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Spoilers below for Lovecraft Country's wild third episode, so be warned!
No matter what kind of horror subgenre Lovecraft Country tackles, you just know showrunner Misha Green is going to deliver the goods. Or the evils, in the case of Episode 3, "Holy Ghost," which dropped a haunted, ghost-filled house into the HBO series' racially charged storytelling. Leti was goaded into purchasing the house once owned by the deceased-but-not-gone Hiram Winthrop (first name-checked in the the Braithwhite house), whose unlawful experiments led to the Baby-Head Basketball Player Ghost and seven other disturbing spirits roaming the halls of Leti's home.
For my money, the Baby-Head Ghost is the most dread-provoking imagery we've seen yet from Lovecraft Country, at least on a purely visual level. (Obviously the show's murderously racist acts are more disturbing.) When creator Misha Green spoke with CinemaBlend and other outlets ahead of the Season 1 premiere, I asked what the idea was behind that adorably ghastly baby head, and she said it was inspired by real-world medical experiments combined with the fictional Hiram Winthrop's dark mythology. In her words:
It was incredibly exciting because you write ghosts, and then [the effects team is] like, 'Okay, now what do you want to do with the ghosts?' So then you have to make all of our monsters a character. And being able to play in this playground, anything you can dream up can happen. You know, the idea of the ghosts is really harkening back to the Tuskegee experiments and the kind of medical things that have been done to people of color on American soil. That was very interesting to us. So then, taking that to the next level, it was like, 'Okay, well, what is then the mythology? What is Hiram the ghost testing?' He's testing a time machine. So if he sent people through this time machine, what would happen to them? Like, would part of their body change in time? So then, their head is their baby self, but their body is their adult self. And so, it's like you go down those things and then you get to 'baby-headed ghost.'
Honestly, I could not have asked for a better explanation, and that's precisely the kind of brainstorming rabbit hole I was picturing, since you can't possibly start the creative process with "Baby-Head Ghost." That's the kind of concept that only happens after you've already tapped into "time travel" as a topic, since the sky is the limit after that.
As well, I wholeheartedly adore that diabolically wicked backstory that explains how Baby-Head Ghost came into existence, with imprecise time travel techniques causing malformations with his and others' bodies that are reminiscent of stories about the alleged Philadelphia Experiment. It's all so damned bothersome to consider, and that's on top of the far more heinous experiments that went down in real life, from the highly unethical Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment – which lasted 40 years and led to many avoidable deaths and diagnoses – to government-funded irradiation treatments and many more.
As if the anatomy-clashing look of the Baby-Head Ghost wasn't nightmarish enough by itself, Lovecraft Country's creative wizards doubled down by adding an infant's cries and giggles to the mix. It created quite the weird juxtaposition to have such childlike noises floating around during such a hectic and heightened scene, and Misha Green also explained that audio addition, saying:
And then, they built the CGI baby head and you're like, 'Oh my gosh,' and they're like, 'Okay, so is the baby crying?' And you're like, 'I never thought about if the baby was crying, but let's see the baby cry. What happens?' And so all of the monsters become a character in themselves, and you just keep pushing yourself to go, 'What's weird? What's scary? What haven't we seen?' But that also fits into the metaphor we're telling about this story about real stuff.
Sometimes learning the behind-the-scenes story about a particular horror moment or scene provides some comfort in knowing the innocuous details that served as inspiration. That's not what Lovecraft Country is bringing to the table, though, so we can likely expect for true terror to be accounted for in the storytelling, both on the screen and off.
Episode 3 definitely provided star Jurnee Smollett a chance to show off her dramatic range, bouncing between joy and trauma as the episode wore on. And Leti's confrontation against Hiram Winthrop delivered as emotionally cathartic a genre performance as I've seen in a while, and was perhaps also the most peacefully handled exorcism possible. During the same Lovecraft Country press event, I asked Smollett to talk about tapping into that emotion for Episode 3's climax, and here's how she answered:
You know, Misha has such a gift for maintaining varying tones. And so, while Lovecraft Country really deconstructs this classic genre and reimagines it – flips it on its head in a very radical way – at the heart of it, this is really a family drama. Family in search of family, family estranged from family, family trying to protect family. In Leti's case, you know, she's trying to find her tribe, and it wasn't really my job to pay attention to anything other than the inner workings of Leti. And so for me, it's just about telling the truth, right? Meisner says that the foundation of acting is the reality of doing, so I just had to do it. There were times in which my body in the scene would respond completely different than what was on the page or, as an artist, your prep work or your homework. And you just kind of stay in it, you just go with it. I think I surrendered so much to this story. For me, it was important to approach it in a very sacred way, because it is so ancestral for me. So there were moments when I could feel the vibrations on a molecular level. I could feel the blood memory churning through my body, right? You gotta bring something to the altar. You gotta sacrifice something. You got to let your heart break, which is something Jonathan and I would talk out a lot about. I think that really, it's a character-driven piece that's just placed inside a bigger genre, but as an actor, it's only my job to really pay attention to just telling the truth.
For Jurnee Smollett, that episode was as much about drawing to the surface inherited traumas from her family history, and using that to bring her own truth to Leti's story. And while it's hard to outwardly want to celebrate trauma in any fashion, applause all around to everyone responsible for putting it all on display for Lovecraft Country.