Bloodlines: a history of Black horror

With the release of Nia DaCosta’s Candyman reboot, we trace the distinguished heritage of Black horror – as written and created by Black filmmakers.

26 August 2021

By Kelli Weston

Candyman (2021)
Sight and Sound

Candyman is in UK cinemas from 27 August.

In Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, visual artist Anthony McCoy explains his work to a sneering white art critic as an attempt to “calibrate tragedy into a focused lineage”. Such is the project of DaCosta’s film, the fourth in the Candyman series, but principally a sequel to the 1992 Bernard Rose adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story ‘The Forbidden’.

Originally set in a Liverpool council estate, the tale was relocated by Rose to Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project, where the mostly Black residents are menaced by the vengeful Candyman (Tony Todd), born Daniel Robitaille, an artist (and son of a slave) who was brutally lynched after impregnating his white lover.

Candyman – both the legend and films – has always been a story about blood and lineage. Ill-conceived sequels Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) and Candyman: Day of the Dead (1999) follow his white female descendants, just as the first film orbits around Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), the white graduate student researching urban legends and with whom Candyman becomes murderously obsessed. In what turns out to be Lyle’s spectral origin story, he is presented as supremely monstrous, albeit seductive. Even more puzzling, given his past, he doesn’t prey on white racists. Instead, more than any other demographic in the film, Candyman terrorises and kills Black women – from the single mother whose baby he kidnaps and nearly immolates, to the film’s resident ‘Black Best Friend’ (played by Kasi Lemmons) – all with the ambition of uniting with Helen, who so resembles his white lover. In the end, she becomes the thoroughly unlikely saviour of Cabrini-Green while Candyman is relegated to sinister Other.

Candyman (1992)

Deliberate strides are taken to correct these missteps in the reboot. DaCosta shares screenwriting credits with horror’s current – and, frankly, merited – poster child Jordan Peele (who also produces the film) alongside his frequent collaborator Win Rosenfeld. They focus on the Black characters in and around the largely razed – and redeveloped – Cabrini-Green, which itself becomes a ghost. This version’s Candyman embodies a constellation of themes, among them trauma, storytelling and artmaking as a long inheritance forged in Black bloodshed.

Like Robitaille, Anthony (played in a haunting performance by Watchmen actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is an artist, who must situate himself in a tradition of Black authorship while grappling with questions of authenticity and white consumption of his work. But true to the Black condition, he is also faced with his own image made monstrous and mirrored back to him. In that way, the distinguished heritage of Black horror – as written and created by Black people – echoes throughout DaCosta’s film.

A moment of horror

Get Out (2017)

Much has been written about this new ‘golden age’ of horror cinema. Once the inherent silliness of the idea of ‘elevated horror’ had been conceded, the 2010s seemed to herald an exciting new wave. But in every estimation the real gamechanger was Peele’s Oscar-winning directorial debut Get Out (2017), in which a young Black photographer meets his white girlfriend’s parents, only to discover they are in the family business of snatching Black bodies to use as new ‘homes’ for the transplanted brains of ageing white people. With its sleek storytelling and meticulously mapped allegory, it was not only a defining film of the era, but of the genre, thanks to its rich social commentary – for, above all, Get Out is a modern-day slavery parable.

The truth is horror has always been the most innately political genre, instinctively primed to translate subterranean cultural anxieties, and as such, operates as an archive of technologies of otherness. Peele, already a comedy success as one half of the duo behind the television sketch series Key & Peele (2012-15), proved himself to be effortlessly adept at the form and many rushed to declare him the new master of suspense, the heir apparent to Alfred Hitchcock. He had revised a historically antagonistic framework: horror gets complicated when it concerns really any identity that opposes white male heteronormativity. Monsters frequently occur at the intersection of race, class, gender and sexual difference. As a form, it becomes most fascinating as the terrain upon which otherness is built, or – sometimes in the same film – unsettled by the othered, who use its conventions to reclaim their humanity. Critics readily credit Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Stepford Wives (1975) for their obvious influence on Peele’s film, but in fact both Get Out and his lauded follow-up Us (2019) – where an underclass of doppelgangers revolt against their overground counterparts – draw from the oldest Black literary tradition and perhaps the first true Black horror model.

