American Gothic Traditions in HBO’s “Lovecraft Country”

Presented at the conference “Cults, Cthulhus, and Klansmen: (Hi)Stories Within Lovecraft Country,” an Online Symposium for the Centre for the History of the Gothic, Sheffield University, May 2021.

Misha Green’s HBO series “Lovecraft Country” offers a sharp critique of the “magic” of white privilege. Nowhere are the sources and results of this “magic” more clearly dramatized than in the episodes “Strange Case” and “Jig-A-Bobo.” Drawing from explorations of racial identity in American literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries, both episodes dramatize how white privilege is conjured from false narratives about racial difference and white superiority, and how this illusory white privilege perpetuates itself in the proliferation of racial stereotypes and the construction of systemic racial hierarchies.

The episode “Strange Case” examines the “magical” assumption of privilege available through “passing” as white. Miraculously transformed into a white woman through the ostensible gift of William’s scientific wizardry, Ruby experiences the “magic” of white privilege to wander through a world where she is no longer the object of police suspicion, where ice cream is free, and where she can finally attain a job commensurate with her education. Ruby is tempted to use this assumed status to assert her superiority over another black woman; however, after witnessing the store’s manager abusing his own white male privilege against this same young Black woman, Ruby decides instead to use her power to exact a revenge that perfectly capitalizes upon white male anxieties about the violation of both race and gender boundaries.

By contrast, the episode “Jig-A-Bobo” exposes how white privilege is “magically” enforced and perpetuated through the curse of racial stereotypes. Diana finds herself hounded by the evil twins Topsy and Bopsy, horrific racial stereotypes summoned forth from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While these figures remain invisible to adults, Diana is terribly haunted by them, losing the use of her dominant hand and her ability to draw and to express herself through the creative art which defines her personal identity.