Horror movies have been the staple of teen pop culture for over a century. In 1896, Le Manoir du Diable was created, blazing the trail for the scary stories to come. It was created by Georges Méliès, one of film’s earliest visionaries. The film is three minutes and twenty two seconds long, and it features classic 19th century special effects such as people disappearing in clouds of smoke and bats suddenly turning into people. This movie seems like nothing but a comedy now, but it began the saga of thrillers everybody loves. Horror movies have evolved in almost every way possible since 1896, but it seems like the cast has stayed the same: a bunch of white people and then one black guy– who is the first to die.
Black or any other characters from minorities are often the first ones to die within horror films. While it is not necessarily true that these characters die first, a larger percentage die at some point in the movie. Complex did a survey of 50 horror films that starred black characters, finding that only 10% had black characters that died first in the film; however, a great deal of those characters still died at some point in the movies. On top of their imminent death, these characters are also notably given a lack of character development, especially in comparison to white counterparts. According to Valerie of Complex, in her breakdown of the development of black characters in horror, black characters stand a greater chance of survival if they are teamed with a white woman by the end, if the entire cast is black, or if the villain is a black person. However, Complex also reveals that black characters who survive the film almost certainly die if there is a sequel. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism_in_horror_films)
The “Mythical Negro” is a trope in which the character is usually an older person who serves as an all-knowing aide to the main characters. The “Mythical Negro” usually informs the protagonists of the realities of the horror they face, and guides them along the way. This character is set up to be sentimental and usually dies at some point in the movie, giving the main character more cause to defeat the evil. They act as an outlet for exposition and their death is usually seen as necessary for the plot. Movies like The Shining show this trope, with the only black character, Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) being the one who understands the protagonist’s true powers and the evil surrounding the plotline. Similarly, there is a “Mythical Aboriginal” trope; the “Shaman” or “Medicine Man” character which enforces the idea of Native American cultures being a thing of the distant past. This character is omnipotent, and has insight into evil. This is linked with myths about ‘Indian’ burial grounds, you know, the source of all evil. Oh, you’re friend’s dead? Did he disrespect an Indian graveyard? Who knows.
It’s not just racial minorities that are killed off or made to be small- it’s every minority. Women are always depicted as damsels in distress, waiting to be save by some big strong man. They are always the ones to get captured or injured or to go into that basement or open the closet door. Besides passing the Bechtel Test, women don’t serve real purpose in the majority of horror films. LGBTQ+ characters are often treated the same, and sometimes are treated like punching bags. For example, in Steven King’s IT, there is a scene in which a gay couple gets absolutely beat on. For many people reviewing this movie, they said that was the scariest part because it was just so real. I wonder if Hollywood is aware that characters can be a minority and still have purpose. They should not be there simply to be the “Token ______” character.
Jordan Peele is quickly becoming the horror community’s Messiah- he’s made it his mission to, for once, have diverse characters with deep development and equal importance. His first film Get Out made its debut in 2017, it starred a black man named Chris played by Daniel Kaluuya. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the plot is about a young man named Chris who is brought home by his white girlfriend to see his white family. Needless to say, they’re pretty weird, and as the weekend progresses, a series of increasingly disturbing discoveries lead him to a truth that he never could have imagined. Spoiler alert: he defies Hollywood laws and actually survives. Peele’s second film Us in 2019 was his scariest so far- I’m a horror enthusiast and I usually don’t mind it but this had me curled up in my chair holding a screwdriver for defense, just in case. It stars Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide, and features her and her family revisiting their beach front house where she had a traumatic experience as a child. Without spoiling too much, there was a situation where the tables really turned, and for once its the white family that dies first.
Peele continues to be a reliable source of content. Coming up this and next year he is working on several shows including The Twilight Zone, and is releasing his third movie The Candyman in 2020, which is a remake of the 1992 horror film. Hopefully, he will led the way for minority directors or actors or writers in the industry, and classic horror movie racism will decline, maybe even disappear if we’re lucky. But a girl can dream.