Black Audiences and True Horror

Horror films and the fans who live for them are a culture in and of itself. I have to admit that I do not get into horror films in the same way as the most diehard fans do. As an 80s child, I never really enjoyed franchises like Friday the 13th and Hellraiser although I did keep up with A Nightmare on Elm Street until about the fifth entry when the franchise completely ran itself into the ground. Even though I generally enjoy this time of year, I often find myself wondering why so many people get so involved in horror film culture. I particularly begin to wonder about the relationship of black audiences to these films that showcase things that go bump in the night.

I know that there are tons of black horror fans as well as those who do not care about these films at all. In my own unfounded theory, I think black film lovers fall on either side of the spectrum for the same reason: our everyday lives can be more frightening than anything Eli Roth ever dreamed up. Black filmgoers who love horror films may find them cathartic or a much needed escape from the -isms that already plague our lives. Those who do not care for horror films may find them unbelievable because they know true horror just walking out the front door.

I fall somewhere in between these two sides because I can see the appeal of the horror genre as well as the many areas in which it fails black characters. In 80s horror films like the Friday the 13th series, the token black characters usually died first or died saving a white character. I’m sure even the most diehard fans get a twinge of pain just thinking about the ways in which we are so disposable in horror films.

Then again, I also know that many black horror film buffs love to watch horror films in order to make fun of whiteness. How many of us have heard that joke that there would be no film with black people in the lead because as soon as we realize something is wrong, we bounce? For many people who enjoy horror, the perverse pleasure is in watching people make stupid mistakes then seeing who actually manages to get out alive. Then again, there are also others who just like films that make their way into the cult aisle after three days in the theater.

Still, I come back to this question of what horror really means to black audiences. I can only think of one black horror movie franchise in the style of slasher films, Somebody Help Me (which I must admit I’ve never seen all the way through). However, I’m not sure how well the film performed for black audiences even though I know it merited a sequel that probably went straight to DVD. I wonder if the audience for which it was intended got the same kind of pleasure from this film as they would with a film that they see before Scream revived the genre and made horror films cool again. In a way, I hope that black horror fans do get the same type of perverse pleasure from such black-cast films as they do when yelling at someone onscreen that they’re running the wrong way.

Personally, I find thrillers much scarier than horror films. Wait Until Dark is downright terrifying. Then again, I think one of the most brilliant horror films ever made comes from Wes Cravens: The People Under the Stairs. What’s scarier than living in the ghetto and owing rent to a couple of racists who happen to be a bit on the, uh, not so sane side? I think Cravens unintentionally created a genre film that went beyond making the audience jump in their seats. (I also think he intentionally killed the black couple first in the second Scream film as a commentary on the pattern of the black folks always dying first in mainstream horror films.)

Whatever the reasons black audiences like or dislike horror are far and wide, but I can’t help but make connection to the real life horrors we face on a day-to-day basis versus those we know only exist on the screen. The question becomes whether the horror genre will recognize what really scares us and address it in a way that doesn’t trivialize our real-life fears.

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