“This emergent form — the death’s head — is not a part of the scene, but rather a reflection upon it, potentially a visualization of the character’s thoughts — evoked by the voodoo drums — graphically on screen in a way that is both inherently a part of the action (emergent from the composition itself) and a presentation of what is not (cannot be) shown on screen: Lorena’s thoughts — her fear, signified by the voodoo drums, becoming manifest as the superimposed skull.”
In the 1974 low-budget horror film The House on Skull Mountain, there is a singular shot (right) that stands out from the rest of the film enough that reviewers have noted it seems out of place.1 This film was directed by Ron Honthaner, who otherwise worked on television shows such as Gunsmoke as an associate producer and writer; The House on Skull Mountain was the only time he directed, either on film or television.2 The shot itself begins as a medium shot of a woman (“Lorena Christophe,” played by Janee Michelle) looking off screen to the left, her hand at her mouth; the framing hides the double image it contains. As the shot pulls back, it gradually reveals she is sitting at a dressing stand, and the composition makes its duplicity apparent — the scene has been carefully arranged to create a double image where the curve of the mirror is the top of a skull and the woman’s dark hair providing the eye sockets becomes progressively more obvious, until once the camera move ends, a white skull shape appears superimposed over this composition, asserting the optical illusion’s priority. This shot is a quotation of nineteenth century illustrator C. Allen Gilbert’s metamorphic illusion All is Vanity (published by House of Art, 1892) (below). The shot and illustration are “reflections” of each other. The 1974 version is a transposition of Gilbert’s composition as if seen in a mirror, even though the arrangement of elements remains constant: the burning candle, the bottles/teeth arrayed before the circle of the mirror, the woman’s slightly raised hand, touching her face. However, there are a number of differences between the source of this illusion and its execution in House on Skull Mountain: in the original image, the woman directly addresses the picture’s audience, seemingly meeting their gaze, while in the restaging, she looks away, apparently unaware of the camera filming. Gilbert’s woman looks like a classic “Gibson girl” — a stereotypical image of wealthy, white American “aristocracy” — common to illustrations of the 1890s, while in the film she is a contemporary “office girl” — someone who works for a living; she is also black. They are different, yet the images remain recognizably constant; this transformation is not an accident, but part of a systematic series of reversals and doublings running throughout the film that present a fantasy of the death of racism, summarized by the metonymic relationship of film quotation to original illustration. The plot is set in motion by events surrounding a rich, black, “Haitian” family attending the reading of the matriarch’s will at the family mansion outside Atlanta, Georgia. But this fantasy is belied by the plot itself, where a visibly white man who is supposed to be a “mixed-race” cousin (“Dr. Andrew Cunningham,” played by Victor French) must save his black cousin (“Lorena Christophe,” played by Janee Michelle, who appears in this shot) from the horrors of voodoo and the superstitious magic that is part of their Haitian heritage: she must be liberated from her origins — her black past.
The embedded racial subtext of The House on Skull Mountain depends on the specific pattern of reiteration and reversal apparent in the differences between illustration and shot. In 1892, the black woman, were she present to Gilbert’s image, is (literally) invisible: her role would have been as a servant, doing the bidding of her white mistress whose presentation has a slightly moralizing tone in Gilbert’s optical illusion: it is a classic vanitas rendered simultaneously as memento mori. The title All is Vanity is thus redundant with the other iconography contained in/as the image itself: the burning candle alludes to time passing (beauty is fleeting) coupled with the intensity of her gaze outwards at the audience, engaging, challenging the viewer to acknowledge that she is beautiful — a beauty that is artificially created by the bottles arrayed before her, an illusion.
Simultaneously, her beauty on display assumes the form of a skull: the circle of her mirror is also its curved edge; her flowing, sensuous dark hair, the black pits of eye sockets that leer vacantly, the perfumes and potions of her bottles, the distended roots of teeth without gums. Within her beauty lies the unmistakable image of death. It is this containment of death-within-beauty that is specific to the vanitas and finds specific demonstration in this metamorphic image. The traditional conjunction of skull (Death) with youth and beauty lies within the inherent structure of both vanitas and memento mori as iconographic systems. The dimensions of memento mori are superseded by the organization of Gilbert’s vanitas. Crafting the double image in this fashion invokes a morality play, where the instantaneous transformation into a leering skull critiques both her vanity and her unwavering gaze (the woman’s direct address of the viewer) — her reflection meets the gaze of her audience, iconographically a standard element in the vanitas picture. Gilbert’s metamorphic image invokes an uncomfortable shifting of positions around her gaze outwards to the audience. It is this woman’s self-possession (apparent in the even gaze she directs at the viewer) which comes under assault in Gilbert’s painting — the illusion of youth, the beauty she presents, is simultaneously an act that hides death: “beauty inevitably fades” is the moralizing message delivered against her self-assured presentation to onlooker via mirror.
The contrast in The House on Skull Mountain to Gilbert’s original could not be stronger. The development of this shot is significant. In place of the self-assured, self-conscious woman who has already composed herself and addresses the viewer, is an uncertain, perhaps even frightened woman who gazes vacantly at a space insistently outside the audience’s view. She first appears in close-up, and while it is obvious she is thinking about something (reflecting), it is not immediately apparent that she is literally shown in reflection — that what the audience sees is her visage reflected by a dressing stand mirror. This fact emerges as the shot pulls back, away from her, in the process “discovering” the double image (emergent skull) whose presence is emphasized by a synchronized musical cue and superimposed white skull shape. While the same classic elements of the vanitas are present — the woman’s reflection in the mirror, the burning candle, that appear in Gilbert’s painting — this is not a vanitas, but rather only a memento mori, one that invokes the vanitas even as it denies the role of vanity in this invocation of death. Where Gilbert’s image is a moralizing statement about fading beauty and the self-imposed illusions employed to hide it, the double image in The House on Skull Mountain reveals a lurking death, an omnipresent yet invisible threat inherent to this scene rendered via the soundtrack as pounding voodoo drums and atonal screech as the superimposed skull form appears; the death thus invoked is not her vanity, but her race, that of her blackness. The reversal of relationships between All is Vanity and The House on Skull Mountain — the transformations of vanitas/memento mori, reversed composition, and race — are reflective of the larger social transformations and inversions that run throughout the film; these transfers are all indicators of the superstitious magic that assails this woman because of her Haitian heritage.
The shift in gaze from direct address (illustration) to insistent disconnection (film) — not just a reflection of cinematic convention where the actor pretends the camera is not present — also serves to interiorize the woman at the mirror because she is clearly looking at something, but that is unknown as it lies outside the frame, invisible within this shot and physically never revealed by the context within the film. This unknown “object” is clearly troubling her, consuming her thoughts, and its absence from the audience’s view forces a consideration that the what could easily be the skull that emerges from the composition’s duplicity. The superimposition thus assumes a rhetorical role, present for the audience as an assertion of the double image, but one that is invisible to Lorena, who is so essential to its appearance. This emergent form — the death’s head — is not a part of the scene, but rather a reflection upon it, potentially a visualization of the character’s thoughts — evoked by the voodoo drums — graphically on screen in a way that is both inherently a part of the action (emergent from the composition itself) and a presentation of what is not (cannot be) shown on screen: Lorena’s thoughts — her fear, signified by the voodoo drums, becoming manifest as the superimposed skull. By combining the metamorphic image with the secondary assertion of memento mori via superimposition, the only conclusion possible is that she is thinking about death — about how fleeting life is, that beauty always fades, that there is never enough time. But the “death” in this film is also linked to the superstitious magic of voodoo, fundamentally connected to the “blackness” of the family. The only character not subject to this specific appeal is the white man (the hero, Dr. Andrew Cunningham) who must rescue the black woman (the heroine, Lorena Christophe) from the destructive death-magic of Haitian voodoo.
This specific collection of linkages and transfers organizes the development of this double image, apparent through both superimposed skull and accompanying soundtrack. The differences with Gilbert’s image are therefore of great significance — the shift in race and deflection of the gaze — indicating the most apparent difference, her race, may also be the reason the death motif is not just an optical construction (the metamorphic nature of the image), but is also asserted through the superimposed white form. The linkage of white form to death, invoked by the voodoo drums, is an acknowledgment of the subtext to the whole film: an imaginary death to racism. Specific details from the story are organized around this fantasy: the house is an antebellum plantation manor, located in the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia, a state notorious for its opposition to racial integration in the 1950s and ’60s. That the family is Haitian, rather than American, descendants of a former French colony that also achieved freedom from European rule following a bloody revolutionary war — this choice is not accidental given the similarities between both countries origins — nevertheless has a specific difference: in Haiti, the revolutionaries were black slaves from Africa, rather than white, Euro-descended slave owners.
The death phantom that appears at the end of this shot being specifically white is thus significant: not just because skulls are white, but also because the question of race (“whiteness/blackness”) haunts the film as a whole. The reversal of relationships from Gilbert’s All is Vanity to The House on Skull Mountain is not simply a transposition accommodating the film’s black actress, but a simultaneous (doubled) implication that ascending in social status requires the rejection of her Haitian origins (her “blackness”).
The doubling of “doctors” in the film repeats the same doublings of white-black that appear in this shot: the threat posed by voodoo is embodied in the “witch doctor” who is the black villain, defeated by the white doctor. The linkage of (white) skull with (black) voodoo drums further dramatizes the conflict between superstition (black, Haitian heritage) and the rationality embodied in the white protagonist that ultimately prevails: the superstition is simultaneously a figure of death (the skull) and will (symbolically) die by being made white — the white form, in asserting itself as a symbol of death also obscures the black woman — transforming her into the skull, eliminating her with its whiteness — as the doubled image becomes visually dominant.
The figure of death that appears within Gilbert’s image — the metonymy between arrangement and skull — is absent from the reversed composition, yet informs and structures these reversals: while both are examples of memento mori, the remembrance of death has a different signification in both pictures, a difference that emerges precisely through the shift in gaze. In The House on Skull Mountain Lorena gazes away, off screen, at something other than the viewer. The subject of her gaze, a fearful contemplation, can only be the threat posed by the racial subtext of the film itself: her Haitian heritage (blackness) that is appearing, insistently, throughout the film and which can literally be heard on the soundtrack (even though this musical cue is conventionally understood by the audience to be non-diegetic, unheard by the characters on screen). Pounding in the background is a dark, irrational, superstitious force that is inseparable from American pop cultural ideas of Haiti: not simply black but foreign, other. This connection of the death-figure to her heritage belies the surface level of the film’s premise, that of a rich black Haitian family whose matriarch has died and whose heirs have gathered to hear the will, instead transforming that surface into the horror itself: the horror of the black other, rendered visible in this singular shot whose transformations and reiterations of Gilbert’s picture bring these themes into focus. The danger posed by voodoo is not the supernatural threat common to horror films — it is instead the horror posed by the discovery of blackness represented by voodoo as the sweaty, rhythmic, superstitious primitive: beneath the superficial fantasy of a dissolution and banishment of racism lies, instead, a fundamentally racist conception of both white and black, one where the “Haitian” serves to represent the dangerous, threatening, and irrational other to American (white) rationality.