“Black history is black horror”: scholars and creators Tananarive Due, John Jennings, and Robin R. Means Coleman probe the future of horror—with an eye to America’s grisly past
“White people don’t know what horror is.” So argued James Baldwin in his 1976 book-length work of film criticism, The Devil Finds Work. The last film he discusses is The Exorcist (1973), a film that unnerved him not because of the devil that is in it, but because of the devil that is not. Blood, vomit, and affluent little girls using foul language all seemed pretty tame compared to America’s actual record of enslavement, torture, discrimination, genocide, and murder.
“The mindless and hysterical banality of evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film,” Baldwin writes. “The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks—many, many others, including white children—can call them on this lie.”
Tananarive Due, John Jennings, and Robin R. Means Coleman are among the scholars, critics, and creators who have been calling out that falsehood most clearly. Due, who now teaches a course at UCLA called “The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival, and the Black Horror Aesthetic,” wrote the 1997 novel My Soul to Keep. It was a pioneering reimagining of vampire legends that centered on an African immortal whose experience of slavery and discrimination makes you wonder who the monster of the tale is. University of California at Riverside media and cultural studies professor John Jennings is the illustrator of the award-winning graphic-novel adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, a fantasy ghost story about a Black woman caught in a time warp that delivers her, spine-chillingly, back to slavery. And Texas A&M University professor Robin R. Means Coleman is the author of the 2011 study Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films From the 1890s to Present, an exhaustive analysis of race and racism in horror movies that inspired the 2019 documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (coproduced by Due, Coleman, and Ashlee Blackwell).
Due, Jennings, and Coleman are all engaged in giving horror back its blackness. In that, they’ve been helped immeasurably by Jordan Peele’s 2017 hit Get Out, which grossed more than $250 million worldwide. The movie is about a group of affluent white people who use science and sorcery to put their brains into the bodies of kidnapped Black people—a metaphor for slavery and ongoing exploitation.
Get Out is important because it turned Black horror from an underground niche into a commercially viable genre. But more than that, its genius was in showing that the Black experience had always been central to the horror genre. Watching the white assailants in Get Out, you suddenly realize that all those evil horror villains past—Freddy, Jason, Michael—were terrifying in part because they were twisted white guys in masks and makeup, slaughtering indiscriminately, as white people have in fact done. Even The Exorcist features a white girl bloated with nightmarish innocence. She’s terrifying because she’s forgotten who she’s eaten.
When you erase the Black experience of horror, you don’t get mainstream horror. Instead, as Baldwin said, you get a lie. Here, Coleman, Due, and Jennings put Black horror where it belongs: at the center of the conversation.
Noah Berlatsky: Tananarive, you’ve said at various times that Black history is Black horror. Do you see historical films like Birth of a Nation or 12 Years a Slave as part of the Black horror genre or as adjacent to it?
Tananarive Due: First of all, even separate from cinema, literally Black history is Black horror. So, I’m the daughter of a civil rights activist: My late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, while she was peacefully demonstrating against segregation, had tear gas blown in her face and had to wear dark glasses the rest of her adult life. So, the journey from enslavement to Jim Crow to, as my mother used to always say, watching the clock turn back before your very eyes after all that work, is such a horror.
And, yeah, a film like Beloved is horrific because of its rendering of the horrors of slavery, as much or more than because of the presence of a ghost. The ghost is the least of our problems in a film like Beloved. Some people might not consider 12 Years a Slave horror, and I can understand that argument, but horror is an emotion. So, when we have a cinema that delves so deeply into our trauma or pain, absolutely Black history is Black horror.
Robin R. Means Coleman: I think the red thread, the thing that ties these stories together, is absolutely about the Black experience. Black culture points to those who have been horrific in Black history and to those who have horrified Black folks. And in exposing those narratives and truth, I think it liberates us.
These are narratives about liberation; these are narratives speaking to Black folks about their experiences and saying how we can reveal and expose oppression, and what that world looks like when we’re in charge. So that is my definition of Black horror today.
Tananarive: And the idea of survival, too. It’s all about either surviving or the struggle to survive, and I see lessons in both examples. I prefer the survival model. But there’s something also to be said for dying well in horror, which is not to die in a tropey way. You know we’re just there for the service of the white characters, or our history and culture are being exploited in some way to create monstrousness and peril for white characters. So the Magical Negro, the Sacrificial Negro, the Monstrous Negro. But when we are centered in our own stories, whether or not we survive, there’s no sacrifice that’s wasted, and it’s an ennobling thing instead of a diminishing thing.
John Jennings: Yeah, I agree with that.
Robin: What’s the exercise, or the capital, of making people sit in that discomfort? What does that do for us? How does that help us? I mean it does.
John: I think it does, too, and to me it’s a freeing mechanism. For instance, when I talk about the ethno-gothic as adjacent to Afrofuturism, I think about the song by Erykah Badu, “Bag Lady.” The narrative in the song is about a bag lady who has all these bags hanging off of her, and Erykah’s singing about how this bag lady is running toward this bus, right? She’s trying to catch a bus, but she’s weighed down by all these different things that are hanging off of her that have been projected onto her, that she’s made herself.
The background is, ‘Let it go, let it go, let it go, let it go.’ So to me the things in those bags are like demons, and monsters, and slavery, and lack of agency, and Black Wall Street. It’s everything, it’s all these different things that you have to unpack, and then once you get them out, you can catch the bus to the Afrofuture.
I think that’s what I’m still dealing with. I’m from the South; I grew up in the middle of one of the most racist states in the country, in Mississippi. The other thing is that when talking about the imagination, a Black radical imagination, I tell my students that a Black speculative, radical idea is something that is extremely empowering because we were only supposed to be in three spaces in this country—the slave ship, the plantation, and the grave. Then repeat. That was supposed to be it. So other than that, the notion of Black people imagining themselves in the future is a radical act. And that’s actually horrific to certain people who don’t want that to happen.
Those are some of the things I think about, but as cathartic feeling. The scary part to me is that when working on these narratives, I really don’t have to try very hard to make something terrible. Even just imagining something bad happening to Black people in the past, if you do a little bit of digging, you realize that, yeah, that actually happened.
Tananarive: Yeah, that’s exactly my quandary, John. I’m also a child of the South, and I have a work in progress that’s about a haunted reformatory, where the real-life research is more frightening than the haunting. In fact, I feel I need to water down the true history because I can’t subject a 12-year-old protagonist I’m going to sit with for 500-plus pages to the kinds of things that were done. Hopefully I don’t do a disservice in reimagining that [historical] horror as ghosts and curses. But it gives me the strength to tell the story, and gives readers the strength to listen to a story about an individual and not a statistic, so that there is a feeling of empowerment that comes out of it rather than being dragged down.
“Whether it’s a historical film or a contemporary film, filmmakers who say that their aesthetic is whiteness, and that’s supposed to be okay, that intentional kind of erasure…is very hostile, and it feeds into this false notion that we haven’t always been here.”
Robin: These are stories about real lived experiences and histories and presents and hopeful futures. But what I love about the work that John and Tananarive do, and that I don’t do, is the futurism piece. I think horror kind of sits in the past and the present. What they are doing is really, in exciting ways, disrupting temporality. We are connected even if our experiences have not always been linear. I believe that, and I think your work reveals that, how the future and the past bounce off of each other. But the singular narrative is there, and that is a deepened understanding of the Black experience.
Your work makes people pay attention to who we are, what we’ve contributed. It’s not just suffering, although it’s a big part of the narrative sometimes, but it also talks about what is possible when you have a Black world, and I love that about your work. I think that’s kind of the line between horror and futurism and speculative fiction, and that is not just the remedy but also a representation of what’s possible.
John: Thank you for that. I have to agree.
Noah: There’s a lot of horror where Black experience is pushed to the side or there aren’t Black people there. It’s just white people represented. To what extent does the Black experience exist in horror when Black people are not necessarily directly represented? Night of the Living Dead, obviously, is one of the first representations of a Black protagonist in a horror film. But then there are also zombie stories, which are based on legends connected to Black culture, but there aren’t Black people in them.
Robin: I love Night of the Living Dead. One of my first crushes, that and Rollo from Sanford and Son…. [All laugh] I think your question gets at presence and absence. When we talk about presence, I think we’re talking about representational presence—so the physical embodiment on the screen that reminds you that Black people exist.
But then there are things like Creature From the Black Lagoon, where even if Black actors aren’t physically on the screen, Black people are offered up in Blackface, or as monstrous, or representative through the monster. Particularly when you’re writing about the Americas—you can have no narrative where there’s complete erasure of blackness. So we don’t always have to be on the screen, but our presence and our histories loom large in these narratives. I used to tell my students that what happened representationally to Black folks particularly—not just in horror but across a number of genres in the ’50s and ’60s—was they couldn’t deal with the civil rights movement, so they erased us from the screen. And I would leave it there, and I think that was wrong. While we experienced representational erasure literally on the screen, our histories and our narratives didn’t go anywhere, because that erasure still meant that they were trying to deal with and respond to blackness. We loom large like that. We are still present.
Tananarive: Well put, Robin. I refer to that as kind of a cinematic genocide, when you are visually stripped out of story. Whether it’s a historical film or a contemporary film, filmmakers who say that their aesthetic is whiteness, and that’s supposed to be okay, that intentional kind of erasure…
Robin: Or they say they’re colorblind.
