Thoughts On The American Horror Film: Race Allegory and Get out

DANIEL KALUUYA as Chris Washington in Get Out, a speculative thriller from Blumhouse (producers of The Visit, Insidious series and The Gift) and the mind of Jordan Peele.

By Adam Murray

Horror cinema has always been seated in the allegory, the satire, the folktale, the trickster archetype, the story around the fireplace, of myth and phantasy. Fantastical though also grounded in real conscious fears, seated in repressed sub conscious anxieties that are based on history often playing out in the real world. A morbid celluloid grand-Guignol or morality tale, which can often reference and agitate anxieties and taboos from our collective past, present or imagined possible futures.

With its roots in expressionism, surrealism and modernist art – it can when done well – be a profound and transgressive experience; yet is often slighted or criticized as a genre that can be lurid and exploitative, desensitizing us to violence, privileging the white male gaze and at times in its history, been critiqued for being sexist and racist.

The Horror film has always been a catalyst and release for such subconscious or repressed fears and anxieties. Whether situated in the aftermath of carnage from the Great War in Weine’s Das Cabinet Des Caligari (1920) to notions of purity, sexual deviance/disease and the immigrant in the many incarnations of Dracula over the years. Cold War paranoia, Communism and totalitarian ideology in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956, 1978); the ‘alien invader’ in John Carpenters The Thing, through the final girl of Slasher films and fear of feminism in The Stepford Wives (1972) repressed fears and anxieties define this genre. For better or worse the American horror film has always held up a mirror to us, the audience, and has revelled as a genre in finding out what makes us wriggle and squirm in a dark cinema.

Race and xenophobia have always been attached to the American horror film. From The Universal Picture’s cycle of horror monsters (The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Creature From The Black Lagoon, 1923 – 1955) and the literal absence or presence of black bodies on the screen in those films, all the way through to Candy Man (1992) amplified in our current obsession with TV’s ‘The Walking Dead’.

Classical Hollywood era horror stories most often tapped into the subconscious taboos of miscegenation and eugenics (Island of Lost Souls, 1932). Playing on the anxieties of ‘monstrous black masculinity’ in the anthropomorphism of a pre-code King Kong – which you can also check out at Cinema Rediscovered – the monstrous threat typically originates in ‘the old world’, the ‘dark continent’, and the to be discovered island shrouded in mystery and exotica (something which has also infamously played out in the imagery of Sci-Fi cinema as well).

The American horror film has always been criticised for the repetition of a particular trope where, more often than not (particularly in Slasher films), the Black character rarely survives beyond the first act, or is the first character to meet a grisly end. Worse yet the Black character can be deployed as a third-wall breaking device of comic relief. However, this is not true of the genre as a whole. Things change markedly from the late 60s onwards. Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, Cold War-shopping malls, Watergate and Reaganite-Capitalism bring us crashing into a new era of American horror cinema that explores a landscape and culture irreversibly changed by Feminism, conflict and the Black Power movement questioning the authority of patriarchal capitalism. During this period strikingly different horror protagonists emerge.

In this matter, Jordan Peele’s Get Out speaks in a timely fashion to the recent passing of George A. Romero. I would urge anyone to go and check out Romero’s original Dead Trilogy to appreciate horror’s capacity as a progressive, transgressive, inclusive and socially conscious medium for storytelling.

So much of horror (and sci-fi) cinema plays out in the literal representation of other and otherness on the screen; so much is invested in the gaze. Who is to be looked at (the body, face, eyes) and how? Who benefits from the privilege of that gaze? And, how conscious are we the audience of the multi-directional and simultaneous nature of the gaze when dropped into the mix is a dose of complexity projected from our personal, unique subconscious anxieties hopes and fears onto the characters and scenarios confronting us. Horror is self-aware of this play of gaze and is eager to exploit this. See if you can pick up on some of these themes and motifs whilst watching Get Out.

There is so much I would like to get into here: exploring representations of Black women in horror (definitely check out Graveyard Shift Sisters), the aesthetics of horror cinema and the perverse sublime. The list could go on and on! As an introduction to race and the American horror film, I’m hoping that this piece can provide some context as to why Get Out, why horror and why now. A ‘way in’ to those not familiar with the genre.

Get Out channels the very real fears brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movement, racist micro-aggressions and the normalisation of discrimination in a post truth, post-Obama America. A timely, important and powerful testament to the transformative and transgressive nature of the American horror film.

Watch ‘Get Out’ on Saturday 29th July at the Cinema Rediscovered Festival

Follow Adam Murray at @Admagnetic




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