In 1896, Georges Melies directed what is considered the first horror film – House of the Devil – which stars actress Jehanne d’Alcy. Since this monumental moment, the centerpiece of horror has been women. However, the role in a horror film that is created for a woman can either put her in the spotlight or cheapen her to a stereotype, and with the expanding nuanced roles women occupy, why is it that black women are still pigeonholed into second-rate characters whose sole purpose is to serve the white hero/heroine until they’re no longer needed? Whereas Laurie Strode and Sidney Prescott are idolized as horror’s “scream queens,” black women, like Elvira Stitt, Elise Neal, and Oda Mae Brown, are just the best friend, the mystic, and the suspicious maid. With the increasing space women occupy in horror, how much of that is going to black women and their talent? And is that space for their own growth or to just be the supportive force in others’?
The ‘mystic’ is a role in horror films most prominently given to black women, and their singular purpose is to play as an advantage for their white counterparts. No matter how crucial these characters actually are to the survival of the story’s protagonists, their roles are still proven to be of lesser importance, and they are often killed off once they’ve served their purpose.
Let’s travel back to the 1960’s, when the film The Leech Woman (1960)was released and tells the story of an African woman, Malla (Estelle Hemsley), who makes a deal with a wealthy doctor to fund her trip back to Africa and, in return, she will give him the secret to eternal youth. The depiction of Africans in the film is a concoction of Hollywood’s most beloved stereotypes about indigenous folks. Portrayed as gyrating savages, the natives of the film perpetuate a fear in indigenous customs and people, who speak in tongues and murder the white tourists. Although the film’s depiction of Malla is that of a woman who is educated and well-spoken, it is insinuated that that derives from her upbringing in western culture rather than her own. Subsequently, the wild-eyed natives trope would go on to dominate a whole new subgenre of horror films, and the ‘voodoo woman’ stereotype of black women would be reused and forced down audiences’ throats.
In the years that followed The Leech Women, the role of the ‘mystic’ or ‘voodoo woman’ would go on to be seen in numerous horror films. In the year 1990, Ghost, directed by Jerry Zucker, was released, starring Whoopie Goldberg, Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. The film is about Sam (Swayze) and how, after his murder, he enlists the assistance of a psychic woman, Oda Mae Brown (Goldberg), to help save his mourning lover, Molly (Moore). The film received high critical praise, and garnered Whoopi Goldberg an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. However, the treatment of Oda in the film is something that cannot be overlooked, because it is a narrative all too familiar. She is constantly a conduit for the male protagonist, and she never receives payment for her troubles – once again enforcing the notion that black characters are subsidiary to white characters and expected to give whatever is asked of them.
In 2001, the cult-classic Jeepers Creepers, starring Justin Long and Gina Philips, was released. The two play brother and sister Darry and Trish, who take a cross country road trip back home to see their parents. Along the way, they become the target of a demonic creature who wants to have them for dinner. The film thrives off the relationship of the two main characters and the acting skills exuded from Long and Phillips. However, a secondary character played by Patricia Belcher is who can be regarded as the true ‘hero’ of this film, if there stands to be one – considering its horrific ending. Belcher plays Jezelle, the seer (mystic) who uses her psychic visions to try to help Darry and Trish outrun the devil. She makes several mysterious phone calls to the duo, trying to keep them one step ahead. Jezelle has no connection to the two siblings and does not benefit from their demise nor their survival, yet she goes so far as to even leave the comfort of her home to find them and get them to safety. She is not only gifted with sight but also with the doomed storyline of a mystical hero.
The Best Friend
Perhaps even more noteworthy than the ‘mystic’ is the best friend – a role that can be traced to have evolved from films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962.) She’s loyal and sometimes too smart for her own good, leading her to question her companions and the situation they’ve been led in to. The ‘best friend’ role for black women isn’t just popularized in horror films, but also many film genres. It minimizes the importance of the black female character to just stereotypes and laughs, or in the case of horror, a voice of reason followed by a brutal murder.
In 1962, the popular psychological horror Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, directed by Robert Aldrich, was released. The film is about Baby Jane Hudson (played by Bette Davis), an ex-child-star who holds her famous paraplegic sister, Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford), hostage in their mansion home. A prominent character of the film is Elvira Stitt (Maidie Norman), Jane and Blanche’s maid. Her role stigmatizes the ‘suspicious black woman.’ Up until the moment Jane’s hammer delivers its fatal blow, Elvira is constantly questioning Jane’s behavior and is suspicious of her intentions. Even after Jane fires her, she returns to the mansion to check in on things. Elvira’s courageous and morally high nature makes her care about the life of her employer more than her own life and well-being. She is dotingly loyal to a literal fault, a trope that follows black women in the horror genre to the point they become the “savior” of their white counterpart.
