Black Bodies, Get Out, and the Dark Side of Black People in Horror Films
It has happened to all of us at some point. You are idly watching a horror movie when suddenly he appears. He is the jock, he is the nerd, he is the comical relief, and he is the next victim. Why do we know this? Because he is black. There is a new twinge of fear that grabs the audience, purely off the fact that we have already written him off to die.
In film, black people have historically been used as props, tropes, and every one-dimensional character in between. Whether it be Mammy or the Magical Negro, the supporting role has since been one of the only roles available to black people. But in the realm of horror filmmaking, supporting roles equate to the dying ones. We are going to explore the phenomena of black bodies in horror film, the roles we have methodized, and how the mold is being broken today.
Black actors and actresses have systematically been limited to support the Hollywood movie system. In the world of horror filmmaking, that means an endless supply of victims and in most cases, black victims. Black bodies have been seen as disposable since the beginning of horror filmmaking. Mantan Moreland, for example, starred in Spider Baby (1967). He was the first African-American to appear in a horror film and died in the opening sequence. He cemented the first unspoken disposable black body in horror. As the horror genre took off as a more marketable lane, the demand for the gore and frights increased — as well as the need for more victims. With black roles in Hollywood already being anonymous and nonessential, black victims were simply much easier to kill. What’s another faceless black man being murdered that the 1960’s eye had already trained to see as part of the background? But even in the scenario that a black person was cast as a major character, their abilities were still seen as limited, especially if already having served its role of furthering a white protagonist’ goal. This position arose when Duane Jones starred in Night of the Living Dead (1968), finally portraying the hero, only to be killed by the hands of rescue, mistaking him for the undead. There is much to be said when in the first event of a black man in horror acting as his own agent is murdered not by the ghouls that haunt the house or the axe-wielding murderer but by the same people the audience had seen murder black men countless times. It perpetuates the idea that even in fantasy and horror, black people are seen as a potential threat.
It would be very easy to say that black people are not killed nearly as much as whites in horror. It is a white male-dominated field with thousands of faceless white bodies having been slaughtered along with blacks. But thanks to BlackHorrorMovies.com, a website dedicated to collecting the data and documentation of black people in horror film, a sampling of almost 1,000 horror films that include black people have been accounted for and in that small sea of films, 1,500 black people have been documented in them, resulting in a film mortality rate at a whopping 45%. But 45% seems much larger and jarring when a large majority of those roles are nonspeaking and minor.
Black people have also been cast under one-dimensional stereotypes in horror films, with characters being assigned to anonymous tropes and stereotypes since the beginning of filmmaking, which has resulted in them being systematically regulated as disposable props.
“The Spook”, “The Mystical Negro”, “The Heroic Death Wisher”, “The Ghetto Dweller”, and “The Voodoo-er” are all very common tropes that can be found throughout horror film history.
“The Spook” (Rah Digga, 13 Ghosts. Mike Epps, Resident Evil 2), “Mystical Negro” (Patricia Belcher, Jeepers Creepers. Scatman Crothers, The Shining.) and “The Heroic Death Wisher” (Kelly Rowland, Freddy vs. Jason. Charles Dutton, Alien 3 and Mimic) are three very popular tropes that pop up throughout the horror formula that seem to be carved out specifically for black people to preserve the protagonist. “The Spook” is used as comic relief, using a Sambo-like persona (Manton Moreland of Spider Baby famous catchphrase being “Feets don’t fail me now!”) that solidifies the idea that the character is already inferior to the fear factor and well aware of it, as opposed to the (white) protagonist who goes through the journey of defeating it. The “Mystical Negro” and “Heroic Death Wisher” are used a bit more directly in serving the protagonist, usually full of wisdom to further the protagonists journey or sacrificing their own life so that the protagonist comes out victorious. While these sidekick tropes do not seem as harmful, the three previously listed stereotypes were created and still perpetuated today solely in order to serve the protagonist’s agenda. Notice the one-dimensional selflessness that they possess, and their agency being directed by the (white) protagonist. It is almost used as a tool to obliterate any existing traits that would build the character into a full delegate of their own tale, as opposed to a background tour guide to the plot. The next two tropes hit the nail more on the head in terms of fueling negative stereotypes of black people. “The Voodoo-er” (Malick Bowens, The Believers. Lisa Bonet, Angel Heart. The Skeleton Key) and “The Ghetto Dweller” (Ving Rames, The People Under the Stairs.) are two stereotypes perpetuated in order to create fearful taboos towards African/Caribbean Vodoun, illustrate a bit more directly as to why these characters are expendable.
