American Horror Stories: How a new wave of filmmakers are confronting American racism

Black filmmakers are revitalizing the horror genre. We go inside this fall's most chilling films — Antebellum, Bad Hair, and the new Candyman.
By Chancellor Agard
August 26, 2020 at 08:15 AM EDT

Historically, being a Black actor in a horror movie hasn't been much fun. Tropes like the sacrificial Negro, the magical Negro, and the first one to die have been around almost as long as any jump scare or that call coming from inside the house. It’s something Elle Lorraine learned growing up in Texas. “If there was a Black person [in a horror film], I immediately hoped they would survive and their life wouldn’t be cut to two scenes,” the 35-year-old actress says. Well, the bloody tide has finally started to turn. Lorraine makes her film debut at the center of Justin Simien’s Bad Hair (Oct. 23 on Hulu), which subverts those racist tropes for sport. “Sometimes it takes us having to break the mold and show people who we are, even when they aren’t ready to listen,” she says. “And also: The film is fun.”

This fall, Bad Hair is joined by Candyman and Antebellum; the trio of provocative films lead the charge in a new Golden Age of Black Horror, coursing with rage at a painfully apt moment. Arriving in the wake of Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning social thriller Get Out and terrifying follow-up Us, the new movies employ familiar cinematic scare tactics to freshly explore the real-life terrors of racism — and, following the tragic high-profile killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and subsequent unrest this summer, hold even more resonance now. “There’s an urgency to unpacking systemic racism. It is an evil we all have to live with in [the] present day,” says Bad Hair’s Simien. “In a lot of ways, what we’re doing is taking something like Rosemary’s Baby or Invasion of the Body Snatchers just a step further — because really good thrillers have already been interrogating the system.” 

Horror provides unique forms of catharsis.“For Black people in this country, survival is a hugely important story we need to see,” says Tananarive Due, who executive-produced and appeared in Shudder’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror documentary (an adaptation of Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman's book Horror Noire), in which she maintains, “Black history is Black horror.” “[Horror is] a genre where we can take real-life trauma and unpack it in a way that both informs an audience that doesn’t know, and helps an audience that does know feel seen and validated.” Resistance is baked into the formula. “In fact, that’s one of the reasons I love horror,” says Due, who also teaches a Peele-approved class on Get Out at UCLA. “That’s the nutrient I get from horror: ‘How do I fight back?’” 

Photo: Tobin Yellan/Hulu

Representation of Black people in the genre has a grim history. “The truth is that horror movies really start with a fear of Black people,” says Simien, pointing to D.W. Griffith’s bigoted epic The Birth of a Nation (1915), which treated the Ku Klux Klan like superheroes and depicted Black people — portrayed by white actors in blackface — as the biggest threat to the country. While Birth of a Nation didn’t play like a horror movie to its intended audience, it certainly can be read as one. “Even in movies like King Kong [1933], the Other that these screaming white people, frankly, are so afraid of could be anything, but there’s a lot of reason to believe it could also be, specifically, Black people,” says Simien. 

The road to Get Out has been a long one, filled with milestones big and small: George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, from 1968, which notably cast Black actor Duane Jones as the lead; 1972’s Blaxploitation classic Blacula; 1995’s Tales From the Hood, an anthology film that explored police brutality, racist politicians, and domestic violence (and received a long-awaited sequel in 2018 following Get Out’s triumph); and perhaps most notably, the original Candyman. Directed by Bernard Rose, the 1992 movie starred Virginia Madsen as a graduate student researching the urban legend about the titular bogeyman (Tony Todd). As she discovers, Candyman is the product of racial violence: In the late 19th century, a white lynch mob mutilated and murdered Candyman, the artistic son of a slave, when he fell in love with a white woman. He was left to die on what would eventually become Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects — his present-day haunting grounds.

