How Black Horror Became America’s Most Powerful Cinematic Genre

How Black Horror Became America’s Most Powerful Cinematic Genre 1

Films like ‘Us’ and the recent sequel to ‘Candyman’ are part of a much longer tradition of storytelling, one that often wrestles with the gruesome history of racism.

IN 1976, THREE years after “The Exorcist” appeared in movie theaters across the United States, James Baldwin shared a brief but biting response to the film in “The Devil Finds Work,” a book-length essay about racism in American cinema. If the film, which follows a bedeviled priest’s attempts to save a girl who has become possessed by no less than Satan himself, had quickly become emblematic of a particular style of outlandish horror — perhaps most of all for a lurid scene in which the girl’s head twists 360 degrees around on her neck — Baldwin felt that it was horrific for an altogether different reason: that white Americans could watch it and feel a terrified frisson, but no real fear, by contrast, when imagining the everyday horrors of life as a Black American.

To Baldwin, the film was a series of cheap thrills, cinematic legerdemain designed to terrify and titillate white Americans, who would likely have little to no idea of what it was like to be treated as inhuman monsters, as gruesome things. “The mindless and hysterical banality of the evil presented in ‘The Exorcist’ is the most terrifying thing about the film,” he writes. “The Americans,” he continues, “should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any Black man … can call them on this lie; he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.”

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Around the time of the movie’s release, a genre of Black horror was already emerging in America, typified by Blaxploitation films like “Blacula” (1972) and “Blackenstein” (1973), in which Black figures embodied the monstrous creations of white writers. But a more recent slate of films and television shows centered around Blackness — perhaps most overtly Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017) and “Us” (2019), Misha Green’s “Lovecraft Country” (2020), Little Marvin’s “Them” (2021) and Nia DaCosta’s 2021 sequel to “Candyman” (1992) — have attempted to redress this Baldwinian critique by capturing, in various ways, what it feels like to experience horror as a Black American, when your mere presence can itself be a source of terror to others.

These new films and series have commanded popular and critical attention, bringing a genre of Black horror into the American mainstream like never before. But African American horror is, of course, far from new, and it has a rich, roiling history beyond the silver screen. It can describe the fantastical gothic shadow art of Kara Walker, the dark-skinned vampires in novels by Octavia E. Butler and Jewelle Gomez, the mythic and monstrous beings from the Caribbean and Africa in Nalo Hopkinson’s fiction and the haunting face in Betye Saar’s artwork “Black Girl’s Window” (1969), among others. Yet what does feel new is how visible these phantoms, real or imagined, have become for a nation of people who seem to see them and the all-too-true horrors from which they sprung — from the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the Tulsa massacre to Tamir Rice’s senseless murder by a white cop — as if for the first time. The white Americans that Baldwin described may finally be paying attention to Black horror, at least on the surface. Yet to truly understand it, in art or life, means reflecting on the deeper, more labyrinthine histories that brought us these ghosts in the first place.

Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Photo: © The Museum of Modern Art/licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

HORROR, THE BRITISH novelist Ann Radcliffe famously declared in an essay published posthumously in 1826, is distinct from terror. For Radcliffe, whose fiction was among the earliest to formally be called Gothic, terror heightens our senses; horror paralyzes them. “Terror and horror are so far opposite,” she muses, “that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them.” The former, in Radcliffe’s eyes, is high art; the latter is something authors should avoid. And yet, there remains artistry — and power — in being able to chill an audience so entirely, so existentially, that they feel frightened and frozen all at once, even while existing in a space far removed from any true danger. Horror is, after all, a safe way to experience our deepest fears without actually having to confront them. (That is if its story line or the images it calls to mind don’t reflect one’s own lived trauma.) No matter how real something may seem, even if it’s based on a true story, the genre feels palatable simply because it isn’t happening to us. We have the luxury of turning away, of closing our eyes.

But when one’s very identity as a Black American is the jumping-off point for such stories, it becomes near impossible to distance oneself from the torture and the trauma that well up when we see the flashing police sirens at the end of “Get Out,” just as the character Chris Washington, played by Daniel Kaluuya, thinks he’s escaped the clutches of his white girlfriend’s sadistic family, or the blood-spattered scene of Faith Ringgold’s 1967 painting “American People Series #20: Die,” made to evoke that decade’s riots. A demonic girl’s spinning head might seem unsettling to everyone, but the fear of being followed — haunted — by men in white Klan hoods or blue uniforms is one that many white Americans will never know. The resurgence of Black horror, then, forces viewers to witness the frightening reality of being Black in a world that still — as Toni Morrison notes in “Playing in the Dark” (1992), her critical study of whiteness in American literature — associates darkness of skin with the old meanings of darkness that our ancestors originally applied to the night: fear, uncertainty, danger.

