Monster to Hero: Evolving Perceptions of Black Characterization within the Horror Genre [Essay]

William Crain’s Blacula (1972) and Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) both utilize the horror genre within their given contexts, to form a socio-political commentary that reflects the racial tensions between white and African communities within America. Both of the films in question take the traditional horror narrative and place it in a contemporary framework, combining fear and satire to illuminate the oppression of black individuals within America. Blacula mirrors the narrative of Bram Stoker’s Dracula by placing it in a 70’s context, focusing primarily on the othering of black individuals and exemplifying the tensions generated by the Black Panther movement, that sought to liberate the black community. Get Out, similarly, reflects upon the institutionalized power of white society in contemporary America today, approaching issues of black disposability that is reminiscent of the Black Live’s Matter movement of 2013 and the importance of technology in redeeming a black voice. This essay will explore each of these films in relation to both their historical context and their place within the horror genre, evaluating how cinematic techniques and narrative structure echo the evolution of black oppression.

Jordan Peele subverts conventional horror tropes in his 2017 film Get Out, to form a discourse surrounding the marginalization of African American’s in contemporary society. The narrative follows protagonist Chris upon meeting his white girlfriend’s family for the first time. Unbeknownst to him, the Armitage family have been historically luring African American victims into their home to perform hypnotic transplantations of white consciousness’ into black bodies. Once this procedure takes place, the subject is contained within ‘the sunken place’, a part of the subconscious where the individual is unable to move or make sound. Peele clearly makes use of both satire and the traditional horror genre to literally exemplify the ‘horrors’ of systematic racism, most notably through various symbolic camera and narrative techniques, that allude specifically to racial tensions within America today. We are immediately introduced to a theme of hunting in the opening scene of the film, foreshadowing the central narrative of the plot and immediately establishing a victim versus oppressor narrative. The camera tracks backwards following a young black man walking through a typical white middle class suburb, who is eventually approached by a white car and kidnapped by un unknown individual. The intimate tracking shot establishes a sensation of being followed, which is eventually actualized through its transition into a wide shot that places focus on the white car, a colour choice that symbolically functions to visually establish a theme of racial tension. Furthermore, the choice to play Flanagan and Allen’s Run Rabbit Run, a typically playful song, formulates more sinister undertones and entrenches a motif of power imbalance that links to the hit and run theme present throughout the narrative. Interestingly, the setting of the white suburbs as a threat to the black individual subverts typical notions of segregated domestic spaces, in which the black figure would be typically deemed dangerous within such a setting. Therefore, the typical horror trope of being followed in an unfamiliar place is used to exemplify the inescapable power of racism and the disposability of black lives, formulated in an unconventional setting that satirizes the authority of the white middle class American.

With regards to narrative plot, Peele utilizes the setting of the sunken place as a metaphor for the manipulation that black individuals are subjected to under the institutional structures of racism, as well as the disposable nature of black bodies that has become especially relevant on account of the Black Lives Matter movement. As Chris is subjected to the sunken place, we first see a flashback shot framing the back of his child self watching television, signifying the moment that he learned of his mother’s death. The camera then moves in a downwards motion, rapidly cutting to a wide shot of adult Chris’ body falling in slow motion through a black empty space. The lighting illuminates Chris’ body just as the television screen did upon the silhouette of his child self, forming a correlation between the powerlessness that Chris felt during both events. Furthermore, above Chris’ body, we see a distant view of the outside reality, appearing in a similar fashion to the television screen that was significant in the previous scene. Jordan Peele states himself in an interview with variety that “The sunken place is the prison industrial complex, it’s the dark hole we throw black people in”, and thus Missy Armitage’s hypnosis acts as a metaphor for the immobility that white agency can cause. During this shot, Peele employs a harrowing score that is reminiscent of the horror genre and emphasises Chris’ helplessness by removing his diegetic screams that are clearly visible through his facial expression. Jordan Peele elaborates on this choice himself when he states, “The sunken place means were marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us”, which once again draws upon the suppression of black voices in contemporary America, symbolising the suspended position of black consciousness that is both present and oppressed.

