The year is already kicking off to a magnificent start in regards to exploring the variations of Black horror, the supernatural, and science fiction genres. There’s something important and imperative happening in the realm of television and cinema in regards to Black voices; Furthermore, there are particular intricacies to our stories and world framing that we have to impart. There’s been much anticipation for the second feature film from Director Jordan Peele entitled Us which focuses on the horrors stalking a Black family — that by circumstances soon to be revealed — they all come face-to-face with their malevolent doppelgängers. The premise alone had many enraptured and riveted by the trailers and the imagery of an antagonistic self and fear of the reflection. The additional layers of the eye being a window and a weapon are also brilliantly teased.
One of Jordan Peele’s frames of reference for the film Us is the 21st episode of The Twilight Zone entitled Mirror Image. Therein, a young woman comes to a bus terminal and experiences the supernatural. She is jarred with the realization that various people within the bus terminal have seen her where she knows she hasn’t been. Her terror is amplified when she sees her mirror image in the bus station bathroom wearing her clothing, hairstyle, makeup and all of her physical attributes down to the last detail. She tries to express what she’s seen and the bizarre goings-on to others, but we know what happens in most tales such as these. She’s deemed a danger to herself and others and hospitalized before the episode ends, but not before she sees her doppelgänger leaving on a bus to a destination unknown. Oh, and the man that she interacts with the most in the episode who calls for her hospitalization, sees his own doppelgänger flee into the night as well. The parallels to this iconic episode of the series may be explored in the film Us by positing that a certain location allows our mirror selves to enter our world or that a phenomenon beyond our comprehension creates these beings that look like and inhabit Us.
While we’re on the topic of The Twilight Zone, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the reboot or reimagined series that he’s currently been working on. The premiere is slated for a debut of April 1st. However, please forgive me for side-eyeing this date because of April Fools Day. Who knows what the show or Jordan Peele has up his sleeve. I applaud Jordan for continuing to explore his fascination with the story elements of horror, its intersections, and all of its multi-layered kin; I’m looking at you gothic-psychological-ghost-zombie-etcetera genres. He’s one of the busiest bees in the business right now, especially as producer of the new Candyman film and being tantamount in the selection process of Black female director Nia DaCosta. On a side-note, should we be concerned about creative or artistic burnout from Jordan Peele? This can happen and we should be critical in acknowledging that it does, but in the same token when you haven’t been allowed or able to express yourself creatively sometimes the hits keep on coming, and the misses are nil to a blip on the radar.
The main event of this past February is the wonderfully thought-provoking documentary Horror Noire, based on the book of the same name entitled Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1980s to the Present by Robin Means Coleman. The documentary goes even further by examining the Black presence in horror from the very inception of film itself. The quote from Tananarive Due, “we’ve always loved horror…it’s just that horror hasn’t always loved us” has never been more apropos. There have always existed various horror tales within the Black diaspora that functioned as tools to titillate and also to teach. It’s only within the past few hundred years that we’ve incorporated white supremacy as the source of our nightmares. There are particular ways we understand Black people the documentary asserts, primarily from a white gaze, and there exists valiant to pithy attempts to fully engage with or unpack the Black experience, moreover the nuances and complexities of Black lives. Despite what history books would try to purport, Black life has never been stagnant and our history is deep, rich, and complex. The presence of film highlights the ways in which history always reflects the image you receive on screen. There are always intersections and reflections of society within film whether it’s apparent at first glance or not.
For example, the film starts at the beginning of this dichotomy where Birth of a Nation first debuted in 1915 where an actor in blackface makeup is depicted as the brute and the terror, the white women are seen as docile beauties to be protected, and the white Ku Klux Klan is championed as hero and savior riding in to save the day and the world from the threat and existence of the ‘black menace’. This starting point in the documentary is very important as it relates to film and history because it shows the ways in which society, the government, the media industry, and other powers can be complicit in the degradation, humiliation, and othering of Blackness and Black people. The fear of Black power, religion, domination, retaliation, beauty standards, and things of the like are reflected in the roles that Black persons would oftentimes play in various horror films such as mystical negro, quiet servile characters, primitive tribespeople, buffoons or comic reliefs, token ‘friends’ (and I use that word loosely) to the white character, red shirts that are targeted for a gruesome demise, and lastly sacrificial lambs-often interchangeable with a Mammy figure- whose sole purpose is to protect the white characters oftentimes with their bodies and lives.
The Black presence in horror, films or no, can often be two-fold where the Black person is on a sliding scale of invisibility to hyper-visibility by means of the characterizations and roles previously described. Black people have existed in variants of being nonexistent in science fiction or horror films to being all the monsters and aliens or an exported character or Expy for short of the monsters and aliens; e.g., Creature from the Black Lagoon, King Kong. The documentary continues by moving into the Blacksploitation genre and its highs and lows within horror as a period of cheap investment, increased sex and sexualization (the highest cinematic period of pimps and prostitutes), and in some unique roundabout ways showing the burgeoning presence of empowering Black images. The thing about media is that it is regularly a double-edged sword where there is a particular service or disservice of having Blackness seen at all. The stereotypes that can be introduced through the medium can be more disparaging and impactful than the good-well nuanced characters that reside on the periphery. As stereotypes are wont to do, they create an image that sticks and becomes broadly labeled across an entire community, race, gender, ethnicity, orientation, etcetera. Thus in one decade you can have the intrigue of Blacula, corrective promotion of Black Women as heroes or independent agents in films like Sugar Hill or Scream Blacula Scream, while also being saddled with the baggage and the damage of Black men as villainous pimps and drug dealers, Black women as prostitutes and victims, in stereotyping films like The Mack and Superfly.
