The history and importance of Black horror

Gabrielle Chenault | Lifestyle Section Editor

When most people hear the word “horror movie” they immediately think of paranormal or suspense movies. The horror genre is actually a combination of many subgenres, such as slasher, survival, psychological and comedy horror, which contain a wide range of films. While many of these subgenres house films that are extremely popular, they do foster discriminatory ideas towards African Americans. 

Well-known themes include the African American dying first, sacrificing oneself to save the white protagonist or actually being the villain. Due to wanting to change the position of African Americans in horror, writers like Jordan Peele and Misha Green are helping to recreate Black horror by using magical realism. 

The African American experience in America is like watching a horror film that’s stuck in a loop. The documentary Horror Noire details the history of African Americans in horror films. While younger generations may assume the movie Get Out was the first Black horror film, many writers and actors paved the way for Jordan Peele to have the success that he had. 

According to the documentary Horror Noire, African Americans first appeared in horror films in the 1930s as criminals and monsters. The extremely racist film Birth of a Nation, which was even shown on the White House lawn, had a white man in blackface portraying a Black person who rapes a white woman. It wasn’t until the 1960s that audiences saw a Black protagonist who was educated and made it to the end of the movie. Night of the Living Dead starring Duane Jones centered around his character killing white zombies. This film marks the beginning of changing the narrative of Black people in horror. 

In the 1990s we began to see more African Americans appear in revenge and comedy horror. One of the most famous revenge horror movies, Candyman, starring the award winning actor Tony Todd. This movie was based on the Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago. The film followed a young Black painter during the 1800s who had a white girlfriend. Her family found out, tortured and killed him. He then returns from the dead to torture the citizens in the area where his ashes were scattered. Candyman is one of the most well known movies using magical realism in conjunction with the African American experience. This movie focused on poverty, gang violence, interrational relationships and gentrification. 

After Candyman, we begin to see more movies using realistic events and horror comedies surrounding the Black experience. Tales from the Hood is a popular horror comedy series that deals with several issues such as police corruption, domestic violence and racism. There are three movies and each is narrated by popular Black actors. The first was narrated by Clarence Williams III, the second by Keith David and the last by Tony Todd. Another widely popular horror comedy to come out of the 90s is the Scary Movie series by the Wayans brothers. These movies mocked the way African Americans were portrayed in earlier horror films. 

It wasn’t until 2017 that a movie was made of the current political climate that showcased why living in America as a Black person is to exist in a constant state of horror. Get Out, by Jordan Peele, surrounds a character named Chris who goes to visit his white girlfriend’s parents in upstate New York. Throughout the movie we learn that his girlfriend’s parents are extremely racist and attempt to drug Chris in hopes of using his body for a disabled white man. The film rejected popular themes of the white savior complex by highlighting Chris fighting for and eventually protecting his life. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Peele explains why the film had a positive ending. 

“The ending needed to transform into something that gives us a hero, that gives us an escape, that gives us a positive feeling,” Peele said.

In early 2020, Peele announced he was teaming up with writer Misha Green and JJ Abrhams to release a television series, and the result of this collaboration, Lovecraft Country, premiered on Sept. 16. Each week, audiences have been captivated by characters Leti, Tic and Montrose, who are portrayed by Jurnee Smollett, Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams. The show takes viewers through an afrofuturistic interpretation of the brutal murder of Emmett Till, the Tulsa Massacre, African Americans being used as test subjects and the existence of sundown towns. Coined by Mark Dery, afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science and philosophy of history that explores the developing intersection of African diaspora culture with technology.

As we view horror movies it’s important to examine how African Americans’ roles in this genre have drastically changed. From being used as the element of fear to being the victor, African Americans have changed the face of horror and used real life experiences to educate others about the horrors we face every day.

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