Bol and Rial have seen enough horror in their lives. They don’t need any more.
The two refugees fled war-torn South Sudan for the safety of England. They’ve seen and heard things unimaginable to most. They’ve felt terror beyond endurance. And as they fled, they lost something irreplaceable: They lost their little girl.
But now, they hope, London gives them a chance to start fresh. “We will be new here,” Bol tells his wife.
“We’re born again,” Rial says.
But England holds terrors of its own: unfamiliar customs. Unfriendly neighbors. An unforgiving bureaucracy that seems designed to bury refugees before they’re born again. London’s “welcome” is a chilly one, if it can be called a welcome at all.
Even the house they’re given to live in—a spacious-but-broken townhome filled with stained wallpaper, old pizza boxes and roaches—doesn’t seem to want them there, either.
But as Bol deals with noises he shouldn’t hear and specters he shouldn’t see, he begins to wonder: Does whatever’s in the house want them out? Or want them dead?
Bol and Rial have been through a lot together, and it’s not been good for their marriage. And honestly, their relationship can take some very rough turns here. But they love each other, and we see just how much each is willing to risk for the other.
The weight of guilt forms one of the movie’s central themes, too. And while that, in itself, is not particularly positive, it does offer some lessons on just what guilt can do to us. We need to confess, confront and deal with the roots of that guilt in order to move forward, the movie suggests.
Bol and Rial have been assigned a haunted house to live in, and we see plenty of evidence of that haunting: But these aren’t just off-the-shelf, chain-rattling Western spirits we’re dealing with. They’re being haunted by people from their own past: Their main tormentor is Nyagak, the very daughter whom Rial mourns deeply.
Rial is the first to put a name to the hauntings, pinning the ghosts to one central source: They are, she tells Bol, dealing with an apeth, a “night witch” in Sudanese culture.
She tells Bol a ghost story, if you will, which was passed down by her mother: How an “honorable man” began stealing in order to buy his own house, but one day stole from an old man who turned out to be an apeth, too. Because of that theft, the apeth—or perhaps spirit of the apeth—moved into the man’s newly built house, and it haunted the man until it “consumed him entirely.”
The house’s own spiritual witch, when he reveals himself, is a terrifying entity who tries his best to divide Bol and Rial—whispering promises to the woman while terrifying the man. “It says I can get [Nyagak] back,” Rial tells her husband. “And it says I should be afraid of you.”
English social workers scoff at the suggestion that a “witch” might be at work in the house—seeing it as evidence that the two aren’t assimilating as they should. A church provides Bol and Rial with a care package. Both of them slip in and out of dream-like states that have a strong bearing on the plot.
Bol and Rial hug and hold hands at times. We see Bol without his shirt once.
The apeth is a flabby, pale, naked being: We see pretty much all of it, but if the thing has sexual organs, they’re hidden in shadows. (It does seem to have a pair of small breasts, but the apeth also seems obviously male, too.)
The ghosts haunting the house are malicious. Several grab Bol as another perches on his shoulders and holds a knife to his throat, preparing to slit it. Something seems to tear into Bol’s skin, trying to work its way under it, like a toddler would in a too-tight sweater sleeve. Something tries to pull Bol through the floor. We see corpses—lying dead, floating in water and sometimes walking around. One wears a particularly ghoulish mask. The apeth tries to lead residents into both suicide and murder.
But as dangerous as the movie’s spirit world can be, the real world has its own share of horrors. Someone is stabbed in the leg with a screwdriver. An arm is sliced open, and blood pools on the floor. In Sudan, we see evidence of a horrific massacre: Dead bodies lie strewn around a room. We hear gunfire, too. And we see snippets of a boat that either capsized or was sunk—a tragedy that claimed not just the life of Nyagak, but others as well.
When Rial submits to a blood test, a kindly clinician—trying to make conversation—compliments Rial on some of the ritual, scarring beauty marks Rial bears near her face. Rial tells her that she’s had those particular marks since she was a child, then shows her others—dots and dashes—on her arm.
“These I gave to myself with a knife when I found my family butchered,” Rial says. “There are two tribes where I come from. And they’re killing each other. Depending on which tribe you come from, you mark yourself [with different symbols]. I mark myself with both.” She says by doing so, it helped keep her alive.
Bol nearly destroys the house as he tries to get at the specters looking through the walls—hammering the drywall full of holes. He cuts himself badly when he reaches into one of those holes, and he later crushes a drinking glass in his hand.
Believing that their Sudanese possessions have “marked” them for the haunting, Bol burns them all outside—ripping a necklace that had belonged to Nyagak off of Rial’s own throat. He eventually tries to imprison Rial in their house, locking windows and ripping off handles.
Two f-words and two s-words. We also hear one use “b–tard.”
A neighbor smokes cigarettes.
Rial and Bol are both subjected to prejudice, both because of their race and their refugee status. When Rial asks three African-English high school boys for directions, they mock her accent, and one tells her that she should go back to Africa. “England is for the English,” he taunts. Another neighbor also tells Bol that they should really just go back where they came from.
Even the people tasked with helping the Sudanese couple are far from kind. When they’re accepted as “asylum seekers, not as citizens,” it’s through an impersonal, humiliating process, as if they were criminals. When Bol goes shopping for new clothes, a security guard begins to tail him.
Bol seems to wet his pants after a particularly terrifying dream/encounter.
[Spoiler Warning] We learn that Bol brought the haunting on himself and his wife by, essentially, kidnapping Nyagak in an effort to secure escape on an over-crowded bus. We see Nyagak’s real mother chase after the bus as Nyagak cries “Mama! Mama!” And when the boat they later boarded sank, Bol tells Rial that he didn’t do enough to try to save the girl.
I wrote in my television review of The Haunting of Bly Manor that we are all “haunted by memories; past relationships, past experiences, past mistakes that just won’t leave us.” It was true for Bly, and it’s true for this film, too.
Bol and Rial are haunted by their past and present. And the horrors go well beyond the supernatural nasties we squint to see here: They’re haunted by their native country’s bloody past; haunted by an uncertain future; haunted, indeed, even by each other. And as we watch, we wonder: Is Bol going insane? Is Rial? Are they both?
These tension-filled questions make His House a remarkable, and truly haunting, ghost story—one that winds up in a strangely affirming place. It speaks to the terrible power of guilt but contrasts that influence with the freeing power of confession and remorse. The conflict here nearly breaks the central relationship, but in the end this embattled couple becomes strong and humbly beautiful. The story plays on several levels simultaneously and, as a story, it works on each one.
But get to that affirmation, viewers must wade through some exceedingly gloomy waters. This film is genuinely scary, and it’s filled with plenty of spiritual elements that come from indigenous African spiritual traditions. And while I’d not say that the blood we see is gratuitous, it’s still there, and it still can impact viewers in troubling ways. There’s some foul language to deal with, as well.
His House works by its own set of rules. Those rules might not fly in your house. But for some, the film’s ultimately redemptive messages might just hit home.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.