The Horror Show: Carvell Wallace on America’s history of exploiting Black pain for cheap scares

One of the most frightening films about the Black experience in America contains no genre horror tropes whatsoever. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent The Birth of a Nation follows two white families in the U.S. South during and after the Civil War. One storyline features a Black man named Gus, accused of sexually assaulting a white woman, who is lynched in the final reel. Gus – who writer Carvell Wallace ruefully notes was played by a white actor in Blackface – is one of the film’s key monsters, though not the only one.

As Robin R. Means Coleman points out in her book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present, the entire Black community was cast as monstrous in what effectively became Griffith’s laudatory ode to the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in the U.S. Coleman writes, “The Birth of a Nation’s definition of Blacks and Blackness is extraordinarily troublesome. Viewers’ initial introduction to Blackness, and the prompt to associate Black culture with monstrosity, comes when Black Union soldiers arrive in the town of Piedmont as a marauding gang, looting and bringing destruction, as they ‘enter the town like monsters,’ preying upon the white innocents” (emphasis in original). The film, which was screened for an admiring Woodrow Wilson, then U.S. president, was instrumental in codifying the notion of Black people – and most especially Black men – as violent and threatening.

As Wallace writes in a powerful and perspicacious essay in the October 2021 issue of The Atlantic magazine:

If horror plays on the audience’s fears as a means of entertainment, The Birth of a Nation would have done so in entirely opposite ways for the country’s Black and white viewers. For white people, the character of Gus functioned as something like a predecessor to Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th [sic] and Freddy Kreuger in A Nightmare on Elm Street, an unrepentant monster who is coming for you and all that you love unless he is stopped. The film depicts the lynching of Gus as a valiant and noble act.

Wallace makes this sobering observation in the context of an essay about the various ways in which Hollywood has exploited Black pain in horror movies for the purpose of eliciting cheap scares from its (mostly white) audiences. He comes clean about his own early enjoyment of Bernard Rose’s 1992 film Candyman, which features a Black villain played by Tony Todd, and is set largely in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects – at the time a symbol for urban blight and inner-city crime. (Cabrini-Green has since been torn down and the land repurposed for mixed housing.)

Revisiting the film in his forties, Wallace finds the depiction of Blacks “cringeworthy,” stating that the movie “offers up a racialized poverty Kabuki in which pain is the chief characteristic of Blackness.” He sees the story as being told through the white gaze of the director and from the point of view of a white woman, Helen Lyle, a graduate student played by Virginia Madsen. Helen, in Wallace’s view, is “a proto-Karen, motivated by righteous feminism and yet completely willing to exploit Black trauma as a tool for personal and career advancement.” If this attitude were confined to the character, it might be excusable from the perspective of caustic social commentary; where Rose’s film fails, in Wallace’s eyes, is that “it knowingly nods to Lyle’s racist voyeurism, all the while indulging it.”

Coleman is in general agreement with this analysis, arguing that in the end, Candyman “is a movie about celebrating white womanhood” and that Rose’s vision of the eponymous character as a kind of sympathetic latter-day Frankenstein’s monster is undercut by “playing on fears of the big Black boogeyman coming in and taking away a white woman.” Which, when expressed that way, does not sound all that far removed from the portrait of Gus in The Birth of a Nation.

Wallace counterpoints Rose’s film with the newly released reboot of the franchise, produced and co-written by Jordan Peel, which also has the distinction of being the first major Hollywood horror film to be directed by a Black woman (Nia DaCosta). He quotes DaCosta as saying, “With a film like this, that traffics in Black pain and trauma, it’s imperative that we consider the audience for whom this film could be harmful, and that we are very careful about its execution.” The director’s success, Wallace contends, arises precisely from her refusal to extricate an American history of racism from the motivations of its characters or the subtext of the film as a whole. “DaCosta’s Candyman character becomes a cipher that the film’s characters, and by extension its audience, have no choice but to live with – the absence upon which anything can be projected, bequeathed by centuries of Black trauma.”

The Horror Show: Carvell Wallace on America’s history of exploiting Black pain for cheap scares