The Underground Railroad (2021)

Black people have been authoring horror since the 18th century, but they were not writing fiction. Of course, slave narratives could be fictionalised – Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example – but these accounts of terror were steeped in reality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, films such as Haile Gerima’s Sankofa (1993) or Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013), and most recently Barry Jenkins’s Amazon series The Underground Railroad (2021), are fundamentally gothic. For filmmakers who set out to depict the realities of Black life, past or present, it is often hard to completely avoid this, as the Black experience is so frequently one of death and hauntings. Even the most realist dramas – Albert and Allen Hughes’s portrait of ravaged Vietnam veterans in Dead Presidents (1995), say, or Rungano Nyoni’s tale of a Zambian orphan girl falsely accused of witchcraft in I Am Not a Witch (2017) – can become ghost stories.

In her book Horror Noire, which inspired the 2019 documentary of the same name, scholar Robin R. Means Coleman charts Black contributions to American horror cinema from the 1890s onward. Her survey encompasses actors, directors and the racialised iconography that has plagued the screen from its inception. Shrewdly, she names The Birth of a Nation (1915) as a quintessential horror text for Black audiences, who saw themselves transformed into grotesque predators – it combined imagery that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan and racist tropes that reverberated on screen for years to come.

Black viewers could not reliably count on mainstream cinema to reflect them generously, if at all. But horror in particular, concerned as it is with the unseen and the otherworldly, offers a language to the displaced. Over time, Black characters as heroes have become less rare, even if the filmmakers themselves have been almost exclusively white: in Wes Craven’s The People under the Stairs (1991), for instance, and his less appreciated Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), starring Eddie Murphy and Angela Bassett. The Skeleton Key (2005), by English director Iain Softley, raises complex questions about the endangered Black body and racial passing. Joe Cornish directed John Boyega’s breakout performance in Attack the Block (2011), about an alien invasion in South London, where a local street gang defends its neighbourhood. Meanwhile, Scottish director Colm McCarthy delivered the zombie dystopia The Girl with All the Gifts (2016) and the memorable Black Mirror episode ‘Black Museum’ (2017), starring Letitia Wright.

Atlantics (2019)

Obviously cinema owes much of this shift in representation to a burgeoning class of Black filmmakers from across the diaspora. French-Senegalese actress-director Mati Diop created one of the most stunning feature debuts in recent years with Atlantics (2019), a nocturnal fairytale about ghostly possessions in present-day Senegal. In the same year, J.D. Dillard released the underrated Sweetheart, which finds a young woman (Kiersey Clemons) trapped on an island with a monster straight out of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). And recently British writer-director Remi Weekes earned a Bafta for the superbly haunting His House (2020), about a refugee couple terrorised by apparitions in their rundown new house on the outskirts of London.

Lest we perilously inflate the value of equity with such moral good that it eclipses artistic merit and, indeed, the quality of the representation itself, it’s worth pointing out that just as many productions have cynically trafficked in the genre’s properties seemingly for sensationalism’s sake. Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s Antebellum (2020) graphically depicts the violence of the plantation; so, too, series such as HBO’s Lovecraft Country (2020) and Amazon’s recent Them – both of which boast Black creators at the helm – seem especially attuned to the physical brutality of racism but this is at the expense of artful storytelling. The development of plots and characters is sacrificed to relentless, bloody suffering, which betrays a limited understanding of the genre’s capacity to communicate meaningfully about the condition of the marginalised: the dispossessed and confined, relegated to the realm of the unseen, bound from birth to ghosts. This is not merely a fleshly ordeal.

Redemption songs

That said, it would be impossible to easily encapsulate the Black-authored horror format, which is as varied as the writers and filmmakers who practise it, with themes ranging from class mobility to medical racism and gender relations. But one major element seems to inform at least the American tradition, to which DaCosta belongs: namely, a preoccupation with spiritual or religious – usually Christian – redemption. In many of these films the Black church is the prime locus of theatre, performance and storytelling for Black communities and has profound effects – for better or worse – on Black art. Quite apart from the moral warfare central to horror, religion becomes more than simply technology wielded against the devious Other, but a space of temporal collapse, where the past links to the present, lore comes alive and the dead are reborn.

Hellbound Train (1930)

One of the earliest horror films by Black filmmakers is Hellbound Train (1930). Credited to the evangelist couple James and Eloyce Gist, it seems Eloyce was the major creative force – “The script is largely hers, as are several scenes which she arranged the shooting of,” according to Coleman. Boldly experimental, if emphatically dogmatic, the film catalogues a host of sins through railroad cars populated by – as title cards point out – bootleggers, thieves, adulterous women, and so on, with frequent appearances by a cackling Satan, the engineer. A decade later, Spencer Williams would tackle similar themes in The Blood of Jesus (1941), in which the devout Martha (Cathryn Caviness) is accidentally shot by her husband Razz (played by Williams). An agent of the devil vies for Martha’s spirit, and for resisting temptation and preserving her chastity, she recovers from her wound and her husband embraces religion. Both films screened in Black churches across the country, with Williams’s film in particular becoming hugely influential. Just the year before, he had penned Son of Ingagi, renowned as the first science fiction film with an all-Black cast.

