White Fright; Or, Why Are There No Black People in Haunted House Movies?

White Fright; Or, Why Are There No Black People in Haunted House Movies?

Ever since 2009’s Paranormal Activity wrested the horror crown away from the Saw franchise, fright films featuring ghosts or demonic entities have ruled the genre, churning out hit after hit — from the Paranormal Activity films to The Haunting in Connecticut, The Devil Inside, Mama, The Last Exorcism and the Conjuring, Insidious, Sinister and Ouija franchises. Take what you will from this trend, but my biggest personal takeaway — and one that should serve me well if I ever suspect the ghost of a scorned chambermaid is living in my attic — is that black people don’t get haunted. Phew.

Well, that’s at least what Hollywood would have you believe. The ghostly/demonic haunted house genre — particularly the run of films that have dominated horror since 2009 — has been an overwhelmingly Caucasian affair, even by the standards of mostly white mainstream horror. The modern supernatural hits from major studios (unlike indie horror movies, which tend to be more racially diverse, in part because the filmmakers have more control) have scarcely featured any people of color — apart from the Latino offshoot Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones — not even the normal token “black guy/gal” roles we’ve come to expect in every slasher movie since the 1980s.

White Fright; Or, Why Are There No Black People in Haunted House Movies?
White people in Ouija.

This “black hole” presents an interesting reversal of the days of the old “spook” stereotype, when it was seemingly mandated that haunted house movies have a black comic relief role to react with a bug-eyed skedaddle to the sight — or even the mention — of ghosts. That grotesque caricature has given way to arguably a more pernicious tool of image control — exclusion — creating a vacuum in which the only major ghostly releases with featured black roles are spoofs like Marlon Wayans’ Haunted House films and Scary Movie 5 (all of which, it could be argued, revert back to modern interpretations of the spook archetype for laughs).

So, why has mainstream haunted house fare been so tragically monochromatic? For one, this sub-genre tends to hinge on the concept of a “normal,” typically all-American family that has its life turned upside down by a supernatural disturbance. And as much as some would like to think we’re living in a color-blind society, the term “all-American” still generates in the mostly white public’s mind images that are more in line with Ward and June Cleaver than Lucious and Cookie Lyon. It’s the same reason why a missing upper-middle class white woman can become national news while a missing lower-class black woman is relegated to a flyer on a telephone pole.

White Fright; Or, Why Are There No Black People in Haunted House Movies?
White people in Insidious.

Even if such societal concepts are shifting, though, you can’t count on Hollywood to lead the way — especially in a mainstream film with studio money behind it (indies can afford to be more risky) and especially in a genre that studios seem to view as targeting unrefined, unimaginative, narrow-minded tastes. You can always rely on horror hits to beat a winning concept to death with endless sequels, copycats, remakes and reboots, an overly safe approach that not only shows little regard for the intelligence (and a fundamental lack of understanding) of its audience, but also reflects a stagnant, corporate mentality that further ingrains whatever tired genre formulas — including racial casting — have long been established.

And as “post racial” as some people would like to view modern society, Hollywood still has not evolved past a largely segregated mindset that views a movie with two black leads automatically as a “black film,” with limited box office potential.

White Fright; Or, Why Are There No Black People in Haunted House Movies?
White people in The Haunting in Connecticut.

In movies, haunted houses are almost always rural or suburban, while “black movies” tend to be urban. Annabelle is one of the few of the recent spate of supernatural hits to feature an urban setting — an apartment — and not coincidentally, it’s also one of the few to feature a black actor (Alfre Woodard) in a primary supporting role.

Other contemporary ghost/demon films featuring a black character in the main cast — Evil Dead (with Jessica Lucas), The Lazarus Effect (with Donald Glover) and Blair Witch (TWO of ’em!) — do so under the guise of ensemble films in a specific, non-residential setting (the “cabin in the woods” variety, the “scientists in a lab” variety and the “camping in the woods” variety, respectively). Ensemble movies are more likely to feature a diverse cast because their main characters tend to be unrelated with varied backgrounds whose differences often play into the plot — unlike the single-family home settings of most haunted house features. (It should go without saying that the black characters in Annabelle, Evil Dead, Lazarus Effect and Blair Witch ALL die, because, well, that’s what black people do in horror movies.)

White Fright; Or, Why Are There No Black People in Haunted House Movies?
White people in The Conjuring 2.

Apart from the standard ensemble casting, black actors’ opportunities for featured roles in supernatural fare like this tends to be limited to stories with voodoo and/or slavery elements, and none of the major horror releases have explored that territory since The Skeleton Key and Venom in 2005. (2014’s Jessabelle and 2013’s The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia did, but despite studio backing via Lionsgate, both failed to get wide theatrical distribution — perhaps in part because the racial overtones were felt to limit the appeal. Jessabelle was certainly good enough to warrant a wide release, and Ghosts of Georgia had enough name recognition to do so.)

Sadly, it’s hard to see any signs of this exclusionary approach changing (however intentional you choose to view it). A quick perusal of the upcoming Annabelle 2 cast reveals no black cast members, and any extension of the based-on-real-life Conjuring franchise can continue to use the convenient excuse of biographical truth to maintain its racial exclusivity. That said, in 2014, Lee Daniels was reportedly attached to direct Demon House, a film based on the supposed demonic encounters of black Gary, Indiana resident Latoya Ammons and her family. Given the lack of updates since that announcement, however, it seems this project might be stuck in Development Hell.

White Fright; Or, Why Are There No Black People in Haunted House Movies?
White people in Sinister 2 — wait, what’s Shannyn Sossamon? *Checks Wikipedia* One-quarter Hawaiian/Filipino? Close enough.

If nothing else, the next horror trend is bound to arise soon, meaning haunted house flicks will fall out of fashion, and the studios will hop on board the next money train. Maybe Jordan Peele’s Get Out will tag racially conscious, African-American horror as the next big thing. Lord knows the next four years in America are primed to feature plenty of racially based horror.

Interview with the Black Guy

Interview with the Black Guy

Originally published on MadAtoms.com

You’ve seen him in every horror movie since 1984: the black guy who hangs out with a group of white people he has nothing in common with, whose only purpose, it seems, is to die first. He’s been sliced into pieces in Resident Evil, de-armed in Predator, and he had his head punched off in Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. Now, for the first time, he speaks candidly. As he walks up to greet me, clad in a retro letterman jacket and Chuck Taylors, he seems cautious, constantly looking over his shoulder with the bug-eyed nervousness of an inmate guarding his food. When I extend my hand to shake, he leaps backwards and shouts, “Oh lawdy!” with his arms arched over his strangely outdated Jheri curl.

You’ve appeared in 684 horror movies in the past 25 years, and every time, you die. What keeps you going?

Well, Mark, I gotta say it’s my love for the genre. And crack. Mostly the crack.

Off all your deaths, which was your favorite way to die?

Being fellated to death! (Laughs.) No, really, I never get to have sex. (Sighs. Rubs himself for several seconds with a faraway look in his eyes, then snaps out of it.) Oh, my favorite death? Probably in Satanic Skank Spank when I had my arms chopped off, then I was dumped in a vat of plaster of Paris, and my body was posed to look like the Venus de Milo. It hurt like a son of a bitch, but I appreciated the artistry.

Do you have any favorite last words you’ve uttered?

Usually, it’s something generic, like “Save yourself!” or “Get outta here!” but this one time, I ad-libbed, “The black man is God!” That was during my Muslim phase.

You’ve been playing a high school jock for three decades now. Do you worry about your believability now that you’re, what, 46?

Forty-nine, actually, but I can play 35. I usually pretend to be latently retarded in my movies so people will assume I’ve been left back a few times. But yeah, I think there could be some credibility issues. That’s why I’ve been trying to move behind the camera to direct. I’ve been meeting with a producer to get this project off the ground that I wrote called Dead Crackers — although there ain’t no Saltines in it, if y’know what I’m sayin’? (Gives me dap.)

Do you have any aspirations of actually living until the end of a film?

Sure, and I’d also like to shit rainbow sherbet! Look, it’s not like I wanna die; I don’t wanna follow these stupid white kids when they say, “Let’s go party in the old abandoned prison!” But I always end up shouting, “Outta sight!” Outta sight? Who even says that anymore?!? It’s a compulsion. I got problems, man. But no more. I’m seeing a psychiatrist, and once I get funding for my movie, I’ll write myself a small part just to show people that I can be in a horror movie and not end up dead!

At this point, a scaffolding falls on B.G.’s head, killing him instantly. He doesn’t plan on letting his death prevent him from signing copies of Librarian Bloodbath Massacre III at the Barnes & Noble downtown next Tuesday.

The Green Pile: The Steaming Racial Dynamics of The Green Mile

The Green Pile: The Steaming Racial Dynamics of The Green Mile

Originally published on PopMatters.com

Have you ever met someone that you instantly hated? I mean, with a passion; not a mild distrust or a ‘don’t-drop-the-soap’ hesitation, but a deep-seated gut instinct that this person should be pushed down a flight of stairs in order to save humanity.

