When Black Horror Consumes Us

Black horror is having a moment. All of a sudden the genre feels alive, feral, infinite. How delicious it tastes, too. Like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man biting into that ambrosial yam, savoring something like self-release, the genre has gone sweet and hot, enriched as anything we’ve witnessed, a divinely wicked nectar, sustenance of arrant want. But even with all this chatter about black horror’s Hollywood renaissance, and how Hitchcock heir apparent Jordan Peele has masterminded a movement toward the macabre—with Get Out, Us, The Twilight Zone, and upcoming projects that include a Candyman remake—one point gets lost: Donald Glover got here first.

When I consider What Black Horror Means Today, with the thick of the present around me and its propensity to so swiftly crush the soul into ash, I think of Atlanta, Glover’s twisted theater of kinship and chaos and black pathos. For two seasons, the FX drama has plunged into the bizarre, an experiment so agile and esoteric in purpose, so sharply Ellisonian, it was, at times, hard to understand it as anything other than straight-up horror. Like the best of the genre, Atlanta is a wounded animal. Because hasn’t black life always been an open wound? From the moment slave blood soaked the shores of Jamestown, it was a gash that wouldn’t close shut, that refused to heal. (The decision, it should be said, was never ours to make. The radical act of healing—to be whole and free—is, for black people, near impossible in a land built on the rejection of racial equilibrium.)

Jason Parham covers the shifting landscapes of pop culture for WIRED.

That is how black life exists: in the open, unprotected, wedged in a loop of creeping peril. Round and round and round. In 1903, black pan-Africanist historian W. E. B. Du Bois coined the term double consciousness. It concerns the twinned state of being for black people living in a white world and how our social mutability remains tied to our survival. But rarely discussed is the terror of being psychologically trapped between those warring states of self- and social-authorship. That is the space Glover mines with such brilliance, fury, and curiosity.

Atlanta thrives in self-containment. A cosmos of veiled design, Glover’s landscape is threaded by suspense, hospitable to surrealist hijinks, and doesn’t dare bat an eye when all hell breaks loose. An invisible car stampeding through a parade of people in a parking lot (“The Club”) is par for the course, an example of how quickly life can veer into the horrific or the absurd or the horrifically absurd. Elsewhere, the city’s dense emerald backwoods function as a labyrinth of repressed memory and familial trauma (“The Woods”). From the genesis this seemed to be Glover’s mission; notice how he bookends Season 1 with two of the most psychologically scarring episodes, stylishly horrifying interpretations on mental imprisonment and physical surrender (“Streets on Lock,” “The Jacket”). To escape from the anguish, Glover stipulates, comes with violent cost.

Season 2, aptly styled Robbin’ Season, drills the point: Black people wade a deep ravine of terror. Not terror mapped upon the uncanny, a la Us or more classic genre fare like Nightmare on Elm Street, but the slow, tip-toeing terror of the everyday. Of, say, being a washed-up singer trapped by the cage of the past. With “Teddy Perkins,” Glover and director Hiro Murai unspool a tale of pure showbiz doom. The episode is Atlanta at its most carnivorous, its most unafraid—refusing, as always, to be made small by the limitations of the medium.

Not a believer? Come inside Glover’s dark wonderland. Take a gander. Survey his lush expanse. Get comfortable (but beware of booby traps). It won’t take long to notice that the questions Glover’s characters fuss over, and are made deliriously woozy by, are remarkably of the moment: What is the face of trauma? Can grief be overcome or does it rot inside, slowly withering the bones? How do people come to know themselves? Most of all, Atlanta asks an essential query of black horror, one not just informed by the genre but propelled by race and history: How might one find a way to survive?

Blackness in the American imagination was first conceived as a nightmare. Because blackness has tried to remove itself from this bad dream, has tried to wake up for so long, it is, in one sense, a story of survival. A story of not always making it out but of making it through.

In 1915, that nightmare was mainstreamed with the release of D. W. Griffith’s influential cinematic saga of good vs. evil, The Birth of a Nation. A commercial juggernaut, the silent film centered on a South Carolina town caught in the tempest of transformation as residents wrestled with the end of the Civil War. President Woodrow Wilson screened the film at the White House.

In reality, Birth was a piece of hateful, racist propaganda. It extolled whiteness as a kind of sainthood and anti-whiteness as a stain on the American republic. With the release of Get Out just over a century later, in 2017, Jordan Peele was thought to pioneer the subgenre of social thriller—he often uses the term in talking about his movies—but in a way, Birth was perhaps the first social thriller in cinematic history. Griffith’s suspense-driven agitprop of racial purity codified the framework, with its perverse take on white power as a cure-all for a society infected with black criminality (critically, the term “social thriller” wasn’t formally minted until the 1970s).

