From films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out and this year’s highly anticipated Us, TV shows like Fox’s The Passage and Peele’s The Twilight Zone, and Shudder’s documentary Horror Noire, one thing is certain: horror narratives that center Black protagonists aren’t just vital, they’re revolutionary. As Robin R. Means Coleman suggests in the preface to her groundbreaking book on Black horror, “the horror genre has great revelatory promise” and the potential to expand the greater conversation of what it means to be a part of the African diaspora. Each of these stories reveals the power of Black literature and a potential horizon for Black cinema. Whether on screen or on the written page, it’s clear that Black stories matter.
In celebration of this new era of mainstream Black horror, we’ve curated a list of essential titles we’d love to see on the big screen (even if it means sleeping with the lights on).
1) Zone One by Colson Whitehead
Best known for The Underground Railroad, New York Times bestseller Colson Whitehead’s fifth novel unfolds in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. Set in New York City, Zone One follows Mark Spitz, a determined yet cynical young man whose life is completely altered by the zombie outbreak. The former law-school hopeful turned “sweeper” (aka zombie clean-up personnel) and his fellow survivors are forced to make the best of what’s left of civilization. In a world where success can be defined by simply staying alive, Whitehead’s reluctant hero manages to find humor, strength, and even fragments of hope (albeit grim) in a world where rations are scarce, Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder is prevalent, and the dead roam the streets. A quintessential narrative for fans of George A. Romero and The Walking Dead, Zone One would undoubtedly become a horror classic if adapted by Academy Award-winner Spike Lee, who re-imagined Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess in 2014.
2) The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, the bloody lore of Lizzie Borden, and the rebellious spirit of Nat Turner, The Confessions of Frannie Langton gives crime story buffs a rare glimpse into the heart and mind of an unconventional heroine. Known as “Dusky Fran” by some and “Ebony Fran” by others, Frannie Langton finds herself at the center of a controversy when she is convicted with the murder of her employers. Despite being named the main suspect in a gruesome double murder, Frannie can’t remember the events that led to her employer’s violent deaths nor how her clothes managed to get drenched in their blood. A gripping gothic mystery that transports readers from one side of the Atlantic to the other, Sara Collin’s searing debut is an unforgettable tale of survival, desire, and freedom. Set to be published this May, The Confessions of Frannie Langton would be a befitting project for Amma Asante, Damian Jones, and Misan Sagay who reminded viewers why Black period dramas matter with their 2013 feature Belle.
3) Those Bones Are Not My Child by Toni Cade Bambara
First published in 1999, Toni Cade Bambara’s Those Bones are Not My Child is a heart-wrenching story about motherhood, justice, and loss. What Toni Morrison described as Bambara’s “magnum opus,” the novel begins when a young boy goes missing and his grief-stricken mother desperately tries to find him. Inspired by the horrific Atlanta Child Murders—which were initially linked to the infamous Wayne Williams–Those Bones are Not My Child documents the anxiety, horror, and fears of a community rocked by the violence of a depraved criminal. A compelling depiction of a mother’s resilience and her limbless love for her son, Bambara’s posthumous novel would be an inarguable award-winner in the hands of the legendary Angela Bassett.
4) What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
From start to finish, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s award-winning collection What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky are seamlessly brilliant and gripping. Each story is a vivid world of its own. One of Arimah’s most haunting world’s is revealed in the pages of “Who Will Great You at Home.” This stirringly eerie yet heartfelt tale centers around a pragmatic yet hopeful woman named Ogechi as she navigates the highs and lows of motherhood. As the narrative continues, it becomes clear that Ogechi’s child isn’t made of flesh and bone, but hair. Reminiscent of Grimm’s fairytales and the speculative fiction of Nalo Hopkinson, “Who Will Greet You at Home” is a beautifully unexpected portrait of motherhood and yearning. It’s difficult to imagine that Jerome Pikwane’s cinematic reimagining of Arimah’s vision would be anything but memorable.
5) Black No More by George S. Schuyler
In George S. Schuyler’s under-celebrated Black Mirror-esque classic Black No More, the driven Max Disher is given an unexpected chance to transform himself through a new and mysterious procedure that the Cookman Sanitarium promises will change patients from Black to white within three days. Curious and eager to find solace from the weight of racial discrimination, Max undergoes the treatment and shortly after changes his name to Matthew and infiltrates the Knights of Nordica–a politically influential white supremacist group–and marries Helen, a white young woman who rejected him before his melanin altering treatment at the sanitarium. A satirical and existential rumination on racism, embodiment, and white privilege, Black No More is an ideal next endeavor for Native Son’s dynamic duo Rashid Johnson and Suzan-Lori Parks.
