Black Horror Films Could Be About More Than White Violence
I want so much more than seemingly unrelenting reminders of how anti-Black this world is.
As a horror aficionado, I am constantly caught between appreciation for the few Black horror stories that we have and the desire for them to explore so much more. Blackness in horror doesn’t always have to be about racial injustice and anti-Black violence, and yet it so often is. In a pre-”Get Out” (2017) world, the most premier example of a horror film that used white violence as its foundation and impetus was Bernard Rose’s “Candyman” (1992), and I don’t doubt that many horror fans see it as fitting and appropriate that Jordan Peele is the one who is currently in talks to remake this horror classic.
“The legend first appeared in 1890. Candyman was the son of a slave. His father had amassed a considerable fortune from designing a device for the mass-producing of shoes after the Civil War. Candyman had been sent to all the best schools and had grown up in polite society. He had a prodigious talent as an artist, and was much sought after when it came to the documenting of one’s wealth and position in society in a portrait. It was in this latter capacity that he was commissioned by a wealthy landowner to capture his daughter’s virginal beauty. Well, of course, they fell deeply in love, and she became pregnant. Poor Candyman! The father executed a terrible revenge. He paid a pack of brutal hooligans to do the deed. They chased Candyman through the town to Cabrini-Green, where they proceeded to saw off his right hand with a rusty blade. And no one came to his aid. But this was just the beginning of his ordeal. Nearby there was an apiary; dozens of hives filled with hungry bees. They smashed the hives and stole the honeycomb and smeared it over his prone naked body. Candyman was stung to death by the bees. They burnt his body on a giant pyre and scattered his ashes over Cabrini-Green.”
Though the film is and always will be iconic, a critical reading of “Candyman” makes clear that this tale of hook-handed vengeance is principally about the haunting of Helen Lyle, who remains ever at the center. It is ultimately about a monstrous Black male figure obsessed with and terrorizing a white woman who becomes the story’s hero in the end. Relationships between Black men and white women have long been the focus of various types of horror narratives, with the white women within them able to capitalize on the socially accepted truth of their delicacy, purity, and innocence. Peele smartly recasts white womanhood as villainous in “Get Out”, as being wholly capable of and adept at enacting white supremacist violences, but he ultimately does nothing with the opportunity to interrogate our already prominent image of Black men who lust after white women. This gives me pause for the possibility of Peele resurrecting both Candyman and Helen to reassert this overall narrative, even if some details are changed.
Nevertheless, “Get Out” and the way it relays its story of zombification and drapetomania remains absolutely refreshing for me, and I believe that it has opened up new possibilities for Blackness in the horror genre. Peele’s “Us” will arrive next year. He once noted that “Get Out” would be the first of at least five social horror thrillers from his mind, so “Us” is likely the second of this line of projects. He has also recently signed on to produce HBO’s “Lovecraft Country”, a series adaptation of a novel about the horrors of the Jim Crow era with a Lovecraftian spin. Peele will also bring his talents to the role of showrunner, rebooting “The Twilight Zone”—a show full of mystery and suspense and known for its social commentary. It seems that “Get Out” has made Jordan Peele the go-to guy for social horror thrillers in Hollywood, and I know that he will bring more Black creatives with him.
While I have concerns about how Peele will treat “Candyman” and whether or not he will do anything to improve upon it with his interpretation, I have a much larger concern that this remake, coupled the immense success of “Get Out”, might also help to send us down a road where it will become harder and harder to make other types of Black horror stories legible to audiences in a predominantly white industry.
“The First Purge” (2018) delves into organized white supremacy, its hold in U.S. politics, and how we sometimes get recruited to participate in our own subjugation. The events of “The Skeleton Key” (2005) are propelled by the demonization of Black religion and the punishing of Black people who invade white spaces. “The People Under the Stairs” (1991) tackles gentrification, capitalism, and the exploitation of poor Black communities. The most recent season of “Black Mirror” ventured into this realm with its “Black Museum” (2018) episode, a satisfying revenge narrative which I interpret as an exploration of many things, including enslavement in the prison industrial complex. The upcoming “Body Cam” is a feature in which a supernatural event occurs after a Black person is murdered by police who attempt to cover it up.
We are already afraid of these things in real life. White people watch “Get Out” and “The First Purge” and think that they are fantastical over-exaggerations, but Black audiences understand that they are not so far removed from the truth, and that’s what makes them so terrifying for us on a deeper level. Black people really die these kinds of deaths. We really resist in these kinds of ways, even if we aren’t always as successful as the films’ heroes. Many of our real-life stories play out like horror films because they are horrific. We are already haunted by ghosts of historical anti-Blackness.
When I watch horror, I’m trying to escape all this shit—trying to allow my anxiety and fear to be about something else for a while, something unlike my reality, and I still want to see my Blackness represented. Give me a Black ghost story that’s not about the lynching, raping, and oppression of my people. Let me just imagine a world without white people taking up so much space, especially space in which white supremacist violences continually get rearticulated to produce stories for our entertainment.
Before white colonialism and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, what did we fear? The earth, the stars, the wilderness, the gods, our own mortality. I think of these things and dream about what pre-colonial Black horror films might look like—exploring African mythology, legends, and folklore about trickster gods, ancient relics, and fantastical figures.
There are tales of African vampires, which terrify people even to this day, and the lore can be traced all the way back to the ancient Egyptian blood-sucking cat goddess, Sekhmet. The adze vampire takes the form of a firefly, only becoming human when it is captured, and its victims become witches possessed by its spirit. The Impundulu is a human-sized vampire bird that is also rumored to be a witch’s familiar. It can summon lightning storms and its eggs have medicinal powers. Many more legends like these exist. I want to see and experience them, but they never seem to make it to the screen. I want to see Black traditions, cultures, and religions incorporated into horror in ways that do not demonize them, and I want Black characters who can be more than just tokens because they are among an entire cast of Black performers.
Imagine Black-coded creature features with both ancient beasts and neo-monsters. Black punks going up against the undead, the occult, and the macabre. Shamans and demon-slayers fighting otherworldly evil alongside Black celestials and prehistoric beings. Imagine Afrofuturist horror. Black innocents in dark fantasies and sci-fi techno-horror. Invasions, outbreaks, and cosmic abductions. Found footage and catastrophic post-apocalyptic survival narratives.
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I want to see Black horror projects in every possible subgenre: gothic, mystery, suspense, comedy, romance, erotic, revenge, action, slasher, gore, and psychological thrillers, and beyond. I want Black people centered in stories about haunted houses and haunted dolls, extremist religions, cults, and fanaticism. The weird, bizarre, claustrophobic, experimental, cerebral, meta kind of horror. In cutting edge and cross-genre mash-ups. From quiet and contemplative to extreme and unrestrained.
There are so many great horror vehicles that engage with unaddressed grief and family secrets, the uncertainty of childhood, the inevitability of death, the unknown cosmos, unyielding bleakness, propaganda, destiny, doom, scientific discovery, corporatism, insanity, paranoia, phobia, and isolation. I want to see Blackness centered and celebrated in these stories too, and I want Black horror to be about more than just white violence.
I appreciate “Get Out” and other Black horror films, as I appreciate “Candyman” and other Black ghost stories. They have helped to inform my understandings of Black monstrosity in the white imagination, and for that, I will be forever grateful. I value them and cherish them, but I want so much more than seemingly unrelenting reminders of how anti-Black this world is. We should not have to constantly contend with anti-Black violence—as recipients of it and/or in resistance to it—in fantasies that are supposed to serve as an escape from reality, even or especially if they are horrific.
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