© Photo: Kruger Van Deventer, Design: Roman Handt
Far from the linear thrust of imperial time, and the relentless returns of traumatic time, the time of entanglement is, in the words of Achille Mbembe's formulation, not a series but an interlocking of presents, pasts, and futures that retain their depths of other pasts, presents, and futures. Debarati Sanyal, Critical Times (2019)

More than ten years ago, Constanza Macras began working with artists and families in South Africa. Over the years, we have already shared many stories and memories. What made a lasting impression was the widespread fascination with teen slasher horror films. That’s why we decided to develop a dance theatre in Johannesburg with references to the aesthetics and plot of this genre

If you never watched slasher movies (aka teen-kill pics / bodycount films / dead teenager movies): they feature teenagers or young characters that get killed very graphically one by one by a mysterious psychopathic killer, often masked. The killers preferred murder weapon is usually a knife, a chainsaw or other blunt unconventional objects, but rarely a gun. Adult figures are typically absent during the victims misadventures or are of little help to them. Classical slasher movies generally begin with the murder of a young woman and end with a lone female survivor who manages to subdue the killer, only to discover that the problem has not been completely resolved (enabling the film to possibly become a franchise). American classics of the genre include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1982), Candyman (1992) and Scream (1996).

American cinema critic Robin Wood states that horror is »perhaps the most progressive (movie genre), even in its overt nihilism.« These movies often present unpopular views addressing the social, political, racial, or sexual inequities, hypocrisy in religion or government. Slasher movies in particular, »do not propose a spurious harmony; do not promote the »specious good« but indeed often expose and attack it; they do not apply the mechanisms of identification, narrative continuity, and closure« to provide the sort of narrative pleasure constitutive of the mainstream culture. And yet their popularity remains staggering.

Ritornello of troubled pasts

The past will come back to bite you in the ass. Whatever you think you know about the past, forget it. The past is not at rest! Rule #3 of slasher movies, dialogue from the movie Scream 3, by Wes Craven, 2000.

There are compelling parallels between the slasher movie genre and (post-) colonial structures in south African society today. One of these, as feminist film theorist Vera Dike points out, is a similar mechanics in the creation of otherness: crimes in slasher movies often take place based on a pejorative judgement of the victim – be it in criticism of the moral standards of the hunted teenagers (their sexual activities for example) or based on racial prejudice. Moreover, there is always a strong connection between the horrors of the the present and the past. Violence in these movies is not the product of the presence that appears out of nowhere as much as it is the remnant of the past and its horrors, which might have been forgotten and suppressed but not overcome.

In the South African context, the unbearable violence systematised in the past by the Dutch and British colonial rule, and later by the apartheid regime, is still imprinting on the present in many and complex ways. They constitute a long history of power systems that divided to rule. They acted on othering regimes based on racist constructions and promoted rivalry and envy among neighbours as an effort to undo in potentiality common efforts of resistance. Through the arbitrary distribution of »privileges« among the different constructed and oppressed groups, the systems worked towards a hierarchisation of people to sow jalousies and resentment. For such regimes, the neighbour would ideally become someone to compete with and a potential enemy.

This gruesome past resurfaces more drastically in dark moments of tension, such as the recent riots during the pandemic, when xenophobic and racist attacks spiked in the country. During those riots, there was a high number of attacks against South African Indian communities (that used to enjoy certain “privileges” in relation to black South African populations during apartheid), and against migrants from other African countries, specially from Nigeria. In THE VISITORS, the violence and the horror convey the elaboration of the Other as a monster, the xenophobic constructions around the Nigerian immigrants and the real horrors of the colonial intruders that continue to influence current socio-political structures today.

The killers in so called teenie-kill pics are far from the complex charismatic psychopaths of movies like Silence of the lambs or Misery. Here the killer is rather a shadow, a shallow and underdeveloped character, often unseen or barely glimpsed. They may be recognisably human, but only marginally so. As such, these monsters appear as an almost abstract, pure cause of violence. In one key aspect, however, they are superhuman: they are virtually indestructible. It is never enough to kill these monsters once, the characters have to do it again and again throughout the movies and over the different episodes of the franchises. These two elements, invisibility and indestructibility, echo some of the aforementioned power structures in their time resilient interiorised forms.

One of them is, for instance, the disruption of family structures. With its working policies and pass laws that often obliged men to stay away from their families for long periods of time, the apartheid effectively implemented a state‐orchestrated destruction of the family life. Today, only about 35 per cent of children live with both their mother and father.

