The Black Guy Dies First: The Importance of Horror in Black Culture
February 24, 2017 at 6:16 pm
I used to hate horror films. Maybe because I get a little nauseous around blood or maybe because I don’t like raising my already high blood pressure, but it wasn’t until recently that I understood why I was so terrified. I hated them because the black guy always dies first. Yes, we’ve all heard jokes about the: "why the brothers always gotta go first" blah blah. I paid it no mind to it until early yesterday morning, when I checked out a podcast my partner showed me. She knows how little time I have to dig into ‘leisure’ things, she also knows that I’m not a major fan of podcasts, so with that in mind, I knew this had to be worth my time if she took the time to share it with me.
The NPR Podcast called Code Switch featured an episode, The Horror, The Horror: “Get Out” And The Place of Race in Scary Movies. I had just purchased my tickets to the opening of Get Out (first time I’ve bought tickets in advance since Coach Carter; I may not be joking) so any more reason to further affirm my decision to support Jordan Peele’s new adventures in film was almost immediately gratifying for me.
The episode sucked me in within the first few minutes, when they brought Robin R. Means Coleman on to speak about her book, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present. She introduces the content of her conversation by speaking about Jurassic Park.
As of recently, I’ve been super fortunate enough to have been invited to be a keynote speaker and present my film at places like Northeastern University, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and a few high schools and other organizations. My film, in short, is a psychological thriller, which is a creative expansion on what Racism & Trauma can do to a black man’s mental health.
To introduce that subject matter, I’ve taken a liking to ‘breaking the ice’ by telling people about how my older sisters tortured little-7-year-old-me, by secretly changing my bed to have a Jurassic Park comforter spread, knowing that I was terrified of the movie. For some reason, I always use this as a way to get some laughs going. I know that the juxtaposition of having a 6’6” 220-pound black man on a stage talking about how a subpar dinosaur movie used to horrify him, can be a little comical.
Coleman hits the subject of “Why the Black man dies first in horror movies, immediately.
“Jurassic Park is an example where a black person get’s killed off immediately… What’s scarier than a great big murderous dinosaur is going to be a big black man with a big black gun. So that means, that, that dinosaur has to kill the black man. So the opening scene to Jurassic park established that that dinosaur, kind of a bad ass, he's gotta do away with that big black man, with that big black gun.. So that’s just one function, that’s why you kill off the black man, and it’s important that it’s a man, early in a horror film. It establishes the superiority, the horribleness, of the monster. .. Another thing that it does, is that, if the monster is so bad that it kills off brothers, than the white man, who ultimately defeats the monster, has to be intellectually superior, racially superior, that's sort of the hierarchy in horror films…"
That got me thinking; what if I’m not scared of dinosaurs. I remember the first Jurassic park vividly, It was there where I saw the scene that Coleman referenced.
So before the movie fully jumps into full swing with its plot, we as an audience are already supposed to fear this antagonist, that is so destructive, that not even the ‘big strong black man’ can beat it. I may not have been old enough to fully process this at the age of 7 years old, but through this analysis of Coleman, I can now comprehend that I’ve been fed images that prove that no matter how strong I am, or how big my gun is, if I’m black, I’m expendable, not only that, but I am instantly disposable, and not valued enough to be kept throughout a whole film. That’s the scary part. The painful part is that my white counterpart is clearly superior and much more ‘worth it.’
You can listen to the full podcast below, but Coleman continues to make some really great points. It’s this imagery that has been fed to me since long before I was born. Black Americans' presence has been overlooked, oppressed and underbooked since the inception of film in America. In fact, one of the most, if not the most, influential film of all time, Birth of a Nation, builds its whole plot and philosophy off of this exact methodology. So no wonder I’m so terrified of something like this. It’s typical for us as humans to be scared of something that historically isn’t built for us to succeed.
So why does any of this even matter, why do I even care? Here’s where we get a little weird. I’ve been doing some research about nightmares, and the mind’s coping mechanism for stress. I also was watching this pretty weird TV show called Beyond, where the main character finds himself in a psychology conversation about a similar topic, check an excerpt from this review of that episode that summarizes the conversation;
…They just happen to be discussing dreams and how they represent unfulfilled wishes of the psyche. Holden asks what about nightmares–specifically ones where old men surrounded by fire chase you or faceless men try to kill you. The professor says this represents something wrong, and it is the way the psyche tries to course-correct. We’ve heard this term before when Jeff, Kevin’s older brother, told Holden the universe has a way of course-correcting.
In other words, our nightmares are a way to make us mentally stronger for whatever our fears or stresses may be. Last beat of theorizing; what if horror films are our cognitive way of having nightmares? After digging deeper into my psych roots, I found this article that expanded on why people enjoy horror films, which is one of the many theories stated by professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Ultrecht, Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein,
"People go to horror films because they want to be frightened or they wouldn't do it twice. You choose your entertainment because you want it to affect you. That's certainly true of people who go to entertainment products like horror films that have big effects. They want those effects…[Horror films must] provide a just resolution in the end. The bad guy gets it. Even though they choose to watch these things, the images are still disturbing for many people. But people have the ability to pay attention as much or as little as they care to in order to control what effect it has on them, emotionally and otherwise."
THAT is why I’ve fallen in love with horror. It’s almost like forbidden fruit, I’ve found what has been kept so far away from me, and now I want to use it to mold my own messages. It is why I used my master's thesis as a platform to transform discussions about racism, trauma and mental health. It’s why Jordan Peele is such a revolutionary. I’ve never seen dinosaurs before and would have no idea how to have empathy people who maybe going through that kind of trauma. The only time I’ve seen what may happen in that kind of world, I saw that there wouldn’t be many people who look like me there and regardless of how strong, or brilliant, or how big my gun is, I won't survive. What If we use this kind of power to our advantage?
I hope you can understand why I see Jordan Peele as such a revolutionary. He’s using his platform to show millions of white people what kind of psychological trauma a black man can endure by visiting his white girlfriend’s trauma (kinda not joking). Peele is forcing white people to empathize with a situation they would imagine themselves in. What if we make a Black Mirror episode about what kind of damage we endure when we see continuous videos of police brutality, or if we made another SAW movie that dug deeper into the school to prison pipeline? What if we took our biggest fears, in such a terrible world, and pushed them to an extreme, so we can push our creativity to think about how we address them in real life. American Horror Story’s got the hint, Jordan Peele’s setting the standard for contemporary mainstream films, but I definitely want to challenge other filmmakers, to use their platform to challenge the mainstream. Let's continue to expand our narrative and push the folds on people's emotions. I wonder what kind of empathy we can spark in wypipo then.