6) The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez
The Gilda Stories is a quintessential vampire saga by Jewelle Gomez. In her unapologetically queer and intersectionally feminist debut novel Gomez introduces her audience to a runaway slave from antebellum Louisiana and follows her journey toward freedom and immortality as a vampire. As decades slip into centuries, Gilda’s strength and commitment to protecting those she loves persists. Gilda’s journey takes her from the South in the 1800s to New York in the 1980s and beyond, The Gilda Stories is a compelling examination of desire, selfhood, and what it means to belong. Gomez’s inventive novel would be a beautifully executed project for Kasi Lemmons whose groundbreaking film Eve’s Bayou continues to wow viewers since its debut in 1997.
7) The Evidence of Things Not Seen by James Baldwin
In the preface to The Evidence of Things Not Seen, the iconic James Baldwin writes, “What one does not remember dictates who one loves or fails to love… only love can help you recognize what you do not remember… My memory stammers: but my soul is a witness.” In his 1985 exploration on violence, Baldwin bears witness by unpacking the horror of white supremacy and the impact of America’s long history of racism with soul-searing sincerity and the brevity of a poet. An early iteration of what would decades later spark the Black Lives Matter movement, Baldwin confronts his audience with America’s historic failure to protect its citizens and the tragedy of The Atlanta Child Murders. Whether envisioned as a documentary or drama, The Evidence of Things Not Seen would be an undeniably riveting feature for Barry Jenkins to pursue.
8) Sula by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s intriguing second novel introduces readers to the women of the Peace family: Eva, Pearl, Hannah, and Sula. From the very beginning, it becomes clear that Sula, like those that came before her, isn’t like the other citizens of The Bottom. As a young girl, Sula watches “her own mamma burn up,” slices open her finger with a knife to scare off a pack of bullies, and coaxes her best friend Nel to cover up the drowning of a young boy. As a woman, a “plague of robins” coincide with her return to the Bottom while one man succumbs to his death by choking on a chicken bone shortly after glancing at Sula. Whether coincidence or supernatural, Sula remains part omen, part harbinger from beginning to end. A masterful novel that brings to mind Demon Seed and Stephen King’s Firestarter, Morrison’s Sula would be a buzzworthy addition to the Black Horror canon if directed by the unparalleled Ava DuVernay.
9) Children of Paradise by Fred D’Aguiar
In award-winner Fred D’Aguiar’s 2014 novel Children of Paradise, the tragedy of the Jonestown Massacre is revisited. With empathy, heart, and vibrant prose, D’Aguiar transports readers to the remote utopia of The Peoples Temple as the tyrannical Jim Jones slips deeper and deeper into madness. The novel’s omniscient narrator follows Jones’ believers as the commune unravels and the tragedy that made Jonestown infamous begins to take shape. Heartbreaking yet humanizing, D’Aguiar’s reimagining of Jonestown is as necessary as it is unforgettable. Children of Paradise would be a timely and probable award-winning adaptation for Searching for Isabelle’s Stephanie Jeter.
10) The Good House by Tananarive Due
Black Horror pioneer Tananarive Due chills readers to the core with her 2003 masterpiece The Good House. A thrilling meditation on intergenerational trauma, agency, and how history can haunt us, Due’s novel follows Angela Toussaint as she copes with the painful history of her family’s home in Sacajawea, Washington. A site of mysterious happenings and catastrophes, the house that’s been in the Toussaint family for generations strikes yet again when Angela returns to her hometown with her son for the summer. While there, an unexpected encounter with her ex-husband coincides with an irrevocable loss that nearly costs Angela her sanity. Despite the weight of her grief, Due’s heroine remains determined to face her proverbial and metaphorical demons. A necessary companion to The Conjuring, Poltergeist, and Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, The Good House would be the perfect collaboration for Due and Jordan Peele (who worked with Due on Shudder’s Horror Noire documentary) to take on.
11) Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi
In Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel Gingerbread, dolls speak, a skull marks the border of a nation, and a changeling named Gretel kindles an unexpected friendship when discovered at the bottom of a well. An intergenerational portrait of three women’s lives, Oyeyemi’s alluring novel picks apart what it means to crave, devour, and create. Unpredictable and delightfully strange, Gingerbread, much like the visceral worlds of Tale of Tales and deliberate tension of It Comes At Night, is haunting in a subtle but inescapable way. It would be interesting to see how what Oyeyemi’s latest masterpiece would look like through the ingenious eyes of Michaela Coel.
12) Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
In Justina Ireland’s bestseller Dread Nation, Jane McKeene is born into a world on the brink of countless changes, into a world that is coping with the end of the Civil War and where the dead don’t stay dead. When slain soldiers at Gettysburg rise from the battlefield, Black citizens and Native Americans are relocated to training schools at a young age where they are taught how to combat the living dead for the benefit of their newly reunified nation. Although as the number of “shamblers” increases, Jane (who can wield a scythe with ease) years for something more than performing her duty to a nation that ripped her away from her mother and her true home. A genre-defying page-turner for teens and adults alike, Dread Nation is the historical zombie thriller that Ryan Coogler could turn into an irresistible blockbuster.