In cult slasher films, such as 1977 ́s Halloween, suburban and small-town teenagers are put in danger time and time again: at home, at school, at camp and on holidays. In most of these films the parents appear as completely useless and totally absent from their children's lives, physically and/or emotionally. As spectators, we ask ourselves: »where are all the parents?!«. The teens must always deal with the monsters on their own. Homes in these films don’t provide a haven from a world gone bad, or even a place of safe retreat. Literature about the genre links these narratives with the teenager’s experiences of changes in the family structure, caused by divorce or other structural modifications. Yet this question resonates quite differently within the South African context.

Anticipation, horror and absurd

Annie: Still spooked? Laurie: I wasn’t spooked. Annie: Lies! Dialogue from the movie Halloween, by John Carpenter, 1978.

Anticipation is a crucial element to provoke the feeling of a lurking, upcoming evil, which comes to life already in the evocation of its presence – anticipation is in these movies probably where the most terrifying effects reside. But as cinema critic Carol J. Clover highlights, the rapid alternation between registers - between something like a »real« Horror on one hand and a camp, self-parodying horror on the other - is one of the most conspicuous characteristics of the tradition of the genre. Terrifying anticipation often resolves in intentionally outrageous excess, that tickles the absurd and sometimes slides into it fully, creating a humorous effect… something like  »if you saw a man repeatedly running into a wall until he was a bloody pulp, after a while it would make you laugh because it becomes absurd«, to quote filmmaker David Lynch.

Another uncanny procedure that interests us in slasher movies is the non-correlation of the violence and its effects: some characters will die after one blow while others will survive being stabbed twenty times after falling off a balcony. And even though the genre seems to repeat again and again certain rigid formulas, this non-correlation opens up the realm of possible outcomes in every individual scene. THE VISITORS plays with these procedures, as the real terror of anticipation is disrupted by the non-correlation of the characters responses to the situations that fall upon them. As if these characters figured that the most efficient way to talk to the monsters (of the past?) would sometimes be to radically change language in the course of the conversation. Absurd turns in the story-lines, like discovering that dancing drives the monsters away, work as humorous portals out of the relentless return of the horror.


White people never come 'round here except to cause us a problem. Believe me, that's not what we want to do. Dialogue from the movie Candyman, by Bernard Rose, 1992.

One of the inspirations for THE VISITORS is the famous short story House taken over by Argentinian author Julio Cortázar (1946). It tells the story of a brother and sister living together in their family home which is being gradually and terrifyingly »taken over« by unknown entities or forces. This unidentified and creepy occupation will eventually succeed in driving the characters away from their home. In the end, they just get out, lock the door behind them and toss the key in the gutters, hoping that nobody will find it. Even if the story itself leaves the readers with no explanations or answers, its later reception in Argentina and South-America has strongly linked it to the horror of the tragic histories of the local military dictatorships and the foreign powers connected to them within the cold war context.

In the tradition of Slasher movies there is always a »terrible place« where the action takes place. But unlike in House taken over, the invasion of that place is never gradual or subtle, quite the opposite. There is always spectacular scene in these movies in which the victim locks herself in (a house, the school, a room, a car) and waits with pounding heart as the killer slashes, hacks, or drills their way in. This is the so called »penetration scene« and is commonly a film's pivotal moment.

The horror caused by the intrusion of the monster inside the victims space is taken to yet another level by the acclaimed movie Get Out, by Jordan Peele, that elaborates themes of racial politics in America. In the film, the monsters try to perform the ultimate intrusion: to go inside the victims mind, and more specifically, to take over their brain. The horror trope of the brain transplant is used to illustrate the persistence of racism. In this movie, as Peele describes it, »the monster is society itself.«

The »terrible place« of THE VISITORS plot is set in Johannesburg´s Friedenskirche Lutheran church. It is located in the Hillbrow, a neighbourhood that used to be German during the apartheid. It later became a central site for migration from townships, from rural South Africa and from all over Africa, in particular Nigeria. Today the area struggles with high levels of intolerance and xenophobia. In 2019, as tensions grew with the pandemic, xenophobic attacks sparkled once again. The Friedenskirche Lutheran church is the only architectural leftover of the German community there. Now renamed Church of Peace and hosting outreach community programs, the building nevertheless acts as a reminder of structures of the past. Its Neo-Romanesque architecture and distinctive Bavarian bell-tower awkwardly stand out against the rest of the neighbourhood, like the haunted house of European religion.

Tamara Saphir has already worked as a dramaturge with Constanza Macras for her performance Hillbrowfication and also accompanies THE VISITORS in its creation.