A Dutch Netflix Postcolonial Horror Story

Dominic Alessio, Yaffa Caswell, Charlie Klucker, Yeats McDonald, and Emma Nourry
Richmond, the American International University of London

Please note: this article is a co-production with undergraduate history and film students at Richmond, the American International University of London. It was written in a time of COVID as an experiment in alternate assessment forms when regular classes and seminars were not always an option. It was also a useful way for students to apply the lessons of theory and history to the present.

Please also note that there are spoilers below.

In 2020 Netflix produced Ares (directors Giancarlo Sanchez & Michiel ten Horn), its first Dutch horror series. The eight episodes in the series deal with the story of Rosa (Jade Olieberg), an Amsterdam university student of mixed ethnicity and working-class/lower middle-class background, who is invited to join a wealthy and powerful secret society called Ares. Apart from Rosa the other members of Ares appear entirely European and extremely rich and well-connected.

The secret fraternity Ares can be read as a metaphor for how white Dutch society continues to clandestinely benefit economically, politically, and socially from the country’s history of colonialism and slavery. We also believe that the Netflix production was especially prescient given that 2020 was also the year of the year of Black Lives Matter and that this series followed upon growing calls for the Netherlands to address various postcolonial lacunae in its academic curriculum, namely: its need to address the atrocities committed during the heyday of its imperial rule (Doolan 2016); its late and shameful late abolition of the institution of slavery in 1863; and the fact that the country had “failed to acknowledge the continuing influence of its colonial legacies” (Pattynama 2012: 176).

This postcolonial call to deconstruct the Dutch curriculum begins early in episode 1 when Rosa publicly rebukes a university professor for teaching straight out of a textbook. It continues when members of Ares meet Rosa in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and claim to be descended directly from the country’s Golden Age burghers who are depicted in some of the museum’s collection. The marshal works depicted in these scenes, such as Jan Asselijn’s The Threatened Swan (1640-52), Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch (1642) and Van de Velde’s Battle of Terheide (1653), are all thematically appropriate to an organisation named after a Greek god of war and a “[v]iolent” colonial Dutch history (Luttikuis & Bart 2012). The classical nomenclature of Ares could allude also, however, to an Ares/Dutch self-perception of a supposedly civilised status vis a vis a contrasting “degenerate image of the Orient” and the other (McLeod 2000: 22). Yet Ares is more than just a masonic-like self-help group; its members claim that their organisation had, like the real-life historical Dutch East India Company, made “a tiny country like the Netherlands…  rich and powerful” (episode 1). Intrigued, Rosa, alongside her best friend Jacob (Tobias Kersloot), agree to become Ares novices. Nonetheless, Rosa’s entry into Ares is not an easy one; she is told by some members that “you don’t belong” (episode II); such negative reactions mirror the shared experiences of the post-WWII 300,000 Indies-Dutch migrants who, despite holding Dutch citizenship, arrived in the Netherlands only to then be asked to leave (Pattynama 2012: 182).

Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch (1642), from whom the members of Ares claim descent.

In an initiation ceremony involving Rosa being hooded, intimidated, manacled and branded, the legacy of the Netherlands’ hidden history of slavery is directly alluded to, namely some half a million slaves who were forced to work on Dutch plantations and a Dutch merchant class whose wealth was generated from this slave traffic across the Atlantic  (Mitchell et all 2014). As such, Ares brings to the fore the fact that, until recently, “there has been little room for the violent histories of colonialism and slavery in the dominant Dutch self-representation of the Netherlands as a highly moral, innocent and colour-blind nation” (Deen 2011: 15). The arrival of Rosa thus disrupts both the Ares society as well as the traditional Dutch historical consensus.

The fact that the Ares novices are told “you can leave at any time”, implies that they are not being held captive, even though Jacob is intimidated when he tries to escape. This pretence of freedom echoes the fact that the Dutch seem to have denied their colonial history, reflecting Said’s condemnation of the power of imperial logic and culture “to block other narratives from forming and emerging” (1995, xiii). There are visual clues to this historical obfuscation in the mise en scène as Rosa, upon joining Ares, abandons her student attire and adopts the more conservative dress of other female novices. Many of these dresses retain frilly white ruffs and collars, harking back directly to the stiff collars to be found amongst the portraits of the rich and powerful in the Rijksmuseum’s collection. What is more, “[t]hese clothes come in royal blue, yellow, and white to black—exactly the color palette that Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch Golden Age’s second-most celebrated painter, favored” (Hendriksen 2020). On the one hand, such dresses could allude to the fact that the members are Ares are still living in the past and holding onto older imperial attitudes. On the other hand, by adopting their dress Rosa, a least at first, also seems to be undergoing a process of Aresisation/Aryanisation, falling victim to Fanon’s warnings in The Wretched of the Earth (1959) about the impact of colonial culture on the colonised themselves, and which in turn causes Rosa herself to seemingly fall under the spell of the society, at least for a while. As Rosa becomes more and more ensconced in Ares, she discovers their members’ supernatural ability to physically eject their guilt with a black vomit which gives them their special power to get away with cruelty and killing. Another element of costuming to note are the small black masks, known as morrettas (from the adjective moro for dark), and which are worn by members of Ares at official events. Held on by a small button that the wearer holds in their mouth, the masks thus represent that which is hidden or forced to remain silent.

