Black Horror And The Technology Of Monsters

Gothic Afrofuturism and Black horror’s role in divining Black futures.

By Lea Anderson · @leaeanderson · April 13, 2021, 9:56 AM PDT
The Emory family in THEM.

In the years since acclaimed author and professor Tananarive Due delivered the statement “Black history is Black horror” in Shudder’s award-winning 2019 documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, a slew of both Black Horror and Blacks in horror productions have been released, which situate themselves either adjacent to or in conversation with specific historical events. The documentary, based on the book of the same name by Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman, approaches the history of Black representation in horror as a story inextricable from American history and culture as a whole – and in particular, aspects of American history and culture folks rarely learn about in school.

Due’s statement resonates because it speaks to an undeniable truth, but it should also go without saying that all of Black history is not just about Black horror and all of Black horror doesn’t necessarily have to be historical. Nevertheless, studio environments have responded to this uptick in market interest with a specific type of enthusiastic literalism that has begun to raise ire from Black audiences with legitimate concerns about horror’s participation in proliferating the consumption of Black torment and suffering as a normal aspect of daily American (or rather, global) life.

Lovecraft Country, Antebellum, Bad Hair, Spell (to an extent), the highly anticipated remake of Candyman by Nia DaCosta, and Little Marvin’s Them, released last weekend from Amazon, all, as part of their projects, confront events of American history which have and continue to produce Black horror. This does not necessarily mean they are all operating in the Black Horror, Afro- or Negrogothic tradition. Antebellum and Spell, for instance, are both stories written (and the former directed) by white men, themselves operating in their own tradition of narrative blackface as old as American entertainment itself.

One benefit of Dr. Robin Coleman’s scholarship with Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films From 1890’s to Present is that, in distinguishing "Black horror" from "Blacks in horror" films, she was able to identify particular narrative movements and subversions distinct to Black Horror, that come about as a result of privileging the Black gaze on all sides of the camera. These same movements, she notes, do, on the rare occasion, sometimes appear in "Blacks in horror" productions (like The People Under the Stairs and Attack the Block), but nevertheless represent a distinct feature of Black Horror as a narrative tradition. This has to do entirely with where monstrosity is assigned, how it’s aestheticized, and how violence is employed as a narrative device. Which is why I want to draw attention to another statement Professor Due makes during her uncut interview, that “Black horror is an offshoot of Afrofuturism.”

Though marginalized among the (already marginalized) speculative arts, horror – like fantasy and science fiction – is primarily concerned with, as Due puts it, “the literal concept of survival.” Where fantasy and sci-fi are perhaps more known to exhibit this preoccupation in their imaginings of the future, or retellings of the past (Black Panther, Watchmen), horror tends to narrate a more immediate survival, typically asking the question in one way or another, of who will manage to survive the night’s encounters with [insert monster figure here].

The issue, of course, is in who the monsters produced under imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy are coded to represent. The “horror” in Spell demonizes African spiritual religions, a narrative the film industry has been producing since the late nineteenth century, itself based on sixteenth and seventeenth century colonial perceptions of African and Indigenous "savagery."

Horror, terror, fear and anxiety are among this world’s most potent energies. They flatten the man-made construction of the human; remind us we too are prey animals at the end of the day. It’s out of this potency that horror, terror, fear, anxiety, and what they beget – monstrosity – can also be understood as forms of social and cultural technology. How does one establish an in-group? By first defining an out-group.

Us and Them: a social formula we learn on the playground, and a movement unilaterally accomplished through the rhetoric of monstrosity and Otherness.

This approach to the monster as a type of technology forms the thesis of queer theorist Jack Halberstam’s Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (to which the title of this essay refers). According to Halberstam, “Gothic fiction of the nineteenth century specifically used the body of the monster to produce race, class, gender, and sexuality within narratives about the relation between subjectivities and certain bodies.” The impact of this cultural production leads Halberstam to conclude,

"Monsters and the Gothic fiction that creates them are…narrative technologies that produce the perfect figure for negative identity. Monsters have to be everything the human is not and, in producing the negative of human…make way for the invention of human as white, male, middle class, and heterosexual."

Consider the Motion Picture Production Code (otherwise known as the Hays Code): a self-censorship document which dictated the moral standards of all films released in the United States between 1930 and 1968 (to be fair, it wasn’t strictly enforced until 1934, which is why we have classics like ‘32’s Freaks). It is, in rhetoric, an overtly religious text which believes art can be “morally evil,” and “lower the whole living condition and moral ideas of a race” (what race?), and therefore has “special Moral obligations,” namely to affirm “that in the end, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong, and good is right.”

But how does one define “good” and “evil” in a white supremacist society at the time of Jim Crow, Yellow Peril, the Great Migration and the Civil Rights Movement? (How does one define “evil” now?)

During this period, Hollywood coded and depicted us all as monsters and villains: a history shared equally between Black folks, queer folks (particularly Black queer folks), and people with disabilities (particularly Black queer people with disabilities). Hollywood and the film industry at large had an enormous hand in, as Due puts it, “export[ing] this issue of Black monstrosity and Black inferiority around the globe,” building on the narratives already established first through European colonization, and then modern imperialism. They insured the proliferation of these narratives by first barring us from entry into the spaces where such decisions were made, and then, when we built our own (speaking of pioneers like Oscar Micheaux), they regulated the types of stories that could be told.

