I must be a glutton for punishment. My fascination with horror films grew more out of enjoying the unsettling mood these movies used to set. That creepy, shadowy world that resembles in such a degree my experience of the everyday world. Like most people I don’t enjoy being scared, and as a pacifist I find violence extremely distasteful. And yet, horror movies. I suppose they serve to remind me that no matter how bad things might seem, they could be worse. This fascination also accompanies reading about scary movies as well. Robin R. Means Coleman’s Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present is a fascinating study of how race perceptions have found expression in horror movies. As Coleman points out, it’s not a pretty picture. I suppose, however, that it could be argued that no one should want to find themselves the subject of a horror film. They tend to be a form of self-punishment, and, psychologically speaking, that makes a lot of sense.
African-American characters, I had noticed, in early horror films are portrayed as easily frightened and their reactions are used for comic effect. I still squirm when I see such representations in early movies: the cultural and racial arrogance rises like bile in the throat. What I hadn’t realized, however, is that the Black role in horror films is frequently tied to religion. Coleman makes this clear—from early films centering on African-American issues to Caucasian efforts to portray Blacks, religion is often the vehicle. Black films make a strong use of Christian themes, while White films not infrequently present Africans as purveyors of voodoo or some mysterious, and dangerous religion. This is a fascinating trend and it shows mixed perceptions of how religion is understood. Christians who dismiss the “superstition” of other faiths should have no fear of “false gods.” Yet it makes for great horror fare.
Despite their low-brow reputation, horror films are among the most successful genre of movies. Many people find them cathartic, I would guess. It is uncomfortable, however, to be faced with how race self-perception is embedded in such films. Like any artistic effort, movies reflect the values of those who write, produce, and direct them. At the same time they reinforce or even channel the expectations of the viewing public. Reading Coleman’s study, I was given a glimpse of the perception of one of my favorite genres from the perspective of “outsiders.” It is not always a comfortable place to be. Horror movies sometimes showcase terrors more frightful than the special effects and improbable beasts flashed upon the big screen. The realities of our own past can be the worst of monsters.