Black Horror, Redemption, Empathy and Catharsis: A Global Horror Renaissance
10th November 2020
By Adam Murray for Africa in Motion's Notes Unbound
We are currently experiencing what could be described as a ‘Horror Renaissance’ in film and television, as well as a growing interest in horror literature, comic book and video game culture and all things ‘uncanny’ globally. Alongside a burgeoning interest in subgenres like ‘Folk Horror’ and ‘Lovecraftian tales’ conjuring up cosmic-tentacled-leviathans and interdimensional dread - look no further than SpectreVision produced titles Mandy (Panos Cosmatos, USA, 2018), Daniel Isn’t Real (Adam Egypt Mortimer, USA, 2019) and Color Out of Space (Richard Stanley, USA, 2019) - it’s hard not to wonder what all the hype and fuss is about?
For those already tuned into Horror Fandom, or those interested in rediscovering why horror cinema is making a comeback globally and why now, Harold Holshcer’s South African tale of demons, xenophobia and the Gordian knot of redemption set against late 70s apartheid, 8 (Holshcer, SA, 2019) is a great way of familiarising oneself with the current cycle of contemporary horror reinvention/exploration and growing appeal for more unique, diverse, inclusive and culturally specific tales.
A contributing factor to this horror renaissance has been a more nuanced exploration of race, gender and LGBTQ+ representations on both the large and small screen in the last decade. Audience expectation for this content is only amplified by the anxieties and bleakness of a cycle of national and international lockdowns brought on by the COVID crisis and set against the backdrop of an international Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing election tensions in the US. The current horror cycle offers catharsis, a sense of reckoning, escapism, and a means to make sense of, or suspend our collective sense of disbelief with what is happening around us in the current cultural zeitgeist of upheaval and uncertainty. Horror in its own uniquely morbid way, can provide solace, empathy and distraction in dark or challenging times.
With the recent success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) generating cult status globally and kick-starting new interest in the genre, accompanied by a recent adaptation of Lovecraft Country (Victoria Mahoney/Misha Green, USA, 2020) for TV as well as His House by British director Remi Weekes (USA/UK, 2020) on streaming platform Netflix being met with audience enthusiasm and critical acclaim, now more than ever feels like the right time for African Horror Cinema to take centre stage, thrive and find a new and enthusiastic global and diasporic audience.
The horror film has always been a window into our collective subconscious and unconsciously repressed fears and anxieties - from the aftermath of carnage from the Great War in Weine’s Das Cabinet Des Caligari (1920) to notions of purity, sexual deviance/disease and the immigrant in the many incarnations of Dracula over the years. Cold War paranoia, communism and totalitarian ideology in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956, 1978); the ‘alien invader’ in John Carpenters The Thing, through the final girl of slasher films and fear of feminism in The Stepford Wives (1972), repressed fears and anxieties have always defined the genre. For better or worse, the horror film has always held up a mirror to us, the audience, and as a genre revels in figuring out what anxieties and fears keep us awake at night.
Race and xenophobia have always been attached to the American horror film whether in the Universal Picture’s cycle of horror monsters (The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Creature From The Black Lagoon, 1923 – 1955) or in the literal absence or presence of black bodies on the screen in those films. Classical Hollywood era horror stories most often tapped into the subconscious taboos of miscegenation and eugenics (Island of Lost Souls, 1932, King of The Zombies, 1941, I Walked With A Zombie, 1943). Playing on the anxieties of ‘monstrous black masculinity’ in the anthropomorphism of a pre-code King Kong (USA, Cooper and Schoedsack, 1933), the monstrous threat typically originates in ‘the old world’, the ‘dark continent’, and the yet-to-be-discovered island shrouded in mystery and ‘exotica’ (which has infamously played out in the imagery of sci-fi cinema as well.).
