Scary Sistas: A Brief History of Black Women in Horror Films

Scary Sistas: A Brief History of Black Women in Horror Films

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Black women in cinematic history have long faced the double-barreled Hollywood stigma of race and gender “otherness,” their fleeting moment of glory coming in the ’90s when “You go, girl!” was introduced into the popular lexicon. On the more formal level of Oscar recognition, meanwhile, the black female images thus far celebrated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been limited to “the three ‘M’s”: mammies (Hattie McDaniel), mystics (Whoopi Goldberg) and mammaries (Halle Berry).

With Goldberg’s career on permanent hiatus, the number of black actresses who now routinely headline mainstream theatrical films holds tenuously at one: Halle Berry (although any more like Catwoman might change that real quick). Queen Latifah had a run for a while, but she, like so many black actresses, found safer avenues for acceptance in music, TV and being “straight.” The Taraji Hensons, Gabrielle Unions and Sanaa Lathans of the world get occasional leads in all-black fare, but mainstream top-billing is elusive.

However, a peculiar and unexpected refuge has emerged for other black women struggling to find steady gigs: horror movies.

Since the 1970s, horror films have provided something of a haven for black actresses, serving up roles they wouldn’t otherwise get in more mainstream Hollywood genres and freeing them from the obligation of doing it doggy-style with Billy Bob Thornton. Sure, “types” still exist in these roles (the voodoo sexpot, the mystical darkie), but in general they tend to be larger, more prolific parts — often leads — with less of the stereotypical finger-wagging characteristics detailed in the 2001 study The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America (e.g., 89% of black actresses were found using vulgar language on screen vs. 17% of white actresses. Holy shit!).

In the ’70s, “blaxploitation” horror provided a wealth of substantive lead roles for black actresses (Abby, Sugar Hill, Ganja and Hess), even trickling over into mainstream films (The Omega Man, The Beast Must Die) and overseas into foreign productions (Black Mamba, Night of the Cobra Woman).

In the ’80s, as Reaganomics saw unemployment “trickle down” into all phases of African-American life, opportunities for black actresses dried up, but there were still notable exceptions like Breeders, Vamp, Angel Heart and one of the only all-black horror films of the decade, the uber-campy Black Devil Doll from Hell.

But things picked up as the ’90s dawned and have looked back little since. Black women have been featured as the heroine in major horror releases like Gothika, Demon Knight, 28 Days Later, Supernova and Alien vs. Predator, while Aaliyah’s final screen role came as the titular Queen of the Damned. Plus, with the straight-to-video industry booming, they’ve played lead roles in poorly-spelled “urban horror” fare like Cryptz, Zombiez, Vampz and Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood.

In the 21st century, a string of black female-led psychological thrillers — Beyonce in Obsessed, Taraji P. Henson in No Good Deed, Sanaa Lathan in The Perfect Guy, Regina Hall in When the Bough Breaks — have found an audience amongst filmgoers who might shy away from hardcore horror but are eager to watch black women put the smack down.

Whether it’s ingrained stereotyping of heroic empowerment, black horror heroines are typically hard-nosed and take-charge, unlike the often weepy, shrieking “final girls” of slasher fame. They tend to kick proverbial ass, even going so far as to drop some kung-fu action in flicks like Devon’s Ghost and Shadow: Dead Riot.

As such, they typically don’t survive the rigid moral structure of conventional slasher films (See Sleepaway Camp 2 and 3, Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Friday the 13th Part 3 and 5 though 7, Dr. Giggles, Halloween 2, Halloween: Resurrection, Scream 2, etc.), perhaps because they’re more prone to insult a maniacal killer’s sexual prowess — as Kelly Rowland does in Freddy vs. Jason — and then deal with the consequences. Nevertheless, the sistas have established quite an impressive history in the horror genre. Following are some select highlights. You go, girls! Or stay. Really, you should stay.

Select Filmography of Black Women in Horror Cinema


  • Chloe, Love Is Calling You (1934): Voodoo priestess Georgette Harvey steals a white baby and raises her as her own.
  • Ouanga (1936): Voodoo priestess Fredi Washington tries to steal a white man and love him as her own.
  • The Devil’s Daughter (1939): An all-black remake of Ouanga


  • There was a lot of horror, but apparently not a lot of black women.  


