In the lead-up to Halloween, Film & TV Editor Ciara Whelan acknowledges the recent rise of the Black horror film and explores its significance in cinema and culture.
The night’s are closing in and the temperature is dropping slowly to freezing; spooky season has arrived at last, and with it is the all important horror film. October might mean scary movies watched from between trembling fingers, but it is important to acknowledge and observe that it is also Black History Month. During a cinematic age marked by a generation of Black filmmakers operating quite successfully in the horror genre, what better way to spend this month than with a cohort of ready-made horror classics that aptly engage with the complex histories and subjectivities of Black diaspora around the world. Even the biggest scary movie fanatics are spoiled for choice by this sub-genre that actively seeks to revise and rewrite a tradition of mistreating the Black character of horror cinema.
If meaning is subjective to different audiences and viewers of a film, then Birth of a Nation (1915), in its horrific and violent treatment of the Black subject, was and is arguably a horror film for Black audiences. Testimony from members of the film’s audience in the year of its release speak to the merit of this argument. In the early 1980’s, film and television actor William Walker, known for his role as Reverend Sykes in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), spoke of viewing the film in a segregated movie theatre as a young man in 1916: “[S]some people were crying. You could hear people say, ‘Oh, god’ and some ‘damn’... You had the worst feeling in the world. You just felt like you were not counted, out of existence.” The film’s role in reviving the Klu Klux Klan in the early twentieth-century United States is the cornerstone of its legacy in the present and in this sense, it is the earliest major example of inflecting and perpetuating racist ideology and discourse in the national imaginary through popular cultural output, which would later include genre film.
Hollywood film history since this early twentieth-century period is littered with this kind of poor standard of representation evidenced by the reproduction of the Black monster/villain character in blaxploitation cinema; Blacula (1972), Ganja & Jess (1973) and Sugar Hill (1974) are but a few examples that feature this character type. These overtly horrific representations of blackness later gave way to the expendable Black body and subject in generic horror, particularly in the slasher subgenre. This trope was repeated in mainstream horror cinema to such an extent that it was famously satirised by Jada Pinkett-Smith and Omar Epps in the metatextual opening scene of Scream II (1997).
These overtly horrific representations of blackness later gave way to the expendable Black body and subject in generic horror and particularly in the slasher sub-genre.
In the midst of this historical tradition of meaninglessly mistreating Black characters and subjectivities by the horror genre, is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), a film that established the conventions and aesthetics of the zombie horror film that maintain to this day. This film is further a key precedent to the genesis of modern Black horror as a crucial yet commercially viable cinematic sub-genre; in its empathetic portrayal of a Black male protagonist who bears the responsibility of protecting a group from invading zombies before he is falsely identified as the threat and killed by police arriving late at the scene, it exhibits a reclamation of the film genre and its political power and affect that is essential to contemporary Black horror cinema. Jordan Peele is a Hollywood filmmaker of this cinema that has established himself as a Black auteur of sorts over the last decade, with Get Out (2017) remaining his magnum opus and a cultural rewrite of Black subjects in horror, and his later films Us (2019) and Nope (2022) garnering similar levels of praise from critics and the public alike. Horror cinema’s codes and conventions have often transgressed the bounds of genre altogether and become valuable visual and narrative currency in the work of established African-American filmmakers including Boots Riley, Nia DaCosta, and Lena Waithe.
Beyond Hollywood, there is a range of important horror films that speak to the capability of the genre to express the complex subjectivities and histories of marginalised Black diaspora around the world. Released directly to Netflix, His House (2020), directed by Remi Weekes, is a horrifying film that articulates the trauma of two South Sudan refugees living in the UK through the adaptable language and aesthetics of the genre. Isolation (2005) is an Irish horror film starring Ruth Negga as an almost final-girl archetype that deploys plague and virus to explore the position of mixed-race subjects in the national cultural imaginary. This film’s engagement with generic horror codes is highly inventive and speaks to the power of this cinema to enunciate the experience of a vulnerable cultural group, and even to perform as a sort of catharsis for this Black audience.
If these recent releases establish anything, it is that this is the age of the Black horror film. Moreover, a film like The Blackening (2023) directed by Tim Story reflects the mainstream status of this sub-genre in popular culture. The film is a fresh twist on the comedy-horror that reflexively plays with the history and language of Black character’s screen representation in horror films, particularly with its short tagline that pokes fun at the Black character’s historical narrative treatment by the horror; “We Can’t All Die First.” A satire like this firmly indexes the established and mainstream status of the sub-genre that it relates to and is evidence enough that the Black horror is showing no signs of slowing down. It’s clear that this essential sub-genre deserves your respect and attention, and this Halloween, I think it deserves your screams too.