Horror films are created with a goal of eliciting fright and angst from the audience by evoking their worst fears, nightmares, or playing out worst-case-scenarios. One commonality exists within all horror stories: an outside element or villain—whether it be a clown, a shark, a vampire, a monster, or something supernatural—coming to cause mayhem, death, and wreak havoc on peoples’ lives. When it comes to Black horror, however, the villain is oftentimes more recognizable.
“When you look at Black horror versus other types of horror, you will see people not fearing the supernatural or not fearing the horrific elements as much as they would white supremacy, because white supremacy [is] an actual real reality in their life,” said Dr. Chesya Burke, a longtime horror writer and an assistant professor of U.S. literature at Stetson University.
What is Black horror?
The definition of Black horror depends on who you ask, since it doesn’t have one widely used definition. Some classify any horror film with a Black lead as “Black horror,” while others believe the film must also have a Black writer and director in order to be categorized under that subgenre.
“I’m of the belief that it can’t really be Black [horror] if it doesn’t have a Black creator,” Burke said. “Basically, it’s Black horror if it’s written and produced and cast with Black people. Otherwise, it’s simply horror with Black people in it.”
One aspect of Black horror that sets itself apart is how often it subverts horror tropes by dramatizing history or current events surrounding race and Blackness. Black horror doesn’t require discussions about racism or Blackness in order to be classified as such, but the stories are typically presented from a Black experience. One common theme Black audiences appear to be drawn to is the familiar idea of powerlessness.
“A lot of Black horror really centers around the fact that there are people out there who want to hurt you and kill you for something that you can’t control. And that’s super frightening,” said Tonia Ransom, a horror writer and the creator and executive producer of Nightlight, a horror podcast that tells scary stories written and narrated by Black artists. Ransom said she has always had a strong stomach for the creepy, scary, and abnormal. What scares her the most is other people.
“There are people in this world that are truly awful people and a lot of them are in power,” Ransom said. “That’s a scary thing to know that humans are the real monsters; that’s not as easy as driving a stake through a vampire’s heart. You have to deal with human monsters in a very different way.”
Images of Blackness in Westernized societies are often derived from Eurocentric ideologies, and the horror space is no different. Ransom believes Blackness is used as the scary element in many white-led horror stories, and that villains and monsters are used as stand-ins for minorities.
“We read books where werewolves are discriminated against or put in camps or things of that nature,” she said. “I don’t necessarily know the author’s always intend for it to be that way, but as a Black person, when I’m reading them, [I’ll think,] ‘That sounds like a Japanese internment camp,’ or ‘That sounds like segregation,’ and things like that. Some of those things that are more subtle fly over the heads of a lot of members of a white audience just because it’s not something that they’ve ever had to confront and deal with directly.”
Black horror’s surge in popularity
Black horror has an increasingly broad appeal, thanks to the wildly popular release of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which became the second-biggest R-rated horror film ever, behind The Exorcist. The film has been described as “exhilaratingly smart” for its social and political commentary surrounding white privilege and the racial climate in America. The film, which had a Black writer and Black director, went on to win an Academy Award for best original screenplay. The movie opened up a new wave of interest and funding for Black horror.
“[Get Out] made so much money that people kept wanting to hire Jordan Peele, and there’s only one Jordan Peele,” said Ransom. “And then there are these other companies that want to hire somebody like Jordan Peele because they can’t afford Jordan Peele and so they started reaching out to other Black writers.”
The University of California, Los Angeles, even offered a Get Out-inspired course in 2017 titled “The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival and Black Horror Aesthetic,” taught by writer and producer Tananarive Due, which discussed the ways in which Blackness in classic horror films can be reflective of race in society. Due has since produced a six-part digital series based on her UCLA course, co-produced with her husband and collaborator, author and screenwriter Steven Barnes.
In her essay “Black Horror Rising,” Due notes that the power of Black horror rests on its ability to “visualize trauma. To fight back. To try to heal. To seek out survival behaviors in crisis. To face the worst and be able to walk away unscathed … because, unlike the demons in our real lives, it isn’t real. By comparison, in fact, sometimes the real-life demons don’t seem quite as bad. Or sometimes, horror is the only way to help others understand.”