  • How to Make a Monster (1958): Paulene Myers has a small but pivotal role in this schlocky monster movie that’s a “meta” semi-sequel to I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein.


  • The Leech Woman (1960): Estelle Hemsley and Kim Hamilton play old and young versions of the same “mystical darkie” in this lesser Universal feature.
  • The Horror of Party Beach (1964): Walking stereotype Eulabelle Moore somehow saves the day (sort of) in this campy B-movie.
  • The Rape of the Vampire (1968): In this French film from erotic horror director Jean Rollin, Jacqueline Sieger plays the rare black female primary antagonist, a vampire queen intent on procreating a race of vampires.


  • The Omega Man (1971): Charlton Heston as a Jesus figure, and Rosalind Cash as his brown sugar Mary Magdalene.
  • Blacula (1972): Classic blaxploitation version of Dracula with Vonetta McGee as the object of Blacula’s unhealthy obsession.
  • Night of the Cobra Woman (1972): Philippine import starring Marlene Clark as said snake woman.
  • Ganja & Hess (1973): Artsy, sensual vampire love story with Marlene Clark as Ganja.
  • Scream Blacula Scream (1973): Mildly inferior sequel with the mildly superior Pam Grier.
  • Abby (1974): Blaxploitation version of The Exorcist starring Carol Speed and her eyebrows.
  • The Beast Must Die (1974): Is Marlene Clark a werewolf? Story at 11:00.
  • Black Mamba (1974): Once again, Marlene Clark + Philippines + snakes = evil.
  • Old Dracula (1974): Dracula’s wife (Teresa Graves) is black! And foxy!
  • Sugar Hill (1974): Zombie revenge flick starring Marki Bey and her legion of the living dead.
  • Poor Pretty Eddie (1975): Leslie Uggams adds a racial angle to the seedy “rape-revenge” fare made popular in the ‘70s.
  • Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976): Marie O’Henry and Rosalind Cash try to stop hooker-slaying Mr. Hyde.
  • Nurse Sherri (1978): Marilyn Joi plays a black nurse (not the titular Sherri) who has to save the day when her white coworker Sherri is possessed by the spirit of a cult leader.


  • Tanya’s Island (1980): Surreal fantasy/horror genre-bender starring Vanity and hot (?) girl-on-ape action.
  • Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984): Indescribable low-budget puppet porn starring Shirley L. Jones.
  • The Bride (1985): Jennifer Beals is the bride of Frankenstein. Leg warmers optional.
  • Breeders (1986): One of the first non-all-black horror movies to star an all-black woman (Teresa Farley).
  • Mark of Lilith (1986): British interracial lesbian vampire short.
  • Vamp (1986): Grace Jones, scary even without the make-up, plays one of the most stylish vampires ever.
  • Angel Heart (1987): Bayou voodoo featuring Lisa Bonet’s infamous bloody sex scene.


  • Def By Temptation (1990): Cynthia Bond is the succubus; Kadeem Hardison is the
  • The Borrower (1991): Rae Dawn Chong battles alien headnapper.
  • Critters 4 (1991): Angela Bassett in an early role she’d like to forget.
  • Body Bags (1993): This anthology’s first tale, “The Gas Station,” is one of the rare non-“urban” slashers starring a black woman (Alex Datcher).
  • The Stand (1994): Ruby Dee is the Yoda-like prophet on a mission from God.
  • Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995): Mari Morrow experiences Amish love…and Amish evil!
  • Demon Knight (1995): Jada Pinkett, demon slayer.
  • Vampire in Brooklyn (1995): Angela Bassett upgrades from Critters 4…but not by much.
  • Spirit Lost (1996): Ghostly Cynda Williams haunts (and humps) the new resident of her house.
  • Scream 2 (1997): Jada Pinkett and Elise Neal prove that you can have more than one black female in a horror movie…and they can both die.
  • Beloved (1998): Oprah’s on! And she’s in a haunted house!
  • The Prophecy II (1998): Jennifer Beals is pregnant with a baby angel, although really, aren’t they all angels? Awww… </P>