For me, that person happens to be a movie: The Green Mile.

For a while before that, it had been Kazaam, and briefly, during a rough stretch in my adolescence, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But no film has retained my enduring ire like The Green Mile.

And yet, it remains one of the most beloved pictures of the past 25 years. A quick perusal of the IMDb reveals a user rating of 8.5 out of 10, and Rotten Tomatoes has it as “Certified Fresh” with a robust 80% Tomatometer Rating, meaning that critics and unwashed masses alike love this fucking movie. Clearly, there’s a disconnect here between me and the rest of the world, so the question is obvious: what the hell is wrong with you people?

As much as it pained me to contribute to the film’s financial cume, though, I decided to rent it again to prove to myself that my detestation was warranted. And so it began…

00:45 — 45 seconds in, and I’m already feeling dread. Even the credits feel as if they were spawned from Satan’s left nut.

07:22 — Edgecomb, Tom Hanks’ character, is all mopey, reminiscing as a senior citizen about the bad old days. Is there anything sadder than seeing an old man cry? What’s up next, a kitten sprains an ankle?

13:50 — John Coffey (the terminally sweaty Michael Clarke Duncan) enters and immediately invokes the stereotype of the big black buck. Alarming Racial Insensitivity Alarm #1.

16:48 — When Coffey opens his mouth, we realize that he’s a simpleton who can only spell his name and who’s deathly afraid of the dark. He is, however, obscenely polite, “Boss.” Alarming Racial Insensitivity Alarm #2: Stepin Fetchit anyone?

20:42 — In a flashback, Coffey is found crying, holding two dead white girls in his arms. How did I get into Kobe Bryant’s nightmare? Alarming Racial Insensitivity Alarm #3: Black man + white girls = trouble.

21:49 — The most polite lynch mob in the world catches Coffey red-handed and decides to turn him into the police, unharmed. Somewhere, Rodney King cries foul.

45:25 — Arlen (Graham Greene), the “Injun,” gets fried. Granted, the term “Injun” is never actually used; must’ve been a deleted scene. Also deleted: on his deathbed, Arlen curses Tonto, the Washington Redskins and Daniel Day-Lewis.

57:00 — Almost an hour into the film, we know little more about Coffey than we did at the beginning. Meanwhile, we have intimate knowledge of Edgecomb’s pee stream. Alarming Racial Insensitivity Alarm #4: Shallow characterizations of black folk, while black issues are explored through white eyes.

1:04:27 — Coffey grabs Edgecomb’s crotch (Has he been in jail that long?) and heals the guard’s junk. Alarming Racial Insensitivity Alarm #5: Now Coffey’s a mystical darkie. Three, three stereotypes in one!

1:05:43 — Hanks reveals a disturbingly doughy double-chin as he pees pain-free. I want chocolate chip cookies.

1:07:39 — Having been imparted the power of the black penis, Edgecomb runs home and bonks his wife. Alarming Racial Insensitivity Alarm #6: Black male virility. OK, so this one’s not so bad, sort of like all Asians knowing kung fu or all Italians being papal.

1:10:54 — Hammersmith (Gary Sinise) discusses Coffey’s origins: “Like he dropped out of the sky”. Coffey as a Christ figure? John Coffey. Jesus Christ. J.C. Chasez. I’m in 10th grade English class all over again.

1:16:58 — Wild Bill (Sam Rockwell) pisses on guard Harry’s (Jeffrey DeMunn) shoes, then…

1:26:05 — Percy (Doug Hutchison) wets his pants, making The Green Mile the most urine-centric film since Golden Showers 34 (Golden Showers 35 being all “artsy”).

1:32:35 — Coffey furthers the Christ comparisons by resurrecting a dead mouse. If he really were Jesus, he’d help me find the stupid remote.

2:10:07 — Edgecomb doesn’t ask Coffey if he wants to help the terminally ill Mrs. Moores (Patricia Clarkson) so much as he tells him to do so, taking him on a ride as you would a wounded dog. Did he not notice how drained Coffey was after saving a mouse? Alarming Racial Insensitivity Alarm #7: Black man exists solely to help the white man.

2:23:20 — Coffey saves the white woman by mouth-kissing her (Apparently, he learned little from the whole white girl incident.). The guards are happy that Mrs. Moores is cured; don’t care much that Coffey now has her disease.

2:26:58 — Coffey transmits the sickness to Percy through hot mouth-on-mouth action (covert anti-AIDS homophobia?), then somehow makes him shoot Wild Bill. If Coffey can control others’ actions, how about getting them to, like, not kill you? That’s what Jesus would do.

