Bringing The World Home To You

© 2022 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
91.5 Chapel Hill 88.9 Manteo 90.9 Rocky Mount 91.1 Welcome 91.9 Fayetteville 90.5 Buxton 94.1 Lumberton 99.9 Southern Pines
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Horrified: Podcast Transcript

Omisade Burney-Scott
I've been reimagining my relationship with horror since the 1970s. For years if someone asked me if I like horror films, my response was an emphatic no. Because I do not enjoy being frightened. I don't find the physical or emotional response to being scared exhilarating. As a child in the '70s who graduated from high school and college in the 80s, it was actually hard for me to escape the cultural experiences ranging from late night TV shows like "Creature Feature," or the ubiquitous slasher films of the '80s — one, two, Freddy's coming for you.

Black horror and its connective tissue to Black exploitation films were baked into my childhood like summers in the country with a gaggle of cousins. As I watched movies like "J.D.'s Revenge," "Abby," "Blacula," through squinting eyes peering through my fingers, all I was focused on was how I felt. I wasn't curious about the deeper meanings or about how what I was viewing was somehow representative of myself or my culture. I wasn't curious about who was driving the narrative and how I embodied what I was bearing witness to. Fast forward to the pandemic and "Lovecraft Country." The complex narratives held with such precision by Black writers and actors were grounded in historical truths, speculative fiction and fantasy drew me in. I also had the support from my horror doula. That is a whole thing. I still could feel my heart in my throat during certain episodes, and I also found myself excited with anticipation for the next episode. The Black horror offered was dynamic, emotional, cultural, funny and potent, and I wanted more.

This is Embodied. I'm Omisade Burney-Scott, sitting in for Anita Rao.

Black horror is embedded into our culture, film history and our memories.

Lana Garland
The very first film that I've ever seen in a theater was "Blacula."

Omisade Burney-Scott
That's Lana Garland. She's a curator of the Hayti Heritage Film Festival and a writer, director and producer based in Durham.

Lana Garland
The great William Marshall plays this Blacula figure. And he is actually the portrayal of a 18th century African prince who was then released into the world of the 1970s. And so, you know, when I saw it, I probably was around 8 or 9, and I thought it was ridiculous at 8 or 9. I thought it was beautiful. I thought it was funny. It was everything that I thought horror should not be. And William Marshall in his depiction was very Shakespearean. So it was interesting the the marriage of Black power with this vampiric character.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Lana is not the only person to be drawn into horror. Even as a young person, Dr. Kinitra Brooks was drawn to Black horror from the first encounter. Kinitra is the Leslie Endowed Chair in literary studies at Michigan State University. She is also currently a research associate at Harvard Divinity School.

Dr. Kinitra Brooks
I remember my first confrontation with horror was sitting in the Joy Theater in New Orleans, Louisiana, and seeing "Vamp." I was about 7 or 8. And it was a story — a little age-inappropriate now that I think about it — but a strip club that was filled with vampires. And Katrina, which was the Grace Jones character, she was the head vampire. And as a little girl, I watch horror with my ears plugged because I don't like the jump. But as I was watching it, I realized that when she turned monstrous, they exaggerated her Black features, right so her nose got bigger, her lips got wider. And I also noticed that even though she was the main character in the film, she never spoke. She was silenced the entire movie. And it was always my affinity for Katrina and wanting to hear her story and actually rooting for her to win even though she was the quote unquote bad person that made me fall in love with not only Black horror, but Black women in horror.

I started studying horror because I was such a scaredy cat. And I love watching scary movies, but I could never sleep for the next three days. And so I started reading up about the films, how were they made, listening to the director's commentary, learning about the actors. So actually starting to analyze the horror gave me some of the removal necessary for me to really enjoy it. And so I'm still a fan of horror. I learned this from my dad and his sisters. I learned this from their mother, my grandmother, my paternal grandmother. You know, Black folks have long enjoyed horror and now I get to study it. It's amazing.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Black horror has deep roots in film history. Author Robin R. Means Coleman argues that the genre began with the film "Birth of a Nation" in 1915. The film — set in South Carolina before and after the Civil War — cast Black people as its monsters. Lana says racism is baked into those early horror films.

