Horror is known for many things: low-budget production, jump scares, violence, gore. Regardless of how one feels about the genre, though, it has remained one of the most popular film categories since its inception. Cinephiles question why audiences continue to flock to horror screens, why they wish to be scared, and what they get out of it, but few seem to question the genre’s reliance on tropes in its narratives. Any discourse that does touch on the role of tropes in horror typically does so to analyze their literary history and meaning, such as how gothic horror often features a decomposing home to represent familial destruction — or how that same house’s basement represents some primordial evil. While pieces like Carol J. Clover’s Her Body Himself analyze the role of gender in constructing narratives and tropes, rarely do authors analyze the foundation and lasting influence of racial tropes in horror film.
This lack of academic discourse on the topic hasn’t prevented Black families from considering the impact of Black representations in horror, however. Eddie Murphy shed some light on these living room conversations in his 1983 stand-up special Delirious, musing aloud: “Why don’t white people just leave the house when there’s a ghost in the house? Y’all stay in the house too fuckin’ long.” (x) The question itself reflects one of a series of jokes referring to characters and their racially-defined roles in horror movies. Perhaps the most popular joke and the one I heard the most growing up was “of course the Black guy died first!” I would sit with my family, or my friends, or my friends’ families, and inevitably, when the Black character died first (or within the first ten minutes, or before the end of the film) their murder would be met with resigned comments and grim humor. After so many films, their early deaths became an expectation; a competition amongst siblings and cousins to determine who could predict the moment they passed and how they’d eventually die — because they always died.
I derived the title of my thesis, First to Die, from this cultural myth (I call it “myth” because of this Complex article fact-checking the idea that Black characters are always the very first to die in horror films). And while Black characters may not always die first in a scary movie, they are more than likely to lose their life by its end. Furthermore, the persistence of this idea reveals how negatively Black characters continue to be written so as to become a cultural inside joke.
This thesis project gives form to extensive research through two installations — an ‘infinite’ script compiling Black characters’ last words in horror films, and a series of dolls representing Black tropes in the horror genre — that reveal the dependency of film narratives on the Black body as well as the expected and repeated subjectivity of Black characters. Through literary and cinematic reference I intend to point out race and racism where it is at first not obvious, re-framing a discussion of film from one that does not acknowledge race to one that centers race.
When I started researching for this project, I began with the history of film and the portrayal of Black characters and, as a result, most of my ideas surrounded minstrelsy and the striking blackface or Golliwog imagery used in earlier depictions of Black bodies. In focusing on this imagery my intention was to show how today’s depictions haven’t much improved from that of their origins, but I eventually realized that relying on minstrelsy visuals might incorrectly convey the idea that these depictions both come from and have remained in the past. After several iterations, I decided to move onto another aesthetic and visual language in order to convey my full argument that although the cinematic portrayals of Black characters have changed alongside society, the racist representations from historical film not only persist today but are, in fact, foundational to film. Essentially based on social reflection and commentary, Horror presented the best genre with which to analyze these patterns.
I sought to construct a project that made it clear how heavily cinematic narratives rested on white imaginations and constructions of the Black body. In this way, I am exploring how caricatures of Black people are invented and cobbled together to symbolize certain behaviors and essentialist characterizations. Just as Black bodies in Horror are stripped of their lived experiences — of their personhood, individuality, and autonomy — to fit into white imaginations and stereotypes — dolls enjoy neither personhood nor freedom. Their owners can dress them up, direct their bodies how they want, or even rip them apart and recombine their parts into new forms like Sid from the Toy Story series. The trope of doll and dollmaker is as common to horror as is the home-as-family trope in Gothic horror — and for good reason. Dolls are creepy.
I derived inspiration for this portion of the project installation from various source material, most recently of which includes the film Hereditary (2017). Inspired by the film’s odd character Charlie, I sought to recombine found objects to make dolls representing different Black horror film tropes. I decided to rely mostly on used objects from Goodwill to (1) reframe used objects with their own stories, uses, and relationships that, in this case, represent the history of racism and its continuous (albeit remixed) presence in cinematic representations; and to (2) show how the active and intentional manipulation of discordant objects redefines their meaning and symbolism despite the original connotation, just as the white imagination wholly reconstructs and directs the transformation of Black people into nothing more than Black bodies in cinema, and especially so in horror film.
Literarily, the last words of dying characters command our attention and communicate the speaker’s character and values; so, I decided to create an ‘infinite’ script documenting the last words of Black characters. For Black characters in horror, these words are often reserved for displays of heroism or sacrifice as they surrender their life for that of the white protagonist’s. The compiled script gathers the last words of Black characters throughout various of the genre’s films in hopes of revealing some pattern in prose.
Finally, I chose to house my installation in the gallery’s annex for its dark and eerie atmosphere. As viewers examine the trope dolls on display, their passive interaction mimics that of audiences in darkened movie theaters; regardless of their intentions, they continue to support such portrayals with their wallets and continued viewership.