It’s Time For a Change: A Look at Black Horror Films

Remember that old trope in horror movies, the black guy always dies first? I’ve always believed that this adage has been a cop out, to take away from the real issue at hand -- representation.

Blackout Tuesday has come and gone. I posted my black square on Instagram and felt hollow afterward. Was I doing my part as a white creator in a racially divided world? I’ve always felt apprehensive about speaking up in fear of coming off as an armchair activist or just simply ignorant. These fears come from a place of insecurity and guilt for not doing my part. Today, as part of my reflection, I decided to write an article featuring my favorite black horror films.

The only problem being… there aren’t many.

Representation has always been the elephant in the room when it comes to horror films, from either complete lack of representation, exploitation or crude analogies depicting dark skin as “monstrous” or “other”.  Shudder’s Horror Noire documentary did an amazing job at opening our eyes to the struggle of black depiction in horror movies, from The Birth of a Nation to Get Out (The Birth of a Nation is a terribly racist, pro-lynching film from 1915 -- don’t bother giving it a watch).

Looking back, there’s many things we as a human race could have done differently. I don’t think sitting here and criticizing Hollywood for their lack of black cinema is constructive or even fair, coming from a place of privilege. What I would like to do is celebrate the horror films and television series that did get it right.

Spoilers will follow.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Dir. George A. Romero

You can’t discuss representation in horror films without bringing up the iconic George A. Romero feature The Night of the Living Dead. Not only was this film groundbreakingly iconic to feature a black protagonist in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, but it still rings true and relevant to this day.

The ending to this film is incredibly poignant. After surviving the zombie apocalypse and becoming a hero, Ben (Duane Jones) is shot dead by an army of armed white Americans who show up to “save the day”. The first time I watched this film, I thought “wow, this is so unfair and cruel, thank goodness it’s just a movie” -- but then we've been witnessing the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and thousands more unjustly killed for being black.

Not to stray away from the point, this film is timeless because of its cultural and historical significance; not only in the world of horror, but also American history.

The People Under the Stairs (1991)

Dir. Wes Craven

This film isn’t Wes Craven’s most popular, but it is definitely his most overlooked feature. Under the guise of a horror comedy farce, Wes was able to craft a racially charged film that is watchable and enjoyable to any audience. The film follows two crooks and a young boy who discover unimaginable horrors after breaking into a house occupied by an evil brother and sister landlord duo. The film deals with issues of class, conservatism, gentrification and more.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Dir. George A. Romero

Another George A. Romero zombie classic (shocking, right?). What makes this film so great in terms of representation is that Ken Foree’s Peter is just a great ‘take no bullshit’ hero. No racial commentary, no exploitation, just a badass character doing badass things. Every time I re-watch this film I take note of how much I want to be like Peter in the zombie apocalypse.

The Walking Dead (2010 - )

Dir. Greg Nicotero, Michael E Satrazemis, Ernest R. Dickerson...

I think the reason we’re seeing so much zombie fiction on this list is because of the core themes of mankind banding together to fight the dead. Race, ethnicity, nor gender matters, only the living and the dead. In fact, one of the first instances of the show’s powerful race equality comes from this season one moment:

Say what you want about The Walking Dead, but they still have one of the most diverse casts on cable television. The show used to carry around a stigma of killing off black characters until it was realized how many POC still remained. When representation is equalized, you’re going to find yourself with lots of killed off POC, LGBT+ and other minority groups.

Some of the show’s strongest (if not THE strongest) characters have been black and never poorly represented and never debased into a stereotype.  Michonne, Tyreese, Sasha, Ezekiel, Connie, Morgan, Gabriel, Noah, Bob and many others have been the forefront of many powerful story lines.

Candyman (1992)  

Dir. Bernard Rose

There are so many things I could say about this film that have already been said. Instead, let me tell you about my experience watching it. The first time I saw this film, I was floored. I couldn’t believe how different it was from the other slasher classics on my watch list. The predominantly black neighborhood of lower class Chicago was a dynamic change of pace from the suburban, white middle class where most slashers seem to take place.

Get Out (2017)

Dir. Jordan Peele

Jordan Peele broke many barriers with this film. Not only did he prove that there is a market for black stories in horror, but his film was immediately commercially and critically successful and included a compelling story outside of our predominantly white point of view. Get Out was the first horror film to win an Oscar since Silence of the Lambs, paving the way for Us (2019), Candyman (2020) and many more stories to come.

In fact, Get Out was a huge win for horror in general, giving us an out-of-the box story among many formulaic haunted house stinkers. It also elevated Jordan Peele’s status from a funny television comedian to a serious filmmaker who has created diverse, unique stories.

The First Purge (2018)

Dir. Gerard McMurray

The Purge series is an interesting one; it was financially successful but is sometimes poorly received among viewers. That being said, I feel as though this installment of the franchise is actually the most compelling.

Unlike the original Purge, this film is not about an upper class white family defending their wealth from other upper class white intruders. This film is the closest to giving us what we want to see. Directed by black director Gerard McMurray, this film takes the fight to the streets and gives us a look at the class warfare provoked by the oppressive elite.

The initial concept of the Purge is what sold me on the series in the first place. From the first ‘home invasion’ film (they were clearly playing it too safe) to The First Purge, I think we have finally gotten to see what we were imagining: marginalized communities fighting for their lives despite losing the upper hand against the higher classes. This film is gritty, violent and actually has something to say. If you’ve seen the United States recently, you would actually believe you’re watching footage from the film itself.

Horror has always felt inclusive to me, with the only requirement being that you enjoy being scared. Genre festivals and conventions are always a blast, seeing your favorite killers and heroes being celebrated by people who accept you for being “different” -- but it is not enough to just be accepting.  It is not enough to walk around and preach equality while we celebrate and cosplay our favorite white killers and heroes. We need to do more.

Here is a comprehensive list of horror films you can watch right now that feature a black lead, predominantly black cast, and/or a black director.

Son of Ingagi (1940)

Lucky Ghost (1942)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The Thing with Two Heads (1972)

Blacula (1972)

Scream Blacula Scream (1973)

Ganja & Hess (1973)

Abby (1974)

The House on Skull Mountain (1974)

Sugar Hill (1974)

J.D’s Revenge (1976)

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Def By Temptation (1990)

The People Under the Stairs (1991)

Candyman (1992)

Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995)

Tales From The Hood (1995)

Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight (1995)

The Craft (1996)

Eve’s Bayou (1997)

Blade (1998)

Candyman 3: Day of the Dead (1999)

Bones (2001)

Blade II (2002)

Bloodz vs. Wolvez (2006)

Hood of Horror (2006)

The Walking Dead (2010 - )

The Inheritance (2011)

A Haunted House (2013)

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

The Alchemist Cookbook (2016)

Get Out (2017)

Kuso (2017)

Thriller (2018)

Us (2019)

Ma (2019)

Horror Noire (2019)

The Twilight Zone (2019)

Here is also a list of charities and organizations which you can donate to. Let’s support our fellow humans and future filmmakers. Your favorite movie could never be made due to systemic racism and violent oppression. It's time to make a change.

Black Lives Matter

The Minnesota Freedom Fund

The Bail Project

National Bail Fund Network