The Horror Honeys: Black Death in Horror Cinema: An Overview

Black Death in Horror Cinema: An Overview

A Guest Honey Editorial by Valerie

I am have grown accustomed to thinking that black people are always the first people to die in horror films. But can you blame me? I know I am not the only one. In 2013, Complex Magazine did a survey of sorts and reviewed 50 horror films that featured black people. Here is this is what they found:
“Out of the 50 horror movies considered, 0.1% (5 out of 50) of them have black characters who die first. As it turns out, black characters don't always die first in horror movies. In fact, they rarely ever die first. Their mortality rate is, however, extremely low, but at least black characters get to hang around long enough to either crack plenty of comic-relief jokes or awkwardly stand around in the background, behind the bland Caucasian heroes and protagonists.”
Duane Jones - Night of the Living Dead
It looks like Complex may have dispelled the myth that blacks always die first. For me, this is shocking to learn. The unsurprising part is they do die, eventually. I have also noticed, when a black person does finally die, it's usually in the worst manner of death possible. The focus of this article is a small review of ‘black death’ in horror cinema. Looking at some of the archetypes that are prime for death and exceptions to the rule. This assessment is based on decades of watching horror films, and some research.
There are many archetypes portrayed by a wide array of characters in horror films, but a few are pretty specific to African Americans. I have chosen 4 infamous archetypes you will see on a regular basis in horror film, but before I got into that list, let me first discuss were it started and how it has progressed.

Truth be told, it is possible that black men and women were added to horror films for the sake of diversity. However, the more likely reason they were added is to heighten the body count. They would appear on screen solo or as apart of the group of the usual horror loser like: the jock, the slut, the nerd, and the virgin. It wasn't until years past that these black men and women developed personalities of their own to add to the group. Night of the Living Dead is a hallmark for African Americans, not just in horror but also in cinema overall. Having an African American hero saving white people was unheard of for that time period. Naturally, the main character died, but for him to be seen as a hero is something that horror fans will always remember. Unfortunately, that milestone has yet to be duplicated. 

Since then, the characterization of black horror actors seemed to de-evolve and then re-evolve into something completely different from what fans saw in Night Of The Living Dead. Here is a brief run down of how things evolved for the African American in horror cinema.

Stage 1: The Ghetto Dweller 

The big man/or loud mouth woman who is just fodder for the killer. And you want this person dead. This character is usually a petty thug, or a sassy black female. They are there to intimidate, or jive speak the few lines they do have. They are loud, obnoxious, and fucking stupid.  They talk a good game and appear fearless until it's time to die, or they mistake themselves for the killer’s equal. They are met with horrendous deaths, but afterwards the audience realizes that once this character is dead they didn’t really give a shit about him/or her anyway. Good riddance!


Stage 2: The Mystic 

This character is usually elderly, but the mystic can come in all ages. They advise, they counsel, they know the spells, potions and urban legends to share. To top it off, they feel oh so deeply for the white hero. The Mystic tends to be the sacrificial lamb of the film, and usually end up dead somewhere at the climax of the film, probably as a result of putting their lives on the line for the lead character. You feel bad this person had to give up their life, but you realize it was needed to further the plot.


Stage 3: The Voice of Reason

"You don't want to go in there!" A classic line used by the Voice of Reason. This person is usually a part of a group of assholes getting into things they shouldn’t be. They are scared to death of, well, EVERYTHING. However, despite the warnings they utter, no one listens, and even the character that issued the warning ignores his own advice. Naturally this is to further the plot, but at least they showed the character had some common sense, however fleeting. Nevertheless, they are there to add to the body count and the Voice of Reason usually dies first.  However, I will say that by this stage, the characters are becoming a little more intelligent, have a bigger role and more lines. That’s always good!



Stage 4: The Sidekick 

Finally! The more primitive roles are in the past and now: the Sidekick. At this point in time this is where we are, and when you see most films, black sidekicks is what you will witness. This person isn't really a hero. It's more like they’re along for the ride. Of course they never have as many lines at the lead character, but they have more to say than anyone else. They get along great with other members of the group, but hell, they're trying to live just like everyone else, so you will not see them sacrificing themselves for anyone. The sidekick does add some gravitas to the film by allowing the hero to stand over his sidekick friend’s dead body and yell to the skies, "Noooooooooo!" Just to show that the lead care for their token black friend.

There are exceptions to the death rule. It’s rare, but there are times blacks are not killed and allowed to live until past credit roll. However, there are some provisions in each situation.

Blacks have the possibility to live if:

Their companion in the end is a white woman
The ending of House on Haunted Hill (2009)

If it's an all black cast and someone black folks have no choice but to live

Ragdoll featured an all black cast of nobodies.
The pair pictures on the VHS cover did live.
If they are the villain
Clarence Williams III is El Diablo in Tales From The Hood

If the film has a sequel and the black person lived in the first film, they will most certainly die in the second film if they are apart of the cast

Ken Sagoes (Left) Survived Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, only to be killed in the first 10 minutes of Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. That doesn’t feel like a victory to me.

Then are also things that black horror fans may never see happen:
  • A white and black man surviving together
  • A black man or woman surviving alone in a cast featuring white people

Again, my assessment is based off of what I’ve noticed over decades of watching horror cinema. I have been searching for someone to give me cold hard facts that the information I have gathered is wrong. At least that would give me some hope that things are changing! 

Now, before officially ending this article I want to take the time to acknowledge the black actor/actress who has racked up the most horror deaths.

AND THAT PERSON IS……*DRUMROLL *

TONY TODD! 

Most famously known for his role in the dreadful Candyman franchise, Todd has been featured in over 20+ horror films over the course of his career, and he has died in most of them. Look at this impressive death list:

  • Are You Scared 2
  • Candyman
  • Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh
  • Candyman 3: Donna D’errico’s Breast
  • The Crow
  • The Eden Forumla
  • Minotaur
  • Wishmaster
  • Murder-Set-Pieces 
  • Nite Tales
  • Scarecrow Slayer
  • Shadow: Dead Riot
  • Shadow Puppets
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  • Night of the Living Dead (remake)

With that said, what does the future hold for black people in horror cinema? I wish I had good news, but unfortunately it looks like more of the same. The horror cinema in America has been down right crappy the past 10 years and I’ve taken notice that there haven't been many deviations from the norm. I guess we’ll be sitting at sidekick for a while. So yes, be prepared to see more black folks dying in the name of diversity. 

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Guest Honey Valerie Greene is a freelance writer, director, and film editor. She writes for several movie and entertainment websites, and she has worked on such independent films as King Of Woodhaven, and Wait In Room 219. You can find her work at the following sites: