Let me tell you how much this black guy loves horror as a genre:
As I was preparing to write this entry, I simply googled famed horror writer Stephen King to make sure I had a list of his books and movies at the ready reference. And the first hit came back that he and J.J. Abrams are teaming up again to produce an original Hulu series named “Castle Rock” and I literally cheered in my seat. Outside of the Stephen King fiction world, Castle Rock, Maine means absolutely nothing, but to devotees as myself this is a watershed moment in the history of King produced horror movies. Historically, King’s book-to-movie translations have been hit and miss. While “Misery” towers above the rest, for every “Shawshank Redemption” there was “Dolores Claiborne” for every “It” there was the tragic “Tommyknockers.” The King movie adaptations found some purchase by translating somewhat well to miniseries even if the box office productions were found lacking. The 1990s and early 2000s saw his relationship network television through ABC treat his books pretty well, which, in 1996, allowed my life and that of the horror genre truly cross paths for the first time.
I was in sixth grade, and my mother had paid enough attention at the time to realize I had developed somewhat of an independent reading habit. I was in the in-between stage of reading the Berenstein Bear big chapter books–I was eating up the new vocabulary like a lion eating a zebra after a fresh kill, and I still remember learning the word emetic from Professor Actual Factual’s nerdy nephew Freddie–and graduating to more adult novels, with decidedly adult themes. Somewhere around that time, my mother handed me the Stephen King book The Eyes of the Dragon. It was, shall we say a thick book for me. I remember plodding through it and needing some encouragement from my mother to finish it. But like a baby duck, the imprint had been left in my mind. The first thick book I ever read was by a white guy from the faraway state of Maine by the name of Stephen King.
Later that year, ABC produced a mini-series of the adaptation to The Shining. I sat in rapt attention over the three days that the show played itself out as the Torrence family battled the demons of the Overlook Hotel outside of Sidewinder, Colorado deep in the Rockies as caretakers throughout the winter. I had to read the book. I saved up whatever allowance and made sure my mother took me to 57th Street Bookstore to buy a copy. Imagine my glee when I found out that there was even another “The Shining” movie–the one starring Shelley Duval and famed madman Jack Nicholson. This was still the age of VHS tapes and Blockbuster rentals. Even after cajoling my parents to watch it, (remember the naked lady in the bathroom scene), I had become a quasi-purist already. I hated the Stanley Kubrick version because it wasn’t nearly true to the movie at all. So much of the essence and detail had been lost to a Hollywood director iconoclast.
Seventh grade straight through my first year of college or so was filled me purchasing one Stephen King novel after another and finding new Stephen King books worth buying with my allowance. All of seventh, eighth and ninth grade, I was that kid who randomly carried a novel with me in the middle of the day during school; I’d pick it up if I finished a test early or had a bit of free time during the day. And my test scores showed it. If memory serves correct, I scored in the 98th percentile in reading on standardized tests my 8th grade year. Now that math score, on the other hand, was somewhere circling the toilet drain around the 40th percentile. But who’s keeping up with scores all these years later?
Every trip to Blockbuster Video, or Hollywood Video which had slightly shorter rental fees, was me making a bee-line directly to the horror section to see what new movies could I find. No, I wasn’t fully engulfed in it, but it was certainly more than just a passing phase. Relatively early on, my mother and father, it was apparent, were a bit disturbed by my fascination with horror as a genre. In hindsight, I should have seen it coming. When I was around nine or ten, the ABC morning cartoons had a kid-friendly version of HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” called “Tales from the Cryptkeeper.” I remember on more than one occasion, my father would wake up out of his weekend slumber just to come to the living room and tell me not to watch this one, singular show. I was free to watch all of the, shall we say “violence” that takes place on cartoons–the ACME dynamite from Wile E. Coyote, the massive explosions that happened with Darkwing Duck or the evil villains such as Megabyte and Hexadecimal from “Reboot” were safe–but the kid-friendly horror from the Cryptkeeper was crossing a line. Maybe the taboo nature of it prepared the way for me to be open and receptive to it. There was even one point in my late teenage years my mother lamented ever handing me that first Stephen King novel.
My mother tutored kids around the neighborhood as a side gig when I was around this same age. Somewhere around ninth grade, I looked up on the shelf of books she used with her tutees and saw this one book A Series of Unfortunate Events with a slightly unpronounceable name, Lemony Snicket. And these other two books next to them with fanciful titles like …and the Sorcerers Stone and …the Chamber of Secrets. Somehow, my hand fell to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Suffice it to say, I read the books out of order the first go-round because somehow I couldn’t figure out which one came first. I was that one black kid in my classes who was reading Harry Potter as the books came out. I carried around my books stealthily the way other kids carried around copies of Playboy or Penthouse. I prided myself on not just seeing the movies, but having had read the books.But, it wasn’t tough, per se, for me being the black kid that liked horror, maybe even fantasy, as a literary and cinema genre. I relished in the fact, that as Pottermania took over the United States that brick-and-mortar stores like Borders were hosting overnight parties and the lines were out the door, that my mother and I could go to the newly opened Target on the South side of Chicago on 87th and Cottage Grove and I could pick up a book–no line, no wait–and obviously have been the first, maybe second person to have broken the smooth display finish.
I say this to say, my affinity for fantasy and horror was a relatively singular experience. I didn’t have many black folks, at least, to talk to about these things. But its worth noting, I never felt ostracized for it. I never felt like the odd duck because of it. Part of that was probably due to me being an only child; most things I did were by myself anyway, so why wouldn’t reading be part of that milieu.
