In 1976, James Baldwin released a book titled The Devil Finds Work. It’s a critical analysis of Hollywood movies in which he asserts that American cinema is toxic to people who aren’t white. Baldwin offers an astute look at racism and erasure in American movies, challenges the willful delusion of white Americans, and addresses the erasure of non-white people and the real-life acts of terror that affect them. The Exorcist is one of the films he analyses.
Spoiler alert: He wasn’t a fan.
“The mindless and hysterical banality of evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any Black man, and not only Blacks — many, many others, including white children — can call them on this lie.” (Baldwin)
In short, Baldwin’s take was that the evil portrayed in The Exorcist—and, by extension, in horror films at the time—was trivial compared to the evil he experienced in real life. The real monster was racism, but police brutality, redlining and other systematic abuses weren’t things viewers ever saw depicted on screen.
Baldwin was discussing cinema at large, but his sentiment makes an excellent point to support the importance of Black horror as a subgenre. While the typical horror tropes that often come to mind for a lot of people are slasher films, zombies and boogiemen, for Black people the boogeyman in real life is often racism. Black people have a shared historical experience that makes for great material, and not just for biopics and dramas but also for speculative fiction. Tapping into those elements of Black history are excellent tools for storytelling.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country are recent mainstream examples of how the Black experience can be put into horrifying context in TV, film and books. In 2020, in the wake of recent protests and a president who won’t denounce white supremacy, we are still dealing with horrific aspects of racism.
But the good news is that more voices are being heard, and even power players in Hollywood are being more intentional about diversifying Black stories. Netflix’s upcoming Vampires vs. the Bronx and His House (with underlying themes about gentrification and immigration respectively) illustrate how real experiences can be used by Black creatives to conjure up scares laced with social commentary.
But what is the anatomy of writing a good scary story that centers Black people?
That’s not an easy or straightforward question to answer, but American Urban Radio Networks caught up with some brilliant minds in speculative fiction to break down the anatomy of Black horror and how to tap into the creative process.
Tananarive Due is an award-winning author, screenwriter and teacher of Black Horror and Afrofuturism at UCLA. Her most popular course, The Sunken Place, which she co-teaches with her husband, was inspired by Get Out. It takes a deep dive into the history of Black horror in pop culture. Due’s books include My Soul to Keep, The Good House, Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights (co-written with her late mother), and others.
On the History of Black Horror
Black horror is real. You can go all the way back to W.E.B. Du Bois—and earlier—who wrote a short story called The Comet, which could be considered science fiction, but science fiction can also be horror. [Here] the last two survivors in the whole city are [a] Black man and a white woman, and [the text] had all this loving attention to the dead bodies lying around. So, he was really amplifying the horror aspects of that story. But even without that—to continue to use Du Bois as an example—he was best known not as a science fiction/horror writer, obviously, but as an activist and essayist and author in his own right, with the NAACP, The Crisis magazine, and anti-lynching crusades. Now you’re getting into the true-life horror. So, the reason I think Black horror is such a strong subgenre in the horror genre, and why so many Black people are drawn to it, even when we weren’t really that well represented in it for a long time, is because it speaks to intergenerational trauma that we all instantly understand.
On What Makes a Good Story
As Black horror creators, we have to be very careful about simply replicating the traditions and cannons of horror that have come before. The example I will use is, let’s say I want to make a Black version of Friday the 13th. So, I got a bunch of Black kids at camp and one by one they’re being murdered. I guess that could work. But what if they were all being murdered by a white dude? What if they were all being murdered by a racist white dude? At what point is that not fun? So, violence does not equal horror, and I think Black horror creators have to be very careful. There’s no one simple answer for what the Black horror aesthetic is. Sometimes it can just mean there’s a Black protagonist in a sea of white or other actors. Even if it has nothing to do with race, it’s still so revolutionary. The Girl with All the Gifts is a good example of that. It’s a fantastic zombie movie starring Glenn Close and Helen Justineau, who is a virtually unknown biracial actress. She killed that role. When you add her to the story, now it has all these socio-political implications that it would not have had, had she been white.