Horror Noire also shows how time can be self-reflective and redemptive. A prime example of this is comparing and contrasting two Black horror icons such as the heroics of Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead which concludes in his grisly death from a white mob, filtered through the lens of 1960s Jim Crow imagery, versus the latter Get Out where the hero survives in the 2010s and most of the racism is micro-aggressive and covert to make white supremacy doubly insidious. For some real-world documented horror education in regards to Black lives and history I would highly recommend the following books: Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington, 100 Years of Lynching by Ralph Ginzburg, Dr. Joy DeGruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, and lastly Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People which discusses how racial whiteness came to be through art, history, science, ideology, and global power structure. The documentary Horror Noire is a historic and layered perspective on where we’ve been and where we’re going in media as a nation and society. The increased surveillance of Black people and the heightened attention to racialized violence is prescient and highlights that there is a lot of cognitive dissonance going on and that people are going out kicking and screaming to uphold white privilege and the status quo.
I applaud the creators Robin Means Coleman, Director Xavier Burgin, Ashlee Blackwell, Danielle Burrows, Phil Noble Jr., and the legendary actors and collaborators that made Horror Noire possible. I’m one of many Black children that knew we had carved out monumental space and a significant historic place in horror and history that had yet to be curated in a documentary format such as this. If Horror Noire became a series of podcasts, live stream movie events, or have its own platform akin to the Turner Classic Movies channel I would gladly add my few coins to help back its funding. There’s such a depth of information that they’ve barely grazed the surface of here and I’d love to see more commentary from the persons that are still alive to share their personal experiences with making these films. I know that they ran out of time but I’d love to hear the entire panel’s thoughts on Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It’s still one of the greatest short film/music videos of all time and their commentary on it so many years after its release would be invaluable. Lastly, for an additional perspective on my own thoughts surrounding Black people and their relation to horror — real and imagined — be sure to read my essay on Trying to Enjoy Halloween: The Quagmire of Race and Horror in Cinema and Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Examining Race, Horror, and Science Fiction.
Horror evolves and moves towards, through, and complements various mediums. In the case of Black horror, comics and graphic novels are a burgeoning market that has been chugging along with gusto. In fact, I’m a huge comics fan, see my previous two videos on Storm and Amanda Waller for more context. Late last year a horror comic grabbed my attention, with its bloody beautiful cover, and the creator’s name that I thought was associated with much lighter fare. The one and only Tee Franklin of Bingo Love fame had transitioned to writing horror comics! I thought at first that this is another Tee Franklin, but lo and behold, twas she and she absolutely did not disappoint with this comic’s world, story, and women. I mention these three points because Tee Franklin and the artist Alitha Martinez who previously worked on Black Panther: World of Wakanda set the bar extremely high for the story they wished to impart about the power of women, magics, and consent. Retribution is swift, gory, and oftentimes fatal for those that dare disrespect people within the Jook Joint and the proprietor and her girls had better not hear about any misconduct in the community either. The multi-part comic series is truly a powerful piece of work that highlights how comics and graphic novels can be therapeutic with the added bonus of processing trauma in a multitude of ways with the grey-area concepts to avenge the downtrodden or seek revenge for previous misdeeds. The series debuted on October 3, 2018, during Domestic Violence Month and encouraged its readers to think and educate themselves about consent, verbal and sexual harassment, and the great importance of communication. Tee Franklin’s presence in the world of comics is such a blessing and proves tantamount that comics continue to bring in as many diverse voices, artists, and writers as possible. The fact that she’s also a queer-identified disabled Black Woman just adds so many layers to the experiences that one can glean from her work, the people that she wishes were or personally are in her circle, and the lives that matter. Tee Franklin has and is writing about them all and continues to peel back the layers of life’s minute to magnificent horrors.
Here’s an excerpt from Jook Joint to exemplify what I mean. “Mahalia runs the Jook Joint, the hottest jazz brothel in all of 1950s New Orleans. The Jook Joint is a place where all your desires and fantasies can come true, as long as you follow the rules, especially the most important one: “Keep your hands to yourself.” Some men think these rules don’t apply to them, so Mahalia and her coven of slain women have no problem reminding them everyone should adhere to these rules. After the music dies down, Mahalia uses her supernatural powers to help the sick, the frightened, and those who have suffered abuse and desire vengeance.” Additionally, when you immerse yourself in the artwork, story, and the world within Jook Joint you realize that only Black Women or those with extreme experience regarding Black people and culture could have done justice to the nuances of intimate partner violence, the texture and curl pattern of Black Women’s hair, the subtle and sometimes vibrant ways to shade Black skin, and the love for the beauty of Black Women’s bodies. Trust me, when you read Jook Joint you may just cry at how realized the entirety of it truly is. I’d gladly pay for a Netflix or television series of this. However, the material is not rated E for Everyone I’m afraid so if you’re squeamish about blood, the sight of organs in various states outside the body, bones, or anything that your imagination may conjure I’d recommend proceeding with caution. For those with strong constitutions, I cannot recommend enough the gore-lorious Jook Joint.