  • Supernova (2000): Angela Bassett vs. an alien, um, thing.
  • 13 Ghosts (2001): Hey, Rah Digga survives!
  • Code Red: The Rubicon Conspiracy (2001): Marjean Holden kicks alien tushie in this Sci Fi Channel mainstay.
  • 28 Days Later (2002): Naomie Harris stompin’ zombies in the UK.
  • Cryptz (2002): Beware of lap dances in a vampire strip club.
  • Queen of the Damned (2002): Aaliyah may damn you, but you’ll enjoy every minute of it.
  • Arachnia (2003): Irene Joseph leads the way against giant, straight-to-video spiders.
  • Gothika (2003): Halle Berry sees dead people.
  • Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood (2003): Evil Irish imp meets “hood” sister Tangi Miller.
  • Alien vs. Predator (2004): Sanaa Lathan can indeed hold Sigourney Weaver’s jock.
  • Frankenfish (2004): Mutant snakehead fish invade the swamp, and K.D. Aubert is there to greet them…with a shotgun.
  • Vampz (2004): Female vamps — er, “vampz” — get their drink on.
  • Devon’s Ghost: Legend of the Bloody Boy (2005): Ex-Power Ranger Karan Ashley gives a ghost the business end of a kung-fu lesson.
  • The Evil One (2005): Candace “I’m not Mariah” Carey must save her daughter from a serial killer…or not.
  • Way of the Vampire (2005): Vampire Denise Boutte is Dracula’s right-hand woman, and lives to make a sequel.
  • Zombiez (2005): Jenicia Garcia evades the lamest zombies ever put on film.
  • Shadow: Dead Riot (2006): Carla Greene is the chosen one in this combination of women-in-prison exploitation, zombie horror and chop-socky kung-fu.
  • Ice Spiders (2007): The other Vanessa Williams battles snowy arachnids in this SyFy fare.
  • Sorority Sister Slaughter (2008): Slaughters don’t only happen in white sororities.
  • Obsessed (2009): Beyonce puts the kibosh on this fatal attraction.
  • Single Black Female (2009): It’s like Single White Female, but black.
  • The Call (2013): Halle Berry is a 911 operator tracking down a serial killer who’s kidnapped a young girl.
  • No Good Deed (2014): Taraji Henson is the only woman on Earth who wants Idris Elba out of her house.
  • The Perfect Guy (2015): Sanaa Lathan is the target of a fatal attraction from Michael Ealy in this thriller.
  • When the Bough Breaks (2016): When a surrogate mother sets her sights on the soon-to-be-father, soon-to-be-mother Regina Hall ain’t havin’ it.

Snakes on the Brain: Racial Representation in Snakes on a Plane

Snakes on the Brain: Racial Representation in Snakes on a Plane

Like every other Internet gnome trolling the Web for treasure, I traced the progress of the film Snakes on a Plane for months, drinking in the online parodies and speculating on the possibility of sequels (Giraffes on a Speedboat) or even prequels (Dodos on a Frigate). I cheered when New Line Studios ordered five days of re-shoots to bump the movie from a PG-13 to an R rating; it showed that they really cared about what we gore-loving horror fans over the age of 17 want. However, extra tits and asps can’t overcome the impact of one particularly egregious edit.

Those MFing snakes.

You see, in crafting their rewrite, New Line execs reportedly took suggestions from the host of bloggers and basement dwellers who had spurred the already huge Internet buzz for the film. Not stopping at general fixes like “more sex” or “pointier fangs,” though, the studio let fanboys dictate an actual line of dialogue. It turns out that they desperately wanted — nay, needed — star Samuel L. Jackson to say, “I have had it with these mother(bleep)ing snakes on this mother(bleep)ing plane!”

Beyond the assault on artistic integrity that arises from writing scripts via the body politic, as an African American, I foresee a more troublesome impact. Black actors like Jackson taking cues from the primarily white online (and for that matter, offline) community raises the inherent issue of racial representation.

To his legion of testosterone-driven fans, every Jackson role should be a variant of Pulp Fiction‘s foul-mouthed cool cat Jules Winnfield a classic character, but one that feeds into the sort of stereotyped African-American swagger and speech patterns that would make Bill Cosby’s ears bleed.

The image of the belligerent, uncouth black man or the finger-waving, neck-craning black woman is a tired Hollywood convention that was quantified in the 2001 book The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America. The study, conducted by professors of communication Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki, found, among other things, that in a sampling of over 60 mainstream Hollywood films, 89% of black actresses used vulgar language versus 17% of white actresses.

