still be heard loud and unending outside, so she quickly closes it, heading down to the basement to look at the boiler, which has had its knob broken.
Just as she heads back up the stairs, after turning the heat back down, she hears loud banging. As she walks deeper into the dark recesses of the basement, she steps over a bear trap and hears voices whispering from a trap door in the floor covered by furniture. She finally gets a clue and does the smart thing, getting the hell out. Coming back down with Tic, they find the mystery room completely bare. Tic thinks Leti is mentally exhausted from everything they’ve been through and says that along with the excessive heat and car horn, he wouldn’t be surprised if the voices are part of the scare tactics their tormentors outside are using, the same as those used by soldiers in the Korean war, implying they are veterans too.
Later that night, the house is filled with laughter, as people dance to Ruby singing the blues. In the kitchen, Hippolyta’s conversation with Leti reveals her resentment at Tic being in her home, doing things differently to the way George would’ve. Down in the basement, Diana and her friends are playing with an ouija board, and unsurprisingly, things get creepy. Why these children thought that was a wise or fun decision, I don’t know. It’s all fun and games until you start messing with the supernatural.
Tic enters the party dressed in his service uniform, worn as a sign to others of his contribution as a member of American military. He thinks that if things go wrong, the white men looking on will see that he served in the war with them and might think twice about attacking. Ruby is playing a game of poker, when one of the men asks if she believes Marshall Fields (the department store) won’t hire her because she’s Black, and she responds in the affirmative, saying that she’s willing to work harder than anyone else if that’s what it takes.
She goes on to say that if other Black people thought like her, the Black race would be further along. Now, this statement seems extremely naive, but there are many like her who have bought into the “bootstrap” ideology. The idea that all Black people need to do is work harder and smarter in order to succeed in a world when the deck has always been stacked against us and the game rigged with rules designed to make us lose before we even get a seat at the table. The idea, that it’s okay for Black people to constantly have to keep proving our worth to those who don’t even want to acknowledge our humanity, is misguided and harmful.
Ruby knows how racism works in America. She knows that up until now, all of her credentials haven’t been enough to get her a job she’s overqualified for, but she holds onto the hope that one day all of her efforts will pay off, giving her access to her dream job in a racist company, filled with people who will treat her less than simply because of her looks.
As a horrible wake up call about the realities of the country she lives in, Ruby looks outside to see a cross burning on the front lawn. Leti, like an avenging angel, and the pissed-off Black woman she is, takes a bat and starts swinging. With Black gospel music (“Take It Back” by Dorinda Clark Cole) set as the backing track, Leti proceeds to smash the headlights and windows of the cars parked outside her home. Like a call back to the scene with Tic and Montrose, and an homage to Jackie Robinson, Leti lets her tormentors know that she won’t be broken with every swing of her bat. When she’s finished, Ruby drives off with the bat and guns of the men who stood guard. They, along with Leti and Tic, kneel on the ground as sounds of sirens grow closer.
Alone in the back of the police van, with the captain of the local precinct, Leti’s demeanor is completely different from the previous scene. She’s closed in on herself in the corner furthest from him. She a Black woman in a police vehicle with racist white men, who she knows can use any word or gesture as an excuse to harm her. Not that they need one, do they? Trying to find out how Leti was able to afford the house, the driver swerves the van, causing her to be tossed about and hurt. He tells her they found the mutilated bodies of eight Black people buried in the basement and with barely suppressed joy tells her she won’t survive it.
The next day Leti is looking through pictures taken of the house. Ruby tells her their tenants are leaving, afraid that Leti’s actions have made them targets. She gets into an argument with Ruby when she accidentally blurts out they’ll be fine financially because she still has money left from their mother’s inheritance. Later, Tic comes in offering to help Leti with whatever’s going on. She reveals that she’s found out the last owner of the house was Hiram Epstein, an Astrophysicist who was fired from the University of Chicago for unethical experimental practices, which she believes is the reason for the bodies that were found in her house. She shows Tic the distorted images of the faces of those eight people in the pictures. Their souls are trapped in the house.
In a moment of vulnerability Leti reveals how confused and lost she’s felt since returning to Chicago. She doesn’t say exactly what it was that lead to her coming back, but whatever she’s running from is weighing heavily on her. That combined with everything she’s experienced recently is taking a toll on her. The uncertainty of a new world faced with dangers she never considered has her terrified, but she refuses to be beaten down and is determined to stake her claim however she can. She begins by claiming her house and exorcising Epstein’s spirit.
With the help of a woman brought in to cleanse the house and cast out demons, Leti and Tic form a circle in the basement. Like a scene straight out of a classic horror film, the pictures that had been laid on the ground, begin swirling abound them. When Tic becomes possessed with Epstein’s ghost, Leti begins calling on the spirits to help her cast him out. One by one she calls their names, urging them to keep fighting for they’re not dead yet.
With sister Shirley Cesar singing, “Satan, We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down”, the bodies of the spirits begin to appear. As the singing intensifies, more and more of their bodies are revealed and the true horror of what was done to them, and the type of monster Epstein was, is revealed. Like an American Josef Mengele, Epstein had tortured these people in the most terrible ways. The torment they suffered at his hands caused their souls to be trapped in the house that became their tomb.
Seeing how these people were treated, brought to mind the horrible ways Black women and men were experimented on by doctors who had no right to be called doctors, in particular James Marion Sims — a man who tortured enslaved Black women in the name of advancing medicine.
In one of the most haunting and heartbreaking scenes of television I’ve ever seen, Lovecraft Country shows just how many layers there are to this show. For anyone who grew up in a Black church, a prayer circle is something we’re all familiar with. It’s a place where prayer warriors gather to call on the strength of the Holy Ghost and his angels to grant us the power to fight spiritual warfare, for ourselves and on behalf of others.
Jurnee Smollett was amazing in this episode, but this scene was something special. Seeing Leti commanding her own prayer circle, calling on the ancestors to give her the power to command that demonic force to get out of her house, and setting those spirits free, shook me. It was haunting, beautiful, and uplifting watching their bodies become whole again, as the image of their murder dissipated, his soul vanquished to hell where it belonged.
The use of Negro Spirituals and Black gospel music throughout the episode made it more impactful. For those of us across the diaspora, music has always been the tie that binds us together. It’s something that gives us strength when it seems all hope is lost. Whether we’re singing in church for occasions such as funerals, at home, or even a restaurant, singing as a community gives us a power that can’t be matched.
There are many ways that Black people are attacked through racism. There are the infamous micro-aggressions, then the not-so-subtle attacks which are used to break Black people down psychologically, such as the burning of crosses, incessant noises to disturb the peace of mind, and cops threatening deaths they know they’ll get away with. But with the strength and knowledge of those who have gone before us, and are no longer here, we can hold on, and keep fighting. We’ll get tired, scared, and feel like giving up, but like Uncle George and Leti said we can’t live in fear. We have to keep going after what we want.
Lovecraft Country airs Sundays at 9 on HBO.