Peele’s recent projects may be credited for the surge in popularity of Black horror films, but it isn’t the first time audiences have been drawn to the subgenre. Today’s Black horror writers stand on the shoulders of filmmakers during the Blaxploitation era and trailblazers in the field like Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston, Pearl Cleage, and Toni Morrison.
In the 1960s and 1970s Blaxploitation era, films were specifically and transparently targeted to Black audiences with the goal of featuring positive images of Black people on the big screen. Many of the movies during the Blaxploitation era, including the horror films that were released during that time, were inspired by 1940s race films. Black horror classics like Blacula, Sugar Hill, Ganja & Hess, Blackenstein, and J.D.’s Revenge were released during that time, helping Black horror branch off into its own subgenre. In the decades that followed, Black filmmakers released some other favorites like Eve’s Bayou, Tales from the Crypt Presents Demon Knight, Bones, and countless others.
Night of the Living Dead in 1968 was one of the earliest films with a Black leading character, but overall, Black leads have been somewhat rare in the horror world. Underrepresentation in the horror space, however, doesn’t only touch Hollywood. A 2017 report in Fireside Fiction broke down the ethnicities of which fiction writers were getting published, and found that Black people made up less than 10%. Burke said that although she has seen some progress in recent years, there is still some pressure on Black horror writers to make their writing palatable to white audiences.
“I think [horror] has evolved in a way that does make it easier in some ways to create stories and to get published,” she said. “But I think that in other ways, unless we have some of the power to bring with it that Jordan Peele does, we’re still subject to telling the story that white people can accept and find comfortable.”
Kennikki Jones-Jones, a filmmaker and director of the 2018 Black-led short horror film, Knock Knock, said that when she first got into writing and filmmaking, she only wrote in a “white voice.”
“I felt like a white person had to be a part of the narrative,” she said. “Initially, I didn’t think I deserved to write a story that was good because everything that came out of me was white. I do remember having to break down the ‘white wall.’ I don’t think I knew I was free until I could write the voice of the character in Knock Knock as a Black woman.”
Even as a filmmaker, Jones-Jones has to stop herself from taking Black horror movies for granted. She tries to make an effort to branch out and add Black films to her “watch list” when she sees one added to her streaming services. She hopes to create more horror films in the future, and has some advice for horror writers trying to break through in the field.
“Take the time to do it purposefully because it’s an investigation to learn about yourself and others like you around you,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to write in your own voice.”
The “golden age”
Recent years have been referred to as a “golden age” of Black horror films. Meet the Blacks in 2016 offered a comedic take to the genre, as did 2018’s Hair Wolf. Peele’s 2019 film, Us, had major success at the box office, and the movie Ma starring Octavia Spencer was released just a few months later. The film Antebellum, was released via video on demand in September, and a highly anticipated retelling of Candyman directed by Nia DaCosta was originally slated for 2020 but has been pushed back to 2021 due to the pandemic.
The popular HBO 10-part series, Lovecraft Country, which is executive produced by Peele and has a mostly Black cast and Black-led writing team, is another recent example of a story that combines horror tropes with institutionalized racism in America. While the book Lovecraft Country was written by a white author, showrunner Misha Green has spoken about how the HBO series writers worked to create a “hybrid experience” for everyone.
“My strategy was to take all of its dope, cool stuff and write new dope, cool stuff … The goal was to deepen the characters and the stories,” Green said in a Reel Chicago interview.
With a wealth of Black horror novels, there are countless other opportunities for on-screen adaptations. For those considering diving into the subgenre, books like Beloved by Toni Morrison (which many consider a horror book), The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaVelle, Burke’s short fiction collection Let’s Play White, and any book by Tananarive Due are good places to start. Morbidly Beautiful and Book Riot have also released a list of recommendations Black horror novels.
“More and more people are recognizing that that conversation is long overdue, especially now in the Black Lives Matter era,” wrote Vanity Fair’s Anthony Breznican. “Believe me, Black creators are getting a lot of requests for scripts, because it’s almost like Hollywood is rediscovering that Black people exist over and over again.”