Looking to stage a black-horror-flick viewing party for Halloween but don't know what to watch? No problem! Horror cinema, much like American history, is chock-full of black heroes and villains; black survivors and black victims; and black folks who live up to — as well as down to — the scripts given them. Black horror is essentially a junkyard — most everything in it is pretty awful — but every item is also a priceless treasure to someone, somewhere. To help you find your own personal brand of junk, The Root has organized some 20-odd films (and two books) by theme and type for your viewing (and reading) pleasure.
Many of black horror's tricks and treats are lifted from 19th-century gothic literature, so prep with a visit to the library. Charles Chesnutt's 1899 The Conjure Woman (shot by Oscar Micheaux in 1926 as a now lost silent) may be the first gentrification frightfest. It concerns an ex-slave telling tales of hoodoo to a white couple looking for a fixer-upper plantation. Deeper in the crate is Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein's 1854 Mysteries of New Orleans, which follows a 200-year-old Freemason named Hiram as he wreaks revenge on the antebellum Big Easy for "the sin of slavery."
If the spectrum of Afro-Atlantic spiritual traditions that are commonly labeled with the shorthand "voodoo" had a motto, it would be "Scaring the bejesus out of white folks since 1804." Books like William Seabrook's thoroughly racist The Magic Island (1929) — and pre-Code, low-budget zombie flicks such as Unconquered (1917), White Zombie (1932), Drums O' Voodoo (1934) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943) — introduced the zombie as coerced slave labor, a far cry from today's vaguely bacteriological armies of the dead. These works also taught white audiences two lasting and important lessons: Weak-willed white ladies are, like, way susceptible to enslavement by witch doctor mind control, and behind every black rebellion is … the devil.
Think of the voodoo doll as the first IED, and the first killer drone. In some cases, as in the "Millicent and Therese" segment of the classic, Karen Black-starred horror anthology Trilogy of Terror (1975), the doll simply lies in wait and offs you. In other cases, as in Trilogy's "Amelia" sequence, it's highly ambulatory, chasing the hell out of you, waving a knife and screaming gibberish. Director Rusty Cundieff updated both sequences in the underappreciated 1995 Tales From the Hood, this time involving a Klansman who gets his richly deserved comeuppance, thanks to some "Negro dolls."
Owing to the popular Afrocentric conceit that every American Negro was once a king, black vampires tend to be super "rico suave." Vampirism is, of course, a terrible curse, but the bright side of being a 200- to 300-year-old black man is that it allows you to lecture clueless moderns about their rich history. In the seminal blaxploitation-era Blacula (1972), this means giving a troubled, dignified William Marshall a backstory as an African prince who was vamped for his pride and anti-colonial impulses. In Eddie Murphy's Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), the angle played out as a Roots-type journey of discovery into leading lady Angela Bassett's forgotten lineage. If only Murphy had put as much thought into his hair.
Where a "regular" horror flick turns on making something unbelievable believable, black-themed horror often hinges on credulity concerning some overcooked ethnographic proposition about black life. As a palate cleanser, watch two horror-adjacent doses of alleged black reality: ethnologist Jean Rouch's Les maîtres fous (1955) and Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi's Africa addio (1966). Maîtres purports to document the (graphic for '55) possession rituals of the Hauka cult, which mimicked French colonists in order to sap their power. Part of the Mondo franchise, the continental-African-set Addio is a granddaddy of the found-footage gore genre — its images of accidents, massacres and bloody hunts the seed from which a thousand fake Faces of Death scenes bloomed.
The road from the pre-World War II enslaved Haitian zombie to today's consumerist army of the dead goes through two films directed by George Romero: 1968's Night of the Living Dead and 1978's Dawn of the Dead. Both featured strong black leads: Duane Jones playing Sidney Poitier with a 12-gauge in Night, and Ken Foree wrestling with existential doubt in Dawn. In both films the central question is not "Will the black man live?" It's "Can the black man lead nearby, restive white folks while still alive?" Take it as a sign of the current conservatism of the zombie genre that most Web memes associated with our reigning black zombie killer — The Walking Dead's T-Dog — concern his lack of lines and irrelevance to his group.
