The release and subsequent success of Jordan Peele's Get Out shifted public perception of what a horror movie could be at the cellular level, but masterful as his understanding of the genre may be, Peele did not invent Black horror. Shudder's 2019 documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror- adapted from Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films From 1890's to Present by Dr. Robin Means Coleman- exhibits how the history of Black horror is as old as the history of film itself; indeed, as old as the history of America itself. If the book and documentary reveal Black horror as a centuries-old tradition, Shudder's new anthology feature, Horror Noire showcases how expansive the storytelling tradition can be in six separate tales of terror.
FANGORIA caught up with Tananarive Due, co-writer (alongside husband, Steven Barnes) of two of the film's six segments, to talk about Horror Noire, her writing practice, what Black horror has been, and what it can be.
What is your personal definition of Black horror?
It's a difficult question to answer because Black horror is many things, and in recent years with the release of Jordan Peele's Get Out, there's been a resurgence in social justice horror and horror where racism is the monster. And that certainly has been a part of the Black horror legacy going back to Rusty Cundieff and Tales From the Hood, and even before that, but it's only one kind of Black horror. Black horror is as varied as any kind of horror. And this project, because it's an anthology, really gives viewers- whether you're Black or not- a better idea of how nuanced and varied Black horror can be. So, beyond the fact that it is many things- which is not so much a definition as a caution that we don't need to put it in a single box- Black horror centers a Black protagonist with agency and depth who is not in the story to fulfill a trope. [It's] often by a Black creator, and I say often because a lot of us consider Night of the Living Dead to be Black horror, and it does not have a Black creator but does have a Black protagonist with agency and depth who is not fulfilling a trope. Where it gets kind of dicey is [when] scripts that were not written for Black characters [are] retrofitted and rewritten to have Black characters. And there are times that can work beautifully, as in Night of the Living Dead, which was colorblind casting by all accounts, but sometimes it's disastrous to just plug and play.
Definitely, because it doesn't address the interpersonal dynamics, right?
So, then you end up reproducing some things no one wants to see.
We're all human, and we all have a lot in common, but one of the things I think is apparent in Horror Noire [the anthology] is that Black experience and Black creators just bring a slightly different sensibility to storytelling, even when the story doesn't have anything to do with race on the surface. It's just coming from a different sensibility. And to replace a white actor with a Black actor without that sensibility can sometimes leave projects open for new problematic aspects. So, there are two approaches to fixing that. One is the lesser form, which is to have sensitivity readers and consultants advising white screenwriters to help avoid those kinds of problems. But the best way is, rather than retrofitting a script, invite new voices to the table! Read new scripts from Black creators, and don't be afraid to tell those stories.
You've had an incredible October with the re-release of your novel, The Between, the Horror Noire anthology, and you also appear on Behind The Monsters to talk about Candyman. What has your writing process been like while straddling all these different modalities?
I'm actually very proud that my collaborator, my husband, Steven Barnes, and I got off a pilot rewrite, so that felt good that we actually did get some writing done because some days, it feels like how? We're homeschooling our son and I teach at UCLA, so it does become difficult to balance creative spaces with being a mother, a teacher, interviews and [press], and the only way I've been able to juggle everything in recent months is by bringing my sister on as an assistant! So that really opens up more time for writing. And I'm at the point now where I just don't feel comfortable if I'm not writing something. Like I just turned in a pilot, so I've had a couple days now where I'm not writing anything, and it's a very strange and uncomfortable feeling. I was almost relieved when an editor reminded me of a short story deadline. I love writing short stories, and to me, working on a short story is such a pure form of writing because you don't do that for the money, right? You're doing that just for the joy of telling an evil little story, which is my favorite thing to do. I can't wait to come up with the idea. "Okay, what's scaring me right now?" Or "what kind of story haven't you done that you would love to do?" But yes, it was awkward to transition from prose to screenwriting, and one of the reasons it took me seven years to finish the novel I have coming out next year was because I was learning screenwriting. But writing is still my happy place, even screenwriting. For example, a few weeks ago, I had a minor infection, it wasn't anything Covid-related, but I was just feeling kind of blah for a few days, and as a hypochondriac, of course, any minor [sickness] turns into "I'm about to die," so my head goes there immediately. This is why I'm a horror writer. I'm a scaredy-cat. And the one thing that made me feel better during those two days was working on a short story that I was on deadline for. And it was actually refreshing to realize that, after all these years, I can still go back to writing as my happy place. Because one day, I will have less energy. I just won't feel as good as I do all the time, and it's good to know that writing is waiting in the wings.