The 1950s and 60s did not see as much progress for Black filmmakers of horror. Indeed these decades were saturated with symbolic creature movies and colonialist fantasies of voodoo, such as Voodoo Woman (1956) and The Witches (1966). But one film that would have a huge impact on the genre – albeit one by a white director – was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), with its tragic Black hero played by Duane Jones who survives zombies only to be murdered by brash white vigilantes. (Before Candyman catapulted him to cult status, Tony Todd starred in the 1990 remake.)

Another influential figure was William Crain, who directed two of the blaxploitation period’s most memorable horror films: Blacula (1972) and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976), reimaginings of classic gothic texts. In fact, Todd’s Candyman finds discernible origins in William Marshall’s performance as Blacula. While not as forthrightly devotional, strains of moral didacticism persist in Dr. Black, in which the doctor’s wild alter ego is a ‘white’ man who exacts violent retribution on pimps and prostitutes. Marlene Clark as Ganja in Bill Gunn’s canonical Ganja & Hess (1973) – remade by Spike Lee as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014) – stands out as one of the more complex portrayals of women in this subgenre. The film concludes with the vampire Dr Hess Green (Night of the Living Dead ’s Duane Jones) physically and spiritually returning to the Christian church and killing himself, again. Ganja ‘lives’ on as a vampire, but usually this moral framework tends to stifle women characters. There is a traceable line, as Coleman notes, from The Blood of Jesus to James Bond III’s Def by Temptation (1990), in which the succubus (Cynthia Bond) who sexually preys upon and devours men reveals lurking anxieties about Black women’s sexuality.

Tales from the Hood (1995)

These films become more persuasive when spirituality is thematic rather than prescriptive. Rusty Cundieff sets up the threat of hell in his anthology film Tales from the Hood (1995), but more urgently prioritises moral betrayal inside the Black community: the Black cop who fails to intercede in an instance of police brutality and the abusive boyfriend played by David Alan Grier incur karmic comeuppance for their sins. Ernest Dickerson’s Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995), starring Jada Pinkett Smith, merges horror and comedy with Biblical undertones, including holy blood and divine, immortal guardians. In Dickerson’s blaxploitation pastiche Bones (2001), these spiritual questions are more subtle. The gothic-looking brownstone haunted by beloved gangster Jimmy Bones (Snoop Dogg) resembles a church and Bones is a shape-shifting deity, equally revered and feared. Women filmmakers, regrettably, have a comparatively muted presence in the genre, although Eve’s Bayou (1997) director Kasi Lemmons has an admirable horror pedigree, appearing in Silence of the Lambs (1991) as well as Candyman. Eve’s Bayou, her Southern gothic family melodrama, has echoes of literary forebears Octavia Butler, Gloria Naylor and Charles Chesnutt. Voodoo becomes the force that initiates young clairvoyant Eve (Jurnee Smollett) into the adult world and her inheritance as a conjure woman, keeper of history and mystery.

This attention to the spiritual may well arise from the constantly imperilled corporeal. The place of worship (the church, the mosque) has historically been the cornerstone of the civil rights movement and continues to be under threat of racist violence. In Gerard McMurray’s The First Purge (2018), two characters scramble to make it to the neighbourhood church only to discover its occupants massacred, in a scene with painful parallels to current events.

Horror generally revels in the contradictory aspects of religion, a force of destruction and salvation. Tales of faith, or belief, are also, inevitably, studies in culture, in folklore and mythmaking, in the creation of constructions, an investment in the power of storytelling itself. Black filmmaking especially prioritises rewriting a history that has been muddled and stolen. These films each in some way speak significantly to cultural identity, tales not just of humanity but of community.

For her part, in the new Candyman, DaCosta cleverly places a ‘rebirth’ scene in a church, which merges religion, theatre, folklore and horror – how they bind communities and their dual ability to destroy and empower. It also turns Candyman into a holy icon, one who can be invoked by devotees in times of distress. The film’s oft repeated, and purposefully political, line “Say his name” transforms here. It turns vulnerable bodies into something invincible: legends.

Further reading

Candyman reawakens old horrors in gentrified Cabrini-Green

Nia DaCosta’s reimagining of Bernard Rose’s 1992 film asks interesting questions about race but is let down by an abrupt and unsatisfying ending.

By Kaleem Aftab

Candyman reawakens old horrors in gentrified Cabrini-Green