Trying to Enjoy Halloween: The Quagmire of Race and Horror in Cinema

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I happened to catch the CBS Sunday morning segment on: Horrors and Why Scary Movies Thrill Us this past Sunday and was stricken by some things that have always lingered on the periphery of my thoughts about the pop cultural landscape surrounding Halloween. I pondered, why is it sometimes difficult for me to fully enjoy the Halloween cinema season? The answer is…well…lengthy, complex, and floats somewhere in the quagmire of racism. I’ll elaborate upon these dynamics herein in a moment, so bear with me. Before I delve too deeply into this video’s central subject matter, I’d like to commend CBS News for its other segments which most certainly had a horror theme. Their applause of: ‘The immortal ‘Frankenstein’ turning 200 years old was quite a delight. The tale of Frankenstein always brings to mind for me the stories of the original zombies from African Caribbean folklore.

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Next, they delved into an equally phenomenal and powerful segment on: Blackface — A Cultural History of a Racist Art Form, which was searing, unflinching, and didn’t engage with any hand-holding. The intersecting violence of erasure and dehumanization in the practice of Blackface was laid bare for the masses to see. For a video on the practice of another iteration of the supposed art-form, be sure to check out my video about digital Blackface entitled: Nadine Ross and The Controversial Legacy. In my opinion — their last horror segment — which saluted the Olympic protests of the 1968 games, may at first glance not seem or sound so horrific until one looks at the entirety of the history and timeframe in which the events occurred. The Olympic Games protest of 1968 occurred 40 years ago and the powerful images of resistance coupled with peace still resonate to this day.

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CBS News, in its ‘Horrors and Why Scary Movies Thrill Us’ segment discussed the movie Halloween and its recent 2018 sequel. The buzz surrounding the film is most certainly prescient and well deserved for the larger cultural discussion surrounding trauma and the intersections of violence. Speaking as a Black American, I will keep the conversation surrounding horror cinema within a Western framing; however, this topic and its themes are most certainly applicable across the African diaspora. In advance, I realize that there are a plethora of Black horror films but I always remain cognizant of the fact that some of these films may be Black by proxy of having a tokenized or non-starring role for the person or include the well-recognized trope of Black character dies first cliché. Lest we forget the Blaxploitation, urban, and “race” categorized films. So, that’s a disparate category of Black horror films and then there are others where the Black person is fully realized, given proper agency, has a full character arc, etcetera etcetera. The existence of so many types of Black horror films is difficult to parse out because they exist on a sliding scale of atrocious to brilliant and empowering to infantilizing.

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As always, when watching any form of media its imperative to be critical, especially if there are messages or images that directly or indirectly affect or skew the reality of your identity, race, sexuality, and/or disability. Thus, its imperative here at Pop Culture Connections to look at the broader world in which our horror films reside. White people have the luxury of imagining characters and worlds that are terrifying; whereas Black people have the grim reminders of reality to keep them awake at night. Black reality is oftentimes, if not always, more frightening than fiction. So, for example, horror films like Get Out don’t seem that abstract or imaginary because there are and have been real White power structures that have once upon a time and to this very day been pulling the operating strings on Black bodies. The existence of horror icons like Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger and many many more barely compare to the tip of the iceberg of horrors that Black people experience even before their first cup of morning coffee. Scrolling through your smartphone on a daily basis is anxiety-inducing and moreover like spinning a roulette wheel that will constantly land on the bleakest glimpses of Black life or death. The regular and reoccurring graphic acts of violence and brutalities against Black bodies are in HD quality for the world to see. Most White people can exit the theater and shake off the horrors they’ve viewed on screen, but Black people are inundated with re-traumatization at every turn — on screens both large and small.

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This past week, there were a series of events that all collided and had the news media frantically trying to keep pace with the state of The United States. Mailed explosive devices with the intent to silence various political figures, the murder of two Black Kroger shoppers by a man who stated plainly ‘whites don’t kill whites’, and a mass shooting at a Jewish synagogue by an unrepentant anti-Semite had many of us riveted and wondering when the bloodshed and terror would end. I’ve learned a harsh series of lessons in my short life that truth should be the foundation of all human virtue and its the pathology of denial that the country has surrounding race that is making us sick. I relay this knowledge from Dr. Joy DeGruy’s seminal work aptly named Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, which should be required reading from day one, regardless if you think you haven’t been affected or infected by this thing called racism. The country (and in fact, the world) at this time is dealing with a reckoning and an upheaval that will unseat the foundation of White supremacy that has been allowed to wreak havoc for centuries.