Candyman’s horrific origin story gave the hook-handed villain a life that extended far beyond the movie. “When I was growing up as a kid who lived across the street from the projects, that was part of our atmosphere — that movie and the lore inside the movie,” says Brooklyn native Nia DaCosta (Little Woods), who directed 2020’s Candyman (Oct. 16) from a script co-written by Peele and Win Rosenfeld. Her star, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who grew up in New Orleans and Oakland, adds: “I remember being 5 or 6 and playing the Bloody Mary game” — in which one conjures a malevolent spirit using a mirror — “in the bathroom, but not [doing the same] with Candyman. I lived in the projects, and that’s where Candyman lived, too.”

Peele also was shaped by Candyman. “It was one of the few movies that explored any aspect of the Black experience in the horror genre in the ’90s when I was growing up. It was an iconic example to me of representation in the genre and a movie that inspired me,” he said at the new film’s trailer premiere back in February. In fact, the film is what spurred Get Out, a searing takedown of the notion that America was somehow post-racial following the 2008 election of Barack Obama. His bold story, about a young Black man (Daniel Kaluuya) who uncovers a horrifying racist tradition at his white girlfriend’s family home, ended up paying off: Get Out was a box office smash and received four Oscar nominations; Peele, 41, became the first Black writer to win Best Original Screenplay.

Photo: Everett Collection

The triumph promptly broke down barriers for others. Simien started developing Bad Hair shortly after his debut feature, the college satire Dear White People, premiered to acclaim at Sundance in 2014. Despite its success — as well as the subsequent Netflix TV series — he had trouble getting Bad Hair off the ground. People thought of Simien as a comedy director — that is, until Get Out. “Finally, this thing that I’d been talking about doing, there was a context for it, and there was financial context for it, too,” says the writer-director. “This Black horror movie stopped feeling risky to investors [after] Get Out.” (Made on a $4.5 million budget, Get Out ultimately grossed more than $255 million globally.) 

Inspired by Korean hair-horror movies like The Wig (2005), Bad Hair edges more toward satire than the relatively heavy Antebellum and Candyman. Set in 1989, it follows aspiring music video VJ Anna Bludso (Lorraine), who learns she needs to get extensions if she wants to ascend the ranks. What she gets, literally, is a killer weave. "At its core, [Bad Hair] is really about a young woman on her journey of self-discovery," says Lorraine. "I can relate to the idea of pursuing a dream so hard that you’re willing to sacrifice parts of yourself to get there, and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to fit the mold.”

For Simien, Get Out’s frankness about racism was liberating when it came to making Bad Hair. “I realized I don’t have to mince words. The real evils are white supremacy and the patriarchy. I’m no longer afraid to say that because Get Out just did that,” says Simien. “You make horror movies about what terrifies you. What really terrifies me as a Black queer American is that I’m given what I’m told are choices, but I’m not given nearly the same amount or quality of choices [as] somebody who doesn’t look like me: a traditional straight white man.” 

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as haunted painter Anthony McCoy in Nia DaCosta's "Candyman." Photo: Parrish Lewis/Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures

“Everyone collectively has more language and more knowledge about racism, racial violence, and those are so important to the dramatic core of [my] film, the story of Candyman,” says DaCosta. “We were able to expand on it in a way that maybe you couldn’t in 1992.” 

Set in the present day, DaCosta’s take on the legend follows Abdul-Mateen II’s Anthony, a young artist who moves back to the now-gentrified Cabrini-Green. He’s at a low point in his career but finds inspiration in the macabre Candyman lore and other instances of racial violence in the neighborhood, awakening the supernatural killer in the process. “There’s something about perpetuation of a cycle of violence, about violence that’s done to people that lives on and has consequences for generations afterward,” says the 34-year-old Emmy-nominated Watchmen star. “We address gentrification and the way that gentrification is a sort of violence. We look at the ghosts that are left behind in violent incidents and the repercussions of that type of violence.”

Going back in time, Antebellum (on VOD Sept. 18) opts for a more grounded approach. The thought-provoking feature, marking the directorial debut of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, stars Janelle Monáe (Homecoming) as Veronica Henley, a successful author and outspoken voice on systemic racism and sexism who finds herself trapped on a slave plantation. Discussions about the way Hollywood depicts slavery have intensified over the past few years, and Antebellum — which examines how we deal with the country’s disgraceful history — confronts that trauma head-on with unsparing depictions of brutality and torture on the plantation. “I never considered for a second that we wouldn’t honor the ancestry of these people who suffered at the hands of the oppressor,” says Bush. “It would also be doing a grave disservice to the truth to water this down because it’s triggering. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you [see it], that’s what good art does: It activates.” 