Tananarive: It’s very hostile, and it feeds into this false notion that we haven’t always been here. That just came up about the film 1917. ‘Oh no, they added an Indian fighter!’ Well, guess what? One out of every six fighters in World War I was Indian, so in fact, they were underrepresented in the film, not overrepresented. When I think about a film like Night of the Living Dead, which did take the bold move of casting Duane Jones in a lead part, at a time of all kinds of political turmoil in the 1960s, on one level also, you could’ve just done a movie where all the zombies were Black. Because that’s what, on one level, was really happening. That’s what was really upsetting people—the Vietnam War of course, but I think especially the civil rights movement. It’s this fear that we’re still grappling with today. So, while blackness has been absent and misused, I would say, in a lot of these zombie films—The Walking Dead, of course, notoriously had an issue with Black male characters being killed off in sacrificial and tropey ways—but the real subtext, the fear of takeover, is what’s actually driving the interest in zombie films, frankly.
John: I agree with that.
Tananarive: The idea that POC are literally going to take over the country and exact revenge. It’s driving our politics right now.
“There’s never been a better time to be a writer. There’s never been a better time to be
a filmmaker. For comics there may have been a better time, but not for marginalized creators.”
Noah: One obvious thing to talk about is how Get Out has changed the landscape for creating horror films or thinking about Black horror.
John: Man, let me tell you. I’ve had a chance to tell [Jordan] Peele this as well: When me and my wife went to see Get Out, I was still at Harvard on this fellowship, and we went to a Boston theater to see it for the first time, and everyone—white, Black, whatever—they were just shouting at the screen and they had such a great time in the movie. That’s one thing.
But the other thing is that Peele actually took some of the tropes and ideologies of people who actually really love horror fiction, like the three of us, so you have that particular piece as well, but then you map the actual horror of racism and the fears of the Black body onto that…the technology of race so to speak. Because in some ways Get Out is almost like a sci-fi horror film. But one of my favorite things, and this is why I think the naming of your class, Tananarive, is spot on, is the ‘sunken place.’
He gives us the metaphor, he gives us the idea of the spatial narrative connected to otherness in our country. So much around our consumption and imagination about race is about spatial narratives as well: the other side of the tracks, the sketchy neighborhood, the wrong part of town. So, the sunken place becomes like an index for all of those racialized narratives around how Black bodies activate space, and I just love that. To me, that was great.
Tananarive: Well I have a class called ‘The Sunken Place,’ so I’m all about Get Out. And I was amazed when Jordan Peele asked me to write an introduction to the annotated screenplay that just came out. Not quite a plug, but Inventory Press just published it, so technically I guess it is.
That was peak for me because I’m mostly a fan, really, with an honest appreciation for that film, but just having Peele inserted in this whole conversation about cinema right now…. We’ve had Ava DuVernay and Barry Jenkins, and a lot of great rising Black directors right now, but he’s the only one specializing in horror.
I think that is very important, because as someone who is a horror creator who has been out here pitching in these streets for a while now to blank faces, or if you wanted to mention something you would mention Beloved, and unfortunately that movie didn’t do well at the box office, so it’s not a good example for an executive. With Get Out, we have a vocabulary now to understand that Black horror exists. It’s a thing. It’s something that has existed before—everything lines up behind that film. Peele’s impact is extraordinary. I collaborate with my husband, Steven Barnes. We’ve been invited in to pitch for Black horror projects, which, believe me, is something that would’ve been unheard of before Get Out.
Noah: It seems like it’s this very exciting moment where there are more opportunities for Black artists. But at the same time, the political landscape is pretty dire.
Tananarive: I mean, I joke all the time with my husband: ‘Oh, we’re about to make it in Hollywood, just when the world is about to blow up.’ [Laughs] It’s only half a joke because there are days in which it does feel like the world is blowing up, but there’s a great conversation between the arts and politics right now. The arts are working overtime, trying to uplift us, keep us motivated, and think about something else for five minutes, but then there’s a political landscape we can’t afford to unplug from and ignore, and let tear off in whatever horrific direction.
So, I tell artists all the time, there’s never been a better time to be a writer. There’s never been a better time to be a filmmaker. For comics there may have been a better time, but not for marginalized creators.
John: As far as the political landscape, if you look at the history of our country, when every day was a political movement, you know there always seems to be some type of artistic movement holding hands with it. You know there’s the Black Arts Movement, the Harlem Renaissance, this Black speculative arts movement that’s happening right now. We fight with our art. We’ve always fought with our dance, and our music, and our paintings.
Robin: The current political landscape is certainly fodder for a lot of things. I think it is hard to imagine some things that are more horrifying than what we are going through, and what perhaps promises to come, but I do agree with John that we have always, how did you put it—John, I love that. That we’ve always…
John: We’ve always fought with our art.
Prop stylist: Mat Cullen. Photo assistant Georgia Coleman. Production: Annie Dreyer.