The dominant architectural backdrops for films set in American cities — project blocks and tenements up North, sprawl out West, gentrifying neighborhoods everywhere — produced their own set of black horror tropes during the black independent film boom of the 1990s. Helmed by Vampire in Brooklyn's Wes Craven, the nicely loopy The People Under the Stairs (1991) pitted a black adolescent against an incestuous pair of white cannibal house flippers. (It also gave us the line "You can see the lights of the ghetto from here.") The solidly scary Candyman (1992) imagined Chicago's Cabrini-Green projects as a bombed-out interzone of local demonology, perennially unsolved crimes and foolish white do-gooders ruing the day they stuck their noses where they don't belong. Both Candyman and People adhere to a strict logic that is economic rather than supernatural: Get in or out fast, because this neighborhood will not last.
Although the center of black life has moved to the city, there's always room for flicks about strange doings in our rural precincts, particularly those south of the Mason-Dixon line. In films like Angel Heart (1987), Eve's Bayou (1997) and Beloved (1998), the South is a haunted house where dark corners can be illuminated by black spiritual technologies like rootwork, second sight and plain old memory. The chosen vessel for such magic realist work invariably seems to be a sweat-drenched, bodice-ripped, half-naked, black Hollywood hottie du jour – Lisa Bonet in Angel Heart or Thandie Newton in Beloved. (Bayou split the difference, making a then-underage Jurnee Smollett watch Sam Jackson lay one on Lisa Nicole Carson.) All of which is to say that if your viewing party is going to do any double duty as date night, these might be the flicks for you.
Ludwig von Reizenstein's Mysteries of New Orleans described Hiram the Freemason as a John the Baptist-style herald for a black messiah destined to be born of "a mulatto prostitute and a decadent German aristocrat." The gents behind the Blade (1998) franchise must have been taking notes, because their complicated universe of Daywalkers, born vampires, made vampires and pure-blooded vampires would give a good clan of Louisiana quadroons a run for their genealogical money. The big-screen version of a comic book, Blade's two innovations are first to masculinize the invariably female tragic mulatto and then to bring her into the bio-molecular age. The half-vampire, half-human played by Wesley Snipes is not just trapped between two warring tribes but is constantly at war with his own immunology, making his identity crisis a kind of "one-drop rule" for the age of AIDS.
Michael Jackson's line in the "Thriller" video — that he's not like the other guys (more on that in the next slide) — reveals a core trope about black folks in horror flicks: We often turn out not to be who the film or the world thinks we're supposed to be. This instability around black identity becomes literal in films set in a possession frame, in which one day your best friend, your wife or you, even, are one thing, and the next day this person is, say, some sex-crazed, pseudo-Yoruba orisha of whirlwinds. That particular calamity befalls the eponymous lead of Exorcist rip-off Abby (1974) after her archeologist father-in-law (played by Blacula's William Marshall) releases Eshu from an ancient puzzle box he digs up in Nigeria. In 1976's J.D.'s Revenge — starring then-youngsters Glynn Turman and Louis Gossett Jr. — the spiritual substitution is more local: Turman possessed by the wandering soul of a 1940s gangster. Perhaps befitting his status as one of our greatest living actors, Denzel Washington faced off in 1998's tightly paced Fallen against a body-hopping aspect of Satan.
If you've made it this far, your reward is a pairing of two unquestioned black horror masterpieces. Unlike other films on this list, which make claims for our attention based on some intriguing historical point or sidelight, Bill Gunn's visually arresting vampire drama, Ganja & Hess (1973), and Michael Jackson's "Thriller" minifilm created genres of their own, resetting a whole series of notions about what the black fantastic could look like. Gunn's groundbreaking Ganja was initially shelved by its studio, whose executives expected a standard, fangy exploitation run. Instead they got an off-kilter black indie meditation on any number of unexpected things, from art house depictions of black life to addiction to the saving graces of the black church. "Thriller" is, of course, "Thriller." Jackson and his collaborators took the tools of pop and managed to build not just a still-stunning look at black male metamorphosis but also the most popular music video of all time.