Rosa’s friend Jacob, in the meantime, uncomfortable with Ares, begins digging in the organisation’s basement, trying to find what is trapped down there, namely the ghost of a deceased captive slave. As he does so his fingers become infected with a black coating; when he then touches the leading members of Ares they commit suicide, a result of the fact that they are forced to once more face the evil deeds they committed to join Ares but had forgotten about as a result of vomiting the afore-mentioned black bile. So although Jacob develops a “monstrous body” in the series, and causes the deaths of many, he is “not the monstrous character” (Cruz 2012: 161), thus fulfilling a common Horror/Science Fiction trope. As all the Ares leaders keep dying, Rosa is eventually offered the presidency of the organisation by Maurits (Hans Kesting), one of the longest-standing members of the organisation. He sees in her someone ruthless and ambitious (she even eliminates her friends as a way to achieve the presidency), as well as a person with the needed talents to keep the secret society alive. There is also the hint that a female black leader will allow the organisation to appear to move with the times. Rosa’s rise to leadership, however, does not stabilise Ares. Rather, in a Bhabhaesque finale, she refuses to be anyone’s Quisling or kupapa. The mask she was forced to wear is removed and Rosa, instead of saving Ares, unleashes an orgy of bloodshed. By playing ‘the great game’ and masquerading as a loyal member she thus mirrors back to the society their historical guilt, and the entire organisation is brought down by mass suicide. Rosa thus also seems to prove white colonial Dutch anxieties “that a mulatto middle class would upset the upset the boundaries of the colonial hierarchy” (Shields 2016: 618).

Ares could be read as a gendered, as well as an anti-colonial, critique. The gendered element is most noticeable in that the secret society’s leaders are men. What is more, Rosa’s newfound powers enact a bloodbath upon her opponents resembling the climax of the Horror film Carrie (Brian de Palma, 1976). Nevertheless, there is no doubting the dominant colonialist critique. As Pieter Kuijpers, one of Ares’ creators, stated: “the series points to the ruthless past our Dutch wealth is based upon” (quoted in Rintoul 2019). By making their central protagonist an actor of mixed ethnicity, and by drawing frequent and direct allusions to both the VOC as well as to slavery, the writers and producers appear clearly focused on a postcolonial commentary of the way by which Dutch history has hidden the kingdom’s imperial legacy by denial. It is not without irony that Bael, the daemon apparently responsible for giving the members of Ares their power to remove guilt by forgetting their acts of violence, is a mythological creature traditionally associated with invisibility (Peterson 2002: 7). This invisibility is an allegory, therefore, of the “absent” or “forgotten” colonial history of the Netherlands as a whole (Luttikhuis & Moses 2014). Given these references to the country’s hidden slave history perhaps Rosa’s very name and actions in bringing down the system could be an allusion also to Rosa Parks, the former American civil rights activist.

Unlike some other anti-colonial critiques to be found in film, such as Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), and which tend to offer one-dimensional opposing binary narratives of colonised and coloniser, what makes the series interesting is that there are no simple dichotomies. Indeed, Rosa is not an entirely sympathetic character. She abandons her parents in her pursuit of power and can be ruthless with friends. As such, she could symbolise the recognition that anti-imperialist positions are “not always entirely inclusive” (Streets-Salter & Getz, 2016: 469). Like the afore-mentioned Carrie, the Horror genre thus thrives in “unsettling clear-cut identifications” (Nelson 1997: 384). Ironically, it is Jacob, her Dutch and white male friend, who really keeps trying to uncover the dark history of Ares and who eventually sacrifices himself so that Rosa can ascend to the presidency of Ares and bring the entire society crashing down. Although the reasons for Jacob’s anti-colonial stance are never explored, thus contributing to one of the narrative weaknesses in the series, his character does demonstrate that there were internal opponents of colonialism within the imperial metropole too. As Howe (2002: 88) points out: “There were always critics of empire among the imperial powers’ own people, including some who wanted to see the entire system of colonial rule dismantled”. The fact that the characters cannot be easily placed in a box of good or evil, and that they are all traumatised by guilt, uncertainty and fear, makes Ares particularly rewarding intellectually, as the “deconstruction of binary structures is one of the fundamental goals of postcolonialism” (Alessio and Meredith 2012).

Last but not least, the use of Horror to question the Netherland’s forgotten colonial history is appropriate for a genre that, post-Vietnam and Watergate, had become a “critical tool” in the United States by which to interrogate society and culture (Gelder 2000: 35). Whilst Ares begins in a venue associated with a celebration of the high culture of the Netherlands, it is perhaps fitting that the last word in this critique belongs to the Horror genre which, like Science Fiction, tends to be associated with low-brow popular culture; both were tropes ignored entirely by Said in Orientalism (1978). Indeed, both genres, like black working-class Rosa, counter-balance official state-sanctioned historical and political viewpoints. They thus “disrupt realist conventions” (John Rieder 2008: 16), and lend “a certain structural logic to postcolonial studies” (Gelder 2000: 35).

Flag of the Dutch East India Company which inverted is the sign of the secret society Ares.

Indeed, Ares turns things literally on their head. Firstly, its black character does not get killed, an all too common trope in numerous horror films with black characters, such as Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979). Rather, Rosa survives and ascends to full power. Secondly, the viewer discovers in episode 8 that the inverted V symbol of the fictional Ares society, when turned right side up, is actually the real flag of the historical Dutch East India Company. There is no mistaking, therefore, the direct critique here on traditional historical narratives. Nor is it without coincidence perhaps that the antagonist in this series is a secret society; for Frances Gouda, in a critique of fellow historians, states that mainstream historians seem to have formed a “fraternity [our italics]” who have deliberately shied away from investigating properly Dutch colonial atrocities (quoted in Doolan, 2016). If the “true function of an art and a culture is to interpret… the country and the society in which we live” (McLeod 2010: 89), it seems fitting that it is a ghost in a horror story that is now haunting Dutch history.

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