1. Black Is Boo-Tiful
When Jordan Peeele’s Get Out became a breakout success in 2017, earning him the first Original Screenplay Oscar awarded to an African-American, “black horror movies” suddenly became the new hot property in Hollywood, with many people seeming to believe that this was an entirely new subset of the horror genre.
As landmark of a film as Get Out was, however, African Americans had written, directed and/or starred in horror movies since the early days of cinema — with little fanfare. Until the 1990s, these were largely low-budget, all-black (that is, mostly black) productions that struggled to gain acceptance outside of their target demographic, but as the century turned, major studios began dipping their toes into the sub-genre with fare like Candyman, Bones and Tales From the Hood, and within the first two decades of the 21st century, black horror became a sought-after commodity.
On its way to the Get Out tipping point, though, the state of African-American horror went through several distinct cycles reflecting the prevailing racial attitudes of the time, an evolution that continues to this day.
2. 1930s-40s: Race Films
The earliest all-black movies, called “race films,” were segregated more out of necessity than by choice, due to the limited opportunities available to African-American actors within the Hollywood studio system. While most race films were polite melodramas and murder mysteries featuring educated, upper-class protagonists, a string of more bawdy, working-class comedies also proved to be popular.
It’s these comedies that were the most likely of the race films to feature horror elements — primarily haunted houses or voodoo curses. Comedians Mantan Moreland (Lucky Ghost, Mr. Washington Goes to Town, Professor Creeps) and Pigmeat Markham (Mr. Smith Goes Ghost, Fight That Ghost) in particular headlined several such movies.
The use of black comedians in horror comedies even extended to major studio productions, with Moreland featured in King of the Zombies, Revenge of the Zombies and several Charlie Chan mysteries. Willie Best, meanwhile, played Bob Hope’s sidekick (credited as his “boy”) in The Ghost Breakers, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson had a significant role in Topper Returns, and Nick Stewart spiced up Zombies on Broadway with his wit. As prominent as these comedic roles were, though, they tended to reinforce African-American stereotypes — most prominently, an overly superstitious fear of the supernatural.
That said, several somber, dramatic race films featured horrific themes. Typically, they revolved around voodoo and religion, like Drums o’ Voodoo, The Devil’s Daughter with Nina Mae McKinney and Ouanga with Fredi Washington; or infrequently, they played out like a typical monster movie of the era, like Son of Ingagi. More serious-minded mainstream films likewise had occasional black supporting cast members — almost exclusively domestic servants or “dangerous” natives — as evident in King Kong, I Walked with a Zombie, Son of Dracula, The Mummy’s Curse and The Vampire’s Ghost.
3. 1950s-60s: Integration and Evaporation
African-American roles in horror movies all but dried up in the next two decades, for a couple of reasons. First, the 1950s witnessed the start of an era of integration on the big screen, as all-black race films faded into obscurity. Second, movie studios began to display a heightened sense of responsibility to show black people in a positive light due to pressure from civil rights groups like the NAACP. Thus, as Sidney Poitier came to epitomize the “dignified” cinematic African-American ideal, comedic actors like Mantan Moreland became synonymous with outdated racial stereotypes, and black roles in “low-brow” fare like horror movies dried up. Unfortunately, little arose within the genre to take their place.
The most notable exception was Duane Jones as Ben in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, whose ahead-of-its-time casting as the film’s heroic last man standing set the stage for the Blaxploitation movement of the coming decade.
4. 1970s: Blaxploitation
In 1970, the so-called “Blaxploitation” era began as a backlash against integrated films that had either marginalized black characters or presented them in such flat (albeit sometimes idealized) terms that they were rendered unrepresentative. While most of the all-black films of this time were crime dramas and action-oriented, quite a few of the 200-plus Blaxploitation movies released in the decade fell into the horror genre.
Much of Blaxploitation horror simply put an African-American spin on established works like Dracula (Blacula), Frankenstein (Blackenstein), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde) and even The Exorcist (Abby), but for the most part, these films rose beyond their basic premises with strong acting and direction. Original plots like the zombie revenge flick Sugar Hill, the cerebral vampire tale Ganja and Hess and ghost stories The House on Skull Mountain and J.D.’s Revenge furthered the depth of the era’s black horror offerings.
The influence of Blaxploitation bled into mainstream studio films during the decade, with prominent black roles that were largely absent in previous decades, such as Rosalind Cash in The Omega Man, Calvin Lockhart in The Beast Must Die, Teresa Graves in Old Dracula and Rosie Grier in The Thing with Two Heads.
5. 1980s: The End of an Era
All good things, however, must come to an end. By the start of the 1980s, studios had glutted the market with all-black fare, thus ensuring smaller and smaller profits. To some, the uniqueness of the Blaxploitation genre had become stale. Hollywood assumed that the “fad” had run its course and cut funding for such films. Taking a cue from the Reagan administration’s slashing of social service programs that disproportionately benefited African Americans, the studios began a decade of benign neglect when it came to black cinema. Thus, the few black movies made during the decade — horror or otherwise — generally had to be made outside of the studio system.
