Horror Films in the 1980s Erased Black Lives. Why Did I Still Watch Them?
The unearthing of Black-led horror films captivated me.
I can remember when I first started my ritual of watching horror films in the 1980s. It was late on a Saturday night while my mom was preparing Sunday dinner. I turned on the television and saw the opening to The Return of the Living Dead. The music alone—an ominous blend of church bells and glass breaking over the midtempo rhythm of guitars and keyboards—made me quiver. I ground my teeth and shielded my face from the brain-eating zombies with slimy skin and bulging eyes that popped out of the screen, especially when Freddy’s girlfriend, Tina, runs into one of the revived and disfigured cadavers in the warehouse’s basement. But, no matter what showed up on-screen, I couldn’t look away.
Yes, I was scared. And, yes, I screamed a few times. I don’t recall having a nightmare when I went to bed that night, but the few times that I did after watching other scary movies didn’t kill my joy for horror. In fact, after that first film, I couldn’t stop myself from watching all the horror films I could get my hands on.
At first, this fixation on horror films didn’t make sense. As an extremely shy kid paralyzed by the fear of the unknown, loud noises, sudden movements, and intense emotion, like anger or crying, I normally would have fled the instant I saw a film on the screen. But the real world beyond my own imagination seemed too large and relentlessly cruel, and watching horror films was one thrill that I could experience—and thereby control—within the confines of my inner world. The gore, the sound effects, the rush that came with confronting the unknown—what was around a corner or behind a door—but all the while knowing I was safe on the couch, all provided this indescribable feeling. It dared me to push my limits, in terms of how much I could watch and also absorb emotionally; it dared me to see how far I could take my senses before they hauled off and screamed, Enough! until I craved another film.
I couldn’t stop myself from watching all the horror films I could get my hands on.
It’s no secret that the 1980s were an amazing decade in film. For horror flicks, the same could be said, with horror arguably reaching its peak of the genre during this time. The theme songs and soundtracks were over-the-top synthesized masterpieces. The villains, even silent slashers like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, had the standout masks and literal cutthroat qualities that turned them into overnight icons. The special effects were DIY-able but satisfyingly gruesome. And the creatives behind the scenes, like writer Stephen King and producers Wes Craven and Steven Spielberg, had their fingers on the pulse of what made audiences cringe. It was all a recipe for cable TV adventures that fed the imagination of people like me who weirdly found solace in being terrorized for two hours, as long as the madness disappeared when the credits appeared on the screen.
Like many horror fanatics, I was picky. I had my favorites, including Creepshow, Poltergeist, and Fright Night. The films were all chilling in their own right, with ghosts, vampires, weed monsters, Tasmanian devils, and even roaches that had the compelling, transcendent magic that still keeps me revisiting them as comfort films. When I’ve had a long or stressful week full of people’s energies, deadlines, and breaking news and I simply need to decompress, these movies remain my ride-or-die go-tos.
At the time of these films’ conceptions, I didn’t think something was missing. But the parent of a close childhood friend made me think again.
When I was having a sleepover at my friend’s house, I asked if I could pop in one of the VHS tapes of the horror movies that I’d brought over. My friend’s mother read the label on the front of the tape. I remember the way her face scrunched up in disgust before she rolled her eyes and exchanged smirks with the other adults in the room.
With my head lowered in shame, I waited for her to say what I’d heard before from my dad, my aunties, a teacher, and other skeptical grown-ups: Aren’t you a little young to be watching this?
But my friend’s mother had something else on her mind.
“Girl, Black folks don’t watch this kind of stuff. Nobody in these movies looks like us.” The other adult card players nodded their heads and grunted in agreement. She added: “We’re scared enough in everyday life as it is. Keep on living, and you’ll see.”
And that was that. She handed back the tape, which I shoved into my backpack. It was the first time I ever felt ashamed of taking an interest in something that felt so much a part of who I was. But I continued binge-watching horror movies. It became even more of an obsession, like a rebellious habit that I dared to do against the wishes of others. And I never told anyone about what my friend’s mother said to me. Not even my mom.
But even in my determination to move forward with one of my favorite pastimes, I started looking at horror films differently. I paid more attention to the characters and their backgrounds. Most of the actors were white young adults, like William Ragsdale, Johnny Depp, and Heather Langenkamp, who played white suburban archetypes. While the environments I saw on-screen weren’t identical to my surroundings, they weren’t completely foreign to life, since I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood. But they also didn’t reflect my reality.