So much of horror (and sci-fi) cinema plays out in the literal representation of other and otherness on the screen; so much is invested in the gaze. Who is to be looked at (the body, face, eyes) and how? Who benefits from the privilege of that gaze? And, how conscious are we - the audience - of the multi-directional and simultaneous nature of that gaze? Horror is self-aware of this play of gaze and whom it might privilege, and is eager to exploit this. Taking the above into account it’s not difficult to come to the conclusion that D. W. Griffith's Birth of A Nation (1915) is, in effect, a horror film. The 60s and 70s bring us more complex black characters on screen in horror - Blacula (William Crain, USA, 1972), and Sugar Hill (Paul Maslansky, USA, 1974) during the Blaxploitation era; Amicus’s The Beast Must Die (Paul Annett, USA/UK, 1974) starring Calvin Lockhart and Peter Cushing. Night of The Living Dead (George A. Romero, USA, 1968) with Duane Jones’s standout performance as Ben and Bill Gun’s arthouse/surrealist classic Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn, USA, 1973) also starring Duane Jones and Marlene Clark, finally receiving the critical acclaim it truly deserves.
The 80s and 90s bring us Cold War paranoia, Reaganomics, Bush, the-beginning-of-the-end-of-Apartheid and white flight before plunging us into conflict in the Middle East. During this era, horror films made by ‘white allies’ and ‘black horror auteurs’ start to emerge onto our screens: Romero’s Dawn and Day of the Dead starring Ken Foree and Terry Alexander (Romero, USA, ‘77/’85), Keith David in John Carpenter’s The Thing and They Live (Carpenter, USA, ‘82/’88). Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs (Craven, USA, 1991) as well as the legendary Tony Todd in the Clive Barker adaptation Candyman (Bernard Rose, USA, 1993), reached cult horror status, with a reimagining by Nia Da Costa set for release in 2021. Eventually in the early 90s we start to see Black horror directors emerge like Rusty Cundieff with cult anthology classic, Tales From The Hood (Cundieff, USA, 1995) and Kasi Lemmons’s hauntingly evocative Eve’s Bayou (Lemmons, USA, 1997). For the more observant Black horror fans out there the film's director Kasi Lemmons also stars in 1993’s Candyman. The character of Eve Batiste is played by a young Jurnee Smollett who has recently graced our screens starring in the critically acclaimed Lovecraft Country (USA, Mahoney/Green, USA, 2020).
“Black History is Black Horror”
- Tananarive Due
Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (Neal-Bergin, USA, 2019).
For more context as to why such an interest in more diverse and inclusive representations of horror are on our screens, Tananarive Due’s UCLA class “The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival And The Black Horror Aesthetic”, is revelatory, very much worth exploring for those interested in a more nuanced understanding of Black Horror. Due suggests that the ‘Black Horror Aesthetic’ encapsulates any black protagonist that doesn’t fall into any of the old divisive tropes or stereotypes mentioned above in the history of horror cinema – a black protagonist who survives the duration of the story, a character who isn’t there to sacrifice themselves for the survival of a non-black protagonist, who isn’t just comic relief or only exists to impart wisdom and no other narrative function or purpose. The creatives behind the film don’t necessarily have to be black but the characters and narrative must break the tropes and stereotypes outlined above.
Some examples that spring to mind are Jeryline played by Jada Pinkett Smith in Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight (Ernest Dickerson, USA, 1995), or the character of Melanie played by Sennia Nanua in Girl With All The Gifts (Colm McCarthy, UK, 2016). Also of interest is documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (Neal-Bergin, USA, 2019), which is also based on the book Horror Noire: Blacks In American Horror Films From The 1890s To Present (Robin R Means Coleman, Routledge, 2011). So what can be gleaned from this history of ‘Horror Noire’ and this current cycle of interest in horror narratives on screen? Particularly stories that focus on black characters and black African diasporic themes and cultural experience?
I would suggest it is the need to be seen and to see each other on screen and as an audience collectively share these experiences, stories and unique fears and anxieties. To know your own stories, to share these stories with others, is vitally important for one’s identity and sense of self and shared historicity. Failing to share these tales or worse yet, to lose these tales across generations would be a tragedy, a horror in and of itself. Horror and Black Horror are about visualising trauma and struggle, about seeing ourselves on screen in y/our stories. Black Horror can also offer the qualities of catharsis and healing, championing the other and the outsider, the misunderstood, the unseen and voiceless. And allows us new ways to explore and comment upon shared subconscious wants, needs, and fears: a collective return of the repressed, and the oppressed.
Watching Vampires Vs. The Bronx (Osmany Rodriguez, USA, 2020) recently, I was struck by how much I would have loved to have seen a film like it when I was a kid, populated by a talented young Black and Brown cast playing characters rarely seen on the large or small screen even by today's standards. An engrossing vampire story that tackles gentrification head-on for a younger generation whilst also confronting racism and the growing pains and pitfalls of teenage boys waking up to the challenges of contemporary society around them. After watching the film, I couldn’t help but think that the closest experience I had from my childhood were the Frog Brothers in The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher, USA, 1987). It’s important to see role models and reflections of self on screen. It also brought up painful memories from my childhood like being told unblinkingly by a schoolteacher after being asked in front of a classroom of all white peers, “who was my hero?”
Twelve-year-old mixed-race me responded Nelson Mandela, to be told he was a “terrorist”, to sit back down and “Come up with a better answer”… perplexed and shocked I sat back down in silence. My childhood was littered with experiences like this. Horror films and comic books were a way for me to process my growing fears and anxieties around race and identity.
Like the Wolfman character in a Universal horror movie, I always knew I was slightly different. A geeky Black mixed-race boy, and to this day a proud “Blerd”, moving out of London to a very white East Anglia in the 1980s I was always treated ‘differently’ and was made to be aware of that in both overt and covertly racist ways. Horror and fantasy were pathways to escaping, relating and processing the uncanny feeling of being present but not truly welcomed or wanted in schools, playgrounds, on school trips and attending kids' parties of my early childhood. The motif of the skinhead and the golliwog cast a long shadow both literally, out in the street and on t-shirts and supermarket shelves, and in breakfast cereal adverts and the casual racism my parents would experience at work or in supermarkets on the high street. And then, phantasmagorically, late at night, those motifs and lived experiences would haunt my dreams and thoughts.
UFOs, monsters and ghosts were my escape. A strange reassurance that somehow there were scarier things afoot in the world than racism, social upheaval, Apartheid and Cold War Nuclear paranoia of the 1980s. Horror helped me make sense of the world around me. An engrossing vampire story that tackles gentrification head-on for a younger generation whilst also confronting racism and the growing pains and pitfalls of teenage boys waking up to the challenges of contemporary society around.
“I am the wanderer always searching. You are in me, and I in you. And we will meet again. I cannot be tricked.
I cannot be fooled.
I am the wanderer. And you are mine forever.”
- Lazarus (played by Tshamano Sebe)
Harold Holscher’s 8 explores the possibilities of what national and culturally specific horror cinema can offer an audience. It’s a subtly haunting film that explores xenophobia, race, folktale and mythology against the backdrop of late 70s apartheid era South Africa. It’s a tale of loss, trust and mistrust, the cycle of life and death and how much can be lost in translation between the passing of time and the insidious damage caused by a brutalising system. The opening sequence is reminiscent of The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1980): a slow car journey into the countryside and rolling mountains as we are introduced to young Mary (Keita Luna) and Mary’s Uncle and Aunty, William (Garth Breytenbach) and Sarah (Inge Beckmann) who are looking after Mary in the wake of her parents' tragic death in a car accident as they journey towards a fresh new start post-bankruptcy on William’s estranged father's farmstead located deep in the mountains.
8 initially relies on traditionally Hollywood/Eurocentric horror tropes and conventions; ‘The Haunted House’ of the farmstead is reminiscent of The Haunting (Robert Wise, US/UK, 1963) or The Others (Alejandros Amenabar, US/UK, 2001) and it has a distinctly folk horror feel to its first act. What’s interesting about 8 is how from its second act it subverts these traditional tropes and introduces us to distinctly Xhosa mythologies and cosmology through the introduction of the cursed sangoma (healer), Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe) and village elder Obara (Chris April). Sebe infuses Lazarus with a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty. He is clearly a profoundly knowledgeable sangoma, and knowledge and perspective is what holds the mystery of this tale together as it unfolds. As Lazarus’s relationship with young Mary develops, we also become aware of a great sense of shared loss and tragedy, the initial motif that binds Mary and Lazarus together, the cycle of life and death and essentially the central theme that drives the story forward. I would argue it is Tshamano Sebe’s eloquent Shakespearean performance that truly holds the story together; he is benevolent and malevolent, all-powerful and yet painfully vulnerable, which allows for a truly palpable and uncanny presence on screen. Lazarus is both villain and victim.