Practically the only horror films with primarily black casts (aside from the kid-friendly PBS mystery The House of Dies Drear) produced during that time came from writer/director Chester Norvell Turner. His Black Devil Doll From Hell and Tales From the Quadead Zone were so cheap and poorly made and, in the case of Black Devil Doll in particular, contained such scandalous content that they have since become cult favorites.
In mainstream ’80s horror, Vamp was one of the only horror movies of note headlined by a black actor — Grace Jones — granted, she had only about 10 minutes of screen time. The Bride and Vampire’s Kiss, meanwhile, featured Jennifer Beals, but she was widely perceived to be white — as evidenced by the fact that she was offered the Molly Ringwald role in Pretty in Pink — or at best race neutral, diminishing the cultural impact of her casting.
While the genre continued the uptick in black representation that began during the Blaxploitation era, black characters were less likely to be the leads during a decade that seemed to care more about tokenism than roles of substance. Thus, with the growing popularity of slasher films, in which anyone who isn’t the lead is likely to be killed, the ‘80s almost single-handedly spawned the running joke that the “black guy” always dies in horror movies.
6. 1990s: Urban Horror
By the early 1990s, young black filmmakers like Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, John Singleton and Keenan Ivory Wayans had begun to fill the void left since the end of the Blaxploitation era. Their ability to create quality material with popular appeal showed studios that films with primarily African-American casts could indeed be marketable. And with the plight of black life in the inner cities faring poorly during the ‘80s, there was plenty of fodder for drama, spurring a vogue for movies with realistic, sympathetic portrayals of black people dealing with crime, violence, drugs and poverty.
Within this atmosphere of voyeuristic fascination grew several black horror movies with inner city settings, which became known as “urban horror.” Notable examples included Candyman (although the heroine was white), Bones, Tales From the Hood, Def By Temptation and a pair of films from established horror master Wes Craven: The People Under the Stairs and Vampire in Brooklyn.
Later in the ’90s, as technological advances made filmmaking more accessible to everyday people, urban horror exploded on home video. Companies like Full Moon and Maverick began to produce a slew of cheaply made urban horror releases benefiting from the popularity of hip-hop culture (and often featuring rappers), including Killjoy, Ragdoll, Hood Rat, Cryptz, Zombiez, Vampiyaz, The Evil One and Urban Menace. Since then, direct-to-video movies under the urban horror moniker — which in some minds has come to embody all African-American horror, regardless of locale — have become a steady presence within the horror genre, with even established franchises from Leprechaun and Children of the Corn shifting their focus to “the hood.”
The move towards showcasing black stories in the ’90s even reflected occasionally in mainstream, non-black horror, with starring roles in major films like Demon Knight, Event Horizon, Blade, Spawn, Fallen and House on Haunted Hill — a major shift from the lily white leads of ’80s horror.
7. 2000s: Get Out and Mainstream Breakthrough
Through the first decade and a half of the 21st century, there was a steady stream of mostly direct-to-video black horror offerings that flew under the radar despite a slow but perceptible growth in overall quality and diversity of storytelling from the “urban horror” days of the ’90s and early ’00s. Perhaps most prominent were horror-adjacent “black thrillers” of the Fatal Attraction variety (Obsessed, No Good Deed, The Perfect Guy, When the Bough Breaks, Lakeview Terrace) and horror comedies from the Scary Movie, A Haunted House and Madea franchises.
All the while, starring black roles in mainstream horror (I Am Legend, Alien vs. Predator, Gothika, Queen of the Damned) became gradually more common — in part, due to public pressure to diversify casting, as epitomized by the #OscarsSoWhite backlash of 2015 — as did racially conscious stories like The Skeleton Key, Jessabelle and the Purge franchise.
Then, in 2017, Get Out exploded onto the scene, its critical and commercial success almost single-handedly legitimizing black horror as a sub-genre in many people’s eyes. Hollywood studios and producers rushed to find their own films with black stars and themes — nominally because it satiated a public demand for diversity and social consciousness, but in truth, they also wanted to cash in. A slew of movies followed — from Peele’s own Us to Antebellum, Ma, The First Purge, Body Cam, Bad Hair, Vampires vs. the Bronx, Thriller, Spell, His House, Black Box and Kindred, not to mention the HBO TV series Lovecraft Country, which dripped with racial commentary — all reflecting increased public awareness of issues of social justice and institutional racism.
An offshoot of “the Get Out effect” was the continued upward trend in leading roles for black actors and actresses in mainstream horror films whose plots ostensibly have little to do with race — including Escape Room, The Cloverfield Paradox, Overlord, Little Monsters, Slice, Jacob’s Ladder, The Girl with All the Gifts, The Intruder, The Perfection, Pooka, Tragedy Girls, Rattlesnake and Sweetheart. By the start of the 2020s, black representation in horror was at an all-time peak — not only in the quantity of roles, but also in the quality and diversity of stories being told — a far cry from the scarce, narrowly drawn roles that epitomized the opportunities Hollywood afforded to black performers for so many years.