Lana Garland
It's Black people in a depiction from a very racist society and not being able to have agency over our own identity. So you see that early on, and then as we kind of transition into a world where we have Black films that are being made by Black filmmakers, that kind of continues because of the internalized colonization that Black people have had, based on, you know, what America is. So you know, the first film of significance "Son of Ingagi," you find that same very thing. So, it centers around this beautiful married couple, they just get married, they're newlyweds, and they are gifted a house of a woman doctor. And the woman doctor has this kind of man-slash-beast character from Africa named Ingagi. And Ingagi ends up killing the doctor and ends up killing other people within the community. And so the thing that is really, really striking for me in seeing that is that we characterize this African man, this Ingagi, in such a way that he is animalized and just not positioned in a way that gives him his dignity. And it's like, so it — we have African Americans doing this to African characters.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Exactly, exactly. In the late 20th century, there was a lot of white directors and filmmakers telling these stories, like the directors of that 1974 film that Lana and I both saw, "Abby," and the original 1992 "Candyman" are both white men. Lana, what makes these movies actually fit into Black horror genre?

Lana Garland
Well, anytime you have a genre whereby, you know, Black folks traditionally haven't had access to the means of film production. If there's a film that has Black sensibility, we take it on. And so "Candyman" is a great example of that, because you know, at the heart of the story is a slave who has been wronged. And so that resonated with the Black community.

Dr. Kinitra Brooks
Black folks have always been fans of horror, right? Linda Addison speaks about Zora Neale Hurston went around collecting her oral tales, and there were haint tales and devil tales. So it shows that even as enslaved people, we enjoyed being frightened. We found a joy. So there's always been a space in us as a people for the horror genre. Robin Wood talks about horror and defines horror as when normativity is threatened by the other. And I like to think of Black horror as when Blackness is the normativity and not the monster. And so then we get to have this reimagining and this enabling of agency in which we are actors in processing some of the uncomfortable traumas, the uncomfortable ideas, such as what happened in "Birth of a Nation," where we get to have agency and push back at the horrors of horror.

I also think that it's interesting that many times, we as Black folks would identify with the monster because of the history of how we've been portrayed in society as monstrous and actually root for the quote unquote bad person, right? And enjoy the freedom allowed in being able to you know, explore our rage in the ways in which we've been falsely constructed in in greater society.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Exploring rage to filmmaking and activism is something that Bree Newsome Bass has done. You might recognize her name from the news circa 2015 when she scaled the flagpole outside the South Carolina State Capitol to take down the Confederate battle flag flying there. It was days after a racist attack on Black parishioners and their pastor in a Charleston church. She's an organizer based in Charlotte who studied film at NYU.

Bree Newsome Bass
My intro to horror was both watching like Saturday television, like cleaning the house, having the TV on and they would be playing things like "Trilogy of Terror," right, or "Creep Show," or the slasher films of the '70s and '80s. And then I also grew up just hearing it, you know. My grandmother is from South Carolina, my other grandmother is from North Carolina. I grew up hearing those stories of haints and root work. And it was so weaved into, just the culture and the way that history would be told that it wasn't until I was like studying, you know, genre, that I really understood how those things had manifested there all along that, like Kinitra was saying, we have horror as a tradition in Black culture, always did. It's just a matter of who has access to putting those stories on film or publishing it in book.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Exactly, exactly. You know, we're in a bit of a Black horror renaissance right now. And that seems to have been set off or attributed to Jordan Peele with "Get Out," which came out in 2017. Bree, how do you think that films coming out in the most recent years have changed the definition of what Black horror or what Black horror looks like?