2:31:12 — Coffey gives Edgecomb “a gift of what’s inside of me so you can see for yourself”; shows him a vision of what really happened to the girls. Surprisingly, O.J. is nowhere to be found.

2:37:10 — Now that he knows that Coffey is innocent, Edgecomb tells his wife, “This is the first time I’ve ever felt the real danger of Hell.” It’s all about you, isn’t it?

2:40:33 — Edgecomb is afraid of God’s wrath for killing “one of His true miracles.” So, if he were just a normal innocent black man (especially one who didn’t constantly call him “boss”), he wouldn’t care?

2:41:09 — Coffey, awaiting his execution, mutters, “I’m tired, boss.” I know how he feels.

2:42:05 — Coffey explains to Edgecomb that he’s ready to die, sort of like Biggie. So let me get this straight: he’s afraid of the dark and full of wonder at even the smallest things the world has to offer, yet when it comes time for his execution, he’s suddenly not afraid of dying? Alarming Racial Insensitivity Alarm #8: Assuaging liberal white guilt.

2:47:58 — Edgecomb does nothing to help Coffey beat the rap. Coffey’s last words: “I’m sorry for what I am.” Jesus. Alarming Racial Insensitivity Alarm #9: Black man as helpless martyr.

2:57:10 – Back in present times, old man Edgecomb reveals that because Coffey gave him a “gift,” he’s lived for 108 years and is still going strong. His old lady friend weeps. “You mustn’t blame John,” he says, as if living a full life for 64 years after Coffey dies is somehow a curse. Damn pervading deathlessness!

2:58:36 — Whiny ingrate Edgecomb explains that he’s actually not immortal and then follows it up by saying that he wishes for death. So step in front of a bus already! Alarming Racial Insensitivity Alarm #10: Black man gets the shaft, yet we’re supposed to sympathize with the white man.

3:00:47 — Through the ending credits, I wonder…If John Coffey truly were Jesus, wouldn’t he have risen from the grave like the greatest cinematic Christ figure, E.T.? He at least didn’t go out like a punk. The most miraculous part of The Green Mile that I see is how creamy and Botox-smooth Tom Hanks’ skin is. His face looks like a cross between a Cabbage Patch Kid and a Playmate’s ass. I wanted to bounce quarters off his rosy woman-cheeks.

So, if any white (or heaven forbid, black) person still doesn’t appreciate the level of discomfort that black people might feel watching The Green Mile, they should be strapped to a chair and forced to watch a double bill of Bamboozled and Rosewood, followed by front-row seats at a Paul Mooney standup act. If they can make it through that gauntlet without blood on the brain, that would be a miracle.

The Black Die Young: The Internal Struggle of a Black Horror Movie Fan

The Black Die Young: The Internal Struggle of a Black Horror Movie Fan

Originally published on PopMatters.com

I have a secret passion; the less addicted of you might call it an addiction. I like to watch. I rent base, filthy movies and slip them into brown paper bags so no one can tell. I sit alone in seedy, near-empty theaters, pleasuring myself with this trash. I’m too embarrassed to tell anyone about my weakness, although my wife has caught me watching a time or two (“It’s a documentary!” is my standard excuse; she’s since cancelled the Discovery Channel.). But now I’m ready to step out of the shadows and proclaim loudly, I am a black man… and I love horror movies.

My guilt is overbearing, given the well-worn truism that “black person + horror movie = dead black person“. This is such an ingrained Hollywood reality that it’s even been parodied in films like Scary Movie and, um, Scary Movie 2 and 3.

Still, whenever I see that a black person is in a horror movie, I have to watch. While most viewers wonder if Neve Campbell will escape the clutches of the psycho killer, I stay tuned to see if she’ll run into Jamal hanging from a meat hook or if Black Thug #3 will find himself on the business end of a mutant shrew claw.

I’ve even begun to root for the worst.

I’m secretly disappointed when black actors don’t die in horror movies… especially that cocksure LL Cool J. (Rappers seem to have an irritating immunity — Ice Cube in Anaconda, Rah Digga in 13 Ghosts, Busta Rhymes in Halloween: Resurrection — probably due to their acute ability to “not go out like that.”) While everyone in the theater is yelling, “Don’t go in there, fool!”, I’m screaming, “Hey, Black Thug #3, I saw a St. Ides roll down that giant shrew hole!”

A while back, a black actor friend mentioned that he has a role in an upcoming slasher movie. “Do you die?” I blurted out, perhaps a bit too eager at the prospect.

He eyed me as if I were plotting his real-life death. “Um, no… I’m actually not in it for very long–“

“Not even off-screen? Like, from natural causes? Or a bear trap?”