On Authentic Character Development
With any horror film or story, I can tell in 10 minutes if it’s going to be for me because I care about and believe in the characters. Period. That’s it. If I don’t care about or believe in the characters, I don’t care what kind of so-called horror stuff is happening. The characters have to be real. Very often what happens in horror—and this is all horror—is that the character has some kind of transgression. It can be a small transgression or sometimes a large transgression, but I mean something they did wrong. Not every story has its example like this, but in Get Out what did Chris do that was wrong? I can’t really think of anything he did that was wrong, but I will say I would not have been going to spend the weekend at a significant other’s home after only three months of dating. I won’t say that’s wrong, but also why not get a hotel?
In The Shining it would be Jack’s alcoholism. That’s his true transgression, and that opens the door to the horror. So, in a lot of horror stories, you have your characters. They’re human and they’re going to make mistakes. But in the world of horror, small mistakes have large consequences.Very often you see this transgression and then the characters suffer for the transgression, and with Black horror in particular there is a lot of unpacking of history. Which is something that we’re seeing a lot in Lovecraft Country, and there’s a lot to unpack there.So, there’s an unpacking and maybe a reframing of history—sort of reclaiming strength and power that we were denied either in earlier cinema and literature or in life.
Thank goodness for my writing. I discovered at 14-years-old that writing could save my life. I had my first Black Lives Matter moment in Miami. A man named Arthur McDuffie was beaten to death by a pack of police officers. They were acquitted and I just couldn’t believe we didn’t matter. It was a really eye-opening moment for me, and what saved me from that was my writing and being able to escape into my writing, and it has been a lifelong habit…My husband and I teach something we call “a sentence a day.” It’s where the only responsibility you have is to write one sentence on your work per day. Just one sentence. That way you don’t tell yourself you don’t have the time because everybody has time to write one sentence, and what that does is, if it is literally one sentence, it keeps it fresh in your mind. Because even to write that one sentence you’re probably gonna want to read it over and over, and you can see where you are going to orient yourself.
That’s how I finished my outline for The Reformatory, my novel I just finished. I was about 300 pages in and I realized I actually knew everything that was going to happen next. So, I outlined it, one sentence per day, and this was a hard book to write. It’s set in 1950. It has a lot of that Lovecraft Country, “Jim Crow as the monster” energy, and I did not like being in 1950. So it was a real struggle for me to make myself work on the book, and the sentence of the day got me through a lot of the grunt work. You get to the point where you can’t stop at one sentence because it’s really a trick you play on yourself where you can’t really write just one—it’s like eating potato chips. If you write one sentence, you’re probably going to write another sentence, and then you can stair-step your way to a writing quota that is more in line with what you think.
Kenesha Wililams is an author, screenwriter and founder of Black Girl Magic Lit Magazine, an online magazine that highlights Black women authors. Williams has experience as an independent writer, which allowed her to gain exposure as a self-published author via Amazon, but she also has an agent, which gave her experience in standard publishing. Her books include Blood Debt: The Day Walker Chronicles, Dead Wrong, and others. She is currently working as a screenwriter for a digital horror series that was delayed by COVID but will hopefully be coming in 2021.
On What Makes a Good Story
With Black horror, you have to actually have characters that are authentically Black, which means you can’t just be doing a regular horror story and then make their names Keisha and Malcolm because, what scares us? You couldn’t have made Get Out with a white male as the main character. It wouldn’t have resonated. It would have just been a kidnapping story. So, your character has to be authentically Black, and you have to tap into what scares Black people. What makes us different in this society? You can say race is a social construct, which it is, but there are things that make us different.
With my story, Blood Debt, with the Black vampires, the lead character is able to go out into the day because she has melanin. So, I show how she is still stratified in vampire society because of her race. They’re afraid that Black vampires are going to take over because, think about it, if there’s a whole bunch of vampires that can walk in the daytime, they’re going to end up being able to overtake the ones that can’t. So, in my story they keep the Black vampire population down….and, spoiler alert, there’s a conspiracy that these vampires are being killed during their time in service because they don’t want them to stay in society. They just keep making them have a hundred years of servitude before killing them because they don’t want them to realize their power. And to me that’s a very Black fear. It’s the fear of being exterminated, being experimented on, being used.
We are afflicted by different fears than white people, and I think that when you root your horror in those fears, that’s when it can truly be called a Black horror story. If it’s not, then it’s just another horror story and you are putting in Black characters, which can be fine as well because we’re not represented. So, maybe you want to represent us by putting us in a slasher movie or in something like that. Then that’s fine also, but it’s not necessarily Black horror, it’s a horror movie with Black characters.
