I know what everybody’s thinking. I wouldn’t want to be the black person in a horror movie! Ah hur hur. That’s because it’s long been a trope that the black person in a horror movie always dies first. But the truth is, it’s actually kind of hard to find horror movies where black characters were even in them at all. I’m serious. While researching this article, I actually struggled to find black characters who had important enough roles to even be mentioned in this list.
With directors like Jordan Peele and movies like Get Out and Us, we’re starting to finally see horror movies with black characters in prominent roles. But I’ll tell you. Looking back to the ‘60s, the number of black actors in horror movies is pretty dismal. But enough about scarcity. How about actually being scared? Are you ready to scream? I sure hope so!
Ben – Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Oh, geez. The ‘60s weren’t a great decade for black people in horror. The only major contribution to the genre that I can think of would be Duane Jones as Ben in Night of the Living Dead. Ben was a huge contribution to horror because he was the hero of the film, a calm head in a chaotic situation. Night of the Living Dead came out at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, and to see a black man with a white woman on the same screen must have been pretty audacious at the time. Ben actually survives the night, only to be shot “by accident” by humans who mistake him for a zombie. Hmm.
Prince Mamuwalde/Blacula – Blacula (1972)
Blacula, played by William Marshall, is interesting since it confronts racism head on. Prince Mamuwalde actually went to Dracula to ask him for help to end the slave trade, but Dracula scoffs and turns the Prince into a vampire instead. And thus, Blacula is born.
Blacula was actually a big hit in 1972 and spawned the sequel, Scream Blacula Scream. It also created a wave of blaxploitation horror films, like Sugar Hill, Blackenstein, and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde. Besides Blacula, Ken Foree also starred in George A. Romero’s sequel to Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead. Ken Foree wasn’t the lead in the movie, but he was an important part of the cast of survivors, so it seems that George A. Romero was definitely ahead of the curve when it came to putting black actors in horror.
Dick Hollorann – The Shining (1980)
Many would argue that the ‘80s were the best decade for horror right after the ’30s, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a big reason for that. Of course Scatman Crothers’ Dick Hollorann isn’t the main character of The Shining since Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Torrance takes center stage. But Scatman Crothers’ performance as the head chef of the Overlook Hotel who also shares the Shining with Danny Torrance is a very humanizing one. He's an honest to God, full-blooded character, and he came a long way from some of the jive talking characters from the blaxploitation era in the 1970s.
Also in the ‘80s was Ken Sagoes as Roland Kinkaid from the best Freddy Krueger movie (Yes), Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. He was also in the sequel, The Dream Master, but he dies fairly early in that one.
The Candyman – Candyman (1992)
Candyman is huge for black actors in horror since we had our first real franchise character (outside of Blacula) with Tony Todd as the eponymous Candyman. Candyman was based off a Clive Barker short story called “The Forbidden” and was the son of a slave who is brought back to life. Horror icons were all the rage back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Leatherface, Pinhead, and Chucky, all being staples of the genre. But the cool thing was that Tony Todd as The Candyman could also be added to that list.
And now, we have a new one, produced by Jordan Peele, coming. Make noise! And by that, I mean a bee noise, of course. Bzzzz! Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs from 1991 also had a few black actors in it, including Ving Rhames, Bill Cobbs as Grandpa Booker, and a young Brandon Adams as Fool.
Dr. Miranda Grey – Gothika (2003)
The early 2000s were proof that horror had gone mainstream. Case in point was 2003’s psychological horror thriller, Gothika, which starred an Oscar winner in Halle Berry. Berry plays Dr. Miranda Grey, a psychiatrist in a women’s psych ward who soon finds herself become a patient in the same ward she works in after her body is inhabited by a ghost. This might not seem like a milestone moment, since horror movies have always somehow found a way to have prestigious actors in their low brow films. But Halle Berry was a win, as black actresses didn’t typically find themselves in the leading role of big budget (for the genre—$40 million dollars) horror movies.
The 2000s also saw Wesley Snipes don the trench coat and sunglasses again for his role as the comic book character, Blade, in Blade II and Blade Trinity. Overall, not a terrible decade for black actors in horror.
Adelaide – Us (2019), Chris - Get Out (2017)
And here we are at the 2010s. In Us, Lupita Nyong’o (another Oscar winner) plays a woman named Adelaide who is haunted by a doppelgänger, who has a family of her own that is hunting Adelaide's family. But things aren’t what they seem. Honestly, Lupita Nyong’o was robbed of another nomination, as her performance elevated the horror genre by great leaps and bounds.
Also of note in the 2010’s was Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out, whose tearful expression has pretty much been the most recognizable face in all of horror for the past couple years now. Hell, even people who aren’t horror fans have seen that face. Jordan Peele in general is just changing the horror game, so we have him to thank, too.
And let’s not forget yet ANOTHER Academy Award winning actress in Octavia Spencer. She starred in the very kooky and very creepy movie, Ma.
Overall, black actors have come a ways from the extremely humble beginnings of Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead. I won't say that blacks have come far enough since the trope of blacks dying in horror movies is still very popular today. And accurate. But I will say that there’s been progress. And I can’t complain about that. Progress is good!
Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.
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