Photo: Matt Kennedy

Conceived in 2018, Antebellum speaks chillingly to 2020, as protests against systemic racism press on nationwide. “[We] were very scared at first, because when we made the movie, none of this was happening,” says Bush. “So it started to feel beyond prescient and almost prophetic and really scary in that way, but also it’s a conversation that we need to have.” Adds Monáe, 34: “There is nothing more horrific than, in my opinion, America’s first big sin, and that was enslaving Black people, stealing Black bodies. I don’t know how much [more] horror you can get.”

Horror, put simply, provides a fitting artistic vehicle for these narratives. Says DaCosta, “I think the fact that you can have all these movies that are ostensibly about racism, but are all about different aspects of it, just shows you how much storytelling is out there for Black filmmakers, because not every movie needs to be about the violence of racism." And these aren’t history lessons, either. They’re movies, after all—bloody, scary, and at times sharply funny. “Our responsibility is to thrillingly entertain our audience,” Bush says. “If you don’t do that, then the rest of it is a moot point. It doesn’t even matter.” Perhaps that’s where these films’ true power lies. 

Meet Your Makers: Black horror's pioneers share their cinematic influences

Cindy Ord/Getty Images

The Wiz

“When I was kid, it was proof positive that Black people and the stories of Black people—and I didn’t have this language as a kid—that my life and the lives of people that looked like me could be just as cinematic and just as important and just as universal. It could be all the things The Wizard of Oz was,” says Simien, 37, of the 1978 musical.

Fritz Lang

The M director’s aesthetic and storytelling approach were “big influences on Dear White People,” says the Houston native. “He has this way of dissecting really complicated, kind of icky social modern conundrums, but in a way that’s inventive and whimsical almost.”

Charles Burnett

“[Burnett] was one of the filmmakers—maybe along with Julie Dash—of that independent moment in cinema [in the] late ’80s to early ’90s that was playing with magical realism and was setting Black stories alongside these whimsical, kind of poetic ways of telling stories,” says Simien of the To Sleep With Anger director.

Presley Ann/Getty Images

Apocalypse Now

When DaCosta, 30, saw Francis Ford Coppola’s war epic in high school, she was roused by how “it was adapted from 
a book [Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad] but took place at a different time and place.” She adds, “Then, just, like the absolute f---ing 
audacity, I was impressed by it.”

American Beauty

Annette Bening’s turn in Alan Ball’s dark comedy opened DaCosta’s eyes to the power of acting when she was 11. “The fact that I could enjoy a movie I didn’t really understand because 
of how forceful and thoughtful the performances were, and 
also the direction and everything, that made me realize film was what I wanted to do,” 
she says.

Kasi Lemmons

“Before I did my first film, I said, ‘Oh, I hope 
I can do this. And I hope I can make a movie.’ And [Lemmons was] like, ‘You can’t hope. You just have to do it. There aren’t that many of us, and you just have to do it,’” recalls DaCosta of the Eve’s Bayou director’s advice. “That really stuck with me, and it just kind of changed my viewpoint.”

John Sciulli/Getty Images

Harry Belafonte

The Jamaican-American singer and actor is “a North Star in this sort of career I would like to have behind the camera— in written word, too,” says Bush.

'70s Horror Films

“That sensibility of films from the ’70s, we tried to bring and put a modern spin on it,” says Renz, referencing Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist.

Stanley Kubrick

For Bush, the Shining filmmaker "is the best to have ever done it,” he says. “Every time we go out and we do this thing that we do [we remember to] respect the craft, and that we understand that this is a privilege to be able to engage in this art form.”

Additional reporting by Clark Collis and Marcus Jones.

A version of this story appears in the September 2020 issue of Entertainment Weekly, on sale Friday and available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.