Black Horror: Dawn of a New Era

What scares us most on film

Ashley Nkadi
Feb 6, 2020 · 9 min read
Illustration by Eb Ball

ToTo say that the horror genre is having a moment would be an understatement. Gone are the slasher films of the 80s, and thoughtful movie like Hereditary, Babadook, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night are taking center stage. Within this larger horror revival lives a renaissance of Black Horror. From Get Out to The First Purge, Black writers, producers and directors have illustrated the magic that unfolds when black people have full control of their own art. This moment owes its existence to a movement that for decades shifted the landscape of horror by increasing the visibility of Blackness in within the genre.

In 1968, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead came to life on the silver screen. It wasn’t the only thing to come to life, for this was a zombie film — and a momentous one at that. It was not the first zombie film — filmmakers appropriated and capitalized Haitian folklore in the decades before. No, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was iconic because it erected the modern zombies that form the foundation of today’s corpse-laden thrillers: The Walking Dead, Dawn of the Dead, etc. Romero’s film was special in another way — it marked one of the first occasions on which a Black actor (Duane Jones) starred as the lead in a Hollywood horror movie.

Night of the Living Dead follows Ben (played with Duane Jones), a Black man who inadvertently finds himself protecting a small group of white people during the beginnings of a zombie apocalypse. He becomes the group’s lone survivor — that is, until Ben is shot by a white mob that mistakes him for one of the monsters. Sounds eerily familiar doesn’t it?

Romero did not intend to produce a commentary on race. He simply believed that Jones gave the best audition for the role of Ben. Still, Jones’ Blackness introduced nuances into the movie. Actions that would have seemed normal for a white-casted Ben, read very differently with Jones in the role. “He’s asserting himself as the alpha of the group. He’s not only killing white zombies, but he’s punching white Mr. Cooper who is the character who most represents the white power structure in the story,” says Tananarive Due, award-winning Black Horror writer, scholar, and producer. This movie did, after all, come on the heels of the Jim Crow era. Due continued, “this is 1968. [Ben’s depictions] are the kinds of images and behaviors that would have gotten someone lynched not soon before then.”

Night of the Living Dead was an unintentional social-thriller that poked at the fears of white America. The film’s conclusion — within the context of Jones’ casting — also spelled out an all too familiar horror for Black America: another innocent Black man dead at the hands of a white mob. For Black audiences, Due notes, “we have now veered from the world of fiction to the world of [reality].”

The 1970s would mark a new horizon for Black horror. A decade filled with horror films about black characters, but also made by Black filmmakers. The 70s ushered in the Blaxplotation (black exploitation) era, with the success of movies like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Shaft, and Superfly. Blaxploitation films embodied the sense Black Power and Black nationalism on the rise during the time. Blacula, the first horror subtype of this new era sparked an avalanche of blaxploitation-fashioned horror films. Literally, an avalanche — white producers and studios started descended upon the fad, capitalizing and exploiting the movement. Yes, Black people were on the big screen, cast in powerful roles, but at what cost? Organizations like the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and National Urban League felt as though the perpetuation of tropes and stereotypes laden in the films was a price too high to pay. The blaxploitation boom had its advances, as well as it’s caveats, but Due believes “overall it’s a triumph. It is a miracle that these even exist … [they] show a slice of Black life, and it’s the Black characters who have primacy in these stories.”

It was Bill Gunn who broke this mold. The last thing Gunn wanted to do was make a Black vampire film. Kelly-Jordan Enterprises offered him a $350,000 budget in the hopes of procuring a Blacula-esque blockbuster that would soar in the box office during the height of the Blaxploitation era. “If I had to write about blood, I was going to do that, but I could not just make a movie about blood,” Gunn said. So he instead delivered Ganja and Hess, a strange and surreal depiction of self and addiction through the prism of vampirism. Gunn defied the formula of Blaxploitation films by taking full control of his art and subverting the tropes and tactics of the black horrors that dominated the screen in his time. In doing so, he created an original masterpiece. In doing so, he brought a unique energy to the genre that illustrated what Black Horror could be: artful, intentional, social, and possessing of deeper meaning.

This trend continued during the boom in 90s black movies. For every Poetic Justice, Boyz n the Hood, Friday, and Set it Off we received Def by Temptation, Candyman, Eve’s Bayou, and Tales From the Hood. The latter dealt with many of the sociopolitical and socioeconomic issues as the former. Tales From the Hood, specifically, addressed themes like police brutality, child abuse, crime, gangs, and institutionalized vs intrapersonal racism.

Though the quality and depth of Black Horror films evolved, these films were far and few. Eventually in the late 1990s, this golden age of Black Horror fell off almost completely. “Throughout the Black arts, all of us felt the shift after the nineties, both in publishing and in film. The models started shifting. The gatekeepers were not as interested anymore in elevating these Black directors and telling these stories,” Due explains.

