BROOKE GLADSTONE The heart pounding power and titillating allure of fear. On the TV news…
PHILIP BUMP You never see news stories about how there's no crime. Saying the crime is bad gets people to react emotionally, and that can be put to use.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And the silver screen…
HORROR MOVIE TRAILER Is it human or inhuman? You'll feel the awful, creeping, crawling terror that stands your hair on end.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Why do we seek out the thrill of being scared senseless?
NINA NESSETH One of the leading theories for why we might love to watch horror movies is that ability to transfer threat arousal over to pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus the renaissance of black horror.
TANANARIVE DUE Let me imagine that racism is a zombie, and now we can have a good time. Okay!
BROOKE GLADSTONE On this week's On the Media from WNYC.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. It's that time of year again. Or that time of every other year again.
NEWS REPORT We're now just 16 days away from what could be the most consequential set of midterm elections in modern history. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And as Stephen Colbert says, you know what that means:.
STEPHEN COLBERT For the next 13 days, the news media is going to yank our chains like they're trying to start a leaf blower. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But which chain?
NEWS REPORT Abortion rights will literally be on everybody's ballot in Michigan.
NEWS REPORT The economy is in the crapper. They got a president who can't complete a sentence.
NEWS REPORT The more immediate issue, however, for Democrats in the midterms: sky-high gas prices,.
NEWS REPORT High inflation, high numbers of people pouring across the southern border. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But as the elections inch closer, there's one story that's been dominating the coverage on one channel in particular.
NEWS REPORT All right. These numbers you are looking at that show a big jump in crime from robbery to burglary to felony assault, transit crime.
NEWS REPORT Democrats have lost control of our cities across the country. They supported the “defund the police” movement.
NEWS REPORT An innocent woman savagely beaten by a group of teens on a bus. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Philip Bump is a national columnist for The Washington Post. His latest piece asks: what's the non-obvious reason FOX News is talking about crime? So, Phillip, first, what's the obvious reason?
PHILIP BUMP Well, the obvious reason is that Fox News has, since late September, really amped up the extent to which it's talking about crime on air. That is a time period that overlaps with Democrats faring better in midterm election polling. It is a period that also overlaps with the decline of the saliency of gas prices as an election issue. As gas prices started to fall in June, so did Fox's mentions of gas prices.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When it came to two of three subjects, abortion and gas and fuel, they were covered as much or as little as they were on the competition. It was crime where you saw a stark difference between Fox News as opposed to the other networks.
PHILIP BUMP What we saw over the course of July and August was that mentions of crime were basically in line on all three cable networks with where they had been for the first six months of the year. There's nothing exceptional about it. Then in late September, Fox really started to amp up, and it's continued to increase over the time periods that I was looking at. It's continued to go up and up and up as the midterm elections have approached. It's also increased on a sort of 20-day lag on CNN and MSNBC as well. And there has been this increase in crime as a conversation point in the election coverage itself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is kind of a chicken-and-egg question. You have Fox bumping it up, talking about it a whole lot more than the actual candidates were. Even more than in the ads. That was some weeks ago. It seems as if the candidates and the GOP advertising has come more in line with the Fox emphasis on crime.
PHILIP BUMP You're right, it's hard to sort of know if there is a causal relationship, which I suspect there is. I think we can say this pretty clearly: Fox News has really put a huge emphasis on crime, particularly in the last couple of weeks. That is something that we're also seeing reflected in Republican advertising very heavily, and that is something that I think has proven to be disadvantageous to Democrats. So all three things are those things I think we can say categorically.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When you asked in your column what triggered Fox News to start talking about crime so much in late September, you said the folks at Fox News didn't like the question. They suggested that you were downplaying or excusing crime, and then they pointed to data — data you called anecdotal and cherry-picked. Do you want to summarize that stuff?
PHILIP BUMP Sure. So a couple of months ago, I actually looked at crime data because I'm very well aware the crime data nationally operates on a pretty significant lag. The FBI has collected data, which they do at the end of a year and then takes a substantial number of months to actually release — a process that has been upended this time because they actually changed their methodology. So we have really old data from 2020. And so I did a piece that sort of like, ‘Hey, look, we don't really have good data on what's happened nationally with crime.’ So then I ended up looking at what Fox News was doing when Joe Biden took office. So I wrote a piece that said, you know, crime is surging in Fox News’s coverage because we don't know what crime is doing nationally. We do see anecdotal examples from municipalities in some states, but we don't know. We don't know what the national trend is, and yet here is Fox News, really, amplifying this. Fox News got very incensed about that, insisted that I was trying to downplay crime, which, of course I'm not, that I was being dishonest about the extent to which crime is escalated, which I wasn't. We just don't know, right? And they got very mad about that. And so that was sort of the context going back and look. Okay, so let's see, how has their own coverage compared to what it was at the beginning of the year? And since it really started to spike at the end of September. There's certainly no new data that suggests that is warranted. So what else is the trigger?
BROOKE GLADSTONE The claim was that crime is up more in blue states or in the cities in blue states, but it's also up in red states. So tell me about the actual cherry-picking.
PHILIP BUMP We do have data from 2020 showing that violent crime had increased in the United States relative to 2019. We also have data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics which looks at a different measure, which is the extent to which people are reporting crime. And that didn't find a significant increase in 2020, which is interesting, nor did they find one in 2021. Now, the FBI did release its 2021 data, which, as I mentioned, was marred by this change in methodology, which makes it hard to compare 2021 and 2020 in part because a lot of big cities in particular didn't actually report data. But when you do an analysis, you can look, for example, at, say, Oklahoma City versus\, say, New York City. And I'm doing some cherry-picking of my own right now, admittedly, but a city like Oklahoma City, which is, you know, Republican mayor, Republican governor, had a much higher violent crime rate, 2021, than the New York City. So it's easy to pick out places where you can craft a narrative that suits what it is that you're looking for. But what we don't have is this broad top line ‘here's what's going on with crime in America.’ So we simply don't have a standardized set of data that actually is comparable apples-to-apples nationally.
BROOKE GLADSTONE As you observed, both parties use fear to mobilize voters. They're just different triggers. And crime has been a go-to for the right. But you've written in an earlier column that Americans may not be as convinced that crime is the most important issue facing the country, even among Republican voters. But that was then before Fox stepped up its coverage. How about now? Do we know?
PHILIP BUMP We just did have new polling that came out this week from PRRI, which asks, ‘to what extent are these issues critical for your vote in the midterms?’ And we see that crime is high on the list for Republicans, but it is behind things like housing and everyday expenses. It was behind immigration as well. And so even among Republicans, crime is not necessarily the issue that's pushing them to the polls. But I think that the factor that's coming to play here is there is such a broad differential between how people view the party's ability to respond to crime. And I think that's one of the reasons that Republicans are highlighting it. And I do think it's worth noting: polling consistently shows that people think crime is rising, even as over the past several decades it has not been rising.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And that's not Fox's fault. That's the media in general.
PHILIP BUMP No, right – that's long standing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Our minds are drawn more to things we perceive as threats.
PHILIP BUMP Well, also, you never see news stories about how there's no crime. Yeah, right. But one of the other things that's interesting is we see this pattern, similar to how people feel about their members of Congress. Everyone thinks their own member of Congress is fine, but Congress sucks generally, right? Same thing with crime. And even recent polling by YouGov shows this; people think of their own neighborhood's crime as not that big a deal but nationally that it's very bad.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We've talked a lot about Fox News, but you also covered MSNBC and CNN. Is there a Democratic narrative or strategy similar to Fox News crime coverage that you see taking hold on the other networks?
PHILIP BUMP You know, there certainly are instances in which cable news networks elevate stories that other networks don't. But this is certainly exceptional — that FOX News is embracing crime. Well, not unique for Fox to sort of elevate something that may not be as big a story as it pretends. What it's doing this year with crime, I think, is different.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what should news consumers be watching for as the midterm coverage continues? The last time we had you on talking about the film 2000 Mules, which purported to prove that the election was stolen and it certainly did not. I'm just wondering what you would advise viewers to do.
PHILIP BUMP If what is being told to you is a narrative that is dependent on snippets of people doing very bad things? I think it's important to remember that these are definitionally isolated incidents and to think about whether or not there's actually a trend or a pattern here, right? Fox News shows, constantly, these videos of people committing assault or people robbing stores — all of which, of course, are bad. But I think it's important, as it was with 2000 Mules, where they elevated these video clips of people putting ballots in drop boxes, which they framed as being people committing crimes. People seized on it and believed, ‘Okay, look at how often this is happening. Look at that video.’ And it's like, well, yeah, look at the video, man. And there's one person doing one thing. This is a nation of 330 million people. Even if you had ten clips over the course of a week of ten people doing something bad, does that mean that the United States is riddled with crime? Or is it that Fox News is picking up these ten clips of people committing crimes? It's important to stop and say, ‘is this representative of something broader or is this simply something that's trying to scare me?’
BROOKE GLADSTONE So if you see the same clip over and over again, a single anecdote used to illustrate a much bigger point, often there isn't any point to illustrate.
PHILIP BUMP This is really important, especially in the context of Fox News, where in the wake of the protests in the summer of 2020, for weeks afterward, they recycled the same clips of violent actions in New York City and Minneapolis that had spun off of the protests that summer. They used the same footage over and over and over, actually documented it at the time. And this helped build the narrative that, for weeks, New York City was under assault and at risk of being burned down and that Portland was shredded. And, you know, this narrative developed of American cities just being completely in tumult for weeks on end because Fox kept recycling the same clips and showing them for weeks on end. So they did that very intentionally, particularly that year with the presidential election of Donald Trump looming. That was a concerted choice that they made, and it really built this perception that persists and feeds into the current rhetoric around crime that things were really far worse than they are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about timing? Should you ask yourself why a particular story that may have been ongoing is suddenly taking over the airwaves?
PHILIP BUMP I think that it is worth stepping back and saying, ‘Why am I seeing this now? What is it that is changed, if anything?’ And entire point of my piece, of course, was that nothing has objectively changed besides the fact that there's this new focus on it. And it's hard to disentangle that from the fact that it's because we're two weeks away from the election.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how are we doing on crime?
PHILIP BUMP We don't know. Do you mean nationally? Do you mean in New York City? Do you mean in New Falls, Ohio, where it's a small town? What are you worried about? What are you concerned about? What's the question you're trying to answer? Fox doesn't try and do any of that sort of analysis or consideration. They're just saying ‘crime is up!’ A couple of months ago, they're looking at New York City. They're like, ‘Oh, look at New York City. Everything's terrible! Violent crime is up!’ But they didn't mention that violent crime was down in New York City. And they're trying to make this narrative right. This is what happens. And so, you know what's happening with crime, it's hard to say. And it really depends on context. And, you know, even if the FBI data were perfect, it tends to overemphasize what's happening in big cities where there is more crime, because there's more people, among other reasons. You know, like there are all these considerations that go into it. What we can say is that America used to be much, much more violent in the early 1990s. It has gotten less so. It appears to have increased again during the pandemic. And it's not clear the extent to which that's carried over to now. But the one thing that is clear is that saying the crime is bad gets people to react emotionally, and that can be put to use.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Phillip, thank you very much.
PHILIP BUMP My pleasure, as always.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Phillip Bump is a national columnist for The Washington Post. Coming up, the science behind fear and when and why it's fun. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Crime as an issue is a hardy campaign perennial and a media staple, whether or not it accords with reality. Of course, we tune in. Of course, we listen. Humans are hardwired to fear. Back when we weren't the world's reigning predators, terror enabled us to survive. We feared the dark where beasts lurked. Since our weak night-vision couldn't discern what hid in the shadows. We jumped at the snap of a twig. A flutter, a clap.
SPOOKY KID Want to play hide and clap? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Even now, in our everlastingly bright world. Darkness is still a menace. Still bred in the bone.
SCARY CLIP [WHISPERS] Turn off the lights.
SCARY CLIP They don't like bright lights, you know.
SCARY CLIP Turn off the light. You'll see what kind of game... [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you like scary movies? Have you ever wondered why? Science writer Nina Nesseth has. Her book Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films, delved into the neuroscience of horror. Welcome to the show, Nina.
NINA NESSETH Hi, thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So shortly after the horror film starts rolling, there typically emerges a threat. Often it's nearly imperceptible — a glint in the eye, a flicker of a match, the faintest sigh. Next, a jump scare!
RECORD STORE CUSTOMER what's in here?
RECORD STORE WORKER Record vault.
RECORD STORE CUSTOMER Oh, you keep the golden oldies and maybe, uh the new music too– [CHAINSAW!] [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Your body reacts even before you're aware of it. What exactly happens when you experience that physical jolt?
NINA NESSETH You want your body to react even before you're aware of what's going on, right? Because sometimes that split second can mean saving yourself from that threat. Once you get your thinking brain back in and you recognize that you're not in a real threatening situation, you're able to sort of transfer all of that energy into enjoyment. And that's known as excitation-transfer theory.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You write that the jump-scare is a relatively new innovation, that they became an expected part of the scary movie, you know, around the turn of the 21st century. There are two distinct varieties: the ones you expect and the ones you don't.
NINA NESSETH The one that you expect — we are primed with a cue. I find usually it's repetition. The example I use in my book is from the opening teaser sequence from the film Lights Out, where a person is turning lights on and off. When the lights are on, there's nothing in the space. And as soon as the light turns off, you see a shadowy figure. This happens a few times, and this figure that appears in the darkness isn't moving. But as a viewer, you know that something's got to give eventually so that either it's going to not be there when the lights turn off or it's going to be closer. And that's exactly what happens. Because we're waiting for that to happen. With each repetition, we slowly ramp up our own attention to be like, ‘when's it going to happen?’ And then you get that payoff.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But the second type is the jump scare that comes out of nowhere. Long stretches of mundane moments. And the longer the audience waits, the more they expect something to happen.
NINA NESSETH The perfect example that comes to mind is what's known as the “nurse station sequence” from Exorcist 3. Most of it is one long shot down a hallway in a hospital at night, and you spend time seeing, you know, this single nurse at the nurse station going back and forth. You see a security guard who kind of comes and leaves. And then there's a strange sound off-camera. The nurse comes up and goes to check on the sound in one of the patient's rooms. And the sound that she heard was ice cracking as it melted in a glass. And that's when we get our first jump scare, which is a patient sitting up and yelling at her.
[BLOOD CURDLING SCREAM]
PATIENT I can't get any sleep! What the hell do you want?
NINA NESSETH We have that release of tension and we go back to our long shot down the hallway and that's where we get our second jump that is just so surprising because it's so much quieter: we see the nurse go into another room; tere doesn't seem to be anything amiss; and she closes the door behind he — and then, almost immediately and impossibly, this figure, dressed all in white with this giant pair of shears, walks through the apparently closed door to lop off the nurse's head. We thought we had already gotten their jump scare. So to get that second one right afterwards, it's just really amazing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Distinguish between terror and horror. You said you can thank Ann Radcliffe, the mother of gothic literature, for making that distinction.
NINA NESSETH I like to think of terror, by her definition, as the fear of a bad thing that may happen, and horror is the result of that bad thing happening. There are two very, very different experiences.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And in my unscientific poll that I did of friend's prior to this interview, people much prefer horror films rather than films that lean on terror. They can find those almost too excruciating.
NINA NESSETH My friends tend to say the same thing, where they really feel uncomfortable with what we describe as psychological horror. And that often leans way more into that tension. And I think a big part of that is that there are fewer releases. So much of the film in psychological thrillers and psychological horrors tend to be following the point-of-view character through the anxiety and tension of what might happen. And sometimes nothing happens at all. Sometimes you're just carried through a story unrelenting in its tension.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's move on to monsters. How do filmmakers tap into the characteristics that our brains are hardwired to fear?
NINA NESSETH We've evolved so many unconscious cues for recognizing whether something is a threat. A predator will have sharp, pointy teeth. The predator will have front facing eyes, claws to rend flesh and tear things apart. Monsters, especially non-human monsters in horror films, tend to move classically like predator animals that we see on Earth. They'll stalk, ambush, make chase.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You noted that when you see a human moving on a screen with a creepy, jittery motion, filmmakers often ask actors to walk backwards and then reverse the tape to create that forward walk that just seems a little bit off. And I remember one of the most terrifying moments I saw in a horror movie was in The Exorcist when Linda Blair bent backwards with her legs and feet on the ground.
NINA NESSETH It's a lot like how spiders move.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And many of us are wired to be arachnophobes.
NINA NESSETH Absolutely. And there are a few reasons why people might be afraid of spiders. But one of them that comes up time and again in research is that they move in a way that is unexpected. Like you have this jittery movement; you're not sure what direction they're going to move in next. It makes it a lot harder to plan your next move and to keep yourself safe. So when you see a monster moving in that similar unexpected way, it's super threatening because you don't know what's going to happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Soundscapes are essential to horror, but you mentioned a specific kind that has become a staple for some filmmakers. It's called infrasound, and its frequency lives just below what we can actually detect. Why does a sound that we can’t hear make the hairs stand up at the back of our heads?
NINA NESSETH Sound waves are vibrations, but we can perceive them as a pressure. in the case of higher frequency noises. Infrasound is sort of at the other end. It's a low frequency, and folks who do perceive infrasound tend to report that it makes them feel uneasy, uncomfortable or nauseated. Maybe they get headaches. In horror films, this is something that's a relatively recent technique. It's sort of like low hum happening under the threshold of the rest of the soundscape that you may not notice but is building your discomfort.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Those sounds are subtle. There's that sound in horror films, that staple we can't miss – the blood curdling scream, but not all screams are created equal because of a quality known as “roughness.”
NINA NESSETH What it amounts to is a fast change in pitch from like high to low to high to low to high to low. If you think about how an ambulance siren tends to have that sort of tri-tone, high to low pitch and how you really notice an ambulance siren when it's going off. Screams function in much the same way. They're a warning, and that roughness is much faster. Really effective screams tend to have fast vibration between those high and low notes, and that's what makes them so attention-grabbing.
[BLOOD CURDLING SCREAMS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The study found that rougher screams, those vibrating between 30 and 150 Hertz, triggered a greater fear response.
NINA NESSETH So the amygdala is such a crucial part of the brain's fear circuitry, and that's the space in your brain that processes and sends out signals for, for example, threat responses like the fight-or-flight response. It's very sensitive to rough screams. What that basically amounts to is your brain is good at recognizing the difference between a toddler who's screaming because they're having a blast on a trampoline versus someone who is screaming because they're being attacked.
BROOKE GLADSTONE If the amygdala is sensitive to the roughness of a scream suggesting that we may be wired to hear them, can we stay with the brain? When we process fear, real or not, what structures are involved?
NINA NESSETH Oh gosh. There's so many parts of the brain involved in processing fear. So the thalamus is a processing waystation. It would take cues from other parts of the brain, integrate them, and then yes, send out signal to get that cascade of hormones. In the case of fight-or-flight, we have adrenaline, we have cortisol with the goal of activating our muscles and conserving energy to the organs that are required for this emergency situation and diverting energy away from those parts that are not strictly necessary if you're dealing with a threat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's focus now on the difference between the way the brain reacts to a real horrible event and one created by filmmakers.
NINA NESSETH There are studies that show that when people are watching fictional events, different parts of their brains light up than if they're watching real horrific things that are happening. That amygdala is key to processing threat responses. But all of these other parts that light up when we're watching horror movies, such as the insula, which is involved in emotional processing, such as the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, which is quite a mouthful, but is a very much a thinking part of the brain that's all about planning and executive function. So we've all had that moment when we've seen the heroine run up the stairs instead of out the door, and we think in our own heads, ‘Oh wow, that's not what I would do.’
BROOKE GLADSTONE You noted in your introduction that audiences are eager, they're paying to be horrified, and in fact, they prefer films that shock them in very predictable ways. So explain to me how we can be scared when we know what's going to happen, and then tell me why we want to be?
NINA NESSETH Oh, gosh, that is the question that inspired the writing of this book. Horror is defined by tropes, a shared language where we expect the jump scare, we expect the fake outs, we expect something to be lurking in the shadows. And when that doesn't happen, it defangs the tension. That doesn't explain why we love to seek out horror. There are a few theories we already talked about — excitation-transfer theory and that idea that we can get that fear response and transform it into something that is enjoyment. There are other theories about seeing narratives on screen that resonate with your own experience.
There was a recent study that looked specifically at horror and grief and found that people who had recently experienced a loss often sought out horror movies because a lot of horror narratives are centered around grief and even just the act of seeing someone work through their own grief narrative and come out at the other end of it can be very healing. And then horror as a film can be very social and much more social than a lot of other movies. Watching a horror movie next to someone, you feel their reactions and they play into your reactions. This is not to say that you can't watch horror movies alone or with your cat, but there is just something special about the social element that can be embedded in the horror experience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Nina, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.
NINA NESSETH Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Nina Nesseth is a science writer and author of the book Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up. The renaissance of an all new category: black horror. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. So we're hardwired to feel fear from the comfort of a movie seat. Among the offerings on this year's Halloween marquees is Henry Selick and Jordan Peele's animated Wendell & Wild.
SISTER HELLEY I know what you are, Kat. You're a hell maiden. But it has to be our secret. That's how I can protect you.
KAT Protect me from what?
SISTER HELLEY Your demons... [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Selick and Peele's creations stands out not just for its evocative animation, as seen in such films as Coraline or The Nightmare Before Christmas. But for its lead character, Kat, voiced by Lyric Ross, a young Black girl. Wendell and Wild is Peele's latest foray into what has been called black horror. OTM producer Rebecca Clark-Callender dug into that genre to find out what it is and who it's for.
KID Bill if you'll come with me, you'll float too. [REPEATS "YOU'LL FLOAT TOO" SPOOKILY]
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Yeah, right about there is where I cover my eyes. And that's just the trailer for the 2017 horror movie It. Horror films in general, not just that particular killer clown are not my thing. But earlier this year, I learned there's a subgenre "black horror," and honestly, that confused me. Moving through the world in a black body can provide more than enough fright, and I never really felt the need to see that on screen. I did see Jordan Peele's films Get Out and Us and more recently Nia DaCosta's Candyman and liked them. But I saw those as exceptions to the rule, not part of a larger category. So what is black horror?
ROBIN R. MEANS COLEMAN Blacks in horror has been really with us since the start of film.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Robin R. Means Coleman is a professor of communication studies at Northwestern and author of the book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present. And she says that even before black horror, there were still black people in horror – sometimes. Universal Studios put out a collection of films in the 1930s that are considered genre classics today. Like Dracula:.
DRACULA You are too late. My blood now flows through her veins.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Frankenstein.
FRANKENSTEIN It's alive! It's alive! It’s alive!
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER And The Mummy.
THE MUMMY Is it dead, or alive? Human or inhuman?
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Only the mummy featured a black character, a servant played by Noble Johnson, who rarely speaks but under the mummy's spell, holds a knife to fleeing royalty.
THE MUMMY Don't kill me! Save me from that mummy!
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Obviously, scary films in the early 20th century catered to white audiences. Black people were not invited to be frightened by monsters. We were the monsters. Early examples, Coleman says, are jungle films.
ROBIN R. MEANS COLEMAN Jungle films were about white people entering into so-called primitive spaces, being very intellectually and also physically superior. These were films that re-affirmed white superiority in the imagination.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER One of the most popular was a 1930 picture called Ingagi.
INGAGI A company of women, unclothed, apparently living like animals. One had a child hugged to her breasts. A strange looking child seemingly more ape than human. [END CLIP]
ROBIN R. MEANS COLEMAN So Ingagi claims that there is mating that takes place between Africans and apes that produces children, and it was marketed as truth, as a documentary, not so much as entertainment, but sort of ethnographic like ‘let's take a peek inside, you know, the savage, wild ways of Africans.’
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Savages, servants or unseen. Those were the most common roles for black people in mainstream horror. But that first category, savages, proved especially profitable for moviemakers, and the idea of primitive monsters soon morphed into more magical ones.
ROBIN R. MEANS COLEMAN There are lots of parts to talk about this history, but one that I often trace is going back to the U.S. occupation of Haiti, and out of that occupation are these awful racist stories, particularly in the early twenties.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Stories that inspired a writer named William Seabrook to travel to the island for what he called an investigation of its people. When he came back, he wrote a book called The Magic Island that went to print in 1929.
ROBIN R. MEANS COLEMAN He claims that he has kind of lived among black Haitians. He claims that he's been given access to, like, this secret devil worshiping cabal and that only he's been let in as a white person, that he's been able to observe a cannibal assembly and he's even been allowed to sample the cuisine. All of this, he says, is fueled by voodoo rituals. And Seabrook's book becomes really wildly popular in the U.S.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER In fact, it provided the inspiration for the 1932 movie White Zombie.
WHITE ZOMBIE My people are of the mountain.
WHITE ZOMBIE Why?
WHITE ZOMBIE It is is called the land of the living dead! [END CLIP]
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER It was the first time zombies appeared in a motion picture. And while both black and white actors played the undead, they were all under a 'voodoo spell.'
TANANARIVE DUE This was back when zombies were just sort of robbed of agency and they were shamblers who would do the bidding of their master.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Tananarive Due is an author, screenwriter and teaches Afrofuturism and black horror at UCLA.
TANANARIVE DUE This was long before Romero turned zombies into what we know them to be today, which is the dead rising from the dead to eat you.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER As in George Romero, who directed The Night of the Living Dead movies three decades later in the 1960s.
TANANARIVE DUE That wasn't a part of it. It was just pure black magic. And what if we get out of their control instead of them being under our control?
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER It's not that you're just undead, Due says. It's that you're undead and your fate could be in the hands of a black person. Scary stuff. For another trope, Robin R. Means Coleman in Horror Noire points all the way back to D.W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation.
ROBIN R. MEANS COLEMAN There are the faithful black servants who will do anything to help the white families and hold the bad black people in disrespect and hatred, just like the white people do. Another thing that came out of that era of fear, of black monstrosity was respect and admiration for the 'good negroes.’
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER ‘Good negroes’ came in different varieties, like, for instance: magical.
ROBIN R. MEANS COLEMAN The only reason they're even in the movie, like this would be an all white movie except we need a character who knows something about voodoo or magic to explain to us what's going on.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Or spiritual.
ROBIN R. MEANS COLEMAN Which is very similar to the magical Negro. Even if they don't know the answer to the magic, they're there to pat you on your back and say, ‘Go on, you can do it. You can survive, you can figure it out.’
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER And one last trope for the list: the sacrificial negro. I have to ask this question. Do black folks always die first?
ROBIN R. MEANS COLEMAN Not always. There are glaring exceptions. And in fact, there are some cases where they don't die at all. Like in The Thing, Keith David, spoiler, doesn't die. That was very rare that you had a black character survive, much less till the end.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER We were the first to go in: The Shining, Scream 2, The Unborn, Ghost Ship, One Missed Call to name a few. Don't get me wrong, sometimes we die in the middle: Friday the 13th 7, Nightmare On Elm Street 4. Terror Train, Scream 3.
ROBIN R. MEANS COLEMAN A lot of the time the first person to die is the one who sends the real characters into deeper understanding of what trouble they're in. It's like "Ah, you better change your course or this is going to happen to you."
