Some movies are pulpy, some are tongue-in-cheek, and some are meditations on societal ills. Here is a list of essential Black horror classics.
Whether they’re comedic, pulpy, or genuinely terrifying, horror movies have always served as a way to confront societal ills, using monsters and the supernatural to make commentaries on racism, sexism, addiction, and state violence. For that reason, horror has always been one of my favorite genres.
My mom tells me that when I was five or six, I saw a werewolf movie on TV and instead of getting scared I cooed at “the doggy” on screen. When I was seven, I saw Frankenstein and cried — not because I thought the monster was scary, but because of the way the villagers attacked him. I was obsessed with horror anthology series on TV, like Tales From the Darkside, Tales from the Crypt, and Friday the 13th the Series (no relation to the Jason Vorhees slasher films with diminishing returns).
Thanks to the very specific lane Jordan Peele has carved out for himself — with his critically acclaimed and financially successful horror films Get Out and Us — there has been a growing interest in Black-led horror films, leading people to discover the rich history of Black actors, writers, and directors in the horror genre who have made innovative contributions to the film canon. Some Black horror movies are pulpy; some are tongue-in-cheek comedies; some are meditations on societal ills; some are overtly political; and others are about the horrors of the every day. Here, in no particular order, are some essential horror movies starring Black folks.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Directed by George A. Romero
George A. Romero — who made Night of the Living Dead on a microbudget in Pittsburgh, far outside of Hollywood — always used the horror genre to critique the societal ills of racism and consumerism. Night of the Living Dead is innovative in that a Black man, Duane Jones, who plays Ben, is the hero and the leader of the last remaining humans in town after a zombie apocalypse wipes out most of the population. The true horror occurs at the end: Ben is killed by a white mob — after he spent the entire movie trying to save the town.
Ganja and Hess (1973)
Directed by Bill Gunn
Ganja and Hess is a surreal, sensual, and meditative film that explores addiction, sexuality, and black identity. After archaeologist Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones) is stabbed by his unstable assistant (Bill Gunn) with an ancient knife, he survives and then develops an addiction to blood. When his assistant’s wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes by to find her husband, she gets swept up in an affair with Hess, who tries, with increasing difficulty, to hide his addiction from her.
It’s a truly singular work of art that addressed the opioid crisis affecting Black communities from a singular artist. Director Bill Gunn was also a playwright and actor who worked far outside the Hollywood mainstream. Although U.S. critics didn’t understand Ganja and Hess at the time, it premiered at Cannes Film Festival and is part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
They Live (1988)
Directed by John Carpenter
In this cult classic, a drifter (Roddy Piper) in Los Angeles discovers a pair of sunglasses that shows the world the way it truly is— namely that ruling class are actually aliens determined to take over the world and that media and ads are filled with subliminal messages like “OBEY,” “WATCH TV,” and “DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY” meant to keep people satisfied with being subjugated.
The drifter teams up with Frank Armitage (played by Keith David) to free the world from the grasp of this alien ruling class. It’s another movie that got mixed reviews upon release but found an audience on home video and later through the art of Shepard Fairey.
Def by Temptation (1990)
Directed by James Bond III
Def by Temptation is a horror comedy starring James Bond III as Joel, a shy theology student from North Carolina who undergoes a crisis of faith and decides to pay his struggling actor friend K (Kadeem Hardison) in New York City a visit. He meets a beautiful woman (Cynthia Bond) at a bar who turns out to be a succubus, targeting Black men and luring them to their deaths. After she becomes fixated on Joel, K teams up with a cop buddy (Bill Nunn, in a funny and grounded performance) who specializes in supernatural investigations to battle the demon and save Joel’s soul.
The movie is a bit cheesy at times, but Kadeem Hardison and Bill Nunn turn in great comedic performances, Samuel L. Jackson makes a cameo as Joel’s preacher father, and the cast has an easy, wonderful chemistry with each other that makes you believe in their friendship.
People Under The Stairs (1991)
Directed by Wes Craven
People Under The Stairs stars Brandon Quintin Adams as Fool, a young teen who breaks into a house looking for a rumored collection of gold coins, only to discover that the owners of the house kept their own children and children they kidnapped locked away in the basement. He uses his wits to not only save his own life but the lives of the other kids trapped in their house.
