“Black history is Black horror”
By Mary Karayel and Alexandra Constable
As Halloween approaches, and the world goes crazy for pumpkin-spiced everything, trick-or-treating and horror film marathons, we wanted to stop and consider the Black horror genre.
The genre, particularly in film, is booming in part thanks to the influential work of Jordan Peele on blockbuster films such as Get Out (2018) and Us (2019). Peele has also recently been involved in the 2021 remake of Candyman, directed by Nia DeCosta. Peele’s work has made significant waves in the horror genre, challenging and subverting stereotypes and harmful tropes of Black characters being the first to die, playing mere superstitious characters, or playing the fearsome "Other" in films. Tananarive Due, a famous American author and film critic, has analysed films such as Get Out against traditional horror films in her documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror and argues that linking terror and the supernatural in horror films allows Black creators to uncover the trauma of history, proposing that “Black history is Black horror.” Whilst incredibly interesting to explore horror by Black creators in film, what about literature?
Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a classic of the genre and epitomises Due’s ideas about exploring trauma in horror novels. The book, published in 1987, reached high acclaim when it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Fiction Prize in 1988 and was later adapted into a film by Johnathon Demme in 1998. The plot centres around Sethe, an escaped slave from a farm in Ohio called Sweethome. Despite her escape, the trauma of what Sethe endured on the farm prevents her from ever moving on. This trauma is manifested in the ghost of her dead baby, who she never names and is only referred to as "Beloved." Despite Beloved's dominating and haunting presence, Due aptly points out that “the ghost is the least of our problems” and instead the terror lies in the unspeakable crimes committed against the slaves at Sweethome. The book grapples with the brutal and inhuman torture of slaves, including the forced separation of children from their mothers, which creates a collective trauma in the novel that Sethe tries so hard to forget, to no avail. Through the supernatural presence of Beloved and the unpacking of Sethe’s guilt, Morrison poses important questions about society: What does it mean to be human? Is it cruel to be kind?
If you are looking for your next vampire fix (move over Twilight!) then look no further than Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler. The novel follows Shori Matthews, who appears to be a ten-year-old African-American child, but is actually a fifty-three-year-old vampire. Subverting the stereotypical white masculine vampire, Butler creates a Black, female main character who co-exists with humans. As Shori tries to uncover who she is, she is also subject to racism, speciesism and loss of agency, all whilst avoiding mysterious assassins. Regardless of whether you deem yourself a horror enthusiast or not, classic novels such as Beloved and Fledgling are a great way to understand and engage with the genre. While these are both great places to start if you are looking to understand the genesis of the Black horror genre, there are several contemporary examples.
So why not read Tananarive Due’s novel The Good House? The story follows Angela Toussaint, who journeys back to her family home in which her son had committed suicide. But there she finds an invisible, evil force wreaking havoc on the locals and driving them to violence. The character-focused novel and consideration of family, grief and heritage make this novel an equally stellar read.
And finally, Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke, a horror anthology that looks at issues of race, privilege and power. There are eleven stories in the collection, making it a less daunting introduction into the horror genre. Burke aptly muses: "human is many different things all at once,” a truth which the collection embodies as it considers the African-American experience.
But if you’re more into science-fantasy, then Nnedi Okorafor’s 2010 novel, Who Fears Death, is a superb choice. The story is set in post-apocalyptic Africa and follows the protagonist Onyesonwu, a child born into a region plagued with genocide, but in possession of spiritual powers that send her on a remarkable journey.
You can also try Victor LaValle’s The Devil in Silver, a spookier read and the tale of Pepper and his inmates at a mental institution in Queens, New York. Throughout the novel, the characters come together to fight the sinister force that stalks the halls of the hospital at night.