Predating the Pain: Black Horror in Focus

Home Culture and Entertainment Predating the Pain: Black Horror in Focus

There is a distinction between Black horror and horror that merely features Black characters. Black horror must engage with Black experiences, music, culture, references, or diasporic religion as central components and must be made with a Black audience in mind.

By Adia Cullors

Since the massive success of Get Out (2017), there has been a renaissance in Black horror and these films are receiving unprecedented studio funding and critical acclaim. As white attention turns towards this often hidden genre, the relationship between Black audiences and Black horror is in danger of souring. Some recent attempts at replicating the resonance of Get Out have dissolved into displays of wanton violence and empty trauma in the name of vague social commentary. Two of the most egregious examples of this have been Them (2021) and Antebellum (2020) which received condemnation for their replications of racism without a true message beyond that racism is bad. Because existing in a colonized world is a daily horror, the role of fictionalized horror is complex and cannot merely replicate violence that already exists.   

What is Black Horror?  

White horror films play on the dichotomy between the “normal”; white, middle class, cis-hetero protagonists, and the “othered” queer-coded or Black-coded antagonists. These films work by introducing a foreign presence that shatters a perceived safe reality. This structure fails when applied to the experiences of those for whom there is no comfortable nativity; no idyllic innocence. Black horror generally introduces its central threat as a known but suppressed malevolent presence that surfaces and must be returned to dormancy.  

There is a distinction between Black horror and horror that merely features Black characters. Black horror must engage with Black experiences, music, culture, references, or diasporic religion as central components and must be made with a Black audience in mind. It must serve Black people and center the experience of Blackness, though it often does engage with racism, it is not a genre that must contend with it. Black horror films are often vehicles for exploring complex and taboo intracommunal tensions such as homophobia, assimilation, misogyny, and religion, and through horror, these tensions can rise to the surface. 

Fright Films: 1915-1930  

The first Black director to create a feature film was Oscar Micheaux who began directing about five years after Birth of a Nation (1915) had swept the country and established a chilling film trope; the Black man as a monster. The film prompted a movement of Black creatives who sought to use their films to rebuke the racist caricatures that filled white theaters. From the very beginning, Black film was established as a powerful tool for protecting and defining Blackness. 

Micheaux created at least three horror films, (or fright films as they were called) one of which, The Conjure Woman (1926) was adapted from the book of the same name and pulled on oral stories that incorporate hoodoo and Black folktales. The use of magic, ghosts, and transfiguration were some of the earliest steps towards establishing a horror canon rooted in the Black storytelling tradition. Unfortunately, most of these early Black films have been lost due to the neglect of white-dominated archives and film historians who have not historically prioritized the preservation of Black film.

Race Films: 1915-1955  

From about 1915-1955, Black films were dubbed “race films” because they featured almost entirely Black creative teams. These movies could only be shown in Black theaters and though this limited the productions financially it freed filmmakers from white sensibilities.  

Many of these films used horror-adjacent imagery and explored themes of death, evil, and temptation. Satan and his influence was a frequent motif with many films carrying moral messages against straying from the path of righteousness. The most famous of these is Spencer Williams’s The Blood of Jesus (1941) which follows a woman’s soul as she journeys through the afterlife. The woman must outsmart Satan and Judas as she attempts to reach heaven and avoid hell.  

Williams also directed the first surviving Black Horror film; Son of Ingagi (1940). Ingagi challenges two hotly racist movies; King Kong (1933) and Ingagi (1930), the former of which parallels its titular ape with Black Americans, and the latter of which was a fake ethnographic film claiming that African women copulated with apes. Son of Ingagi features an ape creature captured on the African continent, however, the film subverts expectations by focusing on Black characters, all of whom are respected and educated. The protagonist is a Black female scientist who returns from a research trip with the creature. The horror begins when the ape accidentally ingests an experiment of the doctor’s which drives him into a murderous rage.  

Though these early Black proto-horror films frequently featured straightforward good vs evil plots in which good was equated to Christianity and bad to sin, not all were so solidly conservative. One of the most unique films of the 1930s was Drums O’ Vodoo (1934) in which a pastor and an elderly woman unite to use their knowledge of the Bible and of Vodou to protect a young woman from a would-be rapist. In Drums, Christianity and traditional Vodou practice work in tandem to protect. This unity spoke to the real presence of diasporic belief that was still alive in many Southern Black communities, especially in Louisiana for which the film was originally named.  

RECOMMENDED: Black Horror Films Could Be About More Than White Violence

Blaxploitation and the Birth of New Hollywood: 1971-1979  

In the mid-1960s the Hollywood system was floundering. Moviegoers craved films that reflected the socio-political upheaval of life rather than distracted from it. The fall of the studio system created space for new creators to make films with smaller financial stakes and thus more creative freedom. Production companies greenlit films that appealed to the Black demographic by pulling directly from the frontlines of the Black liberation movement, thus giving birth to the “Blaxploitation” era. It was not lost on Black activists that many Blaxploitation films were directed by white men and produced by white companies. The term Blaxploitation was coined by the NAACP to highlight what it saw as the exploitative nature of the genre. The Black Panther Party too, condemned the genre for “using {our} oppression as a twisted storyline.”  Blaxploitation features often used tropes many found regressive. Sex, violence, and drugs were common fixtures of the genre, but so were Black power and the fight against “The Man” as represented by white antagonists.  

One of the best movies of the genre is the surrealist existential film, Ganja and Hess (1973), in which an archeology professor studying a fictional ancient African nation is turned into a vampire. When he falls in love, his new wife joins him in vampirism. The isolating limbo of immortality is paralleled with the isolation he feels as a Black academic living in a white neighborhood who has traded Black community for assimilation. 

Blacula (1972) is the most famous of the Blaxploitation horror movement. The film stars William Marshall as the titular African prince who Dracula transforms into a vampire. Blacula emerges in 1970’s New York where he sets about wooing his reincarnated wife. Blacula was an inversion of the archetype in which monsters were coded as Black and savage. He is far from an antagonist; his story is tragic and his persona is suave, intelligent, and refined. Blacula inspired a wave of movies that inverted classic horror stories to align more with the Black experience, including Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde (1976) and Blackenstein (1973).  

Blacula’s success spawned a sequel, Scream Blacula Scream (1973), which saw the vampire brought back through the powers of Vodou. The other major Vodou horror film of the decade was Sugar Hill (1974), which like Scream Blacula Scream, follows a woman as she uses Vodou to protect her community and seek revenge on the white men who have wronged her. Though neither of these films offers an accurate picture of Vodou, neither equates it with evil, and both present it as a legitimate religion deserving of reverence.  

Black women dominated Blaxploitation horror, however, this sparked debate between those who saw their sexually charged roles as empowering and those who saw them as perpetuating stereotypes about the promiscuity of Black women. These tensions can be seen in Abby (1974) which stars a pious woman who is possessed by the West African spirit Eshu, which in this film operates as a sex demon. Prior to its ending in which Abby is exorcised and returns to Christ, the film plays almost like a story of breaking free from repression and of gaining sexual autonomy. The presence of these characters in Black horror directly reflected contemporary debates on the complex and often oppositional relationship between the Black Power movement, the women’s liberation movement, and how each faction sought to define and control Black womanhood.  

RECOMMENDED: ‘Candyman’ Is A Bittersweet Revival

Reaganism and the End of an Era: 1981-1990  

Under the Reaganism of the 1980s, power returned to the hands of studios that stopped funding the Black horror movement they saw as a fad. This era of horror was defined by reactionary puritanism; the white suburbs became the primary settings for films where sexually active women were killed, only virgins survived, and the few Black characters always died first. The few horror films that took place in majority Black settings followed white spectators as they waded through ‘exotic’ locations like the Caribbean and the vague ‘jungle’, surrounded by nameless Black extras. 

1980s fare like The Thing (1982), Return of the Living Dead (1985), Vamp (1986), Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors (1987), and Night of the Demons (1988), centered white protagonists but unlike most of their contemporaries at least included Black characters with personalities, storylines, and motivations rather than just fodder for killers. 

Urban Horror and the Black Revival: 1990-2010  

By the 1990s the AIDS epidemic, the spread of crack cocaine, and the carceral brutality of the War on Drugs had disproportionately impacted Black urban communities. The media and the white house vilified Black people as ‘super-predator thugs’ not unlike horror monsters and ‘welfare queens’, and Black cities were painted as places where humanity went to die.  

In 1990, the anxiety of the Gulf War caused a downturn in theater attendance. Just as in the 1960s there was a disconnect between the cultural zeitgeist and what was shown on screen. Hollywood again turned to the Black demographic it had neglected for 15 years and Black artists seized creative control. Black films of the ’90s and early 2000s were frequently situated in “the hood” where filmmakers challenged racist depictions of urban life. These films spawned a subgenre of “urban” Black horror from which emerged Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), Bones (2001), and Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight (1995). Like the movies of the 1930s, these films carried moral messages often as warnings against drug use, unsafe sex, and gang violence.  

One such film is Def By Temptation (1990) which follows in the footsteps of Abby by presenting the antagonist as a demon literally named Temptation who takes the form of a seductive Black woman. The film features a Black cast debating the importance of adhering to Christianity and delivering scathing critiques of Reaganism.  

