//Black women are increasingly playing major roles in horror films, on and off-camera. Graphic by Madison Lauterbach | firstname.lastname@example.org
Let us never forget the opening scene of Scream 2, released in 1997 starring Jada Pinkett-Smith.
In a 2018 interview, the actress stated she asked legendary Director Wes Craven to make her death drawn out and disturbing, to which he obliged. Pinkett-Smith’s character Maureen Evans is ruthlessly chased and repeatedly stabbed by the franchise’s Big Bad Ghostface. As she attempts to make her escape from the theater, she claws her way on stage and lets out a blood-curdling cry while clutching her gushing wounds. The audience comes to a standstill, finally realizing what they are seeing, as blood runs down her face and body. What’s the point of saving her when it’s already too late?
And that reaction from the theater audience isn’t exclusive to movies. Black women go missing, are murdered and experience isms every day. However blonde hair, blue-eyed Gabby Petito’s disappearance and murder were a lead story for weeks, going viral on TikTok with millions of views on videos regarding the case.
As a society, we tend to focus on the fragility of white women, devaluing the lives of women of color. That’s a reality MSU Denver affiliate faculty member Eneri Rodriguez hoped to impart on their students in the fall of 2017. Obsessed with the horror genre for over ten years, Rodriguez instructed a course titled Gender Indifference in the American Horror Film. As part of the course, Rodriguez examined the mainstream feminist movement, which often excludes women of color in the fight for equity.
“When you say [feminsim], what are you talking about?” they said. “You’re talking about white women essentially and it’s as if people of color have not been around forever.”
Black women are under immense societal pressure to present an image of strength in the face of discrimination. This persona is often referred to by researchers as the “Superwoman Schema,” or the expectation that Black women prepare themselves, or “put on a cape,” to appease or save others while battling racism, sexism and other challenges due to their intersectional identities.
This perceived idea that Black women can handle anything makes ignoring them in times of need a go-to response. The misconception is self-fulfilling: Black women have had to be emotionally and physically stronger because there was no other choice. And the myth of the Strong Black Woman has led to some distressing real-world consequences. It also gives us an insight into Maureen Evans’ death scene in Scream 2: No one was truly listening to the pain she was in until she was literally dying in front of them.
But this is exactly what horror does: It forces the viewer to look at immorality and ask “Where do I stand on all of that?” Social issues that we normally avoid by insulating our views from anything that doesn’t validate our own experiences are put on display for viewers to digest.
Same Skin, Different Stories
The Black community is far from a monolith. This is evident in voting behaviors, cultural practices, internalized racism and socioeconomic status. But despite these differences, there are shared experiences that the horror and Afrofuturism genres draw upon to engage their audience.
Science fiction and fantasy author and expert Nalo Hopkinson said although the horror genre frightens her, she’s used elements of it in her own writing. She specifically admires the short film “Danger Word,” a zombie flick directed by Luchina Fisher and co-written by Black author Tananarive Due and her husband Steven Barnes.
“I’m not completely unaware of what’s being done in the [horror] genre by Black artists, writers and editors of all genders,” Hopkinson said. “I like hearing them talk about their work and I’m in the process of creating a script for a horror graphic novel.”
As the calls for more diversity in media grow louder, movies and TV shows portraying Black experiences (that don’t feature needless Black trauma) are on the rise. And Black directors and actors are at the ready to fill those voids.
Misha Greene’s “Lovecraft Country,” which was nominated for 18 Emmys, not only flipped the script and cast a Black man as a powerful wizard, it revealed the power of getting in touch with your Black lineage. A piece with a similar theme and starring Janelle Monae is the film “Antebellum.” The story is centered around a successful Black woman who was kidnapped and taken to an underground (no pun intended) world where chattel slavery of African Americans still exists. Both highlight the trauma of the Black community since the diaspora arrived in America and how Black people are treated when they amass power in a patriarchal, white-supremacist society. The mystery of the unknown has always stoked fear and there’s nothing scarier than not knowing where you came from or where you are headed.
Everyone has a film that left them unsettled long after the credits rolled. The horror genre is not just about the scare, it’s about unpacking the meaning behind the chaos. When asked whether the supernatural monster or real-life adversity like racism or sexism is the genuine fear within horror, Rodriguez replied, “Honestly, I kind of think they are intricately related. For me, some of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen have not been the gory ones or the ones with big extravagant deaths but have been movies like ‘Get Out.’ Even as a non-black person [of color], I felt like I needed to lock my door that night when I fell asleep because I have a white roommate.”
Horror flicks typically feature antagonists that are physically scary—think Pennywise or Freddy Krueger. Those monsters typically function as vessels for social anxieties about race, class, gender or sexuality.
“Horror ushered in the birth of otherness,” Rodriguez said. “Tapping into society’s darkest, dirty laundry, all you have to do is look a little deeper and there’s so much loaded shit in all horror movies and that’s the scariest part of the genre.”
As the horror genre becomes more diverse, the metaphors used in the genre become more palpable. The monsters of Jordan Peele’s “Us” are the twisted doppelgängers of the Wilson family, reflecting an evil living within them as they navigate the racial facets of modern life. Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide is confronted by the stereotypes meant to bind Black women as we work toward the goal of the American dream. This internal “other” leaves the audience questioning: Who is the victim in this film? The “normal” Adelaide, who seemingly gets stuck in the underworld of the tethered, or the “other” Red, who resorts to murder to escape?
Nia DaCosta, the first Black woman director to have a No. 1 box office hit, instilled horror in her sequel to “Candyman” by recreating not just the boogeyman but also successfully depicting how frightening it can be to see your neighborhood change due to gentrification. The film attests to Black women struggling to find ways to support Black men—especially their mental health—in light of the detriment of being seen as a threat.
Diversifying the horror genre stresses the importance of seeing oneself represented in the media we enjoy. Rodriguez credits the Black women characters they saw on the screen as inspiration for them to feel comfortable identifying as a femme of color “crust goth,” a subculture centered on eclectic black fashion tastes and non-traditional social and political views.
“Women of color, femmes of color, people of color can be fans, are fans and are also knowledgeable [of the horror genre],” Rodriguez said. “[Just] because Black and brown women are making horror films doesn’t make it an automatic niche or in need of a woke narrative. Black women are flipping this narrative and showing that the Black community itself has been a part of horror for decades.”
The world has never had just one story to tell, even if the predominant culture wants you to believe their version of history. For decades, horror was placed in a stringent machine that pumped out sequel after sequel with predictable storylines centered around the othering of individuals whose own personal stories were never even considered.
Horror stories with Black women in front of or behind the camera contribute to the achievements of not just the Black community but the entertainment industry as well. Black women continue to garner film accolades and provide an immense platform for the Black community to speak about realities we face that have gone unnoticed or denied because no one else had to witness them.
“Final girl” standing
The first horror movie I ever experienced was “Bram Stoker’s: Dracula” in 1992. Next to my mother, I had the best view in the house. At not even a year old, I sat in my car seat as two hours of gore, mystery and beauty played out on the big screen. Should I have been subjected to this type of entertainment? Probably not. But horror has an everlasting effect and Dracula, just like the Black experience, taught me that horror isn’t a monolith. We’re taught to avoid our fears at a very young age. But navigating life as a little Black girl is frightening itself. Those scary situations are factors in life that shift your approach to existing in the hopes of nurturing fulfilling experiences.
Being a fan goes farther than just appreciation though, with this double minority community getting the chance to finally have their voice heard. Horror is an opportunity for Black women to share what it means to be a Black woman in this world.
We all identify with the last person standing in horror movies: This character faced an immense amount of trauma and somehow managed to persevere. “[Final girls] not only fight back but do so with ferocity and even kill the killer on their own, without help from the outside,” wrote Carol J. Clover, the author of “Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.”
Sometimes we can see those qualities reflected in ourselves. We all want to be a survivor. But when that person doesn’t look like you, it can be hard to imagine yourself in that triumphant position. These final girl roles are often played by white women—think Jamie Lee Curtis in the “Halloween” franchise—while Black people have historically been the first to die in horror movies. It’s a clear reflection of society and how the Black diaspora and their stories and experiences are dismissed or cut out entirely. But today, the final girl in many horror flicks is Black.
We’ve been able to call back our power and tell our stories how they should be told. Black women are refusing to find comfort along the sidelines any longer. Black women aren’t waiting for the world to come to them, we are here and we will share what it means to be a Black woman in all walks of life, including the scary paths.
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