In 2018, writer, director, and actor Jordan Peele made history at the 90th Academy Awards when he became the first Black screenwriter to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the film Get Out. It was also named the greatest script of the 21st century by The Writers Guild of America. The film has also had an incredible cultural impact: “the sunken place” became a part of our cultural lexicon and you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing Childish Gambino’s“Redbone.” For many, Peele’s movie was game-changing. Audiences had never seen such acute social commentary that still scared the hell out of you. But Peele’s film does not exist in a vacuum. In fact, it fits into a longstanding tradition of Black Horror films. Peele’s work takes inspiration from this genre and in turn revitalizes Black Horror, creating a resurgence of filmmakers using the horror genre to tell Black stories.
But first, what is Black Horror? Is it just horror – but with Black people? Tananarive Due perhaps says it best: “Black History is Black Horror.” In a panel discussion about the genre, Robin Means Coleman, author of Horror Noire: Black in American Horror Films From the 1890s to Present, expands on Dues’ understanding, stating “Black History is Black Horror, it’s not Blacks in horror.” In a genre, situated in a field rife with Black character tropes and tokenization, Black Horror arises to put Black lives, Black perspectives, and Black stories at the forefront.
Many movies helped Black Horror evolve into what it is today. The first movie that fits into this tradition of Black Horror is the 1940 film Son of Ingagi, directed by Richard C. Kahn and written by Spencer Williams. Featuring the first all-black cast of a science fiction film, Son of Ingagi tells the story of a couple who inherit the house of a scientist who has created a monster in the home. While the film does not touch upon deep themes of race, it was very influential in breaking stereotypes usually depicted in cinema at the time. The scientist, played by Laura Bowman, is a Black woman, which departs from depictions of Black women as sexual deviants or mammies. By diverging from stereotypes, we start to see a pattern of Black horror movies becoming a site for progressive commentary.
After the Civil Rights Movement and amidst the Black Power movement, there was an increased desire for Black representation in cinema – specifically representation made for and by Black people. This led to the creation and rise of blaxploitation films. Blaxploitation films featured all-black casts and were made by black filmmakers. These films were quite controversial in terms of representation because many argued they reproduced harmful stereotypes of crime within Black communities. Still, these films were an example of Black empowerment and a major step towards representation in film as Black heroes could begin to take up space on the screen.
Blaxploitation films spanned many genres, and in 1972, expanded into horror with Blacula. Blacula tells the story of an African Prince who became a vampire after being bitten by Count Dracula. He is then locked in a coffin for two hundred years until a couple buys the coffin. Upon opening the coffin, Blacula is released and beings to terrorize the area. Honestly, the plot resembles a comedy more than it does a horror, but we’ll roll with it. Diverging from Son of Ingagi, the film outwardly addresses many social themes. It features an interracial same-sex couple in a time with pervasive racism and homophobia. Also, as Blacula speaks to Count Dracula about ending the slave trade only to be laughed at, the film comments on white resistance to stop slavery when it was benefiting them. Despite its outlandish plot, Blacula ushered in a wave of horror films with Black people at the forefront.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, the prevalence of Black Horror movies began to decline but one essential movie emerged during that time: Candyman. This 1992 horror classic tells the story of a white graduate student who goes to Cabrini-Green, a majority Black neighborhood, to research the urban legend of a monster named Candyman, a son of a slave who was murdered for his relationship with a white woman. The film deals with historical forms of systemic racism such as policing, segregation, lynching, incarceration, etc. Scholar Sonia Lupher says that Candyman is “one of the first horror films to talk about racism as horror, or segregation as horror and the racial implications of history.”
Despite all of the themes that emerge in Candyman, it stands apart from many other Black horror movies mentioned and arguably does not belong in the genre itself. Candyman is told through the white gaze, a white female character is at the helm of the film, and even has a white director. This is a sharp turn from the era of blaxploitation films, which had all-Black cast and crews and were largely made for Black audiences. Candyman ignores the Black perspective and instead exploits Black history to create a horror movie in which characters are terrorized by representations of Black trauma. Even the central portrayal of a lynched man as the monster of the story, perversely deals with the aftermath of slavery, as the film offers no sympathy or remorse for the Candyman.
Still, Candyman is included in this history of Black Horror because of its influence on Black filmmakers, most notably, its influence on Jordan Peele. It wasn’t until Get Out that the Black Horror genre evolved into what we know it as today. Without spoiling it (but honestly, who hasn’t seen it by now!) Get Out follows Chris Washington as he travels with his white girlfriend to meet her parents only to discover the family’s wicked secret that threatens his life. Get Out perfectly portrays the everyday horror that Black people must navigate. What makes the film so great is that it considers these everyday fears, Black history, and systemic racism to create a film that addresses these issues but does not revel in Black trauma. Compared to Candyman, it is clear that Get Out was made with a Black audience in mind as it never tries to recreate or subject the audience to racial violence. It is also still informed by Black history; the whole plot twist comes from the historical phenomenon of fetishizing Black people. In terms of representation, we see a huge divergence from harmful stereotypes and even see an inversion of many tropes, such as the funny black side character (who in this film plays a huge role in saving the day). Get Out embodies the definition of Black Horror: a film that is made for Black people by centering Black experiences through horror. In the years after Get Out was released, many films tried to recreate Peele’s brilliance, specifically Antebellum (2020) and Them (2021). However, the downfall for these films is that, like Candyman, they rely on the violence and trauma of Black history to create horror instead of using that history to inform the horror of their films.
Despite the many films that tried and failed to fit into the Black Horror genre, there was still a resurgence after Get Out’s success. Jordan Peele wrote and directed another film, Us, in 2019, and is planning on releasing, Nope, later this year. The television series Lovecraft Country (2020) is a great example of “black history is black horror.” Nia DaCosta also directed a re-telling of Candyman that was released in 2021. These films are evidence that the Black Horror genre is back and here to stay.