It was only when I became older that I realized how rare it was for Black children to be the heroes in horror movies, and that it’s particularly poignant when a Black child is allowed to be one of the Good Guys.
Directed by Bernard Rose
It takes a lot for a horror movie to genuinely scare me but Candyman is hands down one of the most frightening movies I’ve ever seen. It comes down Tony Todd’s performance as the soft-spoken titular villain/tragic figure: a man who was lynched for falling in love with a white woman, who continues to haunt the earth — in particular the Cabrini Green housing projects in Chicago — and kill anyone who dares to summon him by speaking his name five times into a mirror. A remake of the film, produced by Jordan Peele and helmed by Nia DaCosta, the director of the excellent modern western Little Woods, was just released. Watch the original before you head to the theaters.
Tales from the Hood (1995)
Directed by Rusty Cundieff
Tales from the Hood is an anthology film, similar to Tales from the Crypt. Three drug dealers take refuge in a funeral home, where the director is played by none other than Clarence Williams III. He tells them four stories that confront the horrors of white supremacy, police brutality, domestic violence, and the psychological toll of gang violence.
The best story of the movie is the second segment, in which comedian David Alan Grier plays an abusive man who terrorizes both a child (Brandon Hammond) and his mother (Paula Jai Parker) until the kid finds an unlikely way to defeat him.
Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995)
Directed by Ernest Dickerson
Ernest Dickerson, a Howard University alum, got his start as a cinematographer, and DP’d many of Spike Lee’s films in the late ’80s and early ’90s including School Daze, Malcolm X, and Do The Right Thing. He made his feature debut with the classic 1992 thriller Juice. His third feature film was the horror comedy Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight which starred William Sadler, Billy Zane, and Jada Pinkett, who battles an ancient demon and ends up saving the world.
At the time it was an unusual but much welcome twist to have a Black woman as the Final Girl, a term coined by American professor Carol Clover in the book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film that describes the last woman standing at the end of a horror film.
The Craft (1996)
Directed by Andrew Fleming
In The Craft, a group of outcasts practice magic and form a bond with each other as a way to protect themselves from a variety of problems: casual violence from men, slut-shaming, poverty shaming, and virulent racism. I definitely related the most to Rachel True’s character, who attended a predominately white school like me, was on the swim team like I was in middle school, and dealt with racist microaggressions and bullying from her white classmates, just like I did.
As with most horror movies, the supernatural aspect of The Craft was really a way to talk about larger societal ills — in this case, the sexism, racism, and classism that young girls and women face, often without any kind of recourse. The movie received mixed reviews when it was first released but it has become a cult classic because of the feminist message at the center.
Eve’s Bayou (1997)
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Eve’s Bayou is set in 1962 Louisiana, where a young girl (Jurnee Smollet) recounts a chain of events that tears her family apart. Some people might think it’s a stretch to categorize Eve’s Bayou as a horror film, but I’ve included it partly because there is a supernatural aspect to it (voodoo and the conjure woman being common themes throughout). Also because it’s about the horror of the every day, the horror of what happens when families keep secret or deny the truth that has been in front of them the whole time. Kasi Lemmons, an actress who starred in other classic horror movies like the aforementioned Candyman and Silence of the Lambs, made her directorial debut with this beautifully shot and poetic film.
The Invitation (2015)
Directed by Karyn Kusama
In this 2015 thriller, a man accepts an invitation to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife and her new boyfriend. Some people might say being invited to a dinner party with your ex and his or her’s new boo is horrifying in and of itself. But in this thriller, directed by Karyn Kusama — who shot Girlfight and the criminally underrated Destroyer — nothing is at all what it appears to be. And as the night goes on, it shifts from being slightly awkward to downright terrifying.
The Invitation shows the malevolence hiding just below the surface in polite society. Definitely watch it for Emyatzy Corinealdi (best known as the lead in Ava DuVernay’s 2012 film Middle of Nowhere), who is one of the strongest characters in the film.
This story was originally published in 2019.