Honestly, I’m more of a Stephen King devotee when it comes to horror as a literary genre, I didn’t venture far from the farm when it came to what I read. But, as far as cinema, I certainly spread my wings. And I quickly learned, finding a good horror movie is a literal exercise in finding a needle in a haystack. There’s so many bad ones out there that you either applaud the nature of independent film making or you become repulsed by the fact that such bad quality, bad directing, bad writing, and abhorrent acting got green-lighted. For instance, I thought the “Children of the Corn” sequels would be a safe bet because of their antecedent being Kingian in basis. Boy was I wrong. On the flip side, I actually thought “Pet Sematary” was a good movie and came from a good book. Full of honest and legitimate chills and fears.
I have watched dozens of horror movies throughout the year, so much so that I don’t even watch horror movies that are rated PG-13 because I can’t imagine that they’re doing it right if they don’t get the R rating. As far as a good commercially produced box office horror film, I still stand by “Cabin in the Woods” as one of the best that Hollywood has seen in the past ten years. My teenage years and even into the 2000s was peppered by the Wes Craven-machine of teenage slasher films that were weak on script, motive and acting, a good horror movie was sorely needed. The franchises of “Scream,” “Saw,” “I Know What You Did…” and “Urban Legends” taught me that this broader genre for thrills and chills often times left a lot to be desired. “Cabin in the Woods” satisfied that need for a while. Meanwhile, I’m sure some would even argue that those teenage/slasher movies didn’t even count as true horror movies. Maybe they don’t, but it’s what has contributed to why this black guy can’t wait to see “Get Out.”
Aside from the trope that the black person always gets killed first in this genealogy of movies, something that the Wayans’ brothers appropriately parodied in their lampoon flick of this exact genre “Scary Movie 2,” the typical American racial and social dynamics seemed to magically disappear in horror movies. For years, if black people were even cast in them, they were cast race-less. Even in the Stephen King literary fictional world of Maine, black people were almost non-existent. But, more than once, enough to say consistently, King drilled down in his books on the various evils of white American culture: sexism, elder abuse and xenophobia. But King went through great lengths in “It” to highlight the effects of both racism and homophobia through the regional lens of being a Yankee. But, the way the film genre operates, even Stephen King isn’t powerful enough to override the ways race and homophobia magically don’t appear in feature-length films. The opening of “It” focuses on the story of a young man who was the victim of a hate crime. It was based on the real life death of Charlie Howard, an out gay man in 1984 Bangor, Maine who was tossed over the side of a bridge by a group of high schoolers. He died as he fell into the stream below and drowned. King was deeply moved by this happening in his own neck of the woods and chose to incorporate that into his massive novel. Oddly enough, in 1990 when the miniseries debuted, that massive opening scene didn’t even make the original script. In the Stanley Kubrick version of “The Shining” the first real murder–at least of a living character–was the benevolent character Dick Halloran, the only black character in the book. In the novel, Dick, rushes back to help the stranded Torrence family. Meets the business end of a roque mallet and is badly bruised but survives. Kubrick, on the other hand, killed him off.
The last box office horror movie that centered around black life of any note was–wait for this titular irony–“Tales from the Hood.” This mid-90s horror movie, executive produced by 40 Acres and a Mule, focused on four vignettes in and around urban black life that played on the gangsta/hood film genre that dominated the era with movies such as “Boyz n Da Hood,” “Menace II Society,” “New Jack City” and “Juice.” The film focused on three guys, drug dealers and gang members, who stop at a creepy old funeral home to pick up a stash of drugs that was being held by the funeral home director played by Clarence Williams III. Walking through the funeral home, they see four dead people, and Williams’ character tells the horrific fate of all of the deceased. The story walks through police brutality, where white police officers kill a black man; through the story of a haunted former slave mansion where the souls of slaves kill a David Duke-meets-Jesse Helms character; a child caught in a domestic abuse situation; and a final one, sans the supernatural, but ultimately about the horror of gang street life. The movie could be perceived as over-the-top when it comes to dealing with race because it’s such a driving theme of all of the vignettes, but for most black people watching the movie, I’d be comfortable in assuming that that was just normal for them. Race always is over-the-top and is a prevailing facet of daily living.
While movies like “Crazy as Hell” starring Eriq LaSalle and Michael Beach do exist, they exist in the dark corners of popular knowledge. While scrolling the pages of one’s streaming service have replaced the weekly or bimonthly trips to the video rental store, the chances of seeing a horror movie with a black face on the cover are just as slim in 2017 as they were in 1987, 1997 or 2007. The groundbreaking nature of a box office horror movie with a black person in the lead role can’t be understated.
The trailer for “Get Out” first appeared late in 2016 on my Facebook feed and it was marketed as being from the mind of comedian Jordan Peele. He and Keegan Michael-Key formed the comedic duo Key and Peele that have made their mark by not shying from race being front and center in their comedy. Being the horror movie fan that I am, I saw Blumhouse Productions in the credits and I made the face and sound much like I did when I discovered “Castle Rock” on Hulu is going to be a thing: I cheered. Immediately I knew that this was going to be a horror movie. As the trailer progressed it was evident that the nexus of the movie hinges on a black guy in an interracial relationship with his white partner going to go visit her side of the family. One of the trailers draws the connection that there appears to be a preponderance of black men that have disappeared in the area and the trailer connects those disappearance to the family of the girlfriend.
True to form, in an age where social media has made it so that every one offers their unfounded opinion, Twitter has taken to calling the movie racist.
But most of us know its reality. The story of so many interracial relationships in this country include the story of each going home to visit the family of the other. While yes, black families can side-eye the black son or daughter bringing home a white person, usually it centers around fear for their black progeny being rejected by the white family, not because of inherent dislike or mistrust of white people. Perhaps the real horror to be uncovered in this movie is not simply that white folk haven’t been playing fair all these years, but they’re really part of some supernatural cult out to get black people.
Whatever the case is, this movie has set itself up to be epic.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL