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.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.