I couldn’t conclude without talking about MA. Much has been said about her character and whether or not it could be good or bad promotion for Black Women as an entire group, especially dark-skinned heavy-set Black Women. We have to unpack why people are curious, nervous, suspicious, and excited for Octavia Spencer’s horror role of MA. From the same production company of Blumhouse Productions that’s releasing Jordan Peele’s Us a few months prior to, MA will debut at the end of May, and many were anticipating that the film would be in good hands. However, the director Tate Taylor of The Help fame or infamy (if you will) and the James Brown biopic Get On Up is slated to direct. With the track record of those films and how Blackness was depicted in those films — especially the characterization of Black Women — people have reason to be concerned. Black Women were not in control of their own stories in these films and the focus leant more heavily on the lows of Black Women’s lives and rarely on the highs. One can also question is this film trying to construct or destruct a new form of Mammy caricature. The film trailers excite because this is unknown and untrodden territory for Black Women in Octavia Spencer’s age range, body type, and career. It’s far too often an occurrence in the Hollywood machine to discard women of a certain age or body type and that phenomenon is quadrupled for Black Women. So, there’s also a lot of fans coming to see Octavia Spencer for her body of work thus far and the fact she’s actually done horror before in the film Snowpiercer, which I greatly recommend by the way.
The Black community, whether they are horror fans or not, have a right to be critical about her image and our image because again Blackness, especially Black American media is oftentimes hyper-visible and positive or negative images become disseminated to the world at large. Just like the film Us explores the power of the eye and its gaze upon Black bodies, we remain hyper-vigilant about the way the eye scrutinizes Blackness. As the documentary Horror Noire explored the roles and stereotypes of Black people, we must also examine the specifics for Black Women as the mystic, the Mammy, the seductress, or a combination therein. I will even posit another one that Black Women have in these films as the terrified Mother or Grandmother. I’m sure you can think of many films or television shows that have the Black Matron figures, usually single, with tear-filled eyes, clasped hands, beseeching gaze, a determined facial expression on a mission to save, rescue, or seek protection for her child from drugs, the police, gangs, or if they’re even more unlucky the boogeyman haunting the area.
So, I’d like to posit some questions before I conclude. Is MA going to have a deeper than surface-level analysis of Black Women in horror and as horror or will this be just a shock and awe film for shock and awe’s sake? Can you think of any horror narratives where Black Women are to be feared and what causes that fright? Think critically and carefully because Black Women are routinely left out of the discussion surrounding horror even though we’ve experienced it aplenty and even doled it out in certain circumstances. Should dark-skinned Black Women be concerned about MA and the role that her fatness may or may not play in the narrative and the lens through which its seen? What are the director, writers, etcetera saying about Black Women’s status and what kind of horror are they implying or directly presenting to the audience? Where are the other Black Women and girls in this world? How clumsily will the film tackle race, class, privilege, and body politics? Will the film assert that MA is mentally ill and assert that mental illness is once again uncontrollable, unmanageable, and creates monsters in our society? Lastly, and my goodness this was hard to write but huge sigh…here we go…what is the film doing with this ephebophilia sub-plot? MA is presented as a sexual predator of high school-aged children and that’s just not where I thought the trailer was going to go at all. I say this a lot but YIKES TO THE NTH POWER! Did they throw every scary woman scenario at this film and say let’s film it because my goodness this is YIKES TO THE NTH POWER territory.
In all honesty, though, I’m excited and clamoring for the next bit of Black horror news because this past February was just a cavalcade of cool thing after uncool thing, fun thing after unexpected thing, and happy thing after devastating thing. Truly, all the things happened this past Black history month that finding glimmers of joy amidst the chaos was an ever-present fight. I saw that even in jest or seriousness that some of us wished to start the month anew in March, with a clean slate free from all the baggage that comes with the respect or disrespect regarding Black history. Yet, what happened like most of Black America’s and those within the diaspora’s history, we found a way to still push through the month by uplifting each other, helping each other laugh for a while, and giving each other a space to lay our burdens down.
I believe that this is the same trajectory that we’re headed towards in regards to our narratives, imagination, and reconciliation with the horrors of the world at large. Our communal bonds keep us connected and strengthened in a very unique and gravely imperative way that many are writing about, filming, drawing, and expressing through groundbreaking new mediums. These various creatives are attempting to fill the void of escapism that so many Black persons seek and I truly commend them for that. We all need a respite, various methods of self-care, and a reality where we thrive and survive. However, I’m well aware how genuine and fabricated terror operates and there’s the looming dread that the year is still young, so I’m preparing my arsenal for whatever horror lies in wait.