THE HORROR EVOLUTION WILL BE COLORIZED: An Introspective of Tropes, Trauma and Triumph
Part 2: From Trope to Sociopolitical Terror
By Mo Moshaty, February 1, 2024
For these next few weeks, I'm going to trace Black and Brown horror through the Golden Age of Hollywood, through a global landscape and by the end, we’ll land somewhere inside of Jordan Peele village. From a US standpoint, Black representation roughly reflects the demographic makeup of the U.S. (13.4% Black), but Black representation on film only makes up 11% of leading movie roles and is often limited to projects related to their race, which aren’t seen as huge sellers. Forbes magazine recently shared The McKinsey report stating that “When [studios are] looking for Black content, they’re looking for Wakanda or poverty, with no in-between,” and you’ll see here in the horror genre that there are literal decades where there are no horror films featuring Black leads.
America’s most powerful cinematic genre struggled under the massive weight of tropes, trauma, and racism and we’ll wade through stereotypical and denigrating jaunts to sociopolitical terror. Trudging into the 70s through the 90s -
An 18th-century African prince, turned into a vampire by Dracula, finds himself in modern-day Los Angeles.
Hats off to William Marshall's and is role Prince Mamuwalde/Blacula. This film is sort of the king of Blaxploitation horror and for good reason, it’s got some stunning visual camera work in a sped slow mo scene amongst others but did very little to move the needle in terms of a good representation of Black characters of that time – here, the images lean to pimps, thugs, and hookers.
But I do want to say, sort of looking back, this film is cemented in history for not only the representation BUT also for delving into Universal Monster territory after this came Blackenstein in ’73 and The Beast Must Die in ’74 also known as funnily enough Black Werewolf.
Next, I wanna speak quickly on Abby....
A marriage counselor becomes possessed by a demon of sexuality when her father-in-law, an archaeologist and an exorcist, accidentally frees it while in Africa.
I love speaking about women and possessions in horror movies, especially in part due to the complete lack of bodily autonomy but also the control aspect. Here is Abby played by Carol Speed, which is a clear echo of the Exorcist but with Orishas – but also it’s dabbling in controlling a woman’s sexuality – a Black woman’s sexuality at that. And something that pains me is that there is this weird dichotomy of Black and Brown girls being fast, or more mature and hypersexualized at a young age whereas white teen girls are seen as very virginal – so the sexualized nature of the possession is very cringe-worthy in this film for me – mostly because it’s written by a white male screenwriter. Does it get better? Not for a bit -
The Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984)
A woman buys a doll at a magic shop. Unbeknownst to her, the doll is possessed by an evil spirit, and it proceeds to take her over.
Again we’re dealing with sexualization here but more on a satisfaction level because we’ve got sort of a Madonna/Whore complex with this film. The main character Helen is very prim and religious at the start of the film but once she has a taste of erotica – it’s curtains for the good girl – which is a very Blatty way to look at being a good child of God right. So this too is capturing a woman’s sexuality in a bottle and sort of shaking it and poking at it – seeing what makes it tick – the lack of autonomy here is palpable. As you can see, you’ll be hard-pressed to find Black-led horror in the eighties in anything other than a supporting (and most times, an arc more integral to the plot than the lead) role. Films like Vamp, Night of the Demons, and The Thing showcase incredible Black supporting characters, whereas The Serpent and the Rainbow and Angel Heart still squeak out the penchant for Black religions supporting the narrative.
The 90s does an excellent job of redeeming itself as we move in the social commentary horror era.
The Borrower (1991)
Aliens punish one of their own by sending him to earth. The alien is very violent, and when the body he occupies is damaged, he is forced to find another.
When alien head-swaps go wrong! Rae Dawn Chong plays Detective Diana Pierce tasked with finding the severed heads to the city's freshly dead and retracing the steps of errant alien and body (part) snatcher in human form.
Directed by John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), he gives Chong a meatier role, albeit B-movie to the max. She is in a position of power which helps echo the freedom and chuspa of the 70s without the staunch and uncomfortable stereotype.