“Don’t make me punch you in the head,” he said. Actors can be a touchy lot.

So why would I be so drawn to a genre known for killing off my own? Maybe it validates my suspicion that white people want us dead. Maybe it affirms a sort of racial indignation, like when that SOB Frank didn’t hold the elevator for you at work (“I knew he was a racist!”) More likely it’s the sheer camp factor; black horror genocide has reached such proportions that there’s a goofy appeal to it all. Or maybe I just like watching black people die.

It didn’t take long for me to learn how to uncover the most carnage with the least amount of effort. I quickly discerned that there are four main types of horror movies that feature black actors:

  1. Voodoo/zombie movies: Those wacky Caribbeans, always raising the dead.
  2. “Wilds of Africa” giant monster movies: Those wacky Africans, always getting eaten by unchecked evolution.
  3. Slashers: The conspicuously misplaced homeboy amongst a gaggle of preppy frat types. “Hi, my name’s Fodder!”
  4. All-black horror: The ’70s blaxploitation fare that combined horror — Blacula, Blackenstein, Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde — with potentially horrific “honky revenge.” 

Blaxploitation has since given way to so-called “urban horror,” the prospect of which initially sent my bloodlust into overdrive. But I soon discovered that the effect is nullified if there are no white survivors as contrast. It ends up just feeling like black-on-black crime. Or course, it doesn’t help that urban horror is a lot like urban porn: cheap, ugly and probably mildly syphilitic.

I can only guess that the target audience is either black horror fans like myself or, having seen most of these films, people who cut themselves. The DVD cover art usually costs more than the entire movie, drawing suckers like me into its grasp with bright colors and shiny baubles. And the titles are oh, so hiply misspelled — Vampiyaz, Zombiez, Cryptz — I’m still waiting for The Loch Nezz Monzter or The Abominable Znowman (Illiteracy is so cool!). On some level, when I watch these movies, I feel like I’m supporting “the cause,” although the cause seems to be scamming viewers with crappy movies.

If you wanna see black people die, watching any horror movie made before 1968 is basically a waste of time. Aside from the anonymous “booga booga”-chanting native who gets trampled by King Kong, you’ll find mostly butlers, maids and assorted ethnic interior decoration (“Would you like to have a seat? Hey, Sofa, come here!”) who aren’t important enough to get a name, much less a death scene. Those who were big enough to get billing were typically the Mantan Moreland type of jumpy, “I ain’t a-goin’ in dere” spooks, who have since evolved into today’s streetwise “Fuck that, I ain’t going in there” spooks (See Mike Epps in Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Or don’t. Really, you don’t have to.).

In order to be a connoisseur of black death, you have to train yourself to recognize the death potential of a cast just by looking at the credits. If you see any of the following people listed, chances are you’ll find them at some point walking around in the dark, shouting, “Guys? Guys? Quit screwing around!” or at best, a heroic “Get out of here! Save yourself!” But more than anything, they scream “disposable”:

  • Charles S. Dutton
  • Joe Morton
  • Antonio “Huggy Bear” Fargas
  • Ernie Hudson
  • Giancarlo Esposito
  • Miguel “Juwanna Mann” Nunez, Jr.
  • CCH Pounder
  • Leon
  • Tom “Tiny” Lister, Jr.
  • Morris Chestnut
  • Omar Epps and/or Mekhi Phifer
  • Nipsey Russell

On the flip side, the most likely to live (and thus the most advisable to avoid) include:

  • Halle Berry
  • anyone resembling Halle Berry (see Salli Richardson in Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid)

Basically, if they’re big stars, they have a shot. But then again, if they’re big stars, chances are they aren’t in a horror movie.

Still, some of our greatest black actors have been “offed” in horror movies: James Earl Jones, Denzel Washington, Ossie Davis, Morgan Freeman, Doug E. Doug. But who speaks for these fallen heroes? I do. If not me, who? If not now, why? If not when, because. So far, I’ve tracked over 300 confirmed kills and 250 “Fuck that, I ain’t going in there”s. I’ve even registered a domain, www.blackhorrormovies.com, to share my findings and maybe post a pic or two.

Sure, there are readily accepted classics of the genre — from Frankenstein to The Exorcist to Scream — but take a moment and pay homage to the most thankless job in Hollywood: the black horror movie victim. Rent Dr. Giggles (Three kills!), I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (Four!), or Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (Five freshly husked corpses!). And every night, say a prayer to the patron saint of black death, Scatman Crothers, who took an axe for that crazy-ass white boy in The Shining so that others might follow in his footsteps.