I’ve never been a fan of horror films, although I love The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Scary movies never appealed to me because I was acutely conscious of everyday terrors as a child of the 1980s and ’90s. My family and I wore green ribbons in remembrance of Black children abducted and murdered in Atlanta. The “Night Stalker” terrorized my home state of California. Kevin Collins, who lived a few doors down from my grandmother on Sutter Street in San Francisco, went missing one evening while waiting for the bus. The previous weekend I had played with him and a bunch of other kids from the neighborhood. For years every time I fixed a bowl of cereal, I was haunted by the memory of his image on a milk carton.
Real-life boogeymen kept me up at night as a kid, so I didn’t need to see fictitious ones at the movies or on television. However, recently I have been drawn to the horror genre because, when applied to the subject of race, as in recent films by director Jordan Peele and others, it provides one of the best lenses into what it feels like to be Black in America, while also raising profound spiritual questions about good and evil, death and dying, and the presence of God amid suffering.
At its core, horror, like religion, examines what it means to be human. Like a good preacher, a horror film done right invites the viewer to wrestle with internal and external demons and consider our moral obligation to maintain our humanity and the humanity of others. Jordan Peele’s films Get Out and Us and the television shows Lovecraft Country (HBO) and Them (Amazon Prime) are terrifying not just for their depictions of wholly other and supernatural phenomena, but also because they present terror in the ordinary. Meeting your girlfriends’ parents. Vacationing at the beach. A family road trip. Being the first Black family in a white neighborhood. In fact, Lovecraft Country and The Watchman (although technically not horror, but adjacent enough for my taste) are both based, in part, on the real-life Tulsa massacre.
A horror film done right invites the viewer to wrestle with internal and external demons.
Twice while riding as a passenger in cars driven by white women I was dating, police stopped us. Each time the driver was asked to step out of the vehicle. I nervously watched through the rear and side-view mirrors as the officer questioned the woman. Once, the officer asked for the driver to retrieve my identification. I presumably passed the background check because we were let go without incident. Both times, as we drove away, I found out we were stopped by the officers because they (both were white men) were concerned about her welfare. Obviously, since she was with a Black man, she couldn’t be in her right mind. The horror of what might have happened quickly gave way to humor over the officers’ bigotry.
As much as I want to laugh at the absurdity of this and other encounters, I can’t, because they are a haunting reminder of the ever-present evils of racism and the trauma it produces. I find these movies and television shows oddly comforting and reassuring because they confirm I’m not crazy in experiencing everyday life as a Black man, Black father, and Black husband as genuinely terrifying. Why are these stories so frightening for me? Because they remind me of a reality I would rather forget but can’t escape.
These movies and television shows confirm I’m not crazy in experiencing life as a Black man, Black father, and Black husband as genuinely terrifying.
Take Isaac Woodard, Jr., a decorated Black World War II vet, removed from the bus he was taking home after being honorably discharged from the Army and attacked by police officers in South Carolina in 1946. When he woke up the following day in a country jail cell, he was blind because his eyes had been gouged out. The basic premise of many horror films—the ordinary and mundane suddenly and without logical explanation becoming terrifying and potentially life-ending—is the lived experience for many African Americans.
There might be monsters, demons, and ghostly beasts in Black horror, but the scariest characters on the screen are white humans.
Through the lens of Black directors, writers, and actors, horror films offer people of African descent an opportunity to affirm our humanity in an environment of racial oppression, while giving us the courage to say that oppression is not merely unjust and morally wrong, but also spiritually evil and wicked. Although these films and television shows might only contain passing references to religion and faith, let alone Christianity, they often cause me to think of Jesus being tempted by the Devil in the desert before giving his inaugural sermon declaring he has been anointed to bring good news, healing, liberty, release, and comfort. The message for me is that following Jesus means laboring to fulfill that mandate in the face of earthly and otherworldly evil.
The horror genre, especially when explored by Black directors, has strengthened my faith as a follower of Jesus, because like Jesus, we will encounter many horrors. Yet, like Jesus, we must endure and fulfill our earthly mission to co-labor with God to upend systems of marginalization that rob and deny the divine in all that God has created.
It has also raised some unsettling questions about what that means in practice. Am I supposed to consider someone my brother or sister in Christ, let alone love them, as I believe Jesus loves me, when I question whether they see the humanity in me or those who look like me? Even if they don’t literally or figuratively have their knee on my neck or someone else’s, are we serving the same God if we aren’t co-laboring with the same zeal? How do I find compassion and empathy when confronting persistent oppression and existential threats?
How do I find compassion and empathy when confronting persistent oppression and existential threats?
The re-envisioning of horror through the prism of Black life in America illustrates how racism keeps me from achieving my full humanity. At the same time, it also makes me consider how external horrors can create an internal evil that prevents me from seeing humanity in others.