8 is very much about the gaze, ‘the eye of the beholder’. What do we really see? From whose perspective do we engage with the morality tale that is slowly unfolding before us? There is a very interesting dichotomy between what Holscher decides to show us visually on screen and what is diegetically said between the characters as we learn that something far more ancient than nation, land, race or politics is at play. 8 is about memories, loss and the dark unspoken secrets that bind us together. How do we process pain and suffering on an existential level, as a community or nation? How do we heal? Can we heal when so much is misunderstood or misinterpreted through the wounds of history, politics or cultural conflict or simply, difference?
Interestingly Mary and Lazarus are the catalyst for change and redemption, they are framed early on as ‘White Saviour’ and ‘Mystical Negro’, (tropes outlined in the work of Tananarive Due and Robin R. Means Coleman mentioned earlier) but subtly these tropes are subverted as the story unfolds - part of the reason why on the film's first viewing it deftly keeps the audience guessing at the moral trajectory at the heart of the story; a yin/yang motif constantly morphing allowing multiple layers of interpretation, and varying readings. This ambiguity draws the audience in. You want to discover what is at the core of this mystery as each element of the puzzle is revealed. It’s about how little is said, and how open to interpretation the layers of meaning and thematics are that allows the film to get under one's skin. Just as something becomes tangible, Holscher inverts it, or provides more questions than answers, only amplifying and sustaining the growing sense of dread and uncertainty. It’s more symbolic than descriptive, forcing the audience out of their comfort zone into more ominous, illusory territory.
William the Uncle and Sarah the Aunty become less interesting characters as our focus in the second and third act lean towards the tragedy of the local village, Lazarus and the growing tension with its guardian and elder, Obara, played stoically by veteran character actor Chris April. This ambiguity allows the film to succeed as a progressive folk horror tale that alludes to a more inclusive and sophisticated South African spirituality and mythology that challenges the tropes of a traditional ‘white Anglicised ghost story’. Mary is asked a number of times at the start of the film how she knows about such “scary things” in relation to African folklore, her replies “I was taught it at school” and “I read it in a book” allude to a growing shift in attitude, and a willingness and enthusiasm to learn and understand and bridge the gap of difference. The ‘Haunted House’ of the farmstead can be seen as a motif for 70s Apartheid South Africa. “It’s a big house, will you be okay in here on your own?” Sarah condescendingly retorts to Mary on the discovery of her late mother's room.
“Death Is Life and Life Is Death.”
– Lazarus (played by Tshamano Sebe)
8 is a refreshing thrill ride that reworks the horror genre, showcasing/signalling that there are more infinitely fascinating ways in which horror narratives can provide platforms of possibility for diasporic African storytelling.
This essay is a personal and critical exploration tentatively mapping what horror and Black Horror means to me, giving context to why I believe horror as a genre is capable of providing allegory and exploring subjects and themes, history and the ‘unspoken’ in refreshing and novel new ways. Also, why the current interest in horror narratives could champion new voices and perspectives on screen. Horror can be an empowering and liberating experience and narrative conduit for change and reflection. 8, I believe, is an interesting example of what horror as a genre could potentially be when explored through a non-Hollywood, non-Eurocentric lens. Providing a platform to navigate notions of healing and reconciliation, whilst at the same time challenging our subconscious and conscious fears around identity and cultural agency. As more directors and writers engage with horror from the continent it will be interesting to see diasporically what African horror cinema might or could become.
Adam Murray is a Bristol-based writer/curator. He is a regular contributor and programmer with film collectives and festivals such as Come The Revolution, Cinema Rediscovered, Cables & Cameras, Common Hand and Bristol Black Horror Club. He tweets at @Admagnetic