This motif is narratively and symbolically revisited again throughout the film, most prominently through the death of Chris’ mother by a hit and run accident and the emblematic function of the deer. At the start of the film, Rosie and Chris accidentally kill a deer driving on the way to the Armitage home, an event that clearly distresses Chris, exemplified through the cutting close up shots of he and the dying deer’s face that forms an immediate relationship between subject and character. The intensity of this sequence as well as the moving instrumental interlude that overlays it, illustrates that this event has some emotional significance to Chris, what we later learn is the emblematic correspondence that it has with his own mother’s death. As well as this, the meaning of the shot appears temporally ambiguous, however, its clear relevance suggests that this motif will become something of an omen. The symbol of the deer is gradually infused throughout the narrative, firstly through the literal figure, then through dialogue, which begins to build a pattern regarding the affiliation between the deer and the black individual. As Chris is introduced to Rosie’s parents, Dean, her father, makes an unnecessarily overt speech about the overbearing population of deer’s in the area and how Rosie and Chris’ accident serves a positive function in decreasing their numbers. This piece of dialogue alludes towards the common mentality that there are too many non-white citizens within America and makes view of the conception that black lives are disposable. Furthermore, within the house, we consistently see shots of the mounted deer head, an object that becomes especially significant in one of the later scenes of the film. The deer on the wall acts as an emblem of the prized taking of the black body and the ways in which white privilege allows for white members of society to control and benefit from the black experience. In this sense, the black figure has been caught and immortalized in the white home, becoming a metaphor for the films narrative that serves to show the objectification of blackness and reflect on how fragments of the slave trade mentality still exist. Peele allows for a regaining of control at the end of the film, however, when Chris impales and subsequently kills Dean using the deer antlers. The symbol of the deer may have been specifically implemented to mirror the racial slur of ‘Black Buck’, that ‘has its roots in the racist doctrine of white supremacy, according to which those of African origin were marked as brutal savages, both mentally and physically inferior’. Typically, ‘Black Buck’ was attributed to those that were deemed unruly or violent in the face of white authority and so through killing Dean with the very emblem that he propagates, Chris is able to vengefully embody the violence that Dean is trying to suppress. Therefore, Peele suggests that the black individual must utilize the tools of oppression created by white society, to find strength in their injustice and thus take back ownership of the power that was used to subjugate them.

The use of technology throughout the film, especially the camera and the mobile phone, highlights the importance of such devices in relation to growing issues of police brutality in the black community, whilst also allowing the audience to experience the narrative through Chris’ own gaze. Before the character of Chris is even introduced, the camera forms a sequence of close up shots that visualize a series of black and white photography, portraying predominantly black subjects in raw city life. The focus of these images immediately directs the viewer into establishing a connection between Chris and the camera, something that we later learn functions to symbolise the politics of seeing with regards to race and the truth. In her article Seeing Race through the lens, Caroline Knowles states that ‘encounters between race and photography ‘documented’ a highly constructed vision of blackness as object of a white gaze’ and elaborates on the function that photography serves as it ‘challenges, reformulates objects of the gaze, repositions, re-theorizes, just as readily as it confirms what is already ‘known’ or feared’. Considering this idea, it is evident that the camera becomes an extension of Chris’ self and thus subverts typical Hollywood notions of the ‘white gaze’, rather allowing the audience to experience the opposite. Throughout the party scene, the camera perspective switches between the regular cinematic viewpoint and to the lens of Chris’s own digital camera, which he uses to frame various subjects, especially the other black individuals at the event. Through a separation between lens and subject, Chris is able to distance himself from his surroundings and consequently the audience becomes more intimately connected to Chris, allowing the camera to act as a safeguard from the white gaze. Later, the camera is utilized again through Chris’ smart phone, in a scene which depicts the symbolic function of eyes and seeing. Chris attempts to take a picture of the oddly behaving black individual, Logan, to send to his friend, however as the camera flashes the subject retreats into a seizure state repeatedly warning Chris to ‘Get out’. As soon as the audience hears the flash the diegetic audio is suspended, signifying a change, and a tracking close up shot frames Logan’s face, focusing primarily on his eyes that appear altered by the flash. It is here that the camera acts to reveal the truth, for the flash monetarily removes Logan’s consciousness from the sunken place, revealing his real identity. In this sense, the uncovering of reality through the lens can be metaphorically related to the role that media perception and footage plays in the lives of African Americans, especially with regards to the video coverage of police brutality that sparked controversy during the rise of the Black Live Matter campaign.

William Crain’s Blacula (1977) is a product of the 1970’s Blaxploitation sub-genre, made specifically for an urban black audience and reflecting upon fears of internalized othering in America. The Blaxploitation genre came as a response to the lack of black visibility in Hollywood and ‘contributed to the social construction of race during an era where the ideologies of black nationalism and black pride became dominant social expressions of racial identity’. To respond to racial oppression within America, Crain utilizes the narrative of Bram Stoker’s, Dracula, to evolve the fear of the Eastern European within the novel, fitting it into a contemporary context where the fear of the African American man is established. Thus, Just as Stoker’s Dracula symbolises cultural oppression and the anti- Semitic values of the 19th century, Blacula presents racial anxieties within 1970’s America, where the Black Power Movement was evolving to tackle issues of black pride and agency. To employ the concept of the ‘other’, the film most notably reflects upon themes of slavery and transformation, which becomes immediately evident in the first scene that follows African Prince Mamuwalde’s meeting with Dracula, temporally situated in the 18th century. The audience first meets Mamuwalde upon his visit to Count Dracula’s castle, where he pleas for help in eradicating the slave trade. Immediately, the theme of slavery is established and, offended by a request of this nature, the Count punishes the prince by placing the curse of vampirism upon him and stripping his royal status of ‘prince’ to brand him as ‘Blacula’. The change of temporal narrative from 18th century Transylvania to 1970’s LA highlights Balcula’s inability to escape from being the ‘other’, for he is both a black man trapped in a different historical time frame as well as a vampire, suspending him in a space that he is unable to adapt to. The link between racial tension and vampirism therefore reflects the power of white supremacy and the exploitation of black identity that mirrors the slave movement and its ongoing relevance today.

During the transformation scene, camera angle is used to establish racial and power dynamics that contribute towards a relational hierarchy between black and white members of society. As Dracula imposes the curse upon Mamuwalde, the Count is shot from a particularly low angle, whilst the prince remains motionless beneath him, shot from above. The classic use of high angle shots in this scene demonstrates Mamuwalde’s powerlessness, despite his status of nobility, exemplifying the capacity that the white male has in exploiting essences of black power and ultimately the black body. Furthermore, the Counts self-reflexive status as an ‘other’ himself, articulates the evolvement of otherness, for despite being a product of vampirism, he is able to utilize a greater power over the prince due to his white skin. Through this he is able to subordinate Mamuwalde through the very curse that has been imposed upon him. Thus, a form of mimicry is formed, where the Count is able to propagate racism by placing the means to which he was oppressed onto the black figure and thus the white man enslaves the black resistor. In a sense, this is reminiscent of colonialization, where the black man is forced to embody the savageness that the white man wants him to be and so vampirism becomes a metaphor for the primitive and barbaric qualities that white colonialist sought to enforce. Furthermore, the significance of title change from ‘prince’ to ‘Blacula’, whilst somewhat satirical, exemplifies a stripping of one’s identity and the objectification of black skin as a demeaning characterization. As well as this, Dracula’s imposition of such a title, is somewhat reminiscent of a slave name. Critic Medovi discusses the motif of slavery in his article stating that, ‘Blacula takes the historical field of meanings associated with light and darkness- present and past- and brings it to bear upon African- American history’. Therefore, tropes of the horror genre from both cinematic and literary perspectives are utilized to reflect the enslavement and inescapable othering of the black community, whether this be in an 18th century or relatively contemporary context.

