Type keyword(s) to search


Horror Is One of the Best Vehicles for Black Storytelling

Black creators have been using horror to "shake the table" after being kept out of the genre for so long.
  • Pam Grier in Them: The Scare (Photo: Amazon Studios)
    Pam Grier in Them: The Scare (Photo: Amazon Studios)

    In a landscape where art mirrors reality, certain television shows and Black creators have steadfastly used their platforms to confront societal truths. While drama and documentary series have long served this purpose, there's a notable shift as Black creators employ the genre of horror to address the myriad challenges faced by Black individuals, offering not just visual entertainment but a profound sense of validation for Black viewers.

    With series like Little Marvin’s Them entering its second season, delving into the complexities of Black relationships with law enforcement, questions arise about why horror serves as a vehicle for these narratives. For many creators, it's about intertwining a dark racial history with the very real fears experienced by Black audiences while shedding light on the existential dread of simply existing as a Black American.

    Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country, though it was canceled in 2021, broke new ground by merging Black horror with supernatural elements, setting a precedent for subsequent endeavors. The show, like Matt Ruff’s book of the same title, was set during the Jim Crow era, but it explored the United States’ long history of oppressing Black people (which continues today) while delving into the fears and resilience necessary for Black survival.

    Them offers its own chilling exploration of the Black experience within specific temporal and spatial contexts, reminding audiences of not-so-distant historical realities. Set within a rapidly gentrifying Los Angeles, the series illuminates the terror of navigating predominantly white spaces and the constant policing of Black bodies and the horror that often lives in being seen and not heard.

    Yet the appeal of these "Black horror" shows extends beyond their portrayal of racism and injustice. Their styles range from body horror to cosmic terror, while also uncovering the profound horrors of what it means to be a strong Black woman. Take for instance AMC’s The Walking Dead franchise, where many of the Black characters' plights reflect the complexities of what it means to stand up against evil.

    One of the most gripping examples is Michonne (Danai Gurira), who recently co-headlined her own spin-off, The Ones Who Live. She’s not only depicted as a strong and resilient character, but also grapples with her past trauma while also defying several of the stereotypes often put on Black female characters. As a Black woman surviving in a post-apocalyptic world, Michonne navigates challenges related to the undead and the complex layers of discrimination based on race, gender, and class, as well as the difficulties of being a mother during the apocalypse.

    But it’s shows like FX’s American Horror Story that take Black actresses we know and love, and affords them the opportunity to contribute to the genre’s rich and challenging history while giving it some narratives of truth. Consider Angela Bassett, who played Marie Laveau, Coven and Apocalypse. Not only did Bassett bring depth and gravitas to the character, we saw her obtain justice for her community while also restoring the history of her people, which has long been violated and degraded.

    The most chilling part of her role is seeing the character confront the long history of racism found in New Orleans while also addressing the longstanding power dynamics that plague the city of New Orleans. While some viewers might push back on the notion of this installment being a “true horror” story, the show and Bassett’s character spoke to the long history of injustice and atrocities Black people have always faced in Louisiana — not to mention the enduring power of Black womanhood.

    However, several Black horror television series delve into the nuanced realities of the Black experience, spotlighting not just the resilience and fortitude of their characters, but also the daunting personal fears they must confront to navigate the world successfully. While not strictly confined to the horror genre, Zakiya Dalila Harris' The Other Black Girl on Hulu offers a chilling glimpse into the publishing industry and the isolating experience of being one of the few Black individuals in a corporate setting.

    As the narrative unfolds, the true "horror" emerges in the unsettling treatment of Black employees by companies and the lengths to which some Black individuals are pushed to maintain power and privilege. While the series may not rely on traditional supernatural elements to evoke fear, it delves into the psychological terror of navigating predominantly white workspaces as a Black person, grappling with microaggressions and the suffocating pressure of respectability politics.

    The same struggles are addressed in Season 2 of Them, subtitled The Scare, which premiered April 25 on Prime Video. While following LAPD Detective Dawn Reeve (Deborah Ayorinde) and character Edmund (Luke James), the series exposes the pervasive racism in both the entertainment industry and justice system. It’s an incisive commentary on the long history of violence that Black people have faced, specifically in Los Angeles, using supernatural elements to examine bigotry and exploitation.

    Black creators have been using horror not just as a storytelling medium, to craft rich and compelling narratives, but to also “shake the table” after being kept out of the genre for so long. The genre evokes fear and discomfort, much like those in the world who often share they are “too scared” to talk about the issues that impact Black people. By tapping into their fears and anxieties, horror narratives offer Black viewers a cathartic outlet to confront and process their pain while exposing others to the realities of both systematic and intergenerational oppression.

    That alone is what makes horror the perfect vehicle to address the plight of Black people. Regardless of whether you like horror or not, Black creators have made their message clear: We all should be terrified of our history and the insidious nature of white supremacy.

    Jonathan P. Higgins is a freelance writer who has been published at sites including Essence, Ebony, and Out Magazine, in addition to winning season 5 of Nailed It. You can follow them online by using the handle @DoctorJonPaul. 

    TOPICS: Them, HBO, Hulu, Prime Video, Lovecraft Country, The Other Black Girl, Them: The Scare, The Walking Dead, The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live, Danai Gurira, Deborah Ayorinde, Misha Green, Pam Grier