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER So while mainstream horror ground out features that stayed the course, black creators were working to produce counter-narratives.
ROBIN R. MEANS COLEMAN Black horror films tend to have stories that focus on blackness.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Robin R. Means Coleman.
ROBIN R. MEANS COLEMAN Often they come out of the imagination, the vision of black creators.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER In 1940, black audiences watched The Son of In Ingagi, drastically different from its similarly titled but completely unrelated predecessor. From writer Spencer Williams Jr., the story features black people just living life and a revolutionary character — a scientist who was a black woman, Dr. Helen Jackson, played by Laura Bowman.
SON OF INGAGI I've got the greatest discovery in medicine since Louis Pasteur. If it does what I think it will. I've done more for humanity than anyone else on Earth. I don't know why I should worry about humanity. Humanity has never done anything for me. [END CLIP]
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Dr. Jackson uses her talents to try and cure a half man, half ape creature brought back from Africa. Yeah, I know, but back then, it was progress, a small victory that would be followed by bigger ones. Like, for instance, Ben.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD If we have to, we can run in here and burn up the doors. [END CLIP]
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER That's Dwayne Jones as Ben. Lead character of George Romero's 1968 hit Night of the Living Dead. Romero had said he didn't write Ben as black. Jones just gave the best audition. But Night of the Living Dead was a huge moment; a black character was the lead of a horror movie, and he was brave and smart.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD Well, you're her father. If you're stupid enough to go die in that trap, that's your business. However, I am not stupid enough to follow you. Now you get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there. I'm boss up here. [END CLIP]
ROBIN R. MEANS COLEMAN A colorblind script is in some ways not possible, right? We bring our whole and full selves, our identity to all kinds of work environments. And I believe Dwayne Jones certainly did that. And he's showing up as a complex personality. He's not overly written, as, you know, sort of super heroic and also in some ways too kind and too accommodating. He's a complex character and we love that about Ben.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Despite his complexity. Ben still ends up dead — shot by cops in the final minutes of the movie who assume he's the villain. The air, though, had changed. Studios realized there was money to be made from black audiences, and the blaxploitation era was born.
BLACULA Rising from his tomb, to fill the night with horror: Blacula, Dracula's soul brother. [END CLIP]
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Or Dr. Black in Mr. Hyde in 1976.
- HYDE A monster he could not control, had taken over his very soul. A screaming demon rages inside, turning him into Mr. Hyde. [END CLIP]
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER What the truly terrifying puns cover up is a decade in which there are serious attempts to create stories with black characters at the center and huge leaps forward for black storytelling. Coleman points to vampire film Ganja & Hess in 1973, directed by Bill Gunn.
GANJA & HESS I will persist and survive without guards or society's sanction.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER The film won the Critics Choice Prize at the Cannes Festival, but when it came to American theaters, producers recut and renamed the film because it wasn't like its punny peers. Regardless, black creators were carving out space for their work.
ROBIN R. MEANS COLEMAN Black people were kind of showing up and kicking butt and taking names and being strong and powerful on the screen. And we're not kicking each other's butt, right? Kicking the butt of white supremacy like mobsters, gangsters, exploiters, politicians, the police. All of this was an attack on blackness. And black people are fighting back in these movies. And in blaxploitation movies, they tend to win.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER It's important to note here these films have problems. Blacula had some incredibly homophobic language, and black women were still often hypersexualized. But blaxploitation movies began a decades long wave of black horror films that could be pure entertainment and or convey something bigger. And in 1995, a movie came out that is now considered a cult classic: Tales from the Hood.
RUSTY CUNDIEFF Well, I liked horror, but I wasn't a fan of just monster movies for the sake of monster movies. But I also like tales that had some sort of moral component to them.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Rusty Cundieff is the director of Tales from the Hood, an anthology told in four parts. One on police brutality, one on domestic abuse, another on racist politicians. And a final story on gang violence. The movie has moments that resonate today, like the opening ad in the political tale:
TALES FROM THE HOOD The fact is, affirmative action, quotas, reparations all mean one thing: another qualified individual won't get a job or an education simply because he's not the right color.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER But how people received the fourth story, the one about gang violence, Cundieff says, has changed dramatically in the two decades since the movie premiered. Here's the story in brief. A gang member named Jerome, played by Lamont Bentley, is in prison for shooting a rival gang member. He's offered a chance to participate in a rehabilitation program, which it turns out is in a very creepy underground lab running experiments. Jerome is stripped, strapped down and then forced to watch a montage of images that show depictions of gang violence right next to real images and videos of the Klu Klux Klan and other hate crimes. Jerome is questioned by lead scientist Dr. Cushing, played by Rosalind Cash.
