The Resurgence of Black Horror In The Mainstream


Black horror has been gaining traction among non-people of color since the release of Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’, but the subgenre has a rich history stemming from the post-Reconstruction era. 

Woodrow Wilson is best known for leading the United States (US) into the first world war, while spearheading the US’ progressive movement. The goal of the political philosophy was to improve human societies through political action, whether it was economically or socially. Yet, the gap in progressivism was the lack of action regarding the treatment of Black Americans. 

Wilson’s predecessor and another progressive leader, Theodore Roosevelt, was a staunch supporter of the American racial hierarchy, believing that Black people were intellectually inferior. Wilson shared similar views and immediately pulled back reforms that Black Americans had fought to ensure during Reconstruction. This included segregating the federal workforce by race and encouraging the passage of a discriminatory piece of legislation: interracial marriage in the District of Columbia becoming a felony.

So while it was disappointing, it should not have been a surprise when Wilson decided to host a private screening of the 1915 silent film, The Birth of a Nation. The film is split into two parts: the first is a juxtaposition of a Northern and Southern family pre-Civil War; the second centers around a white actor in blackface who is portrayed as unintelligent and predatory. The second part implements many pieces of disinformation, including Black people denying white people the right to vote in the South (it was the other way around) and displaying newly elected Black politicians as unhygienic and brash. 

Towards the end of the film, the audience sees the actor in blackface desiring to marry a white woman against her will. He is captured by the local Ku Klux Klan and ends up being lynched, much to the chagrin of the white audience. To them, the character is a psychopath and a predator and a danger to society and all that is wrong with Black people, reinforcing racial stereotypes. The film, considered to be the most controversial film made in the US, praises the KKK and the racial hierarchy that places whites as the superior race. The darkness of skin is associated with outdated meanings of darkness: fear, uncertainty, danger; symbolism that represents the juxtaposition between light and dark, white and Black.

Birth of a Nation contributed to racial segregation in the US, normalizing minstrelsy: comic routines based on stereotypical depictions of Black Americans, and kicking off the formation of Jim Crow laws. While white people celebrated the release, Black people viewed the film as a threat. As Diana Babineau from Northwestern University wrote, the subsequent decades after the film’s release caused Hollywood used its messaging to create fear around Black people, especially fear around Black men. This led to subsequent iterations of this trope about Black men in films like King Kong (1933) and Candyman (1992). 

In spite of Hollywood demonizing Black men, Black filmmakers tested the power of these tropes by executing films from their points of view. In 1940, filmmaker and actor Spencer Williams made the first Black horror film to feature an all-Black cast: Son of Ingagi. The film was also one of the first to represent Black people positively, although the milestone did not move any obstacles until the late 60s/early 70s, when the film Blacula was released. 

Blacula, directed by UCLA film school graduate William Crain in 1972, elicited greater opportunities for Black people in mainstream media. The plot is fixed upon an African prince who is turned into a vampire by Count Dracula. The symbolism of vampirism was especially present in the film as a parallel to the long-term ramifications of slavery. The film marked the beginning of the Blaxploitation era: group of films made mainly in the early to mid-1970s that featured Black actors in a transparent effort to appeal to Black urban audiences. Produced independently with low budgets, the blaxploitation genre had Black characters become the protagonists in their own stories, in a time where racial tensions coincided with the Hippie movements. 

In the post-segregation era(s), Black people were featured more in horror films, but often as the sidekick or any other stereotypical trope. As filmmaking became more commercial and globalized, Black people were barely casted, and if they were, they were never featured as the main character. They were instead typecasted into tropes that mainly were created to support the main white character, often leading to their deaths. Black characters simply existed to protect white protagonists, instead of having their own space.

The 90s advanced Black horror, with films like Tales From The Hood, and all-Black casts like in Eve’s Bayou, focusing on nuanced Black characters and providing a wider spectrum into Black experiences. It was not until Jordan Peele’s Get Out in 2017 when there became a concrete idea of Black horror. The success of Peele’s film marked a mainstream resurgence in horror films, especially Black horror films, reflecting on powerful themes about Blackness, Black life, culture, politics, and ideologies around being Black in the United States. 

Many of the recent horror films by Black filmmakers tell stories that are rooted in truth by taking real-life scenarios and presenting to viewers the challenges Black people face daily; granted, educating white people is not the main message. White experience is not the centerfold of Black horror films; rather, the genre is meant for predominantly Black audiences, to place the Black experience upfront instead of prioritizing the white experience, as modern cinema has done. Especially in the work of Black women filmmakers, like Misha Green who was the screenwriter of HBO’s Lovecraft Country, and Nia DaCosta who directed the Candyman remake that addressed the horrors of systemic racism, Black women storytellers continue taking up space across all genres. It is not just a social media phenomenon: audiences are here for Black women telling stories in horror, as DaCosta became the first Black female to open a film at number one at the box office. 

Yet, Black female writers have been experimenting with horror for years, e.g. Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison. Black horror has a rich history beyond films; in fact, the subgenre is connected to African folklore that enslaved individuals brought to the Americas through oral storytelling during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Octavia Butler, best known for her novel Kindred, critiqued the racial hierarchy in the US by incorporating elements of horror, such as vampires. Toni Morrison, in Beloved, writes about a formerly enslaved family that is bothered by the presence of a malevolent spirit. Black horror seeks to capture the all-too real fear of walking through America in a Black body. Whether it be about the trans-Atlantic slave trade or the Tulsa massacre or the controversial deaths by police officers, these horrors have become more visible to white cinema. 

Author Tananarive Due said it best: “Black horror creators don’t just sit around thinking about racism all the time — there as many kinds of Black horror as there are any other kind of horror. It’s not meant to be a trope. It’s not meant to be soothing to a white audience.” Black horror is more than racism and slavery, but Black history is Black horror.

Black history is linked with Black trauma. For instance, the film, 12 Years A Slave, was marketed as a historical film, but it can also be classified as horror because the film depicts the brutalities enslaved individuals faced pre and post-Civil War. The same goes for the series, When They See Us, regarding the Central Park Five who were falsely accused of a brutal assault. Both are considered to be real-life events, but are not considered to be horror because of the subcategories white individuals think of when the word horror appears. British novelist Ann Radcliffe once declared in an 1826 essay that horror and terror are two distinct feelings – terror heightens our senses, but horror paralyzes them. Horror can be a safe way for Black people to experience their deepest fears, but for those who are not Black, we have the luxury to turn away, close our eyes, and ignore the pressing issues Black people regularly face. These are horrifying for Black audiences to experience because both are based on true stories and are horror films. 

This is where the difference between how Black and white audiences define horror. Circling back to Get Out, the film was made in the Obama-era where many white liberals believed that America was a post-race society, but Black people continued to face racism, even from so-called liberals, proving that America is not a post-race society. Black horror films are gaining more recognition in the mainstream by white people, with more shows and movies featuring Black main characters popping up. Nope, directed by Jordan Peele, is about two siblings who notice something sinister in the skies above their horse ranch. Swarm, for instance, is a horror series created by Donald Glover about a character named Dre obsessed with an artist, doing whatever it takes to meet her, even if it includes murder. Narratives have been transformed and the horror genre is evolving to become more inclusive when it comes to the experiences of people of color.

The resurgence of Black horror forces viewers to witness the frightening reality of being Black in the world that is still relevant today. White Americans might be unsettled by poltergeists or demonic symbolism, but the fear of being followed by the KKK and hate crimed is something we will never truly comprehend. White Americans, including myself, are finally paying attention to Black horror, but in order to truly comprehend the backstories, we must reflect on the deeper, darker parts of history that still affect Black people today.