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As has been noted on SBPDL in earlier postings, Black people love to go to the movies. Movies provide all audiences with an opportunity to exercise various emotions vicariously via the safe medium of film. Tears, laughter, excitement, fear and every other emotion the human race universally experiences can be found on the magical screen of celluloid dreams.
One genre in particular – the horror film – allows viewers to confront the emotions of fear and horror in a safe and controlled environment, thereby allowing them to grapple with repressed impulses that need expression and finally jettisoning these impulses from their subconscious minds in a cathartic release.
The horror film, however, has traditionally given all Black people pause for consternation – at least in pre-Obama America. In a scene from Wes Craven’s Scream 3 (2000), a Black couple queued up on line to view a horror film discuss the social implications of what they are about to see. The woman chastises horror films (much less articulately) for pandering to the lowest, basest instincts of selfish white audiences, self-absorbed and privileged white people with so much time on their hands that they can afford to fret over such petty things as their bodily integrity, physical well-being, and the impenetrable safety of their homes. As Black people overwhelmingly live in ghettoes, smoke crack, beat or are beaten by their significant others and pimps, and display a general disregard for the well-being of the bodies and property of others and themselves, it is easy to understand why such concerns would stir the ire of Black folk.
Black people have had good reason to be wary of horror/thriller films, for – in pre-Obama America, at least – they have historically and accurately pinpointed white people’s fear of the Boogeyman, a childhood fear that has remained buried within the sub-conscious minds of white people. John Carpenter’s pioneering slasher film, Halloween (1978), regaled white audiences with a terrifying 90-minute odyssey in which, one fateful Halloween night, a babysitter (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her two pre-adolescent charges confront the Boogeyman in an all-white, leaf-strewn, suburban neighborhood presumably filled with soccer moms and white-collar dads.
Their previously safe, provincially sheltered suburbia has been invaded by a foreign, shadowy, malevolent force which, at film’s end, has not been eliminated. After having been jabbed with a knitting needle, stabbed with a butcher’s knife, and finally riddled with bullets, the Boogeyman falls out a second-floor window – only for the psychiatrist (Donald Pleasance in an iconic performance) to walk to the window and see an empty lawn.
“It was the Boogeyman,” sobs Jamie Lee Curtis, wracked with terror. “As a matter of fact,” replies Pleasance, “it was.” Enter John Carpenter’s chilling piano/synthesizer score, and hordes of white people shuffle from the theater, trembling with horror and grateful it was only a movie – yet acutely aware that the Boogeyman lives on, possibly to be found lurking behind the flapping sheets hanging from the clotheslines in their own suburban, back-yard paradise. If Kevin McCarthy had appeared in a tacked-on coda frantically yelling, “They’re here! You’re next!” the subtext couldn’t have been more obvious to pre-Obama Black America.
What was only hinted at in Halloween and tacitly understood by its white audience was brought out into the open in a key sequence in Brian DePalma’s 1980 exercise in Hitchcockian horror/suspense: Dressed to Kill.
The offending scene transpires in the NYC subway, and the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, would-be white victim played by Nancy Allen is menaced by a trio of Black youths. “This bitch is bothering me. I’m gonna break her fuckin’ ass!” “Why break it when we can fuck it first!” Then the chase ensues, and white audiences hold their collective breath in empathy for Nancy Allen, lest the Black youths capture her and inflict the anal rape which is so often the lot of white women who cross paths with urban Black males. Garnering the outrage of some incensed critics, this grittily honest scene nonetheless reflected the reality of urban life for white people, and explicitly designated the Boogeyman as the Black man.
In the mid-1990s, the theme of the Black Boogeyman came to an explosive head as two events came into head-on collision: the prosecution of Black Boogeyman O.J. Simpson for the murder of white, blonde-haired Nicole Brown Simpson, and an advertising billboard for Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh (1995), which depicted the Black Boogeyman of the first film menacing the white, blonde-haired Virginia Madsen. Needless to say, this resulted in a furor and, in the process, sparked strident claims that the advertisement deliberately exploited the racial fears encapsulated in the O.J. case.
Director Bill Condon has since repented by directing Dreamgirls (2006), in which the immense contribution of Black people to America’s rich cultural mosaic is celebrated with orgasmic fervor.
Although horror films were parodied and mocked for Black audiences with the Scary Movie franchise, a more significant development can be glimpsed on the horizon: post-Obama America is witnessing a possible rectification of white people’s justified fear of the penchant of Black people for inflicting grievous bodily injury, as well as their aptitude for turning the lives of white people inside-out with the anxiety-provoking menace that their physical proximity poses. In 2009’s risibly unrealistic Obsessed, an ambitious and successful Black man – post-Obama America’s poster boy for white-collar success – experiences a nightmare of unprecedented proportions as the equilibrium of his storybook marriage is threatened by the maniacal stalking of a sex-crazed white female co-worker,
If this is a sign of things to come, then horror-thrillers in post-Obama America will no longer tap into white America’s justified fear of the Black Boogeyman: now they will be designed to tap into Black America’s resentment of white America’s fear of the Black Boogeyman, in the process offering us a slice-of-life that not only bears no relation to reality whatsoever, but actually contradicts it.
This nascent trend, in fact, might render future horror-thrillers safe for Black audiences. Until when, and if, that happens, all Black people will continue to hate horror films, for as long as there are Black people living amongst whites, white people will fear them. As little Tommy said in Halloween, “You can’t kill the Boogeyman.” And this is why pre-Obama horror films merit inclusion in Stuff Black People Don’t Like.