Def by Temptation (1990)
An evil succubus is preying on libidinous Black men in New York City, and all that stands in her way is a minister-in-training, an aspiring actor, and a cop who specializes in cases involving the supernatural.
Troma-released Def by Temptation is an interesting poke at four themes at once, making it a fun and furious watch. Seeing two sides of the coin here in Joel (James Bond III) and K (Kadeem Hardison) one's stuck in a bound-tightly life path and the other a free spirit, we already know at least one of them is going to need saving. As the Temptress (Cynthia Bond) rolls into town, we're shown a woman of power. We're called to recognize the height of the AIDS era and the problem which promiscuity and unsafe sex. It's a thinly veiled attempt to show faith and good character don't always keep you on the right track and we need to look out for ourselves and our community. Following a film like The Borrower, we're easing into the Black characters understanding and at times wielding the supernatural as opposed to simply being the "magical negro."
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Two adults and a juvenile break into a house occupied by a brother and sister and their stolen children. There, they must fight for their lives.
We delve into the pain point of economic disparity and real estate segregation in this piece. It's not the first and it won't be the last film we see characters turn to desperate measures to save the lives of ones they love, and "Fool" Williams (Brandon Adams) finds himself in an even stranger bind that committing robbery.
His family's evil landlords have thrown them out. The Robesons are an strange and abusive "couple" who have stolen and tortured many children over the years forcing them in cannibalism.
Fool's character is a definite stand out and it's lovely to see a Black child carry a horror film and be a final boy. He rights the wrongs with wit and honor.
It's a task to convey a housing crisis and the rise of abuse in foster families in America in one fell swoop and Wes Craven carries it perfectly.
The Candyman, a murderous soul with a hook for a hand, is accidentally summoned to reality by a skeptic grad student researching the monster's myth.
90s horror really gave us a heartbeat to what was happening in real-time and space with the decade. Urban warfare, socio-economic disparity, and glaring racism are still alive and well. Candyman really thrusts it in your face the places of the world you don’t wanna see or just walk past. It brought a social discomfort and it's really incredible how this work permeated Black horror films from here.
As discussed in 1992’s Candyman and elaborated on quite graphically in 1995’s Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, his brutal torture and murder should be a grandiose tale, but it is the element of truth in this unyielding and passionate killing that really chills. It’s quite sad that life begets art, and as amazing as it is to have this new view of societal pain – I feel this is the beginning of using Black and Brown trauma as an underpinning in horror media. Activist James Baldwin stated in his 1976 film critique, The Devil Finds Work, that “White people don’t know what horror is.” And I want to expand on that reasoning.
Helen’s character in the film comes to Cabrini-Green with a savior complex, she’s in disbelief, figuring the residents are just foolish. Unconscious bias or not, to her, the residents are seen as uneducated, uncultured, brutish, unclean, etc. She earns no trust, not immediately as she’d hoped, and we see entitlement on full display. What’s fantastic about this film is that it gives us our first Black slasher, hell-bent on revenge much like other slashers but also creating a true Urban legend.
Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995)
High-level demons collect low-level demons as warriors in an attempt to obtain a key containing the blood of Christ. The key is guarded by immortal warriors called Demon Knights.
There's a deep appreciation for the portrayal of a Black final girl, with Jada Pinkett's character, Jeryline. While not the first representation of such a character, it is the relentless and determined struggle of her character for me.
Despite the predominantly White-centric nature of the film, it serves as a guide to defeating demonic adversaries Let's face it, Jeryline is the most astute and resilient member of this motley crew. In contrast to other films, where characters opt for self-sacrifice for the greater good, as exemplified by Kelly Rowland in "Freddy vs Jason," Jeryline chooses to press forward. While I wouldn't rate it a 10/10, the instances of triumph featuring a Black female protagonist add to its culture-permeating appeal.
Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)
A Caribbean vampire seduces a Brooklyn police officer who has no idea that she is half-vampire.
We've got another Craven here and another appearance by Dwayne Wade himself, Kadeem Hardison. In Eddie Murphy's first horror film, albeit a comedic one, swings for the fences, and he clearly has penchant for playing multiple characters and that's on display here. I
As most vamp tales, there's a life at stake (get it?, sorry) and a romance gone awry. There's a life changing decision to be made. The usual gamut. What's great about this film is the comedy and cast. They're all just hamming it out. It's a breathing space from something so strongly sociopolitical such as The People Under the Stairs and Candyman, and I feel it was a completely necessary reprieve.
Tales from the Hood (1995)
A funeral director tells four strange tales of horror with an African American focus to three drug dealers he traps in his place of business.
Mr. Simms, Mr. Simms, Mr. Simms. You know when Clarence Williams III shows up.....
To say I love this film is gross understatement. It's cast is stacked and it's RICH with topical subjects of trauma and a twisted set of cautionary tales.
Tackling difficult subjects like police brutality post LA riots is not only brave but necessary. Standing shoulder to shoulder with colleagues that demean your people on the daily is tough to stomach let alone persevere and the retribution in the first of the anthology, Rogue Cop Revelation, is palpable.
As a child of abuse, the second in the anthology, Boys Do Get Bruised, resonated with me to the point of tears. Children lie trapped in situations such as this and feeling you can do something about it as meek as you are is an absolute triumph here.
I'm not going to give the racist Metger much play here but the doll-inflicted some street justice follows in KKK Comeuppance.
Hard-Core Convert speaks to the remoreselessness of gang violence especially Black on Black crime. The epilogue of burning in hell for eternity for your crimes is a nice touch to maniacal Aesop's fables. It's an account of the times. The mid 90s were tough, rough and bewildering and this film does well in showing that.
Event Horizon (1997)
A rescue crew is tasked with investigating the mysterious reappearance of a spaceship that had been lost for seven years.
It was around this time that Larry started going as Laurence Fishburne and we appreciate the dedication to the seriousness. This Sci-Fi Horror is one of my all-time favorite dreamscapes.
Captain S. J. Miller, commanding officer of the Lewis and Clark, a ship sent to salvage the defunct and missing ship, the Event Horizon, gets more than he bargained for in life, the exploration of it and the stalk of death. Something lurks on the Event Horizon causing hallucinations brought on by your biggest fears and deepest regrets. And one by one they fall, save for mastermind designer and engineer, Dr. William G. "Billy" Weir (Sam Neil). What's nice and guttural about this horror is that it's fighting an internal struggle. A struggle of the mind and heart, revealing that we're our own worst enemy. It's not fighting a monster, a racist, or the government, the monster is us. Again, a nice breathing space in a decade rife is discourse and danger.
An elite mercenary is killed, but comes back from Hell as a reluctant soldier of the Devil.
Sigh. Being set up as the mark of a hit while on a secret mission is no fun. But it's a great origin story to our third (yes, third if you count Meteor Man, which, is up to you) Black cinematic superhero in Michael Jai White's Spawn.
We're still in this internal struggle of heaven, hell, morals, crime, and retribution and I feel that Spawn gave Black audiences another breathing space, not in light of those like Vampire in Brooklyn or Event Horizon, but for once, it's not our bodies on the line. Someone else is fighting those battles for us. We're invincible, we're armored and maybe, just maybe we won't die this time. And if we do, there's a chance to come back.
On February 23rd, we'll close out on Part 3 of From Trope to Triumph as we flow the early aughts to the Peele-ian Era.
Mo Moshaty is a horror writer, lecturer and producer. As a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist and life long horror fan, Mo has lectured with Prairie View A&M Film & TV Program as a Keynote, BAFSS Horror Studies Sig and The University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. Mo has partnered with horror giant, Shudder Channel, to co-produce the 13 Minutes of Horror Film Festival 2021 and 2022 with Nyx Horror Collective and her literary work "Love the Sinner" was published with Brigid's Gate Press in July of 2023 and her two volume collection, "Clairviolence: Tales of Tarot and Torment Vol. One and Two" will be published with Spooky House Press in the Spring of 2024
Mo is the creator and Editor-in-Chief of NightTide Magazine