On Black Women as Villains
I’ve been published in Fireside Quarterly. This was a nonfiction essay about Black women villains and stories and how I want more of them because we can be villains too. We have every right to be. Respectability politics has made it where we’re afraid to show Black women in any other light but positive because of what they’ve done to us, but we are human. We get upset. We want revenge. I love a revenge story, and we deserve that. We deserve to be angry enough to go out and exact retribution on people who have harmed us. I think that’s another reason why people are loving Lovecraft Country. I mean that episode with Ruby! We deserve to get angry and be able to do the same things. Now, do I want Black women only being portrayed as evil? Of course not! But we are human, and when you deny a part of our humanity—like our anger our sadness—we don’t always have to be the strong Black woman who’s got the whole world on our shoulders. We want to lift it off, or we want to chuck it off, and we should be allowed to do that. So, that’s what I wrote about there. Every Black woman doesn’t need to be written like Claire Huxtable.
My writing process has been shot to hell for different reasons. I have three kids, and we’re doing virtual learning. My youngest is seven, and I’m homeschooling him with a curriculum because I didn’t like the idea of a seven-year-old sitting in front of a screen for six hours. I used to have a daily word count where I wanted to get at least 500 words down. If I don’t do that, then I won’t beat myself up. I’ve given myself a lot more grace because of the pandemic. One of the things that was helping a lot, though, was that I would walk in my neighborhood and use my phone as a voice recorder. I would get my words in that way, so I wouldn’t have to be sitting down in the house where everybody is.
I really admire Walter Mosley because he worked—he wakes up every morning like it’s a job. He wakes up at 7:00, and then he’s like, I’m at my desk by 8:30, and then he doesn’t leave his office until 4:00. And that is amazing, but my mind will start to wander…It doesn’t need to be 8:30. It could be noon. It could be midnight. I just want to get something down. But like I said, I’ve been giving myself a lot of grace if I haven’t been hitting the word counts. So, it’s been more like spurts lately. I might have one day where I did 1,500 words, and then it’ll be a week later and I haven’t done anything.
Donyae Coles is a newbie when it comes to her published horror. The mom of three began her writing journey with freelance as a side hustle while holding down a day job. She wrote a lot of social justice articles and eventually began ghostwriting romance and thriller fiction. She eventually left her 9-to-5 and continued building her portfolio. Her first published horror story, “Breaking the Waters,” ran earlier this year via PseudoPod, and it was nominated for a Splatterpunk Award. Her follow up, “Seance,” is also available on PseudoPod, and she has more tales in the works.
On What Makes a Good Story
First off, I want to know what kind of horror I’m dealing with going in because that’s really going to determine whether or not I think that this is a good horror story. But I also think that when I’m going into a horror story, I don’t want to be beaten over the head with this is about racism—like, make it smooth, make it all flow into the story. I want to meet the characters. I want to feel connected to them, even if it’s just the smallest of connections—even if you’re going to slaughter these people in 10 minutes, I still want to feel something for them. It’s really about creating these really solid characters that can be latched onto.
The second thing is, I really want to see stakes that are worthwhile. I need to see that this is something that is dangerous; that is important. You can’t be frivolous with it. If it’s something that they could literally just walk away from, I have to understand why they’re not. It has to be well put together but not over-explained. I already know it’s a Black horror story. I’m aware of the tropes of Blackness. I don’t have to be explained what a hot comb is. I want it to treat the audience like they are smart and educated and they know what’s going on. Those are the elements that I like to see in the beginning of a horror story. And then, as it goes to the terror and the pain, you have to leave me feeling breathless, shaking, leave me feeling something.
I don’t have a set amount of words I need to write for a day. A lot of people love that and get their morning pages in with three pages a day. But I’m like, there are some days where I’ll write like five, six thousand words. I’ll sit and I’ll bang out a bunch of words, and there’s some days where I write 500 words for the entire day. So, what I usually do is, I do write every day—or at least I attempt to write every day. And I am more of a night owl, so I tend to write in the evenings. Somewhere around 6pm I start to really get into looking at what I’m going to be writing. I sit down at my computer, open up a word document, and I just start putting down words. That’s my system. If I’m struggling with a story or a story’s not coming, I may take a notebook, go to my bedroom and write something down. I’ve also taken my phone and gone, and voice-recording myself to break up the creativity juices. If nothing is working and the words aren’t coming out, then I’ll go paint. I’m also an artist, so I’ll go actually break out my paints and I’ll do that for a while and that change of craft helps sometimes.