Bree Newsome Bass
Well, I think with "Get Out," for instance, like that film hit at such a key time, and I think it's rare for any film to do what "Get Out" did, right? Like that just happened to land at a particular point in the cultural zeitgeist. It was like the first year of the Trump administration, so we had gone from this whole hope and change and America's turned a corner and we're post-racial, right, — that was kind of like the narrative from the Obama years — to this very, you know, confronting the realization of who we know America has always been, with the election of Trump. And I think "Get Out" in that way was able to really make the monster of the film was the white liberal, right, like the monster is the white liberal who claims they voted for Obama, and we're post-racial and you know, I'm so post-racial, that I'm willing to have a Black person in my family. But really, these are, like, the wealthy elite folks who keep this monstrous system going. And I think "Get Out" embodied that so much. And then it hit at a moment where I think there was a wider audience that was ready for that kind of content.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Yeah, yeah. I would love to start thinking about some of these themes. Lana, in particular, I'd like to think about digging into some of the common themes that we see in Black horror when we are talking about it like, what does it all mean? There are a lot of conversations about horror depicting trauma, right? And when it's scary versus re-traumatizing. So what examples have you seen of this theme of Black horror and when does it work?

Lana Garland
I think it works when you are using a high level of craft. We've all seen the reviews around the television show "Them." And that was particularly panned, because a lot of people felt as though it wasn't being responsible in the depiction, in the writing and in the storytelling and it just seemed to be a means to re-traumatize. So craft figures in highly and I guess there's a difference from a filmmaking standpoint from when you're telling a story that's just, kind of like the surface action, the action that you see, the killings, the brutality — even though it may be real, it may be justified, usually, there's an undertext. There's something that's happening behind the scenes that is what the film is really about. And when filmmakers aren't able to tell that story — if they're not able to draw that line distinctly, then it's going to fall flat. Also, up until now, there's been kind of a lot of derivative horror films that have been based on what's been created by white folks. And now, with the advent of Jordan Peele, we're able to tell our own story.

Dr. Kinitra Brooks
Black horror offers agency mobilized by rage, and we have to remember that horror and particularly Black horror has specific themes and tropes. And folks like Misha Green and Jordan Peele are not simply fans of the genre, but they are students of the genre. They respect the genre. And I think we really need to start interrogating folks who are simply slapping the horror genre on to a film or onto a TV series that they have made because it's hot, when really they aren't offering the rage. They aren't offering the agency. They aren't offering the processing of the trauma in ways that Black horror has long done. I want us to push back at this idea that all of Black horror is about Black trauma or that it is about traumatizing people. Horror contains catharsis. That means there is a working through and a safe space in which to process the horrors that Black folks have undergone. And we need to ask the question of: Why is horror the only genre that is continuously being beaten over the head with this idea that it's all about trauma, particularly when we have dramatic shows and television and films such as "The Wire," which I believe is, which is far more traumatizing to me than any horror films. So I want us to broaden our idea as well as respect the genre of horror and have more nuanced conversation about this idea of Black trauma and Black horror, which is totally unfair, I think.

Omisade Burney-Scott
I think you're right, and I really appreciated this piece around — baked into Black horror is these cathartic moments. I also think that what is baked in are these unexpected, spontaneous moments of Black joy that provide kind of a comedic break from what you might be seeing. And so I want to bring in Lana in and Bree to talk about this, like, how do these cathartic moments of Black joy show up in horror films? And what are your thoughts about the role of joy in Black horror?

Lana Garland
Oh, my goodness, just joy comes in a number of ways, and just being able to have a phrase: the sunken place. You know, we know what it is. It's hard to explain. So just being able to have that in the lexicon. And then I can go to you and say, "I'm in the sunken place." And you understand what that means.

Omisade Burney-Scott
I do. I would understand exactly what you meant.

Lana Garland
That's right. Or the joy of seeing at the end of "Nope," the brother on the horse just looking so heroic. We need to be heroic as well. Or when the brother with the taxi runs over the demon evil thing in "Get Out." I mean, we need to be able to see us winning in some way. That's really, really important. And so that's why it's gotten the response that it gets. We need to win.

Omisade Burney-Scott
We do need to win. You hear all the cheers going on in the theater when that happens. What about you, Bree? What are your thoughts about the role of joy in Black horror?

Bree Newsome Bass
You know, it's so fascinating to me, because one, I think that there is something culturally Black about the way that we use humor and joy even in moments of tragedy to kind of cope. Like even when I think about a lot of the stories that I grew up hearing, like family stories — and these are, you know, recounting actual events, or at least as far as they have been passed down — some of the stories were pretty horrific, like some of the details, you know, but it might be told in a humorous way, or there might be like a punch line that kind of goes with it. And so I think like, that is something that is specific to our experience. And I do think it tends to show up in a particular way, with the filmmakers who are like really studied in the genre and are kind of like bringing an informed, like Black lens to it.

