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The Surprising Triumph of Black Women in Horror

Updated: Oct 4, 2021

Horror as a genre is simply not for me. I have anxiety, so it follows that I must have common sense, and the outlandish situations that catalyzed the campier films of the 90s were never very relatable to me. But compounded with anxiety, I am genuinely a very fearful person. There are many things I choose not to do because I am afraid. Some of those things feel childish to avoid. Others feel like a matter of survival.

So much of my life has been ruled by fear, but none of the things I was scared of as a kid could hold a candle to the things that scare me now. Back then it was Tim Burton claymation, Raimi’s Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2 (2004), the animatronic pirates at Disney World. Now my worries are much more nuanced: I think about perishing in a global-warming-related incident plucked from the script of San Andreas, or perishing without realizing my full potential.

Common sense tells me that those fears are years away (hopefully) from actually affecting me, but I don’t think my anxiety’s gotten the memo. I’m stressed all the time over everything and nothing, paralyzed by existential decisions that literally do not matter in the grand scheme of my life. The pressure to make a choice, the fear of repercussions and regret, often scares me away from choosing anything at all.

This might be another reason I love movies so much. It has the power either to distract me from myself or to put good use to my perpetual sense of fight-or-flight — and it works like a charm every time. I love action, and I love thrillers because they take me out of my body and drop me easily into another’s. I watch someone running for their life in an abandoned space station drifting towards the sun and the perpetual discomfort throbbing in my chest lifts for just a moment. I watch two sworn enemies locked in a fight for their life and I feel like I can breathe. And recently, watching a well-crafted horror has had the same effect.

Art by Lyvie Scott

I don’t think we as a society give enough credit to final girls or women in horror in general. Maybe we actually do, and I’m just running in the wrong circles, but it just seems like horror, for all its camp and all its gore, reveres the female protagonist in ways that other genres haven’t learned how to do yet.

The term “final girl” refers to a female character who survives until the end of a movie, outlasting the rest of the cast and (if she’s lucky) getting one over on the Big Bad, whatever it is. Author Stephen Graham Jones calls them “nature’s antidote to [the] cycle of violence” perpetrated by the slashers preying on the heroes. He likens them to silver bullets and miscellaneous vampire-killing weapons, and I think that’s so beautiful. It’s beautiful when women, usually made to nurture, to serve the development of a male counterpart, are allowed to tap into a primal instinct. To fight for themselves and not other people.

The first time I actually understood this phenomenon, I might have been watching Independence Day (1996) — yes, the alien invasion movie starring Will Smith. Yes, I know it’s not horror, but aliens are scary to me, so just listen for a second.

In this weird little genre-bending romp, Will Smith is an Air Force pilot who is so busy hunting aliens with Bill Pullman (arguably the DILFiest on-screen President in recent history) that he neglects to look out for his wife and child during an absolutely insane alien attack. Fortunately, his wife is under-recognized badass Vivica A. Fox, and she may not know what the hell is going on when aliens literally bomb the White House and send a wave of hellfire across Washington D.C. — but she still manages to save herself, her son, and the family dog from imminent destruction.

I remember feeling a sympathetic roil of panic watching Vivica scramble for cover in a crowded street tunnel. I felt an eventual relief too, and a vicarious sense of accomplishment seeing her manage to survive. I felt like something I should be aspiring to ---- not a life-threatening disaster per se, but the will to fight for your life.

I understand enough about horror to know that women have inherent underdog energy. It’s more exciting, more rewarding, for audiences to root for a woman than a man — but I think for me, it’s more than that. Rooting for a woman, especially a woman who looks like me, watching that woman do everything in her power to stay alive? It feels like she’s reaching through the screen sometimes, shaking me by the shoulders, telling me to wake the hell up. To move. To live for something.

Art by Lyvie Scott

Lately, black women have been enjoying such unprecedented success in horror. Nia DaCosta, Janelle Monáe, Lupita Nyong’o, Jurnee Smollett, and so many more are getting the opportunities to play the heroes in a genre that actually benefits from depicting their humanity. They’re allowed to be funny, to be mean, to be nurturing without leaning too far into the frustrating mammy trope. They’re nuanced, intelligent, resourceful, powerful. They’re not vilified, or mocked or belittled (most of the time). Even if they’re killed, they make sure their deaths are unforgettable. And despite the depressing subject matter that horror requires, they always inject so much light and love into a story, however gruesome.

In a lot of ways, horror seems to be the genre that black women are most at home in. While appearances might feel few and far between, black women have always been there, and they’ve always been iconic — even if hindered by an annoying stereotype or two.

Horror seems like the place where they are the most genuine, where their fears and their flaws are allowed to be acknowledged and explored. Even with the threat of certain death lying in wait for them at every turn, black women are just as strong as they are in real life. Their virtue still shines through. They don’t back down from the monsters — fictional or otherwise — bent on destroying them. If Jada Pinkett Smith can outsmart a centuries-old demon and live to fight another day, then what’s stopping me from conquering my own?

I know it’s all fiction, and I probably shouldn’t be taking it so seriously, but I’ve started to look at horror in a different way after discovering the role black women carry in the genre. I’ve kind of started to look at life differently too. Life can be a fight in the same way a final girl is fighting to survive the night. The consequences aren’t always as immediate on this side of the screen, but I can still learn a lesson from the black horror girlies. I can still get back up. I can still face my fears. I can still try things, and if I fail, I can try again. I’m not 100 percent down with the spookier, gorier entries of the genre, but horror still has a message for me that no other film has been brave enough to share — and I’m willing to sit through a few jumpscares until I get it into my head.

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