In the 1997 film Scream 2, Sidney Prescott’s (Neve Campbell) new college best friend is Hallie McDaniel – perhaps a wordplay on Hattie McDaniel, the “mammy” from Gone with the Wind? Anyhow, Hallie McDaniel is played by Elise Neal and, as many viewers could’ve guessed, she doesn’t survive to the end of the film. To be fair, none of Sidney’s friends ever survive, however, Hallie is the second black woman of the film to be brutally murdered, and it is in fact Hallie’s role as Sidney’s best friend that gets her killed. Following suit, Freddy vs. Jason (2003) and The Unborn were released, starring Kelly Rowland as Kia Waterson in the former and Megan Good as Romy in the latter. Both iconic characters are murdered in relation to their best friends, and the writers of Freddy v. Jason go so far as to even have Kia sacrifice herself to Jason for the benefit of her friends, an act that makes absolutely no sense.
Perhaps the most notable role of the ‘best friend’ is portrayed in the film Candyman (1992). Directed by Bernard Rose, the film carries a lasting legacy that will keep it on the list of essential horror films to watch. Candyman follows grad student Helen Lyle (Virgina Madsen), as she and her best friend Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) focus their grad-paper on urban legends. When the two hear of a thrilling urban legend right in their backyard, Helen decides to pursue its source into the public housing units of Cabrini-Green.
The films portrayal of race and women overall enforces several harmful stereotypes in not just the horror genre but ingrained in society itself. Probably its most popular enforcement is the ‘white savior’ trope surrounding the films main protagonist – Helen Lyle. What is considered to be just as troubling is their portrayal of the two black women in Helen’s life. Bernadette Walsh is the typical ‘best friend’ to Helen Lyle. She continues to be too smart for the good of the story, and on multiple occasions Bernadette tries to warn her friend from getting involved in the horrors of Cabrini Green, telling her of the risk put not only on her life but the life of its residents. “This isn’t one of your fairytales,” she says at one point, challenging Helen’s vacation stroll through the horrors of someone else’s life. It is her loyalty to Helen but also Helen’s actions which result in Bernadette’s death. It is also Helen’s interference that results in the death of an unknowing Anne-Marie (Vanessa A. Williams) – the second black woman murdered for knowing her. Although Anne-Marie is not the role of the best friend, she does carry its characteristics: she sticks her neck out for Helen, aids her with information and tries to warn her of the dangers that lurk, only to be the on the receiving end of those dangers herself. The black women surrounding Helen are but mere pawns in the game between her and the villain Candyman (Tony Todd), undeserving of their horrific outcomes.
Lastly, there is a special character that embodies the characteristics of both the ‘mystic’ and the ‘best friend.’ That character is Bonnie Bennett (Katerina Graham) from the Vampire Diaries series. It is important to bring this character up because the writers of the show seemed to take pleasure in her maltreatment. They make her into some kind of a sadist and doom her to martyrdom as she happily flings her life in the fire and sacrifices her soul for characters who questionably even have one. Bonnie is a witch from a famously powerful bloodline. Throughout the span of the series, Bonnie becomes the most powerful witch the show has seen, having defeated immortal beings and all, but it is at the cost of everyone she loves and herself. To the constant dismay of her own ancestors, Bonnie dies resurrecting Jeremy, dies again with Damon after saving everyone, constantly loses her powers and regains them, loses the one love of her life, and loses her best friend up until the very finale of the show. As the viewer, it becomes less endearing watching Bonnie’s selflessness and it becomes increasingly frustrating and worrisome. At times she is the only person with logic in the show, and her sacrifices are usually a result of everyone else’s blunders. Bonnie Bennett is the most extreme example of her characteristics, but they can be seen reincarnated in characters like Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) and Prudence (Tati Gabrielle) of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Tara (Rutina Wesley) from True Blood.
Clichés have always dominated horror films, and they can be what makes them so campy and fun sometimes. However, it’s their tropes surrounding black women that pigeonholes their talent and minimizes opportunities for prominent roles. Black women become disposable in horror films to the point that black audiences are shocked to see them survive to the end. These characters are set in place to show that their white counterparts are more important and worth saving. Brenda (played by Regina Hall) from the Scary Movie franchise is the perfect satirization of these demeaning roles. When Brenda says: “Why this loud bitch gotta bring that shit over here” as Cindy (Anna Faris) runs towards her with a monster chasing after, she is speaking for all black women in horror who are tired of dying for the benefit of the main characters.
However, the horror genre is taking a turn for the better when it comes to casting black women. Films like Alien v. Predator (2004) and Queen of the Damned (2002) are forever memorable for the platform they give their characters and for the pavement they carve for other films like Little Monsters (2019), Ma (2019) and Us (2019). These new roles have transcended and toppled the old ones, and black women have dominated them, breaking boundaries and expanding the paths for next generations. The past and present of film is female, but the future is more than that – it is diversified. The future of horror films has more to offer for black women and the talent they possess, and it is exciting to see.