Black horror cinema has a long and storied history. While Jordan Peele's Get Out blew the door off the hinges and opened up a larger space for black creatives in the genre, that film wasn't the starting point but a call and response to questions and considerations of Blackness that have been a part of the genre's film history since its inception. It's a topic explored in the Shudder documentary Horror Noire, based on the book of the same name. Now, the minds behind that project are back with a follow-up that delves further into that history, beginning in 1968, the year of the Civil Rights Act and Night of the Living Dead.
The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema From Fodder to Oscar by Robin R. Means Coleman, Ph.D., and Mark H. Harris, explores that history and how Black actors, creators, and audiences have reckoned with the genre alongside the changing socio-political landscape of America. The book, from Simon and Schuster, not only explores the historical context of Blackness in horror movies, but also the tropes, themes, and subgenres that have defined it. From chapters focused on the death count of Black characters onscreen, Black religion, and gender and queer identity within Black Horror, The Black Guy Dies First is a perceptive, often humorous, and necessary volume for any fan of the genre.
FANGORIA had the opportunity to talk to co-author Mark H. Harris, who readers will likely recognize from BlackHorrorMovies.com, New York Magazine, Vulture, the Salem Horror Fest, and Shudder's Behind the Monsters, to name a few, about his book, the scope of Black horror, and what he sees for the future of the genre.
What is it that made you fall in love with horror?
I've always been fascinated by stories with a darker tone to them. I think the first movie that really got me into horror is The Night of the Living Dead. I remember I rented a VHS tape from the library when I was 12, this is the 1980s. It being in black and white made it seem so ancient and it was so weird to see this Black guy in the lead, and the Black guy is taking control of the situation and bossing all these white people around. And on top of it, with the ending being so bleak, it really struck me. So that kicked me down the horror road.
You've been writing about Black horror for a long time. What made now the right moment to write this book?
I think Black horror is in a renaissance right now since Jordan Peele struck with Get Out. Horror Noire, the documentary, really struck a chord as well, so that was the impetus. I had been in touch with Robin previously, and she'd shouted me out as a resource for the first book, Horror Noire, and we connected through that. So, she reached out to me and said 'you wanna come along on this journey? It's been great and a dream project for me.
One of the things I'm glad you guys addressed early in the book is in these horror movies, the Black guy rarely actually does die first. But I think that misconception stems from the value they're often given on screen. Was that your consensus as well?
Yeah, I think that's the driving force behind the book. The title is a reflection of how much value Black characters have historically received in horror movies. They're just there to die, first, second, or whatever. But typically, they're marginalized characters, and in horror, marginalization equates to death. That was the jumping point we used to propel us through the book and talk about how Black characters have been portrayed throughout the years and how things have improved, then declined, and then improved and declined. We're in an upswing right now so, hopefully, that will continue in the future.
Oftentimes, whenever a new Black-centric horror movie comes out, it immediately gets compared to Get Out, which is an unfair comparison that even Peele has come up against with his own subsequent films constantly looked at under the shadow of Get Out.
I feel the same way. It is frustrating. There was just a new trailer that came out for a Netflix movie called The Strays. It's a suburban thriller with a black family, and immediately in the YouTube comments, people called it a Get Out rip-off. You can have a suburban thriller with a Black family and not have it be a Get Out rip-off. It's a constant uphill battle, and I think it's the double-edged sword of having something that receives such wide acclaim and such wide commercial success like Get Out. Some Black horror movies that have come out since then have fallen into the trap where they think we've got to make this big racial statement and be really deep about it. But this doesn't have to be the case. You can just have a straightforward horror movie that can still contribute to the genre and contribute to the advancement of Black characters in the genre. I think it's an easy trap some people fall into and probably that some studios and production companies have pushed. I think the key for Black horror is to find its own voice. Every individual filmmaker has their own story to tell. Not everyone can tell Get Out. So, we need to have a variety of ideas and a variety of stories from different people so Black horror can't be pegged as just this one thing but can reflect the breadth of Blackness as a whole.
Was there anything you learned during the research process that surprised you?
I don't know if it surprised me necessarily, but I hadn't been previously terribly familiar with Black queerness in horror. It was daunting because there's so little of it, and it's hard to find, so we had to dig deep on that and try to call on whatever few examples we could find. In general, looking at the different stereotypes, the spook stereotype was interesting because on the one hand, it's degrading, but on the other, they're the smartest character in the movie because they recognize the danger from the outset.
In recent years, there's been a lot of discussion about the political nature of horror, but horror has always been political. So, what's different about how the genre is approaching it today than how it did in decades past?
I think nowadays, it might just be a little more reflective of social currents. The 2010s and the 2020s are probably the eras of greatest social upheaval within the US since the 1960s in terms of recognizing the inequities within society from the Black Lives Matter movement, to the #MeToo movement, to all kinds of things this past decade, and people have been marching and standing up. Horror has reflected that awareness, and people have definitely reacted to it. Some people hate it, and some people love it, but it's a reflection of the times.
What do you foresee as the future of Black horror cinema, and what are the aspects you hope to see improved upon or expanded?
We've got some stories that need to be told, like Black queerness and the Black female viewpoint, which are just starting to be told. Everyone telling their own story is the key to keeping Black horror on the radar because these things are cyclical in terms of Black representation in film. We had the Blaxploitation movement in the '70s which came and went, and in the '90s we had this Urban film movement, and a lot of those filmmakers never got a second chance after Hollywood moved on. We're at a key point right now. Get Out was six years ago, so things could go either way. Hollywood could easily determine the Black horror thing is done and move on to something else. The key is for Black creatives to tell their own original stories, and hopefully that wide variety of storytelling will strike a chord with viewers and people will keep supporting it.
The Black Guy Dies First is now available.This interview had been edited for length and clarity.