“The Voodoo-er” is almost a cross between the “Mystical Negro” and “The Primitive” (think King Kong, early depictions of African tribesman), malignant and wild with the powers of the Mystical Negro. “The Voodoo-er” often holds a higher and feared position among his community, and is used as a tool in horror films as the other dark and “real” evil that lies in our protagonist’ world. But what else is accomplished here besides creating taboo and fear around a religion that is very sensitive and sacred to those who participate in it? What of the Africans and Caribbean’s who face the stigma of speaking openly about the “savage” voodoo/hoodoo and their sacred practices that sum into a cheap feral ritual on film?
“The Ghetto Dweller” is also presented throughout horror films, a resident thug who can talk a big game but results in a cowardly mess. Consider him similar “The Spook”, minus the comic relief. He might be the tough guy who tries to rub the unsuspecting supernatural murderer, or the “big black guy” trying to be in charge of the group of people trying to find their way. But most importantly, the audience already sees him as an enemy before the protagonist does. He is crude, brazenfaced, and alienates himself as a brute, making his death not only relishing but justified to the audience.
With these secondary character tropes consistently being served and the audience already writing off the black characters as dead the minute they arrive on film, it’s difficult to image a world where black people and horror films get their time to shine synonymously without a grisly and useless end.
As Hollywood becomes more inclusive and diverse in terms of offered roles, black people naturally feel more comfortable illustrating stories that actually apply to the black experience, painting an entirely different picture as to what the norm is for “scary”. Get Out is the first film of the twenty-first century to push and mesh the boundaries of race, horror, and the real world, making space for a whole new monster of the horror realm.
In Get Out, director Jordan Peele relies heavily on not the unsettling characters throughout the film for the “scare” factor, but the racial tension and nuances left hanging in the air. In hindsight, the script is in “black code”, communicating not only the intent behind the words but the reactions and “sinking” feeling that overwhelms us when they occur. Few have tried to claim that Jordan Peele’s new hit is “anti-white” and even a “Obama movie for Tarantino fans”. And had the movie been directed by anyone else, they would have been correct. But Peele, being a black comedian (an elite position for someone who’s objective is to study the nuances of everyday life and make them relatable), concocted the racism into the same vat as the horror and fear that can be connected to from all angles. When the Get Out’s protagonist, Chris (actor David Kaluuya), discovers that he has been taken to have his consciousness replaced by a blind white man’s and forced to the “sunken place”, the audience is horrified, but some for different reasons. Having your own consciousness shoved into dark pit while your body is being puppet mastered by someone else is terrifying from a universal aspect. But the protagonist and black audience naturally associate being used against your will with slavery, which delves into an entirely different tormented scope of the black psyche. And that is something that could have been achieved while using the black gaze.
To see the internal struggle of a black man trying to figure out whether he is truly in danger or if the gradation of every day racial micro aggressions are just getting to him is something that truly requires the black gaze and experience, as maneuvering through situations as a black face in a white space can be extremely scary. And only by entwining the racism within the horror could that have been executed, along with the black protagonist acting as his own agent. It was not only the thinly-laced racism that was scary, but the danger that held in possibly ignoring it.
The wonder that is black bodies in film has been studied for years, often through lenses contrasted from the one looking back at them. These tropes and faceless black bodies have paved the way for innovations like Get Out to be brought to life. And as the different roles that black people have played in horror films are explored, it is important to remember that just because others have written out the role they see you fit to play, does not mean the ability is not there to rewrite your own tale.