When folks talk about the influence of mythology and folklore on contemporary horror, the tendency is overwhelmingly to focus on colonial American, European, and Scandinavian mythologies, with the ancient Egyptians thrown in for spice. But recent years have seen a notable spike in projects influenced by the folklore of other African cultures- continental and diasporic- which seem to throw audiences and critics for a loop. Some folks enjoy what they’re watching but don’t necessarily have the language to describe it. Others reject these projects outright precisely because their cultural language differs from what they’ve been exposed to.
In Searching For Sycorax, Dr. Kinitra Brooks identifies “a specifically black and female horror aesthetic, ‘folkloric horror,’ that demonstrates how black women horror writers have grounded their aesthetic in the traditional religious practices of Africa and privilege the realization of the black spiritual feminine.” However, the mere presence of folkloric elements does not necessarily make a work “folk horror.” Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, for instance, certainly features folkloric elements, gothic elements, and tensions between the past, present, and future, but they coalesce primarily as a confrontation of grief rather than terror. It’s a project in which horror arises from the historic disenfranchisement and gentrification of Gullah land and people (where Tananarive Due’s statement that “Black history is Black horror” remains true as ever). Still, horror is not necessarily present in the film itself.
The films on this list can be said to fall squarely within Brooks’ category of Black “folkloric horror.” She elucidates that the majority are produced by Black women writers and filmmakers. They are projects that operate in conversation with the folklore of the African continent and diaspora, within which elements of horror play a vital role and where those elements are manifest to confront different types of fear, anxiety, and terror. These films are not just cinematic works but archival evidence: excavations of African cosmologies and narrative traditions as part of the ongoing archaeological project that is the study of Black art and Black culture at large.
Black Girl (1966)
Ousmane Sembène’s landmark film is narrated by protagonist, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a young Senegalese woman who is manipulated by her white employers to leave her home in Dakar and work for them in France. While under the impression that she was there to care for their children, the white mistress becomes increasingly demanding and hostile until the truth settles over Diouana that she has found herself enslaved in a foreign country with no support. Significant to the narrative is a mask she gave them as a gift when first coming under their employment. In France, it’s displayed alone on a white wall, not dissimilar to Diouana’s objectified station within their household, and becomes a deeply charged object. The conflicts of ownership that eventually arise around the mask come to mirror the conflict of ownership between Diouana and the white people who do not recognize her humanity.
Ganja & Hess (1973)
Among the most brilliant films of the twentieth century, Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess simmers in the moral tensions between pre-colonial African tradition and the postcolonial influence of the Christian church; a task accomplished through the presentation of fully fleshed out, complex characterizations, its non-linear narrative structure, and the original soundtrack composed by Sam Waymon. A renowned anthropology professor, Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones), is conducting research on the ritual blood consumption of the ancient Myrthians with the help of his assistant, George Meda (Bill Gunn), when an incident involving a ceremonial dagger leads to Green’s rebirth as a blood-drinker himself. The crisis of faith this brings about is among the film’s core considerations.
To Sleep With Anger (1990)
While more likely regarded as a “family drama,” I’m firmly of the opinion that Charles Burnett’s acclaimed third feature is actually a horror film. Danny Glover is positively menacing as Harry Mention, an old friend of mother and father, Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice) from back down south who shows up at their family home in Los Angeles and goes on to…overstay his welcome, shall we say. A trickster figure through and through, what he mirrors in and draws out of the family elucidates many of the tensions of Black life and Southern tradition in the aftermath of the Great Migration.
Eve’s Bayou (1998)
Both Dr. Brooks and Dr. Robin Coleman call attention to Black women’s association with a demonized version of “voodoo” and “black magic” as a primary trope in horror, one so foundational it precedes the formal establishment of the genre. Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou was among the first films to really complicate audience preconceptions of the subject by exploring the complex legacies of conjure, generational curses, the slippery nature of memory, and the ways the past haunts the present through the perspective of a Black girl-child.
The tensions between African spiritual traditions and Christian morality take center stage in this southern gothic short by Bree Newsome. Charmaine (Sahr Ali) has spent her whole life under her father’s watchful gaze—which is to say nothing of the local church ladies. When he dies, she turns to rootwork to conjure The Man (Benton Greene) Of Her Dreams. But as the old saying goes, it’s best to be careful what you wish for.
I Am Not A Witch (2017)
A stoic young girl enters a rural Zambian village and is accused of being a witch for little more than the fact that no one recognizes her and she is alone. From there, she is taken by authorities to a forced labor camp, home to a band of elderly women also deemed witches, their status signified by the huge spools of white ribbon to which they are tied at all times (to keep them from flying away). So begins a long journey of exploitation by the corrupt official who weaponizes superstition and the demonization of Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) and the other women for personal profit. An appropriately absurdist and, at times, terrifying study of the relationship between power, conjure, identity, and the role of the monster in society.
Blood Runs Down (2018)
Like Newsome, Zandashé Brown’s work is very much in conversation with the southern gothic tradition established by Black women writers and filmmakers like Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) and Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou). On the night before Ana’s (Farrah Martin) birthday, her devoted mother, Elise (Idella Johnson), is taken hold of by a malevolent entity that forces Ana to confront the distance between our desire to do and be for others, and what we must do and be for ourselves. One of the more understated qualities of this particular film is its elucidation of the syncretic symbolism between the rituals of Christianity and those of African spiritual traditions.
The haunting love story at the center of Mati Diop’s Palme d’Or-winning gothic romance doesn’t just feature your standard ghost. Atlantics was filmed and set in Dakar, the coastal capital of Senegal, and the spirits manifested in the film refer specifically to local mythologies. Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore) and his crew are manifestations of a form of djinn called faru rab, which Diop describes as “djinn lovers” or “husbands of the night” who are said to seduce and take possession of women. There are major patriarchal overtones attached to faru rab, and part of the brilliance of Diop’s film lies in her subversion of this social function.
La Ciguapa Siempre (2021)
I was absolutely delighted to see this stunner of a short from Monica Suriyage during last year’s Ax Wound Film Festival. When Milagro (Cheyenne Washington), an adoptee, receives disappointing news in searching for her birth parents, her boyfriend Davis (Michael Bonini) decides to take her on a getaway camping trip. Neither could anticipate what they’d find out in the woods—about each other and themselves. The film takes inspiration from la ciguapa, mythological beings in Dominican folklore described as dark women with long hair and backward-facing feet who dwell in the high mountains. Her origins (whether native Taino, African, European, or Nahuatl/Central American) are widely contested, but as is often the case, she’s considered something of a monster: simultaneously a seductress and an omen of death.
“Bride Before You,” Horror Noire (2021)
This segment of the Horror Noire anthology feature by Zandashé Brown is similar to Wake in that it also warns against attempts to use rootwork to predetermine the future. In this context, however, it concerns the legacies not just of patriarchy, but the generational traumas attached to colorism that haunt our communities.
I’ve made no secret of my love for Nikyatu Jusu’s extraordinary first feature film since its premiere (and subsequent win of the Grand Jury Prize) at Sundance. Very much in conversation with Black Girl, the film stars Anna Diop as Aisha, a Senegalese immigrant and mother who works as a nanny for a wealthy white Manhattan couple. To narrate Aisha’s experience navigating both the white family and her relationship with her own (her son, Lamine, who remains in Senegal until she can save enough money to reunite with him in New York), Jusu conjures two figures from African diasporic folklore. Brother Anansi, the spider- a spinner of tales and finesse- makes an appearance, as does Mami Wata, a marine spirit who appears with different names and iconography throughout the diaspora.
Here's a handy dandy Letterboxd list to track your way through this watchlist.