Last night, I finally sat down to watch Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019). If you’re a horror fan and haven’t watched this amazing documentary, I highly recommend it. Based on Robin R. Means Coleman’s book, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (2011), the film not only discusses the historical lack of representation of black characters in horror films, but also examines the misrepresentations of black people when they appeared in them. As you might expect, the filmmakers and actors discussing the films and their historically important contexts talk about their fears and experiences with racism while trying to create art within a genre that subconsciously depicts monsters as The Other in relation to white people and culture in place of ethnic minorities.
After watching the documentary, I was inspired to watch a film from the Blaxploitation era, Sugar Hill (1974), which is about a woman, Sugar Hill, who uses Voodoo to avenge the death of her fiance. The film opens with what appears to be a Voodoo ritual with black people in traditional Haitian Voodoo garb dancing to a serious drum beat. I couldn’t help thinking of Angel Heart (1987), and expected to see Epiphany Proudfoot show up with her chicken. As the opening credits end, so does the dance and we become aware of the fact that the people dancing aren’t in a secluded location away from prying eyes, they are actually performers at a place called Club Haiti. They are performing Voodoo for a predominantly white audience. They are literally performing an aspect of blackness that is a stereotypical representation of black people in horror films. This also made me think of a similar scene in Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).
Typically, in horror films, Voodoo is shown as something evil, something to be feared. Depicting Voodoo practitioners as women who use their magic to hurt others, or exact vengeance, is a trope that I worried about perpetuating while writing Invisible Chains. I didn’t want to stick to the common stereotypes associated with black women, especially mambos, in horror narratives.
While Sugar is a strong female lead in a horror film, the film is still riddled with tropes like dangerous black women using magic for revenge. Her fiance, Langston, owns Club Haiti. A white gangster wants to buy it, but Langston refuses. So, he sends his henchmen to kill him. They beat him to death and leave his body in the parking lot of the club for Sugar to find.
Sugar doesn’t just use magic, she calls upon Baron Samedi who raises an army of the undead made up of former slaves who died of disease while still on slave ships. Their bodies were dumped in the water and washed up on the shore near Sugar’s childhood home. So, this movie has a lot going for it in terms of supernatural horror that looks at racism in the United States (in the past and in the present of the 1970s).
In exchange for Baron Samedi’s help, Sugar offers up her soul, but he’s more interested in her body. But, Sugar’s final revenge is taken when Baron Samedi takes the racist girlfriend of the gangster back to the Underworld with him in place of Sugar. In my opinion, that gave the film a happy ending.
Black women in roles like Sugar are viewed as frightening and dangerous because they wield power. My protagonist struggles to accept her strengths and often downplays or hides her abilities for fear of being punished for either her knowledge or power. Her strength is a secret and she doesn’t make use of her power until she’s pushed to the limit. She protects herself and others, rather than seeking vengeance.
I worried that by writing her in this way, people wouldn’t accept her as being “authentic,” and I struggled with my decision, which I think says a lot more about me as a writer and how I see myself than it does about my character.
I also struggled with the belief that because this narrative isn’t a traditional horror story — a slave narrative with a black female protagonist — people wouldn’t recognize it as a horror novel. In fact, people challenged the notion that I was writing horror while I was in my MFA program. But, as Tananarive Due puts so succinctly in Horror Noire, ”Black history is black horror.”
I already knew that what I had written is without doubt a horror novel, but having my beliefs confirmed by another writer I respect and admire made me feel a lot better about releasing this novel into the world. Black women have plenty of horror stories to tell, and perhaps, a female slave is the most qualified protagonist for an historical horror story set in America.
Invisible Chains will be released in a week on July 22, so my anxiety is on the rise. But after watching Horror Noire and Sugar Hill, I feel more confident about how I chose to write my protagonist, Jacqueline, and I may actually be a horror writer.