An installment of Hulu’s Into the Dark series, Pilgrim, on the surface, appears to be the average creepy slasher film with great scare-jump moments and a Thanksgiving holiday twist. But there’s more to the film than meets the eye. Pilgrim joins a burgeoning sub-genre of horror films that are about race relations. It’s about a family who hires pilgrim reenactors to recreate the first Thanksgiving. Because who would want to celebrate this holiday at all, let alone a reenactment? The answer may surprise.
We open with a single phrase uttered before we even see anything: “You don’t appreciate anything I do!” The first image is of small boots dangling just shy of the floor as a child sits at a dinner table, seemingly listening to adults argue in a separate room. The scene passes, followed by an image of larger booted feet firmly planted on the floor. We’re introduced to the characters around the table: Cody (Reign Edwards), the small footed child who grew up, her father, Shane (Kerr Smith), her step-mother Anna (Courtney Henggeler), and her little brother, Tate (Antonio Raul Corbo). Cody is biracial, but the only black person at this table and presumably, in her family.
The film fleshes out a host of other characters, including Cody’s boyfriend, Finn (Taj Speights). Like Cody, Finn appears to be the only black person in his family. Where Pilgrim excels is its perspective. Cody’s front and center and viewers experience her, and subsequently Finn’s, feelings of otherness in this world while the Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated.
It’s nearing Thanksgiving, and Shane and Anna discuss Anna’s plans of a Home Harvest Festival. Anna explains that Thanksgiving enthusiasts are coming to their home to make dinner and, “teach us how they did things in the olden days.” Out of everyone at the table, Cody identifies this activity as whitewashing and ignorant of Indigenous genocide, which is the true spirit of Thanksgiving. Anna insists the true meaning of Thanksgiving is spending time with family, and Cody is easily dismissed in favor of the olden days. After dinner, Cody and Tate break a wishbone. The bigger piece favors Cody. Her wish? “I wish this whole thing would backfire in her stupid face.”
The faux-pilgrims, Ethan (Peter Giles) and Patience (Elyse Levesque), arrive early while Anna is hosting a HOA meeting. The camera cuts to their feet crossing the threshold into the Barker residence after Anna invites them inside. In typical horror movie fashion, complete strangers, Ethan and Patience, are invited to stay in the home for the duration of the reenactment, to Cody’s chagrin and vocal protest. Anna then offers up Katherine’s home to Patience.
Perhaps the true horror of this film is that Ethan’s pilgrim perspective talking points of reaching America for shelter and to peacefully practice Christianity, as old-timey and ignorant as they sound, still run rampant out of people’s mouths in 2020. There are white Americans, descendants of so-called pilgrims and other European migrants, who use these talking points to erase the genocide of Indigenous peoples with the lasting implanted memory that Thanksgiving is about family, community, and togetherness. And there are other white people—the Annas and Shanes—who alternate between absorbing these talking points as fact without any further questions or research, or willfully distracting themselves while allowing these talking points to be uttered without challenge.
The theme of gratefulness is one that runs deep in Pilgrim and the U.S. People of color, specifically black people, are frequently labeled ungrateful by the white majority. This is another old-timey stereotype dating back to the transatlantic slave trade. Black people were expected to be grateful for the literal scraps that fell from white enslavers’ mouths. Below are screengrabs: one from a well-known white supremacist website that displays the same type of bigotry and arrogance. The other is current republication candidate, Joe Walsh, who tweeted that Stevie Wonder is “ungrateful” for protesting police brutality.
Between the cinematography and Edwards’ and Giles’ excellent performance, viewers are left equally disoriented as Ethan continues to earn the family’s trust for seemingly no reason. Anna entrusts Tate’s care to Ethan while they scavenged for food in the woods like the olden days. When they return, Cody understandably scolds Anna for leaving Tate in Ethan’s care. Not one to be outpowered, Anna takes Cody’s phone and laptop in order to have a more authentic, technology-free Thanksgiving.
Throughout the movie, Anna begins to experience disillusionment about the reenactment. She searches for Shane among the multiplying number of pilgrims in her home to find Shane glued to a screen in his office. By the time Anna marshals Shane to express any kind of reaction to the mounting number of strangers in their home and the whereabouts of Tate, Patience, Ethan, and now several other pilgrims have cornered them. The Barker residence has officially been colonized by pilgrims, who no longer appear to be reenactors. The masks are off and the Barker home no longer belongs to the Barkers.
The movie crescendos with Cody stalking toward Ethan, rising gospel music (the apropos Hezekiah Walker song entitled Grateful) plays in the background symbolizing not only the pervasiveness of Christianity in the U.S., but also Cody’s victory. “Isn’t this what you wished for?” Ethan asks before the final blow causes his body to go limp, half a wishbone resting in his bloody palm. The surreal ending begs the question just what happened? Were the pilgrims ghosts? Is the message that this is all somehow Cody’s fault, that she caused this? The lasting impression is that, as a horror film, Pilgrim delivers. There’s suspense, disorienting editing and cinematography, gore, and a bit of camp. After all, cutting through the tension with well placed humor increases the impact of the next scare around the corner. It’s also a film that’s conscious of race by subverting tired, racist tropes that plague horror films. The black character doesn’t die first, but saves the day. Cody isn’t an empty vessel of a character waiting to be filled with knowledge and direction, but a dynamic and independent character who is unafraid of standing alone in speaking out against the continued whitewashing of history.