Black horror writers, filmmakers turn genre on its head


“Candyman” is back, with producer Jordan Peele’s spiritual sequel dropping its first trailer.


A good horror story scares us.

A great one becomes part of the language.

“A real Jekyll and Hyde,” we say, when our amiable friend turns into a mean drunk. “He’s gaslighting me,” we say, when someone tries to make us doubt our own reality — like the scheming husband in “Gaslight” (1944). 

Then there’s “the sunken place.”

It’s the place where we are made powerless, voiceless — like the African-American hero (Daniel Kaluuya) in the movie “Get Out.”  It, too, is a useful shorthand. It describes something familiar that never had a name before. From the moment it dropped, in Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking 2017 horror film, it became a part of everyday conversation.

It remains to be seen whether “Lovecraft Country” — a region where the least scary thing may be the monsters — also becomes a figure of speech, when Peele’s latest project, an HBO series based on Matt Ruff’s novel, launches on Sunday, Aug. 16.

Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) and his friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) travel across the Jim Crow South to find his missing father in “Lovecraft Country.” (Photo: HBO)

But the fact that such metaphors resonate, right now, is telling. Not least, they tell us that African-American horror is at last, officially, a thing. 

Maybe not as thingy a thing as the winged, tentacled creature that erupts in front of the hero in “Lovecraft Country.” But a thing, nonetheless.

“Horror Noire,” film scholar Robin R. Means Coleman has dubbed it — a genre that includes everything from 1943’s “I Walked With a Zombie” to 1995’s “Tales from the Hood” and Ernest Dickerson’s “Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight.” In 2019, a documentary film of that name appeared.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Marc L. Abbott, an award-winning writer (“Anthorrorgy,” “Hell at the Way Station”) and filmmaker. “I’m happy for Peele. I’m hoping to see more of our work, more writers of color getting involved in the genre.”

To “Lovecraft Country,” and “Get Out,”  add — among other things — Peele’s 2019 movie “Us,” Tate Taylor’s 2020 movie “Ma,” a “Candyman” remake set for October, and numerous books by the likes of Abbott, Linda Addison, Steven Van Patten, Victor LaValle, Tananarive Due, Pearl Cleage, Brandon Massey, and the queen of the genre, the late Octavia E. Butler.

“She definitely is the godmother,” said award-winning writer Steven Van Patten (the “Brookwater’s Curse” trilogy, “Hell at the Way Station” co-writer).”This is a community within a community.”

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Scary times breed monsters. From the chaos of 1920s Germany came “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Nosferatu.” Depression America produced “Frankenstein” and “Dracula.” It may be no coincidence that African American horror is hitting its stride at a time of upheaval, plague, despair and revolt against a scary status quo.

Linda Addison (Photo: Linda Addison)

“Fear is a universal thing,”  said Linda D. Addison (“How To Recognize A Demon Has Become Your Friend”), horror writer, poet and five time Bram Stoker Award Winner — the first African American so honored. “We all have things we are afraid of. What makes the difference in how the fear is expressed. What is the social environment, what is the cultural environment? For Blacks in this country, every day is a horror. You could die going to get a pack of gum.”

Which gives horror yarns by African-American writers a distinctive flavor.

Tales of terror

What is scary? There’s a lot we can all agree on. Death, disease, madness, torture, haunted houses, premature burial, oozing gelatinous things with eyeballs, have always been horror’s stock-in-trade. 

Some fears, though, could fairly be called white fears. Fear of foreigners infiltrating the culture and defiling Our Women (“Dracula”). Fear of “lower,” debased, “mongrel” people (anything by H.P. Lovecraft).

Black writers and filmmakers — and their audience — have different concerns. Fear of lonely rural roads in Klan country. Fear of police. Fear of loss of autonomy. Welcome to The Sunken Place. 

Daniel Kaluuya enters “the sunken place” in “Get Out.” (Photo: Blumhouse Productions)

“Sink into the floor,” commands Missy, the too-nice white lady (Catherine Keener) when, via hypnosis, she drains “Get Out’s” Chris Washington (Kaluuya) of his will and makes him a passive tool. The idea of being subjugated, silenced, turned into a puppet, is the special horror of people who have — historically — been robbed of self-determination. 

“It kind of touched on an inherent thing that we fear, that we could be put in a dark place and not have a voice any more,” Abbott said. “And not be able to communicate what’s happening to us.”

As soon as “Get Out” arrived, so did the memes. Kanye West, Ben Carson, Tiger Woods, O.J. Simpson were said to be living in the sunken place. People began saying that their new office, where they didn’t feel free to express an opinion, was the sunken place. “In my sunken place” is a T-shirt available from Redbubble.

And “Get Out” was as scary to white audiences as it was to African Americans. That the villains were white liberals (“I would have voted for Obama for a third term!”) was a master stroke. “Am I like that?” many white viewers thought as they shrank in their seats. “Is that how my Black friends see me?”

“It kind of mirrors a lot of the political feelings we are dealing with now,” Abbott said.

So does “Lovecraft Country,” co-executive produced by Peele, which stars Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Reese Witherspoon, and Courtney B. Vance in a recurring role.

The series follows a young Black fantasy fan (Majors) as he journeys to New England in 1954 to find his missing father, and discovers more than one kind of monster lurking in Jim Crow America.

Turning the tables

It is, among other things, one of several modern attempts to wrestle with the problematic genius of H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), the dean of American horror writers.  Another, LaValle’s novella “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016), re-imagines “The Horror at Red Hook,” one of Lovecraft’s most infamous tales, from the viewpoint of a young Harlemite. 

