Watchmen, Haunting, and the Religious Imagination

*This post is part of our online forum organized by Ahmad Greene-Hayes on HBO’s hit series Watchmen. 

Screenshot of the Tulsa Massacre from HBO’s Watchmen

“There are people who believe that this world is fair and good, that it’s all lollipops and rainbows. I remember what happened to my parents. You remember what happened to your parents. You and me, Topher, we don’t do lollipops and rainbows, because we know those are pretty colors that just hide what the world really is. Black and white.” — Angela Abar, Watchmen

“Ain’t got no ticket,

ain’t got no token

ain’t got no god…”

— Nina Simone, Ain’t Got No, I Got Life

“Ghosts hate new things.”–Zora Neale Hurston, The Sanctified Church

Inspired by the conversations gathered by Zora Neale Hurston during her travels and recorded in The Sanctified Church, sociologist Avery Gordon helps us apprehend within Hurston’s account of Black southern religious life a harrowing truth concerning the entwinement of hauntings and violence. According to Gordon, ghosts are characteristically attached to the events, things, and places that produced them in the first place; by nature they are haunting reminders of lingering trouble. As I mulled over how I might make use of my training as a scholar of religion to approach the critically acclaimed HBO series Watchmen, I could not loose myself from the visceral theme of hauntedness that permeates the series. While there will undoubtedly be some who will find the series unworthy of critical religious reflection, I would respectfully consider such a dismissal to be a categorical misapprehension of the interruptive force of Watchmen — not to mention Black popular culture writ large — in relation to the academic study of religion. Watchmen does not need to center clergypersons, worship sites, or explicit expressions of antebellum religious practices for it to be deemed important to scholars committed to developing innovative approaches to teaching, interrogating, and unsettling methodological and theoretical approaches to the study of religion. Oftentimes, Black cultural productions that refuse to explicitly foreground the traditional significations of Black religiosity provide the most fertile resources for critical religious reflection.

Far more than a series that ignores the category of religion altogether, what Regina King, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and the entire cadre of creative artists associated with the Watchmen series offer is nothing less than an invitation into a world where the anti-Blackness of white southerners — many of whom would have undoubtedly professed to be devoutly Protestant — serves as the governing matrix through which the drama is enacted. By beginning the series with Tulsa’s apocalyptic anti-Black massacre of 1921, Watchmen refuse to acquiesce to any assumptions that the theological must be explicitly named in order for religion to be critically interrogated; both theology and the communities from which theology arises animated and sutured Tulsa’s whiteness and its corresponding devastation of Black communities. Among the razed community, there was wailing. There was blood. There were mothers and fathers and grandmothers and cousins and children who refused to be comforted — because their loved ones were no more.

Watchmen operates as a haunting disjuncture that narratively unsettles the religious scholar’s desire to place the show within any cataphatic (affirmative) disciplinary stricture. With episodes entitled “This Extraordinary Being,” “An Almost Religious Awe,” and “A God Walks into a Bar,” it is almost as if the show’s creative team is baiting scholars of religion to inquire, “Where is the religion in all of this?” Unlike many other series that explicitly foreground religious themes and imagery, you won’t find Watchmen easing the religious scholar’s mind by guiding them through scenes dominated by sacred worship spaces, sacred texts (unless we consider Rorschach’s Journal venerated by the Seventh Kavalry a sacred text of sorts), or the adoration of holy deities that existed before the foundations of the world. However, while there are no scenes in churches or prayers prayed on mountaintops, there are explicit allusions to the divine creation of the world, the Garden of Eden, the crucifixion on Golgotha, purgatory, and resurrection. Though there is no cataphatic knowledge of the Divine to be had, all characters are forced to construct their lives anew within the spectral shadow of a Christianized world that lives, moves, and governs its being in the awful wake of negation. Some characters in the series — for better or for worse — even become gods in the process.

During the airing of the first season, I recall many viewers finding the show difficult to follow. Friends online who had not read the graphic novel considered the series “all over the place.” While these critiques are certainly founded, I believe that themes of dislocation, disorientation, and disturbance are fundamental to the narrative. Watchmen is governed by the disturbing gravitas of a plot that simply refuses to settle. Other viewers commented on how the series never became committed to a grounded plot. By referring to the struggle they encountered in following the plot, they were also making a statement about the dislocation of the plot, the disturbance of traditional approaches to character building, and the displacement of narrative order. Once again, these observations are far from mistaken. Hauntings are rarely linear. Hauntings disarm calls for order and logic, making a public spectacle over our pursuit of reason. At its best, Watchmen offers viewers an invitation to lean fully into the haunting, irrational, atheological dislocation of a nightmare otherwise known as the United States of America.

Watchmen, among other things, is a saga about land or, more acutely, about the hauntedness of land. The dispossession of Tulsa’s Black community burdened a land that was already forced to bear the burden of the dispossession experienced by the indigenous communities. While much has been said and written about the white supremacist terror that razed Tulsa’s Black and indigenous communities, there remains a great need to reflect and bear witness to the land that bore within its earthen cavity the bones and remains of those marked too worthy for this world. Alas, the blood of the dispossessed cries out from Tulsa’s ground demanding change, but ghosts hate new things. If Watchmen teaches nothing else, it is that the ghostly hatred of otherwise possibility is a hatred that demands control over land, over life, over what can and cannot qualify as sites of sacred reflection.

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James Howard Hill, Jr.

James Howard Hill, Jr. is an interdisciplinary doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Northwestern who is also pursuing a graduate certificate in African American Studies. His research engages a wide range of critical paradigms from Black studies, sound studies, and theology to popular culture, performance studies, and the relationship between US religious culture and media. By working within these discursive paradigms, his research primarily focuses on the relationship between religion, Black politics, and popular culture in the post-civil-rights era.