George A. Romero’s 1968 low-budget shocker Night of the Living Dead was a groundbreaking work of cinema. Sure, it kicked off the zombie phenomenon, which has been taken up by everyone from Italian horrormeister Lucio Fulci to the creators of the staggeringly successful AMC series The Walking Dead. And sure, it broke new ground for depictions of cinematic violence in its images of ravenous zombie hordes feasting on human innards and a young girl savagely murdering her mother with a garden trowel. But Romero’s film was groundbreaking in an altogether different way: the heroic leader of the scrappy band of humans who fight back against the zombie hordes from their farmhouse redoubt was played by Duane Jones – a Black man.
As if casting a Black actor in the leading role in 1968 – the year of the greatest civil rights upheavals in U.S. history (until, arguably, 2020) – wasn’t audacious enough, Romero went even further. The character Jones plays is the last man standing after managing to fend off the zombie attack and emerges from the farmhouse triumphant … only to be shot down by a white vigilante, his corpse picked up by a mob wielding meat hooks and tossed on a bonfire made of zombie carcasses. The clear underlying message about systemic, institutional racism is as unavoidable as it was unprecedented; it’s the kind of ending that still evokes pangs of social conscience (for anyone who might be possessed of such a thing) today. It was a stinging commentary on race relations in a nation that has yet to come to terms with its original sin of slavery.
It is that history that would seem to make the horror genre such fertile ground for commentary and catharsis. If, as has been argued, horror is a mechanism whereby individuals and groups can address their deepest fears via a metaphoric presentation, then the genre should be well placed to comment on a history of trauma, oppression, and racial violence.
Bernard Rose’s 1992 film Candyman, adapted from Clive Barker’s story “The Forbidden,” attempts this through a narrative of a Black man, the son of a slave, who was brutally murdered for the crime of miscegenation, only to return to exact vengeance on anyone who says his name five times while looking in a mirror. The film was shot in Chicago’s most notorious housing project, Cabrini-Green, as a way of underscoring the themes of systemic racial suppression and violence inflicted on Blacks in the U.S. by the dominant white society.
Both Night of the Living Dead and Candyman were written and directed by white men. The novel that serves as the basis for the well-received HBO series Lovecraft Country was also written by a white man, though the series’s writing, directing, and production teams are largely diverse. The genre nevertheless remains predominantly white in the popular imagination and in terms of what is able to find a mass audience.
Though there are signs that this is changing. Jordan Peele won a screenwriting Oscar for the 2017 film Get Out, which deals explicitly with themes of slavery, racism, white liberal hypocrisy, and class. The film was a critical and commercial success, bringing in more than $255 million in worldwide box office. Earlier horror films written and/or directed by Black creators – Blacula, Ganja and Hess (which also featured Night of the Living Dead’s Jones in a starring role), Def by Temptation, and Tales from the Hood among them – have been few and far between. Peele’s subsequent success with 2019’s Us, and the upcoming remake of Candyman, which he is producing, indicate that the gates may be opening for Black filmmakers who want to make movies in the genre.
On the literary side, there are also indications that Black creators are being welcomed into the genre in a way they were not previously. One of the most lauded horror writers in recent years is Victor LaValle, whose novel The Ballad of Black Tom is an explicit reaction to the racism of one of the author’s professed influences, H.P. Lovecraft. And Tananarive Due’s 2003 novel The Good House makes frequent appearances on lists of the best genre novels to appear in the new millennium.
Due is also an activist and advocate for greater attention paid to Black voices in the genre. She was an executive producer on the Shudder documentary Horror Noire, based on the book by Robin R. Means Coleman, which examines the ways Black characters and subjects have been treated in American horror films from the early 20th century to the present.
In a 2019 article for Uncanny magazine, Due writes about what the horror genre can say to and about a Black audience:
For many Black horror fans, I think the love of horror – whether or not the characters are Black – is rooted in the desire to process and escape trauma. I didn’t realize it as a child, but I now believe my mother’s love of horror was directly related to her activism during the Civil Rights Movement in Florida, when she and other Florida A&M University students – including my aunt, Priscilla Kruize – spent 49 days in jail in Tallahassee after their arrest during a lunch counter sit-in. In 1960, a police officer threw a teargas canister directly in my mother’s face as she led a nonviolent march. Until she died, my mother wore dark glasses even indoors because of sensitivity to light after her experience with state violence.
She also addresses the difficulties of being a Black novelist in an environment that still enacts biases and inequalities when it comes to assessing the work of racialized creators: “I’ve faced blank faces pitching Black horror projects in Hollywood, where a producer once asked aloud what so many other executives were thinking: ‘Do the characters have to be Black?’ ”
Due’s article links to the site for Graveyard Shift Sisters, a collective of Black women who are ”purging the Black female horror fan from the margins.” The site contains resources and links to books, articles, documentaries, and features that centre Black characters, writers, filmmakers, and other artistic workers in the horror genre. The depth and richness of material provides a corrective for those (including the present writer) who have historically viewed horror as a predominantly white endeavour. There is material here well worth exploring that will help broaden a reader’s perspective on the potential for horror to tell other stories than those we have encountered to this point. Voices like Due’s and LaValle’s are valuable additions to the horror landscape and are well worth paying attention to.