By Nadira Jamerson | Word In Black
(WIB) – James Baldwin once wrote that “White people don’t know what horror is.” Indeed, at a time when our elders are being gunned down in grocery stores by white supremacists, Black people know intimately that horror is more than just Hollywood jump scares and the gratuitous violence of slasher movies.
For many of us, horror novels and films have become a way we process grief, fear, and hope for a better tomorrow.
“Horror feels familiar,” says Tananarive Due, an award-winning author and leading voice in Black speculative fiction who also teaches Black Horror and Afrofuturism at UCLA.
“When it is imaginary scares, it feels like relief,” Due says. “Sometimes we even get to kill the monster. In real life, we do not always get to kill or even confront the monster.”
Numerous studies have shown the mental health benefits of consuming horror. One 2018 study found that horror fans might enjoy being scared because it helps them gain a sense of mastery or control over their fears from the safety of their homes or a movie theater.
The researchers wrote that “While frightening media may be initially aversive, people… expect not just negative but also positive emotions from horror consumption. They brave the initially aversive response to simulate threats and so enter a positive feedback loop by which they attain adaptive mastery through coping with virtual simulated danger.”
In other words, the horror genre helps us explore complex political ideas and our hopes for a more equitable future. Black horror often uses imagined monsters as allegories for racism, sexism, homophobia, and the real-world monsters that impede on Black lives and livelihoods every day.
Essentially, horror is made for those who have experienced horrific events themselves. It is for those who know that danger and fear always exists nearby. It is for those who do not want to hide from danger because they know that they really cannot. Instead, horror helps us embrace the chaos and face it head on.
Due says she was first introduced to the genre by her mother who was a huge horror fan. “I have come to think that my mother liked horror because of her traumas–racially. It helped her work through them,” she says.
Although Due enjoyed watching horror films with her mother growing up, it was not until losing her mom that she realized horror could be used as a tool to work through trauma.
“The trauma of losing her made me understand how you can lean on horror,” Due says. “A key emotion that horror helps us process is grief. Horror can help set a navigational path through these difficult emotions.”
Due says films like 1950’s “The Reformatory” which follows three boys — one white, one Latino, and one Back — who attend a reform school in Florida, provide a grueling yet powerful allegory for the failings of the criminal justice system, specifically when dealing with children. The film’s “work farm,” which is where the three boys have been sent following run-ins with the law, is known for its allegations of torture, beatings, rapes, and even murder at the hand of some of the staff. More recently, the 2021 remake of “Candyman” sparked widespread discourse about racism, racial inequities, and gentrification.
At the same time, many people cannot stomach the violence that identifies most horror movies and books. I have often tried to show a friend or family member an amazing horror movie just for them to dismiss it as “trauma porn” or fault it for using “gratuitous” violence.
There are many Black people in horror films, often made and directed by white thinkers, which exploit issues like racism for shock-value. But there is a difference between “trauma porn” and well-done horror, which may be difficult to watch but is still important for driving truthful discourse.
Due says the Black experience is not always hopeful, and therefore, all movies by Black people that are not immediately hopeful should not be dismissed. In fact, audience members’ criticism of complex works simply because they do not like violence is damaging to the entire Black horror community.
“I really want audiences to chill out with the criticism,” Due says. “[Black horror] is an evolving sub-genre. It’s fragile. Every little complaint on social media, and especially by the bigger accounts, that equates Black horror to trauma porn is making it harder for the next person to get in the door. It comes up in meetings when Black people are pitching ideas. They want any reason not to hire us. They want any reason not to tell our story.”
Due says she’s excited for the future of horror, and specifically for the space that Black women are making for themselves in horror. She believes that horror offers Black women a safe space to build community, to express trauma, to explore trauma, and to be limitlessly creative.
I know about that firsthand.
Between sixth and seventh grade, family circumstances and health issues forced me to grow up quickly. Like Due, I fell in love with horror thanks to my mom. One day she was watching a movie called “Domino,” a 2005 film about a rich girl from California (my home state) who wants to ditch her seemingly boring life for an existence filled with excitement. Domino teams up with two guys who teach her about bounty hunting, and together they go on a blood-filled adventure catching criminals, and becoming criminals themselves.
Now that I am older, I can identify some of the more sexist and problematic tropes represented in this film. But at the time, all I saw was a girl who wanted to escape — and she did. Domino did everything she wanted to do. Even if it was wrong. Even if it was scary. Even if other people told her not to.
Over the next few months, I rewatched “Domino” dozens of times, and each time I was left with a strange feeling of hope, even though most of the characters ended up dead or in jail at the end.
By the time I was a freshman in high school, I was watching as many horror movies as I could. That same year I was healing from a painful back surgery and experiencing a lot of mental health issues — including severe depression and strong suicidal ideation. I was in therapy, which helped, but things were never consistently steady for me. I found that one of the best ways to cope with all of these feelings — feelings I was often afraid to share with family and friends due to shame and guilt — was to try to begin expressing my emotions on the page.
My first attempt at a horror story came in the form of a four-page long short story about a girl who finds herself trapped in another dimension where she can see her family and friends happily carrying on with their lives, but she is unable to join them.
Although my family knew about my depression, writing this story was one of few times I can remember openly sharing the intricacies of how I was feeling with them — the crippling isolation I felt paired with fears of joining the world because it might hurt me again.
My depression was not gone after I finished that particular story, but in finding a way to be proud of what I had created from my depression, I was able to begin to reimagine what living with mental health challenges could look like. I thought — even if I am sad, even if I am horribly overwhelmed, I can work with those feelings to make something that is morbid, yet beautiful, fearful, yet honest, and altogether self-soothing.
Due says she’s excited for the future of horror — specifically for the space that Black women are making for themselves in horror. Due says, “Horror does offer Black women a safe space to build community, to express trauma, to explore their trauma, and to be limitlessly creative.”
Black women are still fighting against tropes — like the “mystic” — which showcase Black women in horror in harmful and limited views. However, in the past few years, there has been an increase in horror content created by and for Black women. Books like Tiffany D. Jackson’s “Monday’s Not Coming” and the “Black Girls Must Die Exhausted” series by Jayne Allen are finally placing Black women at the center of horror stories, as both protagonists and antagonists.
More Black women in the genre are paving a way for more message-driven horror that genuinely cares about the plights and lives of Black women. Black women are working to create a space where multifaceted identities are appreciated, and where other Black women feel capable of succeeding in the horror genre. Organizations such as Black Women Are Scary, Horror In Color, and Midnight & Indigo work to feature and support Black women in horror.
“To show our humanity, to express my own humanity, to have Black people represented in the genre even in stories that are not about race, is crucial,” says Due.