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For all his flair as a director, Griffith attempted to substantiate a belief that black people, specifically black men, were a hindrance on the country’s lifesource. Though its depiction was altogether incorrect, Birth fed into the anxieties of racial terror: the wild black buck; universal white victimhood. It was an interpretation of a reality that social thrillers would later dismantle and inhabit with more stylish clarity. Still, Birth wasn’t just a social thriller—it was also, like Peele’s films, a work of horror. Unashamedly, it’s a document enshrined in bigoted pro-Confederate sentiment, which suggests an obvious bending of perspective. To really understand Birth is most often a matter of vantage point—at what angle do you enter Griffith’s difficult allegory of hate? When sci-fi writer Tananarive Due claims “black history is black horror,” she is drawing a line from movies like Birth to human atrocities such as the Tuskegee experiment to Atlanta’s arthouse dread to Get Out, where black people, as objects of interest, are experimented on, Frankenstein-like. The link is more than tenuous. It’s wholesale Americana, reflecting the social transformations of who we are as a society even as many people work to reappropriate those evils into narratives of virtue.

Along the way, there came two definitive epochs of black horror: the 1970s and 1990s. Recognized for its bold, outspoken themes on race, sex, and overcoming The Man, blaxploitation was a growing subgenre that influenced just about every black movie released within the decade. A smart flip on Dracula’s origin story, the William Marshall-led Blacula (1972) became a pioneer in this regard: It spawned sequels (including Scream Blacula Scream with Pam Grier, who is something of a torchbearer in bringing focus on black women within the genre) and awakened a movement among black filmmakers. It was followed by films such as Blackenstein (1973), Abby (1974), Sugar Hill (1974), Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976), and J. D.’s Revenge (1976).

A standout among the genre was Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973), which pushed against the glossy dramatics of blaxploitation. It was stylized, developed, unhurried, experimental. In a lot of ways, Gunn is an obvious influence on Glover; they feel like kindred spirits. Decades later, the same tools Glover would wield with canniness to reboot the genre with its own novel authority, Gunn was using with even slicker virtuosity at the time. In fusing magical realism and black folklore, Gunn created one of the more original black horror projects of the era. “Ganja & Hess was his chance to elevate a vampire story into something more meaningful,” Ernest Dickerson noted of the director in the documentary Black Noire: A History of Black Horror. That had always, in some sense, been the hope for the genre and those who worked so tirelessly within it to make it say something: not simply to entertain but to inject the province of black horror with meaning, to elevate it beyond the cliches of a slanted white gaze. For it to be seen as more than a cheap gimmick.

The ’90s were a time of cultural restoration—the release of Boomerang, The Inkwell, Poetic Justice, and similar movies heralded a black rom-com renaissance—and with it came two black horror tentpoles: the cult slasher trilogy Candyman (1992, 1995, 1999) and Tales from the Hood (1995). I always found the latter, Rusty Cundieff’s proto-horror anthology, particularly remarkable. I didn’t know at the time (I was 9 when the film premiered), but it was moving toward a more contemporary rework of black horror while staying true to the genre’s aesthetic flourishes. It unpacked issues pertaining to domestic abuse, addiction, gang violence, mental health, and racism. Tales was the breed of film that worked to expose the black experience as a multicellular one. Even amid the occasional dime-store horror, Cundieff was intent on presenting black life as layered and vast and emotionally thorny. Today, its relevance still holds. In one story, “Rogue Cop Revelation,” three police officers kill a black city councilman—he’d been working to clean the force of corruption—who later returns, as a vengeful zombie, to punish them.

Recently, author Victor LaValle put forward a theory about the genre’s inherent flexibility and how, year after year, it has harnessed fresh relevance. “Horror is a living, breathing genre. It adapts to the times better than any other I can think of. That’s why it never dies,” he wrote. “Monsters change, what’s feared changes, that strikes me as adaptation. The unknown is always with us, but what is unknown does change.”

As the genre matured, it began to look within. Black horror became a mosaic of actual life: More and more, stories were anchored by existential terrors. Quieter evils now lurked in the open. The genre wasn’t just about literal externalized monsters anymore but about monsters one couldn’t see, the interior battle brought on by discriminatory social structures like poverty, a broken education system, and class immobility. It’s perhaps the scariest story of all: about the limits of human deliverance.

Atlanta works best as horror because it’s able to encapsulate so many of the genre hallmarks that preceded it. Its nod toward the surreal. Its ever-present gnaw of grief. How themes like mental health, loss, and violence are subtly, and sometimes quite loudly, presented as mundane, only, out of nowhere, to be weaponized for shock. It’s all rooted in that initial question: How might one find a way to survive? Like Glover, Peele is asking that question in his work too. His answers typically spurn consensus—what exactly was Us about again?—but his lack of certainty, the muddiness of it all, is what makes it feel so terrifyingly alive. Peele explores the rabbit hole , journeying deep into our twisted interiors. So far, he’s investigated this dark passage in two modes: through the physical (Us) and the psychological (Get Out). In the process, Peele has become one of Hollywood’s brightest filmmakers, and his status lends black horror a potency and credibility it has lacked in recent decades.

This reemergence, however, requires a rejiggering of expectations. From its inception, black horror has encapsulated some of art’s most spirited, socially engaging ideas. Across film and TV, it is a genre of profound revelation—how its messages of racial dread or class disquiet mutate to the present, how it stirs and stamps the mind with images of gore, glory, and cardinal vengeance. That continues today, but in more subversive renderings.

As Birth-style terrors have mostly receded from view, invisible ones have ascended into the tumult of daily life. One need only pay attention, to open their eyes to the ache of world to see how such horror lives among us. Across the nation, in cities like Miami and Washington, DC, pre-teen black boys are corralled by the police and accused of committing crimes they had no part in. In New York’s most elite public schools, black students are denied entry despite their exceptional records. Elsewhere, in the pseudo-paradise of Los Angeles, a disproportionate and growing number of black residents account for the city’s homeless. Like an invisible axe that cleaves and cleaves, the terrors of the everyday cut into the core of black existence, leaving a fresh bloody wound. Breath, you’ve got to realize, is not always so easily drawn.

Last month, as I sat in a screening of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the coming A24 feature about class erasure and displacement, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was, in a sad, strange way, a kind of horror film. The story revolves around Jimmie Fails, a black man who devises a plan to get back his family home, an elegant Victorian-style house that is now owned by a white couple. We’re told the area in which it’s located, the Fillmore District, was once known as the “Harlem of the West” but has since been gentrified, nearly all of its black residents pushed to the margins of the city. It’s the old, familiar story of black dearth, of never having quite enough.

It’s an unavoidably beautiful film that will likely wreck you (as it did me). Still, even as images of black residents splashed across the screen, with people caught in moments of joy and community, thoughts rattled in my head: What’s more frightening than the feeling of the one thing you love being ripped from you? Isn’t being forced into a constant state of displacement its own kind of nightmare?

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is decidedly not a horror film (in spite of its apocalyptic title), but it raises questions in the way many contemporary black horror projects do. It curves toward the axis of reality just like Atlanta and Get Out, scraping the pavement, ever susceptible to danger and death. With increasing urgency, contemporary projects are shedding the traditional tropes of the genre—they’re bereft of cheap suspense and glittery melodrama, there are no werewolves in sight, no vampires running amok—in exchange for something real and palpable.

Still, what black horror has always returned to is the messy configuration of the self: how it’s challenged; its ability to withstand, or give into, torment; its interest in redemption, transcendence, love. This space has proved to be Peele’s sweet spot. A savvy stylist, he’s forcing largely white audiences to follow him into his own experience of the self (or in the case of Us, selves): an unwaveringly black one. Atlanta and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, along with HBO’s just-released film Native Son, based on the 1940 novel by Richard Wright, work in this mode too, though the excavations happening in those titles are less consumed by the supernatural and more occupied with the self as an emblem of fracture, and subsequently what those ruptures—how deep they run and their capacity for restoration—suggest about the human capacity for survival.

This style of black horror, where the chasm between fiction and reality is a strikingly small one, certainly feels truer to the lived experiences of black life in a way previous generations of black horror did not. I keep returning to Atlanta and Get Out as prime examples because they best elucidate the interior neurosis that black folk often cycle through privately by bringing those psychological burdens, fears, hopes to the fore with such beauty and intrigue. They are acknowledgments as much as they are documents of the ways America works to squash us, still. As cultural properties, they are a collective reclamation, a rejection of the falsities The Birth of a Nation enlarged in the pop conscience so long ago.

The labor of black horror is to shock, suspend belief, awaken the mind. It is the one genre—perhaps one of the last portals of escape—whose intentions all seem to be working against each other as much as they are working in harmony. When it’s working just right, it evokes feelings of self-liberation. It’s the acknowledgement that No, you’re not as crazy as the world tells you you are that feels like a freeing up, an audible breath. It’s Chris being questioned by the police for his license. It’s Vann struggling to pay bills as a single mom. It’s Darius having the barrel of a gun pointed at him for no good reason. It’s Jimmie having his furniture tossed on the street. Discord and dread writhe all around, but even in the darkness, even in the sprint to survive, to endure, you manage to see yourself. There is comfort in that.

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