“Lovecraft was certainly weird,” Addison said. “But he was a person, psychologically, of his time.”

Notoriously, Lovecraft was obsessed with race. Xenophobia was not just a personal quirk. It was key to his vision: the fear of “subhumans”  — read immigrants and those with darker skins — rising from the depths to overwhelm civilized New England. That’s what scared him. And what still, seemingly, scares a lot of Americans. Some have linked incidents like the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman to just this kind of Lovecraftian fear.

To reimagine Lovecraft from an African American perspective is — on the face of it — audacious

“If you see a word like ‘H.P. Lovecraft,’ and then you see Black people, you go immediately: ‘what?‘ ” Addison said. It’s only recently, in 2015, that The World Fantasy Award — nicknamed the “Howard” after Howard Phillips Lovecraft — removed the image of the author from its trophy. The increased presence of writers of color undoubtedly had a lot to do with it.

“My feeling about Lovecraft is that he inspired a whole lot of people to write stuff, including me,” Addison said. “What his work inspired, I respect. The man himself needs therapy.”

To the standard themes of vampire, werewolf, ghost, cannibalistic zombie, mutant insect and crawling dismembered hand, this new school of writers is playing new variations.

In “Kindred,” Octavia E. Butler’s 1979 bestseller, a modern Los Angeles woman is transported back to 19th-century Maryland to meet her slave ancestors. In the Van Patten’s “Brookwater’s Curse” series, an 1860s Georgia plantation slave, Christian Brookwater, becomes a vampire and is plunged into an epic modern-day world of werewolves and bloodsuckers.

Abbott has written stories about mummies (“Reclaiming the Dead”), mosquito-human hybrids (“Vampsquito”) and a cactus that shoots poison spines (“Night of the Cholla”). Addison has written about witchcraft ( “The Power”) Halloween (“Boo”) and fairy tale characters when they’re off-duty (“Little Red in the Hood”).

A long time coming

Maybe the oddest thing about Black horror, as a pop culture genre, is that it was so long in coming.

That Black audiences enjoyed horror as much as anyone was long evident. In the late 1920s, the great novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (“Their Eyes Were Watching God”) traveled throughout the south collecting folk tales — published, posthumously, in 2001 as “Every Tongue Got To Confess.” Among them, Addison says, were many tales of devils, witches, “hants” (ghosts). 

“A lot of these stories had creatures that were shape-shifters,” Addison said. “Really, what it comes down to is that when Blacks were brought here as slaves, they could not sing and tell stories about whites who were oppressing them. So they turned them into monsters. A white master of overseer, who was hearing it, wouldn’t recognize it.”

Though old Hollywood monster movies generally presented Black characters as either savages (“King Kong”) or eye-rolling comic relief, Black audiences still flocked to them. In 1960, X.J. Kennedy, a white writer for the magazine “Dissent,” noted that “King Kong” was constantly shown in Black neighborhoods in the south. Might those audiences, he wondered, “find some archetypal appeal in this serio-comic tale of a huge black powerful free spirit whom all the hardworking white policemen are out to kill”?

“Some years ago I read somewhere that African Americans make up a very large portion of the people who go to see horror films,” Abbott said. “Even Stephen King said he went to a Black neighborhood to see ‘Carrie,’ to see what our reaction was going to be. People were screaming and yelling at the screen.”

A big turning point, many agree, was 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead.” Here, the hero (Duane Jones) was not only Black, he was definitely The Hero.

“Even as kids, when we would sneak in and see these movies, we would see an African American on screen and all of us were like, ‘OK, set your watch, let’s see how long he lasts,'” Abbott remembers. “It wasn’t until I saw ‘Night of the Living Dead’ that, maybe 15 minutes in, I realized he wasn’t going anywhere.”

In the 1970s, there were other small breakthroughs: “Blacula” (1972), “Ganja & Hess” (1973). But in Hollywood, old habits die hard. Van Patten still remembers his disappointment, when he was 12, at the 1980 film version of “The Shining.” He had read the Stephen King book, in which the chef Hallorann is the hero, and the moral center of the story.

“I was thrilled that there was this Black character who saves the kid and the wife from the husband who had lost his mind,” Van Patten remembered. “I asked my mother and my aunt to take me to see ‘The Shining’ on my birthday. Thinking they were going to get a kick out of this.”

But in the theater, he got a nasty shock: in Stanley Kubrick’s film version, Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) is butchered by Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) before he can save anybody. 

“In the book, he survives, and all three of them escape,” Van Patten said. “In the movie, he gets an ax in the chest. I was disappointed. But my aunt and my mother were mad.”

Even the three “Blade” movies starring Wesley Snipes (the first in 1998), based on the Marvel comics character — a vampire-human hybrid — the hero isn’t allowed to be fully dimensional. “Blade is this good-looking Black vampire dude,” Van Patten said. “But there are no love scenes.”

Such experiences are enough to turn any fan into a writer. It’s the only sure way to control the narrative.

“This is a genre I absolutely loved, and all my friends absolutely loved growing up,” Abbott said. “But it always seemed to be the one genre we were not in, or we had kind of half a foot in.”

If Abbott has any misgivings, it’s that writers of color in the horror genre will be expected to be always political, always socially conscious. He doesn’t want to be bound to an agenda. As a character in “A Raisin in the Sun” says: “Even the NAACP takes a holiday sometimes.”

There are days when a fellow just wants to write a story about a killer cactus.

“I don’t want us to become pigeonholed in horror as the group that’s expected to be the political voice,” Abbott said. “I don’t want to be known as a Black horror writer. I want to be known as a horror writer.”

Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: Twitter: @jimbeckerman1 

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