The three years after the release of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” have seen an explosion of Black horror films and television shows.
Premiering just over a year after President Donald Trump entered office, the film was nothing short of sensational, shocking audiences nationwide.
This had less to do with the film’s actual storyline and more to do with the fact that a film like this had never been seen before in the history of horror. It was a movie about the violence of suburban whiteness and its façade of liberalism in the face of racial equality.
This was a new way of storytelling and that was so unconventional compared to mainstream horror films that it seemed like a new genre had been born: Black horror.
Only, Black horror was nothing new, it was just being told in a new way. “Get Out” merely began the genre’s re-birth, and what its audiences witnessed was the result of years of work and struggle — an evolution. But more significantly, the film proved that Black and white audiences define and view “horror” in different ways.
The history and evolution of Black horror is closely explored in Xavier Burgin’s documentary, “Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror.” Based on Professor Robin R. Means Coleman’s novel, “Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present,” the Shudder documentary discusses how Black horror has defined and redefined the horror genre and what it has meant and continues to mean for Black audiences.
According to filmsite.org, the traditional horror film is an unsettling film designed to frighten, panic, cause dread and alarm and invoke our hidden worst fears — often in a terrifying, shocking finale. The genre does this while captivating and entertaining us at the same time in a cathartic experience.
A Black horror film is one thing, a film with a Black person/Black people in it is another. Black horror films are horror films made by Black people, for a predominantly Black audience.
On the other hand, a horror film with Black people in it is just what it is: a horror film with Black people in it. These films have a history of misrepresenting and misusing Black characters.
What constitutes a horror film will likely depend on the audience’s definition of horror. While this is more understood today, this is still not something that people often realize. In 1915, when Hollywood’s first blockbuster film, “The Birth of a Nation,” was released, white audiences viewed it as an ordinary film, but to Black audiences it was horror, and it was a threat.
This was because it elevated the confederacy and praised the Ku Klux Klan, while at the same time monsterized Black people and justified lynchings. This was one of the first films to demonstrate the two different lenses used to see horror by Black and white audiences.
At the beginning of the 1940s, Spencer Williams made the first Black horror film, “Son of Ingagi.” This was one of the first films to portray Black people positively and holistically. However, another two decades would pass before Black people would see themselves on screen in that way again.
The 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead” was revolutionary because it wasn’t a Black horror film, but it starred a Black man as its principal character in a positive light. The film was followed by the Blaxploitation era in the 1970s.
This decade saw a surge in films that featured Black actors and were made for Black audiences. Prominent Black horror movies of this era include “Blacula” in 1972 and “Abby” in 1974.
Come the 1980s, Black people were more present in horror films, but were very misrepresented. As filmmaking became more commercial and globalized, three-dimensional Black characters were almost absent from horror cinema.
Tokenism became more rampant, and this was the decade where the common tropes we know today are born, “If the Black character doesn’t die first, they’ll die soon.”
Other tropes in horror films, explored and defined by Coleman in her book, include:
1) “The Sacrificial Negro” — Oftentimes, the Black character will choose to give themselves up to the villain/threat in order to save the white protagonist or advance their storyline. The 1980 film “The Shining” is a prime example.
2) “The Magical Negro” — a Black character with mystical powers and insight, coming to the aid of the white protagonist. The 1983 film “Twilight Zone” is an example of this.
Black horror resumed in the 1990s with “Tales from the Hood” in 1995. After that, Black audiences saw themselves in horror occasionally, if at all. Of course, many of these Black characters were ill-used. Even with movies like “Candyman” in 1992, people didn’t really have a concrete idea of Black horror until Jordan Peele made “Get Out” in 2017.
It was the first film to explicitly define Black horror. Following the critical acclaim, many more Black creators felt comfortable venturing into this genre. From “Us” a year later to “Antebellum” in 2020, filmmakers and audiences have a better understanding of just what Black horror is.
In every way it is Black trauma. People have taken issue with this, but that tells us just how linked Black horror is to Black history. “Black history is black horror,” film historian Tananarive Due says at the beginning of Burgin’s documentary.
In many ways, Due is right. Yes, people are right to complain about the proliferation of films depicting Black trauma, because it’s true. Horror is much closer to the mainstream of Black cinema than is sometimes acknowledged.
“12 Years a Slave” wasn’t marketed or distributed as a horror film, but it is one. The same goes for “Queen and Slim” and “When They See Us.” These are all so traumatizing and horrifying for Black audiences to experience because, by Film Site’s definition, they are horror movies.
The 2017 film “Get Out” was so provocative because it was made in the Obama-era, when the consensus (at least for white liberals) was that America was post-race. So, the film was, and still is, the perfect example of just how different Black and white audiences view and define horror.
“Get Out” opened the door for films like “Bad Hair” on Hulu and shows like “Lovecraft County” on HBO. This new wave of Black horror demonstrates that horror is not just a genre, it’s an emotion.