Welcome to the Women in Horror column. Every Wednesday, we highlight the work of women in the horror genre.
One of the first Black women in a horror film can be seen in the 1934 movie, Chloe, Love is Calling You– where Georgette Harvey plays Mandy, a voodoo priestess who steals a white baby and tries to enact revenge on the men who lynched her husband. One could say that Mandy was one of the first Black female villains in a horror film. However, the film is doused with blatant racism and harmful stereotypes, even having white actors play in the black roles. This trend of racial pigeonholing of black characters, primarily Black women, in horror continued throughout the rest of horror movie history. Black women are constantly used as an empty crutch to hold the story up, whether they are the over-used mystical woman, the sacrificial best friend, or the mammie (see Black Women in Horror.)
Then, there was the rise of a new genre of film – blaxploitation – which gained traction during the Black Power Movement of the 1970s. With the rise of blaxploitation came a new wave of Black-led films spanning all genres, including horror. In 1971, Rosalind Cash become one of the first and most popular Black heroine’s in horror films, playing Lisa in the film The Omega Man. Horror and blaxploitation went on to create a once in a lifetime marriage that birthed a new age of Black people – especially Black women – in horror. Black women continue to play a wider (though not much wider) range of roles, from villains to heroines, in outstanding, unforgettable films. This list is just a small taste of the talent Black women have brought to the genre. It’s their headway that will hopefully bring in another new age where Hollywood can break the stereotypes of them in film completely, and this list can grow even larger as more Black women are offered the titular and main roles in the horror genre.
Queen Akasha (Aaliyah)- Queen of the Damned (2002)
Queen of the Damned (2002) is actually one of the final projects Aaliyah worked on before her tragic, untimely death. This fact only makes the film closer to the hearts of many of her fans. To her fans and many others, Aaliyah being cast in the role of the main antagonist in a fantasy-horror meant an open door for more hopeful, black actresses to follow suit. Queen of the Damned is an early 2000s, punk-vampire fantasy, with Aaliyah, who plays Queen Akasha, at the center of it all. The director of the film, Michael Rymer, stated that he wanted the Egyptian queen to actually look like she came from Egypt, which prompted the casting of Aaliyah in the main antagonist role. It’s her character that brings additional attraction and actual fear that the film needs. Her beauty matched by her skill and body acting makes her one of the best vampire renditions of the decade.
Katrina (Grace Jones)- Vamp (1986)
Ms. Grace Jones as Katrina in the 1986 film, Vamp, is another one of the greatest vampires in horror film history, and truthfully, the performance is not brought up enough. She took body-acting to another level in this film, and her eccentric design is what makes this story as memorable as it is. By the end, her performance is the only one worth remembering. Katrina is the Vamp and the dancer who murders horny frat boys. How could you not love her? Her dance number in the film is actually one of the only scenes that has received critical appraisal. The red hair and extravagant clothing are only the toppings of her IDGAF, badass personality. She even goes out like an absolute boss, never wavering her prowess and smug until the very end.
Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer)- Ma (2019)
Horror movies can be so camp and preposterous, but that is part of their widespread appeal. Ma (2019) captures that exact feeling: never feeling sorry or afraid to show its wild side. That’s what I love about the film, and why Octavia Spencer’s performance as Sue Ann is on this list. Octavia Spencer is praised for her dramatic roles because of her evocation of emotion and her magnetism, but place her in a campy horror film and you get something more: you get a rollercoaster ride of excitement and thrill. She delivers on every feeling you want from the horror genre, from insanity, to fear and comedic relief. There’s no doubt that her performance deserved all of the never-ending memes it received because it is the best part of the entire film. Spencer doesn’t let up for a single moment as she plays the deranged, insidious neighborhood ‘Ma.’
Red (Lupita Nyong’o)- Us (2019)
Lupita prepared and worked extensively for her role in Us (2019), as both Red and Adelaide. Having to play both the antagonist and protagonist did not slow her down either because she gave one of the best performances of 2019, and her lack of a nomination during awards season will always be one of the most criminal acts of recent film history. Red, the calculating and dominant doppelganger, enticed fear more than a monster ever could. She had audiences gripping the ends of their chair with how well-prepared and menacing she seemed to be. Through Jordan Peele’s writing, she also made you think. She is one of the smartest villains ever created. The only thing scarier were those creepy-ass bunnies.
Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey)- Sugar Hill (1974)
I’m not really sure if you can call Sugar an antagonist since she murders for love, and she murders racist, misogynistic gangsters throughout the film. That sounds like a hero to me, but her army of the undead is definitely menacing. Sugar Hill (1974) is one of the blaxploitation horror films of the 1970s and it is a perfect image of the entire genre. Sugar (played by Marki Bey) enlists the help of a voodoo king and his army of the dead to enact revenge on a group of gangsters who murder her husband. Her cunning, tactical personality makes her the most badass woman on this list. She shows no mercy and looks good while doing so. She’s funky, artistic, sly, and super-fly. She plays the “mans” game better than the men, and she deserves every kill she gets in this film.
Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o)- Us (2019)
Since Red is on one side of this list, it’s only right that her doppelganger, Adelaide, is on the other side. Jordan Peele said, “Sophomore slump, who?” He wrote one of the best roles for a black woman to take on, mixing trauma, classism, art, and horror into his main protagonist. Lupita plays the character with so much heart and dedication that you have to acknowledge her. The way she cries on command can shake you to the core. This role and the film will always be talked about when the topic of modern horror comes up. As Adelaide literally and figuratively fights off her demons to save herself and her family, she brings audiences into her world of chaos on questioning. In the end, her twist of fate leaves you shook every time.
Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan)- Alien v. Predator (2004)
Alien v. Predator (2004) should be brought up more when the topic of the Alien films comes up. After the iconic Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Sanaa Lathan who plays Alexa Woods is the second-best protagonist of the franchise, and she definitely holds her own against the comparisons. In Alien v. Predator, Alexa Woods leads a group of expeditioners down into the Arctic circle to find a buried pyramid. During the trip, the humans become sacrificial pawns in the game between two deadly monsters. When Alexa joins Team Predator, the rest of us do as well, and she carries on throughout the film being so deadly and fierce, she gains the respect and recognition from the predators.
Selena (Naomie Harris)- 28 Days Later (2002)
Selena (played by Naomie Harris) is the deuteragonist and of the 2002 film 28 Days Later. The zombie sub-genre is run by caricatures and stereotypes, and black women rarely take a place in their stories. 28 Days Later is a zombie rarity, with Selena being one of the heroines of the film. When you meet Selena, she is already an intelligent, tough, zombie-killer. She’s not hesitant and is ready to murder her friends if they’ve been infected. Her steely resolve makes her the survivor that she is, and she is still shown to have a soft, endearing side. You can watch her stomp zombies in this film, and then, you can continue reading about her journey in the comic series. Naomie Harris has had a memorable career, covering many genres, playing some of the most iconic characters of this generation. She is another Black woman on this list that has paved the way for generations to come after her.
Det. Rita Veder (Angela Bassett)- Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)
Directed by Wes Craven, Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), starring Eddie Murphy and Angela Bassett, is as flashy, campy, and enticing as you would imagine it to be. Truly an underrated gem for its time, Vampire in Brooklyn takes a new, exciting spin on the well-known Dracula myth. With a predominantly Black cast, this film uses an urban, mystical take on the vampire lore that is truly one of a kind. The prosthetics and rapport between the entire cast, along with a superstar cast of comedians, makes this entire film so special. It is Angela Bassett’s character, Det. Rita Veder, that creates a new rendition of Dracula’s object of affection. She is no longer the damsel in distress, helpless against a vampire’s trance. She is a strong woman with a power of her own, and she saves herself from the grasps of eternal doom. Angela Bassett is perhaps one of the most influential women on this list. Her career has inspired so many Black women, and she never fails to mesmerize audiences with her dedication and talent. She has gone on record stating that she is attracted to roles that portray a strong, self-assured Black woman.
Miranda Grey (Halle Berry)- Gothika (2003)
Like other films such as The Eye (2008) and The Ring (2002), Halle Berry plays the heroine plagued by ghosts in the 2003 movie Gothika. Halle Berry’s career is one that consists of amazing, contrasting roles and breaking fourth walls for Black women in the industry. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress with her role in Monster’s Ball (2001), becoming the first and only Black woman to do so. In Gothika, she plays Miranda Grey, a women’s prison psychiatrist who finds herself on the other side of the situation when she is accused of murdering her husband. There’s no question that Berry gives her all in every role, and this one is no different. Like many ghost films of the decade, Gothika doesn’t receive critical appraisal but that doesn’t matter. Many times, it feels like Black women have to play in exceptional, critically acclaimed films to be recognized for their talent. Let them be in more cheesy rom-coms and predictable horrors and be recognized just like their counterparts.