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Gender (and for some of us gender presentation) has always played a role in the types of violence and horror that we experience. The danger from your own race and outside of it is never diminished, regardless of gender or orientation. In fact, the threat of violence increases if you are within a marginalized group that is not heterosexual or male. The numbers of Black trans Women and/or gender non-conforming Black people that have been attacked or murdered has frighteningly increased within the past decade, with numbers out-ticking the last every year. Trans Women and cis-Black Women and girls face a heightened threat that is frequently coupled with domestic, state-sanctioned and/or sexual violence.

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If Black Women and girls stay abreast of the news they’d more than likely shrug at the mention of movie monsters and boogeymen, because we have our own predators and serial killers to worry about in our own communities. For absolutely chilling Halloween reading, research from Criminal Justice Professor Allan L. Branson of Chestnut Hill College of Philadelphia will supply plenty of nightmare fuel for you and then some. As of the published 2013 article date, he has cataloged at minimum 153 Black male serial killers in the United States since 1915. Obviously, since this research, more serial killers have come into our cultural consciousness such as the social media killer Danueal Drayton and Arizona’s Cleophus Cooksey.

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Here’s a brief but haunting passage from Professor Branson’s research on African American Serial Killers: Over-Represented Yet Underacknowledged. “The issue is not really one of equal media treatment –though this is unequal –but rather that the myth of the non-existence of black serial murderers creates a metaphorical cloak that permits their predations to go unnoticed. Despite the fact that 153 black serial murders have been documented in the US, media portrayals reinforce public perceptions of serial murder as the sole domain of white males. It is important to understand that, because blacks are often portrayed in the media as criminals of a predatory nature (Entman and Rojecki 2001), the aforementioned, iconic-like qualities of the prototypical white male serial murderer are not easily attributed to, or associated with, blacks within American society, even when they do engage in the aberrant behaviour of serial murders. Furthermore, this misperception, if allowed to continue, poses an inherent danger for society as a whole, as their predation goes undetected. This anonymity and lack of research pose a looming danger to society.” Professor Branson states “society as a whole” is in peril, but I believe the immediate danger would/should be the Black Women and girls that these serial predators have access to. I’ve read a plethora about many of these serial killers and they killed who was most vulnerable and immediate to them, i.e. Black Women and children. You know, there are some things in the world once you see it, hear it, or know about it…there’s absolutely no way to scramble back out of the hole you’ve fallen into.

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Research attached.

Returning the conversation back to media studies makes me think about what it means to be Black in real life and in fiction. To be Black is to be a target. To be Black is to be suspicious. To be Black is to constantly be feared and to be afraid. Most films that make it to the status of ‘mass-appeal’ with Black people in them are on the shallow or deep end of horror. If there’s a film that only has one Black person in it, I’m nervous that something is going to be said, done, or acted upon the person that will dehumanize them or violate them. If it’s a Jim Crow or American chattel slavery period piece, I have an inkling of the grab-bag of horrors soon-to-come that my Black parents and ancestors experienced. If the film takes place in space, I know that I’m either there or not there in the imagined cosmos of the future. With any and every genre, I’m constantly on guard and on edge. So, as this year’s Halloween season draws to a close I reflect on what the manifestations of fear and horror look like for Black people. We’ve inadvertently amassed a catalogue of horror icons that truly put the Hollywood machine to shame. My imagined world is one where I’m the final girl that thrives, let alone survives; But, in reality I’m trapped in the horror convention of a winding forest — in a never-ending sprint — always crossing paths with the monster.

Editor: We Are Horror Magazine. Writer: An Injustice, Fanfare, Gayly Dreadful, Haw Creek Horror, Rely on Horror, Something Ghoulish, and SUPERJUMP.

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