Blighted burial sites is a topic that has long captured the cinematic imagination, one that any horror fan would immediately recognize. From the deserts of Egypt to the plains of the United States, audiences have long associated disturbing a sacred site for the dead with inevitable karmic destruction.
The latest movie to confront the terrors of this cultural dread is The Darkness, an upcoming horror film from Blumhouse Tilt. The supernatural fright-fest is based on an apparently true story about a family that pays a visit to the Grand Canyon — only to return with much more than they bargained for. A powerful paranormal force has followed the unassuming family back to their suburban home, where it feeds on their fears and consumes their lives.
Though the locations and the specific events may change, the outcome is typically consistent in these unsettling films: An unsuspecting group stumbles upon a place with arcane spiritual significance, they disturb unknown forces greater than themselves and are forced to confront angry ghosts of the past.
The true stories that influence these tales are often as mysterious and intriguing as their fictional counterparts, though without the benefit of a confined plot, real life can be all the more terrifying. Here's how movies have excavated aspects of reality to build the long-running trope of the cursed burial ground.
King Tut's Tomb
One of the most well-known cases of excavating a burial site occurred in 1922, when a team of archaeologists and Egyptologists opened the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Though they left the dig site with vast riches and a wealth of knowledge, there was a widespread theory that the curse of the pharaohs was also unleashed from King Tut's resting place. As the believers would argue, this curse would befall anyone who dared violate the sacred tomb, be they thief or researcher, and the penalty resulted in bad luck, illness and even death.
The first evidence for such a curse came when Lord Carnarvon passed away about five months after the tomb's opening. He was bitten by a mosquito and later nicked the bite while shaving. The cut became infected, which ultimately led to his death by suspected blood poisoning. After that, a list of people affiliated with the excavation died under often-mysterious circumstances, and many attributed these deaths to the curse.
It was only a matter of time before the media attention surrounding the curse of King Tut's tomb made its way into the cultural imagination, and the horrifying death toll inspired a renewed interest in Egypt. The peculiar events quickly led to one of the most iconic American horror films, The Mummy from 1932. In it, the intervention from naive researchers causes a magically reanimated mummy to escape their clutches and they must stop him before he kills an innocent woman.
Fast-forward 50 years and the world's fascination with curses has moved from Egypt to America. Interestingly, unlike the case of King Tut's tomb, there was not a specific event that set off the craze of horror movies featuring an American Indian burial ground.
The classic scary flick The Amityville Horror is credited with popularizing the trope that has since become a staple of the horror genre. The 1979 film was based on a book of the same name by Jay Anson, and it details the terrifying true story of the Lutz family. They moved into their newly purchased home on Long Island, where the previous occupants, the DeFeo family of seven, were killed by son and brother Ronald DeFeo Jr. The book explains that the incomprehensible events pointed to a kind of burial ground, a sanitarium used by the Shinnecock Indians where the sick and dying were imprisoned to suffer painful ends.
Though this is how the common mysticism got started, Atlas Obscura argues that the Shinnecock people lived in a different part of Long Island and the Montaukett Nation (related to the Shinnecock) have denied the existence of such a sanitarium. These uncertain circumstances further gave rise to the idea that American Indians protected their buried dead with some sort of supernatural force that could be angered by trespassers who didn't heed their customs.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this trope is its larger social message, very much rooted in reality. According to American Indian writer Terri Jean, one theory for the continuing fear of these curses is a recognition that this ethnic group was severely mistreated:
Karma and guilt. Americans know that atrocities were committed and hundreds of nations were obliterated or nearly obliterated. Retribution is feared, and some people may believe that the ghosts of those who died due to this nation's invasion and European takeover will some day come back to get their revenge.
In that regard, the horrors of these curses come from a true history of oppression, manifesting in supernatural revenge, and it's a theme that is not relegated to the past.
The next film to uncover the mysteries of a cursed burial ground is 'The Darkness,' coming to theaters on May 13.