The rare films that did have some diversity, I noticed, would only cast a person of color—likely a Black male—in a secondary role or a cameo appearance. The help. The sidekick. The deviant. I played classics like The Shining, The Thing, and The Return of the Living Dead that helped me feel good about us being part of the horror craze, as minimal as our contributions seemed.
I didn’t start understanding that there was something wrong with not seeing enough people of color and lack of versatility in culture in horror movies until the 1990s, when a new wave of cult horror films surfaced. Popular movies like Candyman and Scream became box office hits and caught the attention of millions of moviegoers who, like me, celebrated the joy of on-camera terror.
Now it seemed that Black actors had longer screen time but were stereotyped; put into trickster roles, like Fool (played by Brandon Quintin Adams) in The People Under the Stairs; or, worse, cast as the doomed sidekick—like Karla Wilson (played by singer Brandy Norwood) in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer—the main character’s best friend with the bad attitude, or gift of gab, or some other annoying quirk that typically made their early death in the movie justifiable to viewers.
Now it seemed that Black actors had longer screen time but were stereotyped.
While I still managed to get my craving for horror fulfilled, the shift was insulting. My closest middle school and high school friends would all half joke at our lockers between classes about how ridiculous the trend had become.
“Girl, did you see that new horror movie this weekend?”
“Yeah, girl, another one where the Black chick gets killed first.”
“Are you surprised?”
“Guess it’s good they didn’t ghettoize us this time. I didn’t see anybody chugging a forty-ounce while they got stabbed.”
We’d all laugh, but deep down, it was draining to feel so powerless. At the time, I didn’t know how to articulate it, but I was part of that collective longing to have Blacks recentered in the horror genre.
These earlier films were different from what I was used to seeing. Blacks had stronger, nuanced roles that centered their characters. They weren’t the flat portrayals I’d experienced in the 1980s and 1990s scary flicks. Even blaxploitation horror, a subgenre of horror films that primarily involved all-Black casts, struck me as meaningful and brilliant. African American directors and writers aimed to break from the narratives created and portrayed by mainstream Hollywood in protest of the vast injustices facing the Black community in the 1960s and 1970s. Films like Blaculaintentionally exaggerated stereotypes, pointing out the exploitative nature of largely white mainstream audiences and the media, and these works gave African Americans something we could genuinely call our own.
Films like Ganja & Hess and The House on Skull Mountain were Black horror films that had a Black director and actors but were more experimental in nature, defying traditional narratives, story components, and definitive heroes and heroines. Watching Ganja & Hessfor the first time was like listening to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew or witnessing the height of a spoken word set. Although the film was basically about vampires, it took a layered approach with various juxtaposing themes and had complex characters that distorted the rules of what horror was expected to look like. It follows the experiences of a prominent Black anthropologist whose wealth, sensuality, and vampiric nature are at odds with his will to lead a more harmless, noble life. In addition to highlighting upper-class Blacks—a subculture largely overlooked and ignored in 1980s and 1990s horror—the movie featured traditions, sounds, fashion, and eroticism that were viewed as taboo then. The scream was that the movie screamed nonconformity, which was both scary and delicious.
The unearthing of Black-led horror films captivated me. Suddenly, I felt a validation that I’d wished to have back as a kid obsessed with hair-raising, teeth-chattering flicks. The realization that we once dominated a piece of the horror genre was astronomically empowering,.
The pride in seeing us play lead roles in classic scary movies turned to a new zeal in 2017. Blacks began reclaiming their narrative in engaging features, like Get Out, which directly engaged with racism—showing the horror that my friend’s parent had spoken about and amplifying it on the screen. I remember sitting in the movie theater with a group of friends with my heart pounding through my ears throughout the whole blockbuster directed by Jordan Peele. So many aspects of our realities lived in this story.
Personally, I felt seen. I was no longer that little girl, embarrassed by my own fascination for a genre that rarely highlighted the faces, sentiments, and experiences of Blacks like me. I felt like we were on the edge of a new day, a time that would change the way we saw ourselves in horror once again.
Lyndsey Ellis is a St. Louis-born fiction writer and essayist who’s passionate about exploring intergenerational struggles and resiliency in the Midwest. Her debut novel, BONE BROTH (Hidden Timber Books), is out in May 2021.