When I first pitched this essay, I was eager for the opportunity to discuss Black horror movies, a topic I’ve hoped to publish on for several years. In the few days between sending the pitch and the commissioning of the essay, I was confronted with a barrage of horrible news: a friend’s tragic death, the cruelty of treating such death as public spectacle, and the escalation of Israel’s continued occupation in Palestine and practices of apartheid and genocide. I cannot think of the legacy of the Black diaspora as colonized people without acknowledging a connection to the Palestinian struggle for liberation.
This is all to say I’ve been grappling with how to discuss horror as works of fiction and entertainment, amidst the realities of terror as it relates to both my personal life and the world at large. But I suppose that is also the specialty and purview of the horror genre—to probe the manifestation of neuroses and stare unflinchingly at the consequences of social ills.
This makes the genre an apt home for exploring complexities of Black life that exists and thrives despite continuous attempts to extinguish it. One of the most haunting moments from Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is not a scene featuring the actual haunting by the ghost of 124 Bluestone Road—though there are plenty of those as well—but it is Sethe’s memory of Schoolteacher, her former enslaver, who she heard instruct his nephew “to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right.” So revolting is Schoolteacher’s matter-of-fact dehumanization of Sethe and fellow slaves that his cruelty prompts Sethe to commit her own unspeakable act, leading to the supernatural force of the book. Much of the novel contends with the questions of how to continue in the aftermath of horrors inflicted especially when harm is done by sufferers of evil.
Opening with an epigraph from Romans 9:25, “Beloved” echoes the long tradition within Black folklore and storytelling in engaging the tenants of damnation and salvation. Early films in Black horror, like Eloyce and James Gist’s “Hellbound Train” (1931) served as cautionary tales and reminders of the communal importance of living a good Christian life. Gambling, drinking, jazz, and dancing too close were all activities of the devil and, coincidentally, often the target of a racist society that saw its Black members prone to lackadaisical and criminal lifestyles. Through fear, these early horror films sought to both educate and entertain Black communities for the benefit of collective progress and uplift.
By the seventies, commitment to Christian values had been disrupted. Blaxploitation films seized audiences and their popularity made way for Black creators and actors to achieve larger audiences, though arguably, often within the confines of Black stereotypes. Bill Gunn’s 1973 “Ganja & Hess” thwarted expectations of the Blaxploitation movie using conventions of its horror predecessors. The story is of a Black couple—Hess, an academic, and Ganja, the widowed wife of an academic—who defect from the Black middle-class after becoming vampires. Initially, they seduce, kill, and take pleasure in their immortality and damnation. But by the film’s end, one character still finds themselves reaching for redemption and deliverance, bringing their own demise at the helm of a cross. But unlike Gist’s “Hellbound,” the culmination of the movie is not an affirmation of a Christian’s God inherent power to solve all, but an acknowledgement that wanton indulgence cannot heal inherited trauma and pain.
Of course, in recent years the crowned king of Black horror is Jordan Peele, whose debut feature “Get Out” premiered to an onslaught of critical praise and fanfare. A sort of horror spin on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Get Out” was praised for its precision in depicting the 2010s era white liberal who perhaps voted for Barack Obama but is still uncomfortable in the presence of Black people. Perhaps Peele’s desire that the movie “speak to liberal elites” is why I felt it lacked in its articulation of racial horror. The contrast of the white villains to Black would-be victim/hero was disappointingly simplistic for the rich possibilities of the genre.
Though we as Black people are not at blame for the racism experienced in a racist society, we still operate within the same oppressive systems and structures and can be at fault for perpetuating its ills. Remi Weekes’ 2020 “His House,” explores this paradox, calling into question what is justifiable for survival and a chance at life. The film follows Bol and Rial after they have fled war-torn South Sudan and are seeking asylum in Britain. The couple are granted a deteriorating house and are put on a probationary trial to prove to their white caseworker that they are worthy of remaining in the country.
Like “Beloved,” Bol and Rial’s new home is haunted by the ghost of a young girl, presumed to be their daughter, who died in their journey across the English Channel. The ghost is unrelenting, demanding to be remembered which is particularly threatening to Bol who is set on forgetting and assimilation. But try as Bol might, his and Rial’s future can’t be untethered from their past. Though the traditions and hauntings presented in “His House” are not rooted in Christianity and the Black identities explored are not American, similar themes of communal strife, trauma, and ancestry are found in its story as are in previously mentioned titles.
Part of what defines Black horror as a genre is its eye toward collectivism and memory. Filmmakers and writers repurpose history and experiences to make sense of the unexplainable— from supernatural uncertainties to the unfairness of real-life pain and injustices. It exposes both the fear of what could be and is the recognition of what already is.
Madison Jamar is a writer from Columbus, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Catapult, 68to05, Black Lipstick, Polyesterzine and more. She lives and works in New York City.