TALES FROM THE HOOD What's wrong Jerome? You don't like seeing black people get killed? But isn't that what you've been doing all your life – Jerome? [END CLIP]
RUSTY CUNDIEFF The gang story when it came out, I've had gang members approach me and say because of that they stopped gangbanging. Flash forward to today. I've talked to students at different universities and younger black people today — they don't like it as much because they think I'm blaming black people.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER To Cundieff, the pushback felt like a part of a bigger dismissal by modern, young black audiences of their predecessors.
RUSTY CUNDIEFF It seems like a historical thing where at some point the fight – or the struggle – changes and, the same people who were celebrated, all of a sudden there's no understanding of the fact that what they did is why you can now push for this bigger thing.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Tales from the Hood was honestly hard to watch in places because each part felt like it presented one of the tropes I've outlined in this piece. A powerless black cop, voodoo dolls, violence, few pivotal black women. But those tropes also had twists. The cop tries to fix his mistake. The voodoo exacts rightful vengeance. Dr. Cushing is in charge, and I realized the problem was something else. The tales could be fact or fiction, but either way, they're stories I don't necessarily want a white audience to see.
I worry about bringing topics that are about black people to air when they are contentious within the black community. It feels like you're airing dirty laundry for an audience that might not fully understand the nuances. Do you worry about that?
RUSTY CUNDIEFF Yeah, I mean, back when we did this, I definitely didn't worry about any of that. I didn't know if any white people were going to watch this movie at all, so I didn't really care what they thought. Now, we did do audience test screenings, and there were definite chasms between the black audience and the white audience, particularly older white audience. They hated the episode with the cops. I mean, hated it. The only one that they really kind of liked was the gang episode, because that was pointing a finger at our own problem.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER The question is always there. Are you subverting stereotypes or strengthening them? And even the most acclaimed works of the genre are not immune.
BETTY GABRIEL And then with my character, whose – she's a strong black female stereotype.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER That's Betty Gabriel, who in 2017 played Georgina the maid in Jordan Peele's blockbuster horror Get Out. Georgina is a black woman whose body has been colonized by a white woman for its youth while Georgina herself is trapped in the sunken place — conscious of what's happening, but unable to change it.
BETTY GABRIEL I just kind of went, ‘Oh, interesting.’ Because in my mind, yes, on the surface, she's a very empowered black woman, but it's the power of the white woman. That is what we're really seeing. And this old white woman who is the matriarch of this house is now in possession of this black woman's body.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER In one scene, the audience catches a glimpse of the woman who once was. The protagonist Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, tells Georgina that he gets uncomfortable when there are too many white folks around and you see her gasp and begin to cry before the white woman inside regains control.
GET OUT No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Aren’t you something. That's not my experience. Not at all. [END CLIP]
BETTY GABRIEL So I think that really embraces the invisibility of black women while also portraying the very visible horror of being a black woman in the society and how how we've been taken: we've been abducted, and no one sees it. But he kind of makes you see it.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Get Out addressed racism in a way non-black audiences could understand. But that's an active choice by a Black creator, not a service that black horror is obligated to perform. In the years since Get Out, some genre films have attempted similar explanations of the black experience. Some are labeled not as black horror, but black trauma porn.
TANANARIVE DUE Horror is entertainment, and I think sometimes people forget that.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Tananarive Due.
TANANARIVE DUE The horror audience doesn't want to be retriggered and retraumatized by horror that skews too close to the bone, like too close to the thing itself. Give me some kind of a funhouse mirror. Let me imagine that racism is a zombie, and now we can have a good time. Okay.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Rusty Cundieff told me after the screening of his domestic violence tale, he asked some audience members who worked at a women's shelter if his character's supernatural solution had been too unrealistic, even flip.
RUSTY CUNDIEFF And they said, No, no, this is cathartic. This is fantastic. And that's what you can do in a horror film. You can give people a release or maybe just a moment of happiness.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER At its best, Black horror is a chance to see both the beauty and bravery of a culture and people without being reminded of every battle it's fought or still fights.
RUSTY CUNDIEFF Like I always tell my kids, You don't need to be afraid of ghosts. You don't need to be afraid of cemeteries. You don't need to be afraid of Poltergeist. Be afraid of that guy that lives across the street. Be afraid of the people driving by. That's what's most likely to give you a problem.
REBECCA CLARK-CALLENDER Black horror knows about the monsters outside the theater, but at least until the credits roll, it can offer a safe place in the dark. For On the Media, I'm Rebecca Clark-Callender.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's it for this week's show! On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wong and Suzanne Gaber, with help from Temi George. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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