The genre, to be sure, has a fine line to walk. To capitalize on people’s suffering can easily become misery tourism, turning pain into ticket sales and forcing Black viewers to relive trauma, whether personal or ancestral, for the sake of entertainment. But this isn’t what the resurgent genre I’m talking about is doing; instead, it centers Black American lives and, by doing so, horror inescapably — unavoidably — slips in because that is the inevitable fate of life in a racist world. Black horror, therefore, seeks to capture the all-too-real fear of walking through America in a Black body and, with ghosts and clones and body-swapping conspiracies, it becomes an intentionally exaggerated, baroque realism.

© 2021 Faith Ringgold/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy of ACA Galleries, New York. Photo: © The Museum of Modern Art/licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Yet this newly visible genre isn’t simply horror but an extension of an older tradition: the African American ghost story. While ghost stories are often imagined as scary narratives, they don’t actually need to be; in their broadest definition, they simply must evoke the weird, the magical, the fantastical, the Carpentierian marvelous in such a way that their worlds feel like they could contain ghosts, could contain, really, anything at all. Ghosts, of course, are particularly resonant in part because they represent a triumph of sorts over the finality of death, though that triumph is often associated with pain for the living, a trauma of life and death alike. In Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” (1987), such trauma is described as “rememory,” a way we experience a memory anew when entering a certain space. “Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay,” Sethe, the novel’s protagonist, says to her daughter Denver, who has just seen a spectral figure in a white wedding dress bent over her mother, as if hugging her. “Places, places are still there,” she continues. “If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place — the picture of it — stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world.” It is the past that haunts us. The sentiment echoes a well-known passage from William Faulkner’s 1951 novel, “Requiem for a Nun”: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Trauma, like time, is not linear, each past moment fading into the obscurity of unremembered dreams; instead, it circles back around us, orbits us always like some jagged, unpredictable moon, not yet ready to let us go.

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A CERTAIN KIND of trauma surrounds us, then, born out of anti-Black violence and racism; it is a pain witnessed onscreen, in these horror shows and films, and one that so many Black Americans endure off screen, as well, a pain at once modern and centuries old. These newer tales emerge from a deep well of Black folklore — a vast compendium of anecdotes, imagery, mythologies, belief systems and tales shared orally — that stretched from the African continent, crossed the Atlantic and arrived in the Americas by way of the torturous (and, indeed, horrific) trans-Atlantic slave trade, whereby enslaved Africans were forced onto colonial ships, taking little more than their faith and their folklore. Many of the most iconic figures in the folk tales they brought with them — which often feature themes like anthropomorphism, magic and the simple power of quick wit — such as Anansi the Spider, Br’er Rabbit and conjure men and women, are tricksters. Anansi and Br’er Rabbit get their way through clever dissembling, despite being smaller and physically weaker than their compatriots; conjurers use sorcery and a knowledge of their more literal roots: herbal medicine. While spider stories are especially common across the African continent, Anansi originated in Ghana as part of Ashanti oral tradition; his very name comes from the Akan word for spider, and Anansi’s exploits quickly became among the most popular of African fables. As befits a trickster, Anansi is a bit of a shape-shifter, alternately appearing as a large arachnid (his most frequent form), a human with the body of a spider or simply in the guise of an impish person. Whatever his appearance, he is often greedy and selfish, laughingly duping others of wealth and food. Br’er Rabbit’s lineage is murkier. A number of trickster hares appear in African fables, notably those from Senegal, and their capers are sometimes identical to Anansi’s, the protagonists simply swapped. Like Anansi’s, Br’er Rabbit’s appearance is protean, but his most common form is that of an anthropomorphic hare (in American folklore, he is a rabbit), who interacts with other creatures, bamboozling them for his own gain. Sometimes, he is himself hoodwinked, as in the famous Tar Baby fable — which has antecedents in oral traditions from around the globe, including India and Africa — in which Br’er Rabbit’s pride gets the best of him. Tired of being tricked, another animal, Br’er Fox, creates a figure out of tar (a tar baby) and leaves it at the side of the road for Br’er Rabbit to walk by. In time, the rabbit sees the homunculus, says hello, then becomes infuriated when it refuses to answer. After repeated failures to get it to respond, he attacks it, getting stuck in the tar. When Br’er Fox emerges to gloat, Br’er Rabbit begs not to be thrown into the briar patch; the fox, set only on revenge, does just that. But Br’er Rabbit escapes, for the thicket is the place rabbits know best. Even when tricked, the trickster wins.

In the Americas, these sorts of folk tales found new forms, and were altered to reflect the brutalities of slavery, Jim Crow and even the uneasy path one walked while supposedly free. Anansi and Br’er Rabbit took on roles reflecting their new geography, their stories now functioning both as entertaining narratives about guile and greed and as parables of overcoming the cruelty of white masters. This was acknowledged by Simon Brown, who had been a slave for many years in Virginia and had survived, at least in part, on the lessons of such stories: “Like Br’er Rabbit,” he told the folklorist William J. Faulkner, “we had to be deceitful and use our heads to stay alive.” Br’er Rabbit stuck in the tar-baby trap, for instance, could now be read as a slave being caught by a master and tricking him in order to escape, since tar was sometimes used as a theft deterrent on fences around crops. Taken perhaps at its simplest reading, though, the tar baby, catching and trapping all who get too near, is a warning that no one involved in slavery can escape its horrors.

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Similarly, conjuration stories, which show Black figures with the magic to transfigure and empower or enervate others, could serve both as charming tales and as potent allegories of how older African belief systems could, in theory, “defeat” the horror of America’s white supremacist systems. Conjure men and women — people who knew ancient African magic and could work this magic, or goopher, as it was sometimes called — might be slaves who practiced their bewitching roots in secret, or freed or escaped persons who lived in isolated areas that offered them some protection from prying white plantation owners, or simply Black Americans who had kept the traditions alive into the modern day. The magical systems evoked in much of this folklore, like obeah, have their roots in African religious and spiritual practices. Their sorcery can transfigure people and things, bestow good or bad luck, heal or hurt — or even offer protection from danger. In such stories, you might encounter the soucouyant, a witch woman who sheds her skin and flies through the night as a flaming ball to find the blood of children to drink, and who can be stopped only if you pour grains of rice or salt in her path, or put salt or pepper on her molted skin, guaranteeing her annihilation at dawn. Likewise, one might run into haints, phantasmagorical flaming skulls, duppies, lycanthropic loups-garous and more. At their core, so many of these tales are about survival. And because the white slave owners rarely appeared to understand the language or practices of obeah, Voodoo and other African traditions, conjure men and women quickly became icons of subversion, Black figures who had the ability to bring the whites to their knees, like the conjure woman Sapphira Wade in Gloria Naylor’s novel “Mama Day” (1988), whose legendary magic brings down a slave owner. If knowledge of these old arts represented a power the white colonists couldn’t understand, then keeping these memories alive was a way of keeping yourself alive: folklore as fortress, memory as magic. The stories were talismanic, serving as warnings to live with caution, ever cognizant of the fact that frightening things — be they wicked spirits or white slave owners — might have their eyes on you.

Of course, there was another reason to tell some of these tales: to invoke possibly the most remarkable specter of all, freedom. Perhaps the best known of the stories in this African American folkloric tradition are about flying. “Once all Africans could fly like birds,” begins a version relayed by a man named Caesar Grant of Johns Island, S.C., to the author John Bennett, “but owing to their many transgressions, their wings were taken away.” All people from Africa, including slaves brought to the Americas, can still soar the skies, though, if they remember the magic words — words the white colonists find indecipherable. Utter them, as the slaves do in the story, and you’ll lift off into the clouds, free from the earth’s tribulations. Here, hope, indeed, has become the thing with wings. Remember, the message seems to be, and you, too, may be liberated.