"The Lake" and "Fugue State"- though very different- both feature really well-developed monsters and monstrous figures. I was wondering how the inspiration for your monsters takes shape? Do you start with the idea of the monster and then work the narrative around them, or does the story itself kind of draw them into existence?
That is a really good question, and I'll just start by saying that Steve and I co-wrote "Fugue State" as a short story, but [it] started as an exercise for our writing students. We have an online writing program, and in one of those classes, we were trying to show students exactly what you're talking about—what is the inspiration for a story? How do you lay down the bones of a story? By the end, Steve and I had come up with a basic idea about a man who loses his ability to read and reason after a brief exposure to a charismatic preacher figure and how his wife is struggling to bring him back. So, in the case of "Fugue State," it was the impact of the monstrosity that came first. Reverend Pike wasn't as much in focus as Arthur and his wife were.
Now for "The Lake," which was a story I wrote solo but Steve and I both adapted for screen, I think the monster came first. I love writing to theme, and Christopher Golden approached [for] an anthology called The Monster's Corner and it was supposed to be short stories from the point of view of the monster. So, I was like, oh, that sounds fun, but I wanted to do sort of a non-traditional monster. I set the story in my fictitious town of Gracetown, Florida, and it's basically a town where unexplained magical things happen, and I had a newcomer moving to my town who doesn't heed warnings and listen to advice, as newcomers won't... And she has secrets. And her secrets become exposed, and her internal monstrosity becomes externalized the more she swims in this lake. The monster definitely came first.
You mentioned Rusty Cundieff earlier—in the Horror Noire documentary, he talks about making horror redemptive with Tales From the Hood. Do you think that there's an obligation to make the work redemptive, or can refusing redemption be its own form of resistance?
Oh, that's a good question. I personally prefer redemptive horror, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it an obligation. It's what personally satisfies me more, that there's some reason or meaning to this journey that this character has been through, even if the character doesn't survive. I want to be able to understand the sense of it. But like I said, there are as many kinds of Black horror as there are kinds of horror, period. Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects is an example of a horror film that I consider un-redemptive—it's very violent against innocent people who really don't deserve what happens to them. And I've seen it, but it's not something I re-watch. And I imagine that as a Black filmmaker, if I were to make a story like that, I would probably meet some resistance. [Consider] a Friday the 13th-style story, where it's a bunch of Black campers getting killed one by one by one by a racist. It's just like, whoa, is that entertaining?
Right. Like, who is that entertaining for?
Who is that entertaining for? While I wouldn't go so far as to say that Black horror creators have an obligation to create redemptive horror, I think it is in our best interests to skew toward redemptive horror, or at least to skew away from mindless racist violence. As I said in the Horror Noire documentary, Black history is Black horror. The amount of violence and suppression it has taken from the slavery era and beyond to keep Black Americans from living their best lives is stunning. And I understand the temptation by a Black creator to say, look what happened! This is what we're dealing with! This is why we have such a high incarceration rate; this is why we have so much intergenerational poverty. Because those questions are still ringing in the air, and the answer often by people who don't know about history is, well, y'all just can't cut it. And that's very dangerous and frustrating, all these racist stereotypes about us. My husband has a litmus test to determine whether or not people are racist.
Oh, is it like the Bechdel test for Black folks?
Yeah! We'll call this the Barnes test. It's a simple question: do you think- had the situation [chattel slavery] been reversed- that white people would have recovered faster than Black people? That's it. But I digress. Seeing ourselves onscreen is a very visceral experience, and it's fairly new with this kind of regularity, and it's difficult to watch Black characters die onscreen. So, I think Jordan Peele and Monkeypaw Productions have created what I call the "Monkeypaw method" for Black storytelling in horror. First, you have Black protagonists with agency. Second, it's entertaining on the surface but if you look underneath, you can study it for depth and greater themes. And third, it's very mindful and conscious of the way it shows harm to Black people. And if you look at Get Out, Us, and Nia DaCosta's Candyman, they all subscribe to the Monkeypaw method. If a Black teenager is saying "Candyman" five times, she's behind a closed door. And if there's gonna be a lynching, we're gonna use a puppet show to show that. None of that is accidental. So, it's a way of honoring that history without re-traumatizing audiences. And I would never deign to tell any filmmaker, you can't do this, or you can't do that, but based on audience responses, I think there's something we as creators can learn about how to better serve a Black core audience. And at the same time, Black core audiences need to be patient and let the subgenre grow. It troubles me when I hear people say, well, we don't need Black horror stories. It's like, well, that's kind of a blanket statement that's making a lot of assumptions about what Black horror is.
Yes, and what it does, and what it represents, and what its social function is.
Exactly. And I think a lot of that criticism- not all of it, but some of that criticism- comes from people who are not horror fans. So, they want to support Black projects, but horror just isn't their cup of tea. Let's let a few more people get seats at the table before we start judging the value of an entire subgenre, and then people will start to see- as with the new Horror Noire- that Black horror is many different things. Sometimes it's funny; sometimes it's a period piece that doesn't have anything to do with slavery, or at least not directly. It's many things.
There's a classroom scene in "The Lake" that, to me, spoke to a lot of what Leila Taylor writes about—the Gothicism of Black life, but also American life. In an interview [between Taylor and M. Lamar], Lamar talks about his aspiration with the Negrogothic, to be able to sit inside this experience of terror and mourning and not be destroyed by it...
Mmm, that's so well put, and I guess that's kind of what I get from horror. Because when I say that writing is my happy place, that means writing is my escape. So, what am I escaping from? I'm escaping from real-life horror. Fantasy horror, to me, creates empowering narratives [about] characters who stand up to the unknown and either fight with all their heart to survive, or they might not survive, but it's not the destination; it's the journey. That's the kind of courage I want in my life. The wolves may kill me—in fact, the wolves will kill me. It's always gonna get us, some real-life metaphor for the zombies breaking down our doors. But I write these characters to help me learn how to stand up and face it with my eyes open and, hopefully, a weapon in my hand and a plan. A plan! That's my favorite moment in the horror movie, when the character or characters who have been subjected to the uncanny finally compare their experiences, realize something is wrong, and come up with a damn plan. I just love that moment where people who are confronting something they didn't even know existed, figure it out. "I thought my life was this thing. Now, this terrible thing has happened…. What do I do now?" Whether it's a diagnosis, a death in the family, financial hardship. We get tossed in these storms, and the equivalent for that in a horror movie is you can be that character who trips and falls and cries, or you can be that character who's thinking, and while they're running, they're grabbing the knife off the kitchen counter, and they've already come up with a hiding place.
And that's the quality that speaks to Afrofuturism. What are the strategies that we need? What is the presence of mind that we have to have in order to survive?
I would agree, and that's where Octavia Butler really comes to mind in terms of preparatory storytelling. This is coming, people…. And she's setting out paths of community building, cooperation strategies, lack of denial. I want to say lack of denial ten times. And I really think the roots of that tendency toward denial in us is rooted in our fear of death.
Completely. Is that the tension, though? Is that what Lamar is referring to, about not being swallowed by it? To be able to confront the monster, to be able to confront [death], know that it is imminent, nobody escapes it, and not let that consume you?
I think so. I think horror distills our fear of death into bite-sized pieces and individual monsters that are imaginary so we can kind of escape from our actual existential fear into a safer fear. Real life isn't so bad compared to the horror scenarios that we create. And the monster has a different face. It's something you can stand up to, sometimes even beat it. But the point is to fight it, or to fight to survive. That is always the point in horror, is either you're fighting back, or you're fighting to survive.
What are the monsters that you envision in the future of Black horror?
I just love the sound of "the future of Black horror." I imagine we'll start to see more from the diaspora in terms of African and Caribbean mythologies. I would like to see a more nuanced approach to Vodoun and hoodoo—actual faith[s] that people adhere to. But also, the beautiful part is, I have no idea what the next monsters will be in Black horror. Yes, the monster of racism will always sort of be hiding behind the door in a lot of Black storytelling, but the stories themselves are going to be as varied as the artists who dream them. And that's what's just beautiful about horror in general. I just love difference and variety, and novelty. I don't know where Black horror is going to go in the future, but I'm feeling very confident today, in the wake of Candyman and the Horror Noire premiere, that the future will be bright.
Horror Noire is now streaming on Shudder, click below to watch: