The horror genre’s history is dynamic, consisting of countless films that continue to breathe new life and perspectives into an ever-evolving genre. Black creators have a storied past within this niche and continue to take up the horror mantle. They push films into places that examine the terror within our all-too-familiar and flawed social structure. These stories highlight and analyze the world’s fraught history with race, mixing in real-life horrors that often lead to some damn good content.
A recent and prominent example of a horror creator doing it well is Jordan Peele. His debut film, Get Out, examines the unnerving experience of being the only Black person in an all-white space. It packages this with influences from body horror-esque historical injustices (like experimenting on and auctioning off Black bodies) for a full nightmare. But the movie was a dream come true. Peele created a film that was devoid of stereotypical portrayals of Black characters, highlighted Black experiences and culture, and became a mainstream success as the most profitable film of 2017.
In fact, Black horror film historian, writer, producer, and UCLA professor Tananarive Due developed a popular course centered around Peele’s Get Out. In a video interview with Nerdist, Due speaks further about this modern Black horror renaissance we are experiencing.
“Many artists around the world are having opportunities to have these stories told,” Due explains. “And in the Black horror piece of it, there’s this real sense of liberation. Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a double revelation. Not only that Black people love horror, but that white people will watch horror about Black people.”
There are indeed many creatives taking full advantage of this era. Peele himself followed Get Out‘s success with his second film Us. And his recently announced film, Nope, is sure to follow the same format. Women are also stepping behind the cameras with Misha Green (Lovecraft Country), Lena Waithe (Them), and Nia DaCosta (Candyman) creating new ways to depict Black narratives.
Lovecraft Country, based on Matt Ruff’s book of the same name, is undoubtedly one of the biggest shows of 2020, garnering an array of awards and sparking in-depth conversations about its themes. Author H.P. Lovecraft is known for crafting prolific horror novels. While he’s admired for his storytelling, he’s also infamously incredibly racist. This makes Lovecraft Country all the more satisfying as a reimagining of Lovecraft’s influence through Black storytelling.
“[In Lovecraft’s work] there’s this concept of the other as terrifying,” says Lovecraft Country TV series writer Shannon Houston to Nerdist. “And that’s very true for horror. I think what we were willing to do that so many racist white writers like Lovecraft are not willing to do is to actually turn it back around on ourselves and to ask ourselves, ‘is our hero always heroic? Are all of our Black characters always doing heroic things? Are they deeply problematic as well?'”
Of course, this path would not be possible without decades of foundational material to stand upon. Due and other horror creators and actors discuss Black horror films and depictions of Black people in the genre in Horror Noire. The documentary takes this examination all the way back to Birth of a Nation. Although it doesn’t technically fall into the horror genre, Black film experts beg to differ.
Birth of a Nation featured white actors in Blackface portraying Black people as lazy, buffoonish deviants. Its narrative paints Black people as horrifying “others” who aim to foil the plans of white characters, romanticizing the Civil War and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Needless to say, this passes muster as a horror film for Black viewers and doesn’t show us in an accurate light.
This isn’t different from many genres that historically (and sometimes contemporarily) portray Black people through a biased, racist lens. Horror specifically includes cringeworthy tropes like the “Mystical/Magical Negro,” which features a wise Black character to support the main white character, even at the expense of their own life. (Think Dick Halloran in The Shining.) Then, there’s the “sacrificial Negro” who exists to protect white protagonists, akin to Kelly Rowland in Freddy vs. Jason.
But the most relevant trope in horror is having the Black character(s) die. Some of them die first, like Omar Epps’ Phil Stevens in Scream 2 or Meagan Good’s Shelley Baum in One Missed Call. However, there are films with Black characters who’ve stayed alive: Danny Rich (Ice Cube) in Anaconda, “Ronny” Jones (LL Cool J) in Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, or Karla Wilson (Brandy) in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. The notion that Black characters always die and/or die first is somewhat faulty because, in reality, they tend to have a low mortality rate in horror films. Could this be because they are the minority and not the majority? Perhaps.
“Often these tropes come in,” states Due, “because people want to have that diverse casting, but they haven’t thought through these characters more deeply and history is repeating [itself].”
Eli Joshua Ade/HBO
However, throughout horror history, there have been films and characters that pushed back against the common narratives and harmful tropes. The 1960s gave us Night of the Living Dead, which wasn’t created by Black people but featured actor Duane Jones as the film’s protagonist Ben. The character laid the foundation for future horror leads like Lovecraft Country‘s Atticus, among others, to become the main hero. Williams Crain’s Blacula was also a major milestone for Black horror, opening the door for more Black-led and created horror films.
The ’90s also play a role in Black horror advancement with films like Rusty Cundieff’s Tales From the Hood to tell stories of racial retribution. Additionally, the decade sprung forth multiple films with Black central characters. Actors, like Tony Todd in Candyman, characters like Poindexter “Fool” Williams in The People Under the Stairs, and all-Black casts, like in Kasi Lemmon’s Eve’s Bayou, left their mark by focusing on nuanced Black characters and providing insight into an array of Black experiences. These films are oft-cited by creators like Peele and Green as inspiration for their modern material.
Additionally, Black experiences across the diaspora appear on-screen in work like Attack the Block, The Girl With All the Gifts, and His House. And these are just mainstream offerings, not including the many independent creators like Moon Ferguson (Juju: The Webseries) and LaDarrion Williams (Blood at the Root). They are vital to the improvement and diversity of Black horror stories. Works like these are able to tell Black stories but portray experiences and emotions that feel universal.
Of course, no horror offering is absolved from rightful critique. But no one can argue that movies continue to pave the way for Black horror to exist. And the way we experience Black narratives in horror continues to transition for the better.
Thankfully, these changes don’t stop with Black cishet creators. There’s room for more LGBTQ+ folks, people with disabilities, Brown people, women, and more to be represented properly in horror. But creators and writers must be cognizant of who is in the writer’s room and what biases people may have.
“I think we all have to be aware of our biases,” says Houston. “That’s something any good writer should do. So surely when you’re writing about characters who have an experience that you don’t know, you should constantly be aware of that.”
From a time where Black characters were nonexistent to Black actors leading ensembles and Black creators developing more powerful stories, the horror genre continues to aim for an inclusive and even better future.