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The Skeleton Key: Crimes of Opportunity & Reclamation

For the most part, this movie seems to be a cross between a crime of opportunity and a tale of reclamation/revenge. Caroline Ellis is a young, white woman who comes to hospice a dying man, Ben Devereaux, on a plantation in Terre Bonne Parish swamplands; she finds that hoodoo is ingrained in the culture of the area and that the wife, Violet, is actually plotting against her with the help of a young lawyer. It ends with Violet taking over Caroline’s body, since we find out she’s actually Mama Cecile, a hoodoo-working former servant from the 1920s who habitually takes the bodies of the plantation house’s owners to keep it in hers and Papa Justify’s name (he is currently in the body of the young, white lawyer). The story of Papa Justify and Mama Cecile (who are husband and wife) begins back when they were the servants of the Thorpe family, the father owned a bank and was an awful man. At a party, the Thorpe children, Martin and Grace, are found to be practicing hoodoo with Papa Justify and Mama Cecile, which leads to the two to be lynched. We find out that Martin and Grace are actually dead because Papa Justify and Mama Cecile are in the children’s bodies. This automatically classifies the pair as villains because they preyed on the lives of innocent children; it could be seen as a way to get revenge on their parents (especially because Thorpe eventually shot him wife and himself) or on white people in general for their numerous crimes against black people. Then “Martin” and “Grace” sold the plantation house to Ben and Violet Devereaux in 1962, and stole their bodies as a result. This was completely a crime of opportunity to keep the house in their own names; eventually, they release Ben from the spell (who cannot speak or move as a result) so that Papa Justify can inhabit a new body of an estate lawyer helping them with the house, Luke Marshall. They are on the lookout for the new body for “Violet” when in comes Caroline Ellis, the hospice nurse and then Ben/Violet seemingly have willed the house to “Caroline”. Again, totally a crime of opportunity to keep living forever in the house they see as theirs.

This entire scheme raises some interesting questions, like what happened to Luke’s soul while Justify was inside him? Possibly it’s like in Get Out (2017), in the Sunken Place where you’re still there but deep inside; you can’t move while your body is controlled by another. The lore tells us that you don’t always have to ‘switch’, meaning it was convenient to just paper over Ben and Violet’s souls otherwise Ben would’ve been completely gone once Justify exited his body, which raises another question: Where’s Violet? Perhaps Caroline has papered over her soul when she switches bodies with Violet/Cecile.

The souls of our villains are inextricably tied to the house, making it almost like its own character; their crimes continue through the selling of the plantation house. There seems to be a metaphor of slavery, which built plantation houses– the enslaved are generally buried on that land they were murdered on or that broke their backs/worked them until they died, so in this way, it is a story of reclamation since they are reclaiming this bloody house of horrors for themselves.

There’s also this theme of white ignorance and black people being too smart to fall for this kind of trap or even a North vs. South divide. Cecile, at the end, tells Justify, “I told you I wanted a black one this time”, which again, highlights their villainy because stealing white people’s lives could be seen as revenge for stealing theirs during slavery and pre-Civil rights era (and honestly, violence on black people never fully stopped). Really, Cecile’s desire is to not only live forever but also look in the mirror as she would like to look, no matter who it hurts/whose life it takes away.

Another question: Why take down the mirrors? Maybe their true forms are seen as Papa Justify and Mama Cecile in the mirror, but that’s my best guess.

Jill, a black woman, is the key to Caroline’s understanding; it seems like though whites are ignorant about black magic, they still dig around where they don’t belong (another slavery revenge theme: whites did what they wanted with “governing” black bodies). Then we get into the possession of bodies themselves in a sort of, “we’ll take your body from you”; possession is very literally the unwilling relinquishment of one’s body to another force controlling it. In this case, it’s not demons or now-dead spirits taking over, but the living who refuse to die.

Lots of white confusion about black practice comes up as we see from the imagery in the hoodoo room; a North vs. South divide continues when Violet/Cecile says, “You’re not from the South; you won’t understand”. It’s reinforcing a trope: white people are stupid, which is fair because I’m 100% that dumbass that would go investigating the creepy attic of a house with a mysterious past.

I love this whole idea of Mama Cecile telling her own legend; propagating her own power through folklore that she and Justify, “healed the sick and hurt the mean”; interesting considering they take people’s lives and not always people who deserve it (kids didn’t deserve lynching/burning, automatically; the young black woman who came to work with them didn’t seem to be wretched in any way. Caroline didn’t deserve it either, nosy as she was).

Cameras/photographs seem to be a prominent symbol (capturing the soul?) and the same with mirrors as a symbol. We have this obvious metaphor of black people hiding behind white faces. I feel like the photographs don’t capture everything just like the skeleton key that doesn’t open everything (meaning there’s a piece missing, much like the photos missing the entire truth while the mirrors expose the truth of their magic/identities).

Question: why do Caroline and Violet both wear hearts around their neck? Caroline’s is locked and Violet’s is a locket. I feel it has something to do with the fact that they’ll switch at some point, but it’s not super clear from the movie.

This idea of being “marked up”/”written on” is slave market imagery since black people were evaluated by their bodies, so in this case, black people evaluate white bodies and disassociate their owners. In the end scene, Luke/Justify says, “I think it fits you beautifully”, referring to Caroline’s body as an “it” instead of “her”.

Finally, I noticed the “white savior” trope being turned on its head, though it’s a white person saving another white person; literal black magic (as in magic used to hurt or take, not referring to race specifically here though it also fits) outwitting the white savior. When Caroline tries to use their own magic against them, it backfires and ends with her downfall

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