I also think there's a lot of similarity between comedy and horror in general as genres. A lot of times in good writing, good horror writing, you might have moments of comedic relief, you know, for the audience, I think the timing of it, the jumps, all of that is a part of it. I think that horror gets interrogated so much, because, like comedy, it's one of those things that constantly pushes the boundaries, right. Like, the whole purpose of the genre in a lot of ways is to create a place for us to confront our fears, or to confront those ugly things that are present in society that's not necessarily polite to talk about or acknowledge. And I think for those of us who love the genre, we love that about it, right? And for those who like revile the genre, that's what they hate about it.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Exactly. I think that there's something interesting here that I would like for Kinitra to speak to, because I think the Black joy actually seems like a comedic break from what you might be experiencing. But there's also something really deeply spiritual also that we might experience. I think about in "Lovecraft Country" where they called in the ancestors for this really potent healing moment. And could you speak a little bit about how that joy is connected to our spirituality as well and navigating horrific moments?

Dr. Kinitra Brooks
Yeah, it's really about rediscovering and reclaiming mainstream horror's construction of our spiritual practices, the spiritual — our ancestral practices, our traditional African religious practices, and reclaiming that and using that as a place of power, of using that as a place of healing. And we see that in episode three of "Lovecraft Country" with "Holy Ghost," and we see in which Leti confronts these ghosts that are deformed. They are Black people. And we see them and she sees them and thinks they are the monsters. But in fact, they are actually trying to protect her. And they have been victims of medical experimentation by the true evil that lives in the house, which was a doctor that performed those experiments upon them. And so in the end, in order to exorcise the house, in order to exorcise the demon of that house, she calls down those ghosts, and she calls them down as ancestors. And very importantly, she calls them down by name. And by naming our ancestors, by appreciating the history and the sacrifices that have been made for us, that's where she's able to find peace, to give them healing and to reclaim the house for herself and for her own family. That's the amazing thing about horror, right? It allows us to do things — you know, we're raised to think like, "Ooh, you know, ancestors are ghosts, they're going to come and this is scary. And you shouldn't mess with that because it's evil." But what if it isn't evil? What if we have been removed from these powerful abilities and made to be afraid of them because it makes us weaker?

Omisade Burney-Scott
Lana, Bree, Kinitra and I found so much to share in our discussion of Black horror, in a way that Lana described as almost therapeutic. But we also like to remember that Black horror is a genre meant to achieve another goal: entertainment.

Kamaya Truitt
I was hanging out with my neighborhood friend Latricia back in Atlanta. We go downstairs to her basement, and she pulls out this box. A puff of smoke comes out, almost like a movie, and she holds up "Tales from the Hood," which is a Spike Lee joint about these three boys who visit a funeral home. And the funeral director starts telling them these creepy stories that are based around, you know, Black life. The one that really scarred me was there was this painting of slaves inside of this old like plantation house where these white folks live. And the slaves in the paintings started to come alive and torture the residents of the house. And although I was terrified for a good like three months, it definitely sparked my love for Black horror.

Brittny
I had a mom who worked. I was a latchkey kid, so I had free rein at my local video store. I rented a movie there once called "Black Voodoo Doll." It was definitely low budget back then. And that was like the '80s. And it was about a woman who brought home a voodoo doll. And it's kind of like voodoo Chucky without a budget.

Lindsay Foster Thomas
I watch horror to escape the actual horrors of Black American life mostly.

Brittny
I watch horror for the same reasons, for escapism. But I am also of the thought that you know Black people can only escape with so much because race plays such a huge part in our lives. Horror for me was to have fun, so I do want my horror movies — even my Black ones — to just be kind of a good time sometimes. I don't want to be reminded about police brutality or racism or torture porn. I want to escape with my horror and have fun.

adrienne maree brown
I'm really intrigued by how honest Black horror can be. And, you know, I'm a Jordan Peele head, whatever you call that. Just the look in the eyes of his characters, the way the madness of oppression looks inside our eyes. He really lands that. It's one of the few places in my life where I can really watch things that have a high degree of gore. You know, one of the things Octavia Butler would always say is there's nothing horrific that's happening in my books that's not actually happening in the world. And in that way I'm really grateful to see this — what feels like a resurgence of Black horror.

