Q·In Depth

The complex history of black horror in cinema

Jordan Peele's latest film, Us, is a big moment for the black horror movie genre. Tananarive Due, the author of Horror Noire, takes us through some of the genre's history.
Lupita Nyong'o in Jordan Peele's latest film, Us. (Claudette Barius/Universal Studios)
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When the police arrive early in Get Out, stopping Chris Washington and his performatively woke girlfriend Rose on the way to meet her parents, the audience is already uneasy. In many horror movies, police showing up is the denouement — when a trusted authority figure has finally arrived and the audience can now relax and breathe. But writer-director Jordan Peele, who opens the film with the suburban abduction of Lakeith Stanfield's character Andre, is already overturning tropes of the genre.

By the end of the film, as Washington finally strangles Rose, the flashing lights of a police car signal danger, rather than safety — evoking the many experiences of black men who get shot to death by cops, and the history of white women falsely accusing black men of violence.

"Help me," Rose mumbles.

Yet again, Peele flips the script, refusing to let his black hero become carnage. Washington's best friend and TSA agent, Rod Williams, jumps out to save the day.

"I mean, I told you not to go in the house," Williams says as he drives Washington away from the chaotic scene. The hero wins. The evil is vanquished.

With Get Out's massive box office success, it's obvious that there's a huge demand for nuanced, terrifying stories that centre on black experiences. So it should be no surprise that Us — a story that follows a black family and offers twists to traditional tropes around race in horror — has already made over seven million dollars in one night at the box office, according to Deadline.  

Us follows a family that comes across four masked attackers. When the masks come off, the family is horrified to realize that these attackers look just like themselves.

Peele's rise to Oscar-winning stardom and his development of films like Us and Get Out (along with producing and co-writing an upcoming "re-imagining" of the 1992 film Candyman) is just one chapter in a long and complex history of the black horror genre.

Black history is black horror.- Tananarive Due

"Black history is black horror," says Tananarive Due, the executive producer of Horror Noire — the first original documentary to be featured on the streaming platform Shudder. "It's some of the more obvious things like Jim Crow and slavery and white supremacist attacks. But if you go back in cinema to The Birth of Nation in 1915, D.W. Griffith was portraying blacks, especially black men, as monstrous... It's billed as history, but it's really horror."

The tropes put forth in The Birth of a Nation, the anti-black propaganda film that effectively cemented the ideas of the faithful servant and the lecherous black villain in the minds of America, had a lasting impact on cinema and public life. Cold War sci-fi villains were often depicted as animal-human hybrids or aliens with features that resembled anti-black caricatures of yore. Everything from King Kong to The Creature From The Black Lagoon evoked fears of 'devolved' civilization lusting after white women.  

"For a long time in horror, black people — and the spaces we occupied — were the horror," says Asali Solomon, a writer and associate professor at Haverford College who teaches a course on black influence on the genre.

When they weren't, they were often first to die or taking on the role of 'magical negro' using spiritual wisdom to help the white protagonist on their journey.

But, Due says, "Black artists and white allies have been pushing back against those tropes for a long time."

Tananarive Due says seeing Duane Jones as a lead in Night of the Living Dead, killing white zombies and taking control of his household, was likely its own kind of "horror" to white racists in the 1960s. (FYE)

One of the more seminal moments was when Spencer Williams, comedic actor of Amos 'n' Andy, created a horror film called Son of Ingagi that portrayed middle-class black life. Then in 1968, white director George Romero revolutionized the horror genre with what Due calls the "first contemporary zombie film with the flesh-eating, rip-your-guts-out zombies."

Romero also put black actor Duane Jones in the lead as the zombie-fighting Ben who protects his house and takes charge of the white people inside while the white zombies descend.

"Talk about what must have looked like a horror movie to racists in the 1960s," Due says.

Turning ideas of the faithful servant on their head, when Judith O'Dea's character Barbra both begs — and demands — that Ben leave his house to help her save her brother, Ben instead delivers the harsh truth: "Your brother is dead."

Remero's success with Night of the Living Dead and the rise of the blacksploitation movement created the perfect environment for director William Crain to push the genre further, with the campy horror romp Blacula in 1972. Crain's vampire is a black prince from the Niger Delta who is turned into a vampire by Dracula after he tries to protest the slave trade. "This was Wakanda before Wakanda," says Due. And the 1995 film Tales From The Hood is full of magic as a tool for revenge against racists.

Tananarive Due, a writer and educator at UCLA, is also executive producer of Horror Noire on Shudder.

Solomon adds that in literature, black creators have had a history of including fear and the supernatural in their work — from Charles Chestnutt's 1899 book The Conjure Woman, a collection of short stories, which used magic to dramatize the horrors of slavery, to the canonical Native Son by Richard Wright, which terrified readers with its portrayals of the evils of racism.

Now, a changing climate may be paving the way for black horror to get its due.

Solomon points out that under President Donald Trump, racists have been emboldened — and she says a number of high-profile racist incidents have meant that stories about racial tension are in the American cultural consciousness in a new way.

Hollywood and mainstream platforms appear to have now realized, at the very least, there's money to be made when black auteurs like Peele tell chilling stories from a black perspective.

Due has seen this change personally: her film Horror Noire, directed by Xavier Burgin, got the green light from Shudder after the success of Peele's Get Out. And a class she teaches on black horror at the University of California Los Angeles — named after Peele's phenomenon of the paralyzing "sunken place" — was so popular that she is now offering the course to the public online.

"As a lifelong horror fan I'm just so excited to see there's interest and awareness of black horror," says Due. "I'd like to see Jordan Peele being the first of many black creators who get to tell their stories — whether or not they're about racism."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear Tananarive Due take us through the history of the black horror genre in cinema.

— Produced by ​Katie Toth 

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