Where Do Black People Fit In Horror Movies?

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Still from "Get Out," via Universal Studios.

by Taila Ross

Horror has been around since the 1890s. Back then, you could see silent films focusing on the supernatural or retellings of European folklore and legends. The best known silent horror films are “Frankenstein”, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Since then, viewers of horror movies have rarely seen a black person on the big screen. This begs the question: Where do black people belong in horror?
The Antagonist 

Birth of A Nation” (1915) was a film by D.W Griffith. The film chronicles the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the relationships of two families in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras over the course of several years. It was the first American motion picture to be screened at the White House, viewed there by President Woodrow Wilson.

The film is a controversial one. It portrayed black men (many played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women. It presented the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as a heroic force — to the point where Woodrow Wilson approved the film and you can still see his quote in the beginning of the film. 

The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation … until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.

 

Social Commentary 

Horror films usually have a social commentary behind them. This commentary can be subtle or purposeful.

“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974) is one of the more subtle films. Directed by Tobe Hooper, the film follows a group of teens visiting their grandfather’s grave and detouring to their old family home.  

The 1970s was the “golden age” of horror. Horror films begin to lose their fantastical elements as in “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968).  Films began to be more gritty, violent, graphic, and grimy. In the ’70s, the world started to get the documentary film. People tend to misremember “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” as the goriest film,” when in reality, there’s hardly any gore to be seen. 

This is probably because in the 1970s the world was dealing with economic stagnation in much of the Western world, putting an end to the overall Post–World War II economic expansion. The film takes place in a barren wasteland (even though it’s in Texas), with dug-up graves, abandoned homes, and gasless gas stations. The US felt apocalyptic due to crime in major cities (there were a lot of serial murderers in the news at the time: Son of Sam, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, etc). 

Another movie with subtle commentary is Night of the Living Dead” (1968) by George A. Romero. Romero’s film is mostly known for the modernization of zombies, but it’s also known for its black protagonist, Ben (played by Duane Jones). 

The lead role was originally written for a white person, but during casting, Jones made an impression. Romero intentionally did not alter the script to reflect this. Romero was asked in 2013 if he took inspiration from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. that same year; Romero responded in the negative. Saying that he only heard about the shooting when he was on his way to find distribution for the finished film.

The character Ben is depicted as a “comparatively calm and resourceful Negro” (Jones was a distinguished gentleman and former university professor in real life), according to a movie reviewer in 1969. Casting Jones as the hero was potentially controversial; in 1968, it wasn’t typical for a black man to be the hero of a film where the rest of the cast was composed of white actors, but Romero said that Jones simply gave the best audition. 

Many critics of this movie saw it as groundbreaking for its time due. The policemen also shoot Ben at the end of the film, since they view him as a threat / zombie and not as a normal human being. Even though Romero didn’t mean to add social commentary, he did when he had the policemen shoot the black hero of the film. That symbolism showed that black people are a threat (even though it’s a zombie apocalypse). 

Neither movie ends happily. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, Sally gets away, bloodied and forever changed by the events. She’s mentally scarred and her friend’s and brother are gone. “Night of the Living Dead” ends with Ben being shot in the head by the zombie-hunting posse and set ablaze.

 

Stereotypes 

Black people have been in horror since the 1890s. Each film generates a new archetype for black characters. These are stereotypes. The most famous one is “the black character always die first,” which is pretty self-explanatory. This stereotype is unusual, mainly because the character is the comic relief character or a “hip-hop” teen (or, as some would put it, the “thug”). The audience only remembers the character of being the one in the group to die first or the only black character. 

Another unusual stereotype is “The Magical Negro.” This character is usually connected with Voodoo or some sort of magic. They serve as a plot device and an aid to the (usually white) protagonist. Their death serves as a motivation for the main character to defeat the villain.

The most famous “Magical Negro” is probably Dick Halloran from “The Shining” (1980). He is the guide to protagonist, Danny Torrence, revealing to him that he has the ability to “shine.” Spoiler alert: he is killed by Jack Torrence, while coming back to check on Wendy and Danny. 

 

Modern

It is believed that we are in “The Golden Age” of black horror. Movies like “The Girl with the Gifts” (2016), “Get Out” (2017), and the recent “Us” (2019). There’s hope for representation in horror films. Black characters are the final characters finally. They are no longer portrayed as a best friend or a stereotype. The movies create conversations on real life horrors and issues that black people might face, like police brutality or everyday racism.

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