Black Horror creators faced numerous barriers, including getting their ideas funded by studios. Spike Lee had to crowdfund Da Sweet Blood of Jesus because “[he] knew no studio was going to make this film.” Ernest Dickserson, director (Juice, Bones, Demon Knight, The Walking Dead) and cinematographer for many of Lee’s own movies, also had trouble financing projects.

InIn 2015, nearly two decades into the near-dry spell of Black Horror, horror/sci-fi film festival programmer Rodney Perkins told The Dissolve, “[a]ll it would take is a group of hungry black filmmakers, or even one person, to do an anthology like that, get it picked up by one of the indie distribution companies, and then it makes a lot of noise in the genre community … [i]f they can be subtle with the themes but still be scary, it could be a really interesting way to address everything that’s happening in our society — the same way directors like George Romero and Wes Craven did back in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s the perfect time right now for a young black filmmaker to do that.”

Perkins was was right. However, it was not an anthology that brought an end to the Black Horror drought — it was Jordan Peele’s cinematic masterpiece Get Out. For me, Get Out embodied the sentiments of W.E.B. Du Bois in his novel Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil: “[no souls] intrigue me more than the Souls of White Folk. Of them I am singularly clairvoyant … Not as a foreigner do I come, for I am native, not foreign, bone of their thought and flesh of their language. I see these souls undressed and from the back and side. I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know. This knowledge makes them now embarrassed, now furious.”

Peele put a name to what we feel as Black persons moving through America. He raised a mirror to white people while offering a sigh of relief to Black people, ensuring us that our anxieties about whiteness are not a result of our imaginations. He portrayed a heightened version of the white behaviors we are subject to everyday — microaggressions, subtleties, backhanded “compliments” — to exemplify and exacerbate our deepest fear: that even the seemingly most well-meaning, “woke” white people may harbor insidious intentions and be capable of sinister harm.

Get Out was a success. It opened to critical acclaim, and despite a modest budget of $5 million dollars, the feature raked in over $250 million dollars worldwide. The film garnered numerous awards and nominations, and Peele became one of the few people in history to be nominated for the Academy Award trinity: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay (the latter of which he won). Get Out’s success illustrated to the film industry what it refused to believe for decades — that the horror genre has both creators and an audience within the Black community. This reminder, in turn, has catalyzed a shift in receptiveness to Black Horror creators.

Since Get Out, there has been a rise in horror films and television shows led by Black actors, writers, directors, and producers. The fourth installment of the Purge franchise, The First Purge, took on a new life with Gerard McMurray at the helm. “The First Purge really laid bare the subtext that had been present throughout the series, but made it much clearer and much more racialized. That’s Black Horror,” Due says. Black history and Black Horror are also woven into the foundation of HBO’s new Watchmen series, which reorients the story around American racism, and finds a contemporary villain in white supremacy.

Get Out’s success not only altered projects that were already set to be produced, but also may have opened the door for newer projects to get funded. Horror Noire got the greenlight from Shudder the day after Jordan Peele won his Oscar, and Rusty Cundeiff believes that the film opened the door for his Tales From the Hood sequel. They aren’t the only ones. Che Grayson is gearing up a Frankenstein-esque anthology series, Showtime picked up a horror series from Underground creator Misha Green, Lena Waith and Little Marvin landed a horror anthology at Amazon, Malik Vitthal is poised to direct a thriller about police body cameras, and last year even Lebron James was in talks to reboot Friday the 13th. “I firmly believe that there are creators I have never met who have been shopping projects for a long time who are finally getting some traction,” Due says.

Peele himself delivered the riveting Us as a follow-up to his theatrical debut, and is working on exciting projects like The Twilight Zone, Lovecraft Country, Abruptio, and a Candyman reboot. Due cautions, “the doors have not just been thrown open for Black Horror creators by any means. It’s still a miracle when any Black creators gets funding to do a film or television series.” Still, she maintains that “there has never been a way to sustain a Black Horror movement, perhaps until now … we’ve always loved horror. It’s just that horror, unfortunately, hasn’t always loved us.”

At the core of horror is the monster — a metaphor for what scares us most. This is why Blackness fits so well in horror. As Due says, “Black History is Black Horror.” In Birth of a Nation (which Horror Noire puts forth as a horror, and I agree), Black people are the monster — we are what scare people most. Black Horror is the rejection of that. Our films, our horrors, our fears are rooted in the reality of what it means to be Black in America, which is more terrifying than any of the aforementioned films. In Black Horror, we find a liberating art space to create timely works in which we may both illustrate our greatest fears and put forth our greatest hopes for the future of our people. To quote Due, “we should be allowed to tell all stories. Including our own.”

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Ashley Nkadi

Written by

Ashley loves God, her mama, being Black, Gucci Mane, baked beans, & eyebrow maintenance. In that order. For more, follow @hottienkadi or visit ashleynkadi.com

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Ashley Nkadi

Written by

Ashley loves God, her mama, being Black, Gucci Mane, baked beans, & eyebrow maintenance. In that order. For more, follow @hottienkadi or visit ashleynkadi.com

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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