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Crain implements the tool of othering further through an establishment of gender politics, reflecting upon complexities of hypermasculinity and the oppression of the black woman. A theme of duality is demonstrated through Blacula’s simultaneous pursuit for revenge as well as love, epitomized through his devotion to Tina. W. E. Dubois reflects upon this idea stating that there is an inherent ‘double consciousness’ which ‘yields [the black individual] no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world’. In this sense, the duality of being living and dead or monster and lover, forms a disparity that reflects on the greater issue of being black and American. Therefore, if Tina chooses to pursue her love for Blacula she must also choose between existing in ‘a compromised contemporary black community’ and ‘an African idealised civilisation of the past’. In order to obtain a sense of her lost heritage Tina must enslave herself to Blacula and thus ideologically she can no longer be both contemporary woman and inherently black, highlighting a struggle to obtain black pride in 1970’s America.

Throughout Blacula, the black female figure is subjected to Blacula’s own vengeful pursuit, which touches upon ideas of black hypermasculinity and the need to oppress in order to retrieve a sense of power. The theme of black macho masculinity was particularly prominent throughout the Blaxploitation sub-genre, which tended to ‘uphold male-dominated (hetero)sexuality and participation in […] demonization of women and nonpatriarchal sexualities’. Blacula’s victims tend to be those that compromise his masculinity, which seems to be an advertence towards an effort to regain a form of power, whether that be over women in dominant positions or homosexual black males. The expectation of macho masculinity is also reflected through the Black Panther movement of the 1970’s that sought for a ‘discourse of recovering Black manhood’, and thus Blacula’s choice of victims emphasises his pursuit to become less of a monster and more of a man. In one scene within the film, Blacula is driven down by a female taxi driver, who subverts traditional gender stereotypes through her confident attitude and unconventional occupation that would normally be attributed to a male. Crain utilizes her gender subversion through a choice of dialogue, for she clearly attempts to emasculate Blacula by referring to his as ‘boy’, a term that undervalues both his status as a prince and man. A series of quick cutting and fast paced shots exemplifies Blacula’s rage in response to this deprecating comment, which, just as the title ‘Blacula’ condemns his race, disparages his masculinity. Therefore, as Connel states “Hegemonic masculinity among whites sustains the institutional oppression and physical terror that have framed the making of masculinities in black communities”, forcing Blacula to assert his repressed manhood through the very oppression that he has experienced from white society.

Comparatively, it is evident that both directors aim to situate their films in an established context, responding specifically to various movements of black empowerment that have arisen in response to issues of oppression. Clearly, Blacula reflects upon the pertinence of the Black Panther Movement as well as the history of the black individual, entrenching remnants of slavery in a 70’s context. Get Out, similarly makes many allusions towards the Black Lives Matter campaign, using more subtle symbolism to approach relevant issues of police brutality. Interestingly, both films deal with the theme of transformation, in which the black body is compromised by a white individual. In Blacula this is used to affirm stereotypes of the black race as being savage or barbaric, whereas in Get Out, the black body is objectified for its advantages and appropriated by white society that can use it to their own advantage. As well as this, both protagonists use the means to which they have been oppressed to regain a sense of control. In Blacula this is in the form of the savagery that vampirism has imposed upon him and similarly in Get Out, Chris is able to transform the mobility that the Armitage’s try to supress and defend himself with it. Considering this, it seems that both films seek to apply the cinematic form to a wider political agenda and therefore use its benefits to transcribe certain messages regarding racial injustice. Therefore, both Blacula and Get Out act as political devices, propagating a black voice within a predominantly white industry.

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