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THAT THESE STORIES exist today is a testament not only to oral tradition but to the pioneering efforts of early collectors like Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps (who together published “The Book of Negro Folklore” in 1958) and Zora Neale Hurston (who anthologized the folk tales she collected on her travels in the 1920s in the posthumous compendium “Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-Tales From the Gulf States”), along with the Hampton Folklore Society of the 1890s, the first Black American folklore community of its kind, as well as, ironically, the white slavery apologist Joel Chandler Harris, whose wildly popular Uncle Remus stories, first published as a collection in 1880, introduced many white readers to characters like Br’er Rabbit and Tar Baby. These stories were told by Uncle Remus, a grinning Black figure Harris himself sometimes pretended to be in real life in a kind of authorial minstrelsy, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes in “The Annotated African American Folktales” (2017). The character, partially inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom, glorified the world of plantations and white overseers.

Harris’s influence soon became complicated for Black American writers. On the one hand, his collections had unquestionably helped preserve and popularize African American folklore; on the other, it was difficult to appreciate these stories in earnest because of Harris’s unabashed, almost vaudevillian romanticizing of slavery. In response, a number of Black writers began crafting more nuanced folkloric tales, one of the most influential being Charles Chesnutt’s 1899 story collection, “The Conjure Woman.” Born to freed slaves in 1858 but with white ancestors, Chesnutt was easily able to pass as white but largely refused to, instead writing explicitly about Blackness, passing and racial politics. (He also worked within the N.A.A.C.P. for years and protested the 1915 release of the film “Birth of a Nation,” which celebrated the Ku Klux Klan.)

“The Conjure Woman” features Uncle Julius, a Black man who tells ghost stories to the whites he works for. Unlike the tales of Uncle Remus, these are not curious bits of local color told by a “happy” slave but, instead, intricately clever ways to fool his white employers, using fantastical stories about specters, curses and conjuration. Whether or not the stories are true is irrelevant; they are means to ends for Uncle Julius, who becomes in this way akin to a trickster himself. Chesnutt made it clear in an 1890 letter to the novelist George Washington Cable that these stories were meant to subvert the image of an Uncle Remus-esque figure showing “dog-like fidelity to their old master, for whom they have been willing to sacrifice almost life itself. … I can’t write about those people, or rather I won’t write about them.”

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Chesnutt, like many after him, realized these stories were special, rather than something to be ashamed of, the latter a view held by a certain segment of Black Americans at the time. This group not only believed such tales represented and evoked what they thought of as anachronistic avatars from the days of slavery but had also bought into respectability politics, which promoted the integration of Black Americans into society largely by encouraging them to imitate the ways of whites, implying — and sometimes declaring — that European and white American civilizations were superior to those of their African ancestors. Such a perspective, aside from being demeaning to Black Americans, also dismissed folklore as something archaic, when in reality it was — and remains — a testament not to any one era but to something deeper: the indelible histories of trauma that Black people at large have had to endure for centuries, capturing, in some form or another, what it feels like to live in an unequal, unsettled, unsettling world, what it feels like to live in a land that does not always wish you to live at all.

Underlying these stories, then, even the ones that seem the most whimsical and lighthearted, utterly anodyne and utterly unscary, is horror. In the tale of the tar baby, the tar captures those who touch it; if Br’er Rabbit is read as a Black American, a Black person is both captivated by the figure and captured in turn. How can you watch “Get Out” without thinking of that complex, continent-spanning tale whereby a Black man, like Br’er Rabbit, can only escape by outliving and outwitting the whites who have captured him, the whites who fear his body as much as they fetishize it? Or Boots Riley’s 2018 dark comedy, “Sorry to Bother You” — in which a Black man is told to use his “white voice” to be a more successful telemarketer, and who later learns that his company is, quite literally, making workhorses out of them — and not be reminded, perhaps, of Chesnutt’s cunning, ever-adaptable Uncle Julius? When how we tell a story may determine whether or not we live to tell another, it becomes harder and harder not to wish for that old incantation that would let one take flight.

This ascendant genre shows, as Morrison wrote of rememory, that the terrors of the past still live in the present — a powerful gesture in an age when Republicans in Texas and Idaho, among other states, have approved legislation prescribing how current events are taught in the classroom, severely curtailing discussions of Black American history, and when it is all too common for conservatives to dismiss the existence of systemic racism or the relevance of historical acts of anti-Black violence. In an era when it is still all too common to see Black bodies under the heel of white cops, Black horror reminds us of the power of storytelling, the magic of our roots — and that the ghosts of the past still walk the American landscape. Who, after all, cannot have unfinished business on an earth so steeped in blood?