Omisade Burney-Scott
That was a story from Kamaya and thoughts from Brittny, Lindsay and adrienne. The renaissance we've seen in Black horror underscores a larger shift in moviemaking. The annual Hollywood Diversity Report shows an increase in minority directors and writers. But in both the director's chair and in the writers room, people of color are underrepresented — something Bree sees firsthand as a filmmaker.

Bree Newsome Bass
Growing up being a fan of horror, deciding that I want to make a horror film, but then even on the other side of that process and that experience coming to have a greater appreciation of what that all means. And so I wanted to make something that really spoke to me and where I came from and that was horror. You know, that was what I grew up with. I wanted to do a Southern Gothic tale, I wanted to do something that kind of harkened back to those stories that, you know, relatives would tell kind of in whispers. "Wake" was in part inspired by a story they told about a relative generations back who they believed had been poisoned. And the story that they told was about, you know, standing around at his wake, and how people saw indications that he was breathing, but nobody said anything. And the point of the story is just to tell us how mean a man he was, you know what I mean?

So that was just kind of like, the culture that I came from, and what I find so, just fascinating when we're talking, you know, specifically — because because what we're talking about really is who has access to publishing the stories, who has access to putting stories on film. For me at this stage, what is so powerful is just to have that awareness. So not only am I creating, from what I know is naturally coming up in my spirit and my experience, but I'm doing it with a consciousness and an awareness. There's never a shortage of creativity. A lot of times as audiences, we are complaining, rightfully so, right, that there doesn't seem to be a lot of creativity. That's not because there aren't creative people. That's because of the structures that folks are coming up against. So there's always going to be some kind of justification for why Black directors are not getting hired, why Black screenwriters are not in the room, why a Black filmmaker is not successful and that becomes a justification for why they shouldn't get hired again when a white filmmaker can have several flops and, you know, still get a shot. And that's where the real — with all things, in all industries, in all things when we're talking about dismantling white supremacy — that's what the conversation really comes down to. There's nothing we can do except to keep going with conversations like this. And I think what's so great about it is more people get introduced to the genre and understand what's important about it and why to value it. And that, in turn, makes it more possible for filmmakers and writers and people to produce.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Absolutely, absolutely. Lana, I would love to ask you a very quick question about Black horror films that we're seeing now that have a social political commentary. And I know that this has been something that you've been interested in seeing as a viewer. But do you feel like that this is becoming expected? Is there room to explore these different social, political cultural themes in Black horror?

Lana Garland
Absolutely. People have the opportunity to tell the vastness of the Black experience, which is so much rooted in race, but also there, there are non-racialized conversations that we have in horror. "Us" wasn't about race. "Us" was about class. And so it's just some — I'm very, very interested in having depictions and films that are not centering whiteness in any particular way. And we should be able to do that, and I believe it's being done.

Omisade Burney-Scott
So Kinitra we're gonna let you have the last word. We have talked a bit before about horror as a fan-driven genre. Where do you think fandom may push Black horror in the future, and maybe some of the connections you see to Afrofuturism.

Dr. Kinitra Brooks
I think the key to this is the "I Am" episode in "Lovecraft Country," in which we see Hippolyta go through time and space and see these many different versions of herself and completely expand the possibilities of who she considers herself to be. And I think that fans of Black horror in particular will push the genre to consider all the things that Black horror could possibly be because it is such a broad genre, and there are so many places to play, and so many places to be scared.

Omisade Burney-Scott
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider our contribution at wunc.org now. Incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you.

This episode was produced by Kaia Findlay and edited by Amanda Magnus. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer, and Quilla wrote our theme music.

I'm Omisade Burney-Scott, sitting in for Anita Rao. If you need something to listen to next, you can check out my podcast, "The Black Girls Guide to Surviving Menopause." Until next time, thanks for listening to Embodied.

More Stories