Among the most famous Black horror films of the 90s is Tales from the Hood (1995) which, like The Conjure Woman (1926), is a folkloric anthology, this time taking place in the city where clever Black characters use cultural knowledge to take revenge on racist politicians and violent cops.  

This wave of horror included more intersectional stories and voices and once again Black women became frequent protagonists. Both Spirit Lost (1996) and Eve’s Bayou (1997) are gothic stories that focus on the experiences of, and bond between Black women. Both films explore the haunting nature of the past and the power of Black women’s ancestral spirituality to heal old wounds. 

This explosion of Black urban horror bled into the mainstream horror world as well and ended the glut of exclusively white protagonists that had been a hallmark of 80’s horror. Major studio films like Event Horizon (1997), Blade (1998), Queen of the Damned (2002), and House on Haunted Hill (1999) cannot be considered true Black horror but did feature now iconic Black main characters with backstories, motivations, and depth.

Today and Tomorrow 

Until now, when bankrolling Black horror films, studios have abided by the principle that Black films are only profitable when they are made quickly and cheaply. Studios have previously banked on Black audiences flocking to see the representation they were so often denied and this excitement enabling studios to recoup production costs solely from Black ticket sales without having to rely on non-Black audiences also showing interest. Now there is widespread and mainstream interest in what Black horror has to offer and major studios are willing to allot huge budgets to the genre and to Black creators and this means that creators have more resources, but also face more white scrutiny. 

In order for Black horror to continue to serve its purpose as an avenue to free the repressed, engage with the past, and celebrate in the Black cultural canon it must remain in the hands of Black artists and must continue to capture the multifaceted experience of Blackness as an identity that can hold great pain but also great pride and great power. Horror is one of the most therapeutic and resonant artistic mediums through which to explore the Black experience because of its ability to invert the “the normal” and to give sympathy to the abject and the maligned. Black horror gives voice and compassion to the monstrous “other” and is one of the most poignant ways to express the experience of marginalization and the ultimate triumph of survival. 

Films Mentioned and Further Watching: 

The Hellbound Train (1930):

Drums O’ Vodoo (1934):

Chloe Love is Calling You (1934): Amazon 

Son of Ingagi (1940):

​​The Blood of Jesus (1941):

Blacula (1972): Shudder, Amazon 

Blackenstein (1973): Amazon, Tubi 

Scream Blacula Scream (1973): Shudder, Tubi, Amazon 

Ganja and Hess (1973):, Shudder 

Sugar Hill (1974): Amazon, Shudder 

Abby (1974): Amazon 

JD’s Revenge (1974): Shudder, Amazon 

Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde (1976): Amazon 

The Thing (1982): Hulu, Amazon 

Return of the Living Dead (1985): Amazon, HBO Max 

Mark of Lilith (1986): BFI Short Sharp Shocks Vol. 2 

Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors (1987): HBO Max, Amazon, Hulu 

Night of the Demons (1988): Shudder 

Def By Temptation (1990): Shudder, Amazon 

Vampire in Brooklyn (1995): Paramount Plus, Amazon 

Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight (1995)

Tales from the Hood (1995): Shudder

Spirit Lost (1996): Amazon 

Eve’s Bayou (1997): Amazon, HBO Max 

Event Horizon (1997): Hulu, HBO, Amazon 

Blade (1998): HBO Max, Amazon 

House on Haunted Hill (1999): Amazon 

Bones (2001): Tubi, Amazon 

Queen of the Damned (2002): Hulu, Amazon 

The Transfiguration (2016): Shudder  

Get Out (2017): Amazon 

The Quiet Room (2018): Amazon

MA ( 2019): Amazon, Hulu 

Atlantics (2019): Netflix 

Us (2019): Amazon, Hulu 

Vampires vs the Bronx (2020): Netflix 

Candyman (2021): Amazon, Theaters

Adia Cullors is a historian and independent archivist focusing on the intersections of Black history, ancient studies, and queer history; she is also a scholar of genre film and leather culture. She wrote her thesis: About the Bodies: How the Modern Museum Helped Invent Race in 2020. Cullors has worked for the National Museum of African American Culture and Johns Hopkins Medical History Archives. Adia has worked as both a photographer and podcaster for Pass the Mic Radio on WSPN and was featured in the episodes “Academic Aggressions and Trauma in the Classroom”, “The Radical Possibilities of Imagination”, “Black Hair During Covid-19”, and “Black History in Action”. For updates on upcoming archival access projects, she can be followed on Instagram:

JOIN WEAR YOUR VOICE ON PATREON — We need to reach our goal of $15K/month by November 30th to keep this essential publication running. Uplifting BIPOC writers through your pledges is the direct community support that allows us to make more space for marginalized voices. For as little as $1 every month you can be a part of this journey to make necessary and positive change, and together we can keep growing.