My Life My Horror:
On the Dearth of Black Characters in Horror Movies
You can say I am old school when it comes to the genre of horror.My thing was the old Universal movies of the 1930’s and 40’s. A love for Hammer Studios,with their naughty but classy out put of films during the late 1950’s up until their fall back in the 70’s were stuff of legend.William Castle, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and John Carradine were the go to guys when it came to macabre reruns for me as a child growing up in New York in the late 1960’s. Not understanding why the six o’ clock news would show soldiers shooting into jungle brush in a place called Vietnam, people holding card board placards protesting civil rights, stop the war, and definitely the day my family gathered in our living room to watch Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral (seeing my parents cry together the first time) horror strangely enough, sports and more extensively science fiction was an escape. Like a drink I like my horror neat not too bloody. But reality caught up to me one Summer night in 1969. I am changing the channel back and forth on our floor model black and white television between Creature Features, a television show that showcased horror and science fiction, (other cities had their version) on WNEW channel 5 and what other network I can not remember. The Bride of Frankenstein is on, and then I ask myself, “Why are there no people like myself in these movies?” The period piece movies like The Bride I could understand things were not good for our people in the 19th century and before, but what about now (1969),progress was slow.
Fast forward to the fall of 1971, it’s a Friday night moms asleep, dad has gone to hang out with his buddies after work,my brother Barron is god knows where as a member of the Reapers Bronx street gang it’s a round midnight and I’m hanging out with my big sister Brenda and her husband Allen, they are spending the night in the Bronx then will head home to Brooklyn in the morning. They are channel surfing. Which back then consisted of me being the remote control, you know getting up and change the channel, yes a channel knob, we also had three networks, three local stations and public TV. Back then we thought we were brand new! Any way my sister is going through the TV Guide and lets out a oh wow !
“ What babe?”
“ Night of The Living Dead!” my sister said.
“ Nice!” Allen said in his best cool jazz head voice.
“ Whats that?” I ask nothing for nothing.
“ Oh your going to like it.” my sister said with a sly look on her face.
“ But what…” I say.
“You not going to be scared are you ?” Allen asks.
“ No I ain’t no chump!” I say not trying to be a afraiddy cat. The lights are turned out and I turn to WABC Channel 7, by coincidence the mood is set by the howl of the wind rushing through the building hallways from an open roof door on the 14th floor of our building in Bronx River Houses which was to become years later one of the Meccas of Hip Hop, but that’s another story. We all know the opening sequence with Barbara and Johnny in the cemetery of this classic by George Romero, I slowly getting hyped, Barbara Duane Jones as the hero/protagonist just blew me away!
Keep in mind this picture had made its delayed premiere Back in 1968,I say delayed because according to Mr. Romero the week they wanted to showcase it at a grind house on Time Squares in New York was the same week of Dr. Kings death.That night I found myself engrossed in this movie and also grossed out, but that’s the fun of horror the fear of mortality and the feeling of beating out death, or at least knowing we can leave the movie theater or get up from the couch knowing its just a movie, cheering on the hero or shero as he or she fights the good fight for existence to save the human race,or thyself.Seeing thebrother go through all the issues of trying to survive and be the anchor to a bunch of people who would have been zombie food had it not been for him was euphoric for me.The only other horror movie I could recall seeing, with another black character before Night of The Living Dead was a B movie titled The Killer Shrews (1959)starring James Best,in it the black character “Rook Griswald” a ships mate to Best’s character played by Judge Henry Dupree lasts,maybe ten minutes in to the movie, before he’s shewed up by mutant shrews.Back to Duane Jones,he fought the good fight to the end, but in the end which I later viewed as a metaphor for being black in America ,Duane’s character gets shot in the head mistaken for one of the living dead. No matter what we do America screws us in the end, a feeling and opinion that has ebbed and flowed with me over the years I would submit to the reader,that for some time back then African-Americans did not gravitate to horror not only because of neglect by the movie industry, but also the everyday life,of horror just trying to make it through the week goes on even now in different configurations.
The Blaxploitation boom, of the early to mid 70’s or BJ (Before Jaws)showed that yes a black audience was out there. Blacula (1972), Scream Blacula Scream (1973),Blackenstein(1973),Ganja & Hess (1973) starring Duane Jones and remade as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus in 2014 by Spike Lee)Voodoo Black Exoicist (1973),Abby (1974)and J.D.’s Revenge (1976)which featured black stars such as William Marshall,Pam Grier and Carol Speed among others showed promise. But in 1975 the original Summer block buster and movie game changer JAWS premiered and the black horror movie as a stand alone genre dried up. The 1980’s saw black characters reduced to token parts in the horror movie genre. In my DVD collection I have the rare Blood Tide(1982) featuring James Earl Jones as an ethics challenged relics Hunter.Keith David did show hope for black folk surviving to the end in The Thing(1982)remake and in my opinion whether you call it a short film or a long video Micheal Jackson’s Thriller featuring Vincent Price did some good for people of color in horror. The struggle to scream continued. The same feeling I felt back in 1971 I relived in 1992 watching Candyman the first of a trilogy of movies(1999,2003) starring Tony Todd,while his body of work is not as extended the legendary Mr.Price he still earns the same level of respect in my book. Today even with the recent Oscar’s awards lack of color, with effort we do not have to look to the Hollywood powers that be to be creative Spike Lee’s executive producing of Tales From The Hood(1995) and the use of the INTERNET for web series like Alex Fernandez’s vampire saga Dawn (2015).We are in historic times for horror with the flow of books , INTERNET ,movies, wo etc… the struggle to scream continues.
Born and raised in the Bronx, James is new to writing speculative fiction. After ten years as an artist representative and paralegal James decided in 2013 to make a better commitment to writing. Currently, he is writing a series of short “Twilight Zone” inspired stories from the world of art, (The Artwork) and a diesel/punkfunk saga (Madison Cavendish/Seneca Sue Mystic Detectives) with the goal of producing compelling stories