Sure, Jackson has willingly selected his risqué roles — many of which were created by black writers — but when the words come from outside the realm of one’s own racial experience and understanding, at some point one has to reconcile oneself to what lies behind them. I like to call this “the Chappelle Syndrome.”

Following Dave Chappelle’s decision to walk away from his popular sketch comedy show and his subsequent retreat to Africa, he spoke about the racial dynamics of being a black performer on The Oprah Winfrey Show. While he himself was responsible for writing most of the skits on his show, he began to question how the bawdy content was being interpreted by fans. Chappelle’s Show mined humor out of drug use, sexual acts, profanity and “pimps ‘n hoes” — vices that, when attached to black characters, could cater to well-worn racial prejudices. He told Oprah about one of the incidents that sent him packing:

Somebody on the set [who] was white laughed in such a way – I know the difference of people laughing with me and people laughing at me – and it was the first time I had ever gotten a laugh that I was uncomfortable with…I don’t want black people to be disappointed in me for putting that [message] out there…It’s a complete moral dilemma.

Judging from the message board on his now-defunct website,, Chappelle had reason to be concerned about his audience’s interpretation. The board served largely as an informal forum for fans to post ideas for skits, many of which pandered to base racial stereotypes. You’d find such bits as “Matrix ho slapping,” a parody of The Maury Povich Show called The Whore-y Po Bitch Show, “whore cuts” instead of hair cuts and a world in which slavery was never abolished and black people are put in shows like dogs.

Of course, I’m not implying that the general public is packed with raging racists, but with any sort of mass forum free from the filter of individual responsibility, general preconceptions — fueled by generations of racial misunderstanding — tend to emerge. If Snakes on a Plane starts a trend, and the general public — or God forbid, the Internet public — continues to vote on what they want to see onscreen, scripts might start to resemble Mad Libs:

TYRONE steps out of his [late-model luxury sport utility vehicle], then stops abruptly.


Oh [expletive]! That [expletive]-ing [derogatory term for woman] stole my [slang for jewelry rhyming with “fling”]! Where’s my [high-caliber handgun]?

And who’s to say that someone with an agenda wouldn’t try to exploit the system to propagate new stereotypes? Before you know it, you could be brainwashed into believing that Native Americans always leave the toilet seat up.

Granted, Samuel L. Jackson hasn’t shown any signs of Chappelle Syndrome, but given the film’s box office take failed to live up to the hype, you never know if similar disappointment may lead to disillusionment and introspection. “I’ve had it with these mother(bleep)ing snakes on this mother(bleep)ing plane!” might become his albatross, his own version of Chappelle’s “I’m Rick James, bitch!” And that would be a mother(bleep)ing shame.

The Black Death: A Brief History of Black People Dying in Horror Movies

Black Death: A Brief History of Black People Dying in Horror Movies

“No way. I’ve seen this movie. The black dude dies first.”
– Professor Harry Phineas Block (Orlando Jones), Evolution

“Ooh, I’m done! Brothers never make it out of situations like this!”
– Sherman “Preacher” Dudley (LL Cool J), Deep Blue Sea

“Did you know that the black guy doesn’t always die first?”
– sinister email, The Mangler 2

“Everybody knows black guys get it first in horror movies. It’s like Horror Films 101.”
– Elvis (Raymond Novarro Smith), Bloody Murder 2

So you’re watching a horror movie when he comes on screen. He could be a jock, a nerd or a smelter in a haunted copper factory, but you just know he’s gonna wind up on the short end of the meat hook. Why? Because he’s black. You feel guilty for thinking it, but this scenario is so recognizable that it’s become a joke. In fright films, being black has become as much a kiss of death as having sex, doing drugs, or saying, “Is anyone there?”

It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment when this phenomenon began, but there’s little doubt that 1968 was a watershed year. Two films served as vivid illustrations that things were turning decidedly deadly for black characters. The first, Spider Baby, Or the Maddest Story Ever Told, opens with a cameo by Mantan Moreland, the African-American actor renowned for playing comedic sidekicks in over a dozen thrillers in the 1930s and ’40s. In films like King of the Zombies and the Charlie Chan mysteries, Moreland’s bug-eyed reaction shots and Scooby Doo-like skedaddling earned him crowd-pleasing laughs that ensured his survival, but they also earned him the ire of civil rights groups like the NAACP, who all but ended his career by lobbying for more dignified roles for people of color.

Mantan Moreland in Spider Baby
Mantan Moreland in Spider Baby

In Spider Baby, Moreland, who hadn’t worked steadily for years, appears shockingly old, lethargic and humorless — a shell of his former spry self — but even more shocking, he’s unceremoniously slashed to death in the first few minutes of the film. This opening scene thus served double duty: it marked the literal death of the outdated black “spook” stereotype in horror movies, and it christened a new, more modern stereotype: the black victim.

Filmed in 1964 and released half-heartedly four years later, Spider Baby was ahead of its time, predating similarly plotted maniacal family films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes by a decade or more. Along with the splatter work of Herschell Gordon Lewis, it helped usher in a new era of horror movies: ones that were more graphic with a higher body count to satisfy a perceived modern bloodlust. One thing these films needed, though, was victims.

Like Spider Baby, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead pushed the boundaries of gore, but it also pushed racial boundaries by casting an African-American man, Duane Jones, in the lead role of Ben. In the film, his character domineers the all-white supporting cast rather than playing second fiddle or comic relief, and is the lone survivor of the zombie onslaught, only to suffer the ironic fate of being shot to death by a rescue party that mistakes him for one of the undead.

Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead
Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead

Even though Ben’s race was not specified when the script was written, the role was a tremendous social leap forward from the likes of Mantan Moreland. Despite this progress, in the end, the black guy still dies, not only reflecting a sense of hopelessness about the modern landscape of the late 1960s, but also launching a legacy of despair about the fate of black characters, even those in starring roles.

Up until this time, black roles in horror movies were tangential at best and non-existent at worst. Aside from stereotyped comedic appearances by the likes of Moreland and Willie Best, any roles for black artists were likely anonymous servants or faceless African tribesmen. In the 1950s, the same public pressure that halted Moreland’s career likewise caused many of these parts to disappear, but they were replaced with little or nothing.

By the 1970s, however, the success of Blaxploitation films made the inclusion of black faces in mainstream fare all the more palatable and expected. But, while bigger roles meant more screen time, more screen time meant a higher chance of dying.

In the wacky world of horror, though, death means inclusion. Especially in today’s modern, blood-splattered cinema, where inventive death scenes are valuable commodities, being killed in a horror movie isn’t the worst fate one can suffer. Being ignored in a horror movie is.

Since the ’70s, there’s been little documentation of the phenomenon of black death apart from the occasional punchline. Jamie Kennedy never mentions it amongst his “rules” in Scream (and thus, unprepared, Jada Pinkett and Omar Epps get shanked in the opening minutes of the sequel). Most academic discussions on race in horror movies deal with the portrayals of African-American characters while they’re still alive rather than their inevitable demise. has endeavored to document the phenomenon. Based on a sampling of almost 1,000 horror films containing over 1,500 appearances by black actors and actresses, this site has found their mortality rate to be about 45%. How high this figure sounds depends on your point of view, but given all of the minor, non-speaking roles that were accounted for, saying that nearly one out of every two will die sounds pretty slaughter-ific.

Jason Vorhees dispatches another black victim in Friday the 13th Part 7 VII
Jason Vorhees dispatches another black victim in Friday the 13th Part VII.

In particular, in modern horror sub-genres that hinge on gory death scenes — slashers in the mold of Halloween, monster movies like Alien or Jaws and zombie flicks a la Night of the Living Dead — any black characters deemed major enough to have a name and a speaking part are, more often than not, toast. In the archetypical Friday the 13th series, for example, an astounding 16 out of 19 black characters die.

Of course, it’s not like horror filmmakers begin shooting with the thought, “He’s black, so he has to die.” But black actors and actresses are nonetheless systematically relegated to supporting roles in the Hollywood system, and in horror movies, supporting roles equate to dying roles. Almost 40 years after Night of the Living Dead, black performers still rarely play the lead in horror movies outside of the all-black “urban horror” sub-genre.

It’s a less demeaning form of marginalization than the stereotyped roles of Mantan Moreland and Willie Best, and it’s certainly better than being excluded altogether, but until Hollywood’s casting standards evolve to redefine who is acceptable as a hero or heroine — in the horror genre and beyond — “the black guy” will continue to die along with the nerd, the jock and the slutty cheerleader.