Black Horror – narratives imagined, written, directed and starring Black people – are defined by their refusal of such projections. Dianca London wrote of this in 2017, in her essay, “Get Out and the Revolutionary Act of Subverting the White Gaze.” Of Peele’s method, she describes how he “tears the veil between the reality of blackness and how it is imagined through the gaze of whiteness.”

Of the relational dynamic between Rose (Allison Williams) and Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) exhibited early in the film, she cites bell hooks’ Killing Rage to recognize how whiteness’ more subtle ways of enforcing dominance treats occasions of racism “as if they were a ‘figment of our perverse paranoid imaginations.’”

Nineteenth and early twentieth century anti-Black caricatures, particularly those of Black masculinity, often included a derogatory element of superstition and fearfulness: the “spook” afraid of his own shadow. It was a quality designed to justify white paternalism by rendering Blackness in a manner that suggests innate inferiority. This dismissal has remained a convenient method for generational mass-gaslighting, evidenced in Get Out when Rose so casually diminishes and corrects Chris’ perceptions to suit herself. To Peele, these are the so-called microaggressions that line the road that eventually leads to the sunken place. In naming these modes of relation for what they are, he establishes them as a feature of white monstrosity.

By contrast his follow-up, Us, uses its white characters to construct a commentary-by-contrast about Black neoliberalism – and that’s about all they’re good for. Us is a film truly about us and the blood sacrifice American capitalism commands. The white characters lend realism (we live in a world where they exist), but they’re essentially there to die. Which is why the critiques lodged at Them that accuse the project of “biting” from Peele don’t make much sense. The two productions couldn’t be further from one another in their overt preoccupations – which is perhaps more so to say that their stories represent different sides of the same coin.

Controversial for the extremity of its violence, Them doesn’t so much subvert the white gaze as directly address it. I’ve written multiple pieces that discuss the danger and ineffectiveness of turning white violence against Black people into spectacle, and though Little Marvin’s series most certainly does just that, I disagree with many other Black critics who claim that’s the only thing the project is doing. It’s obvious that certain choices made regarding this series betray its Black audience in how it uses violence as a tool of storytelling, and while I too found it both triggering and alienating, I’m also profoundly compelled by the monsters that haunt the Emory family – and I don’t just mean their neighbors.

Da Tap Dance Man (Jeremiah Birkett) alone is among the most original and compelling monsters seen in recent memory. What is the story he tells about the performativity of racial identity, the history of American entertainment, Black masculinity, and white expectations of how Black folks should move (in white spaces and otherwise)? Part of what made this series so painful to watch is that I identify with every member of the Emory family – have lived moments where there was no choice but to swallow myself in the face of cops, bosses, co-workers, teachers, peers, “friends,” friends of friends with expertise in covert racism. Like all Black folks, I know intimately the rage. And now that I’ve seen him, Da Tap Dance Man has ingratiated himself into those memories, almost as though he’d been there all along.

Just as capitalism requires the exploitation of the working class, and patriarchy requires the marginalization of all non-cis masculine gender and sexual identities, white supremacy requires anti-Blackness in order to codify itself as a logic system. The human needs the monster to define itself as such. But without the human gaze – which projects the condition of monstrosity to a given Object – the monster ceases to be monstrous at all. Then, they merely are.

Alternatively, that gaze can be turned around entirely – something notoriously difficult for white America (and its investment in the mythology of American exceptionalism and essentialism) to comprehend.

This is the value Them holds for me, personally. It is among the most accomplished depictions I’ve seen of the monstrousness and tyranny of whiteness as a purity logic which will always, in the end, consume itself. And in showcasing these monstrosities, it makes it possible for future generations to see them for what they are as well. It’s in the project’s furor to drive this point home that it loses itself – panders too much to the guilt of neoliberal white audiences, forgets entirely the white audience who will watch and revel in precisely the wrong moments, as well as the Black audience who live and carry such traumas and therefore don’t at all require the education.

It’s unique as a production because it doesn’t quite fit in the "Black horror" / "Blacks in horror" binary as a story imagined and partially written by a queer Black man (Little Marvin), that was nevertheless executed in collaboration with several white writers and directors. Though Da Tap Dance Man is conjured from Black experience, he frankly says much more about whiteness, and one has to wonder at the minstrelsy the show simultaneously critiques and exemplifies.

We tend to focus on catharsis to justify horror’s social value – that it provides a safe venue to confront and experience anxiety and terror. But it’s also the arena through which we actually define and aestheticize anxiety and terror.

In its most successful incarnations, Black Horror harnesses this, the master’s most essential tool, monster-making, and employs it to – as London puts it – “tear the veil” behind which power hides. It doesn’t just reproduce the terrorisms of the past – it subverts, corrects, casts aside what the monster has been to reimagine what it is and can be. The monsters of the past certainly menace the present, but what can we envision beyond this framework? In the Afrofuturist sense, Black Horror doesn’t just reflect social fear, it redefines what it looks like entirely – and it shows us how to survive.