Racism in horror films  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

There has been a stereotyping of minorities and people of colour in the horror genre, especially within American films. Throughout the history of the genre there has a devaluing of the roles of minorities within such films, and according to one critic "a use of aspects from their culture as fodder for the plot." These films tend to have a predominately white casts and audience, and cast minorities as violent, and as monsters and villains. The horror genre in particular holds the power to play with aspects of violence in intriguing and symbolic ways.


White-dominated genre

The stories in horror films are very central to white culture and lifestyle. The films often cater to the fears of white people drawing upon their fantasies. Many horror films stem from a figure or event interfering with an ideal or precious lifestyle, threatening to take away the comfort of the protagonists. Horror genres such as slashers, home invasion, and paranormal films are examples of an unknown "other" coming into the protagonists lives. This presence of the unknown "other" forces the characters to deal with pain, ultimately pushing the protagonist to the point where they must stand up to the attacker and become the hero.

Horror films often start by clearly showing the ideal life or plans of the main characters, showing their promising futures, and privileged everyday lives. Movies like Funny Games and Friday the 13th showcase this setup, with characters going to vacation like destinations to either relax or achieve their goals. These movies are set up in this way to interrupt the fantasy of escaping everyday life. White audiences seek excitement like relaxing in a vacation home or spending the summer at a camp, and to violate that privileged fantasy is the goal of most horror films.

Horror films have a tendency to ignore actual social issues, and the root causes of violence. People within minorities, however, have first-hand experience with the violence depicted. According to Ariel Smith, a native horror filmmaker, "We do not need to think up imagined incidents of vicious, macabre torture. The horror, the terror: it's all around us". In horror films made by/created for minorities, realism acts as the source of fear, rearing from current issues faced by minorities and using it cinematically. Many of these films explore not only the horror of being a minority and the struggles, but also deal with the added danger of being a woman. Smith discusses using the power of horror and how it can be an uncensored way "to unleash dark, gruesome symbolism, and to not censor or sanitize our allegorical representations of the repugnant, violent abomination that is colonization". She states that "Native filmmakers working in the horror genre have the unique ability to elicit visceral fear from an audience, forcing them to watch terrifying representations of colonial brutality that is a daily reality for others". The horror genre can be used to its fullest potential when utilizing violence and gore to stress the importance used of breaking down social structures and exposing the reality of experiences within them.


Minorities are under-represented in horror films, and in the film industry in general. This lack of representation leads to an entire culture and set of perspectives to be left out of the discussion/ storytelling. Oftentimes in these films, female and minority character have only a minor role in the plot.

Historically, predominately white males have been given recognition in the film genre as the best friend character or the first victim in horror movies. This inaccurate representation of reality affects the audience of these films, suggesting a normality in the hierarchy of the characters and their roles:

The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film's study examines on-screen representations of female characters in the top 100 grossing films every year. In addition to revealing some pretty dismal statistics when it comes to women in film and television, such as chronic underrepresentation, the prevalence of gender stereotypes, and lack of behind-the-scenes opportunities, the study also reported on the lack of ethnic diversity among the same media.
Within the films that are examined, the study showed that "only 12% of all clearly identifiable protagonists were female in 2014". And within those low numbers, most were still white (74%), with 11% being black, 4% being Latina, 4% being Asian, 3% from other places, and 4% other. Imaginary alien female characters had become almost as likely to be seen as a Latino or Asian woman.

While many movies are made for a white male audience, and have them as major characters, statistics show that half of moviegoers are actually women. Not only are women the primary movie going audience, but in the United States minorities like Hispanic and African-Americans also have begun to make up a large number of the audiences. This statistic is especially true among movies where people of color act as the main protagonists of the film, and or the plot focusses on cultures related to these racial groups. Despite the numbers showing that white males are not the dominant force of those seeing movies, about 85% of the movies are made for them with white protagonists and stories. The minority audience is clearly there, yet are ignored for the needs of white male moviegoers. This is reflected within horror films, a genre which notoriously kills off/under develops minority characters in order to explore and encourage the white male protagonists.

The first to die

Black or any other characters from minorities are the first ones to die within horror films. While it is not necessarily true that these characters die first, they almost certainly die at some point in the movie. Complex did a survey of 50 horror films that starred black characters, finding that only 10% had black characters that died first in the film; however, a great deal of those characters still died at some point in the movies. On top of their imminent death, these characters are also notably given a lack of character development, especially in comparison to white counterparts. According to Valerie Complex in her breakdown of the development of black characters in horror, black characters stand a greater chance of survival if they are teamed with a white woman by the end, if the entire cast is black, or if the villain is a black person. However, Complex also reveals that black characters who survive the film almost certainly die if there is a sequel.

Themes and plot devices

Much of the attention that minorities get within horror films is through the use of their culture as plot devices and structures to scare or guilt the white protagonists. References to such things as the "Indian burial ground" or the "medicine man" are commonly used in the horror genre, to create a stereotype of "the other" and frighten its white audience. Many of the themes and plots relate to the taking land from the aboriginal peoples and the horrific outcome:

Horror films often rely on minority cultures and their signifiers, being reduced to a mythical standpoint. The films do not portray these minority cultures enough to be an active part of the world, or in the lives of the main characters, but they are there to be part of the mythological background of the evil that threatens the protagonist's life. American horror films have attacked the substance of both Native American and African American cultures, using them as devices but ultimately pinning them down to be aspects of the past and no longer apart of the current western culture. "The Indian burial ground motif, heavily featured in horror film cycles of the 1970s and 1980s, is an example of how mainstream cinema renders Indigenous people both hyper visible and invisible."

Native Americans are often hyper-visible in North American films [and] at the same time they [are] rendered invisible through plot lines that reinforce the trope of Indigenous people as vanishing or inconsequential. Native Americans stand at the centre of the dominant culture's self-definition because Euro American identity submerged and formed upon the textual and visual culture register of the Indigenous other.

Mythical negro

The "Mythical Negro" character is usually older character who serves as an all knowing aide to the main characters. The "Mythical Negro" usually informs the protagonists of the realities of the horror they face, and guides them along the way. This character is set up to be sentimental and usually dies at some point in the movie, giving the main character more cause to defeat the evil. They act as an outlet for exposition and their death is usually seen as necessary for the plot. Movies like The Shining show this trope, with the only black character, Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) being the one who understands protagonist's true powers and the evil surrounding the plot line. However, in line with his trope, shortly after sharing his wisdom with the main character, he dies.

Mythical aboriginal figures

Similar to the "Mythical Negro" in its racial pigeonholing, the "Shaman" or "Medicine Man" character which enforces the idea of Native American cultures being a thing of the distant past. This character is omnipotent, and has insight into evil. This is linked with myths about Indian burial grounds, all of which creates a stereotype of Native American culture, as well as also suggests that the shaman carries some mystical knowledge of the afterlife that should not be accessed.

Comic relief or "token black character"

The "comic relief" or "token black character" character most commonly is a close friend of the main character, and a pivotal part of the group. They do not take authority in the group; rather, they just follow the lead of the other characters. The "token black character" is often there to bring humor to the film, and the true extent of the horror is ignored until they are finally killed. This then becomes a moment where the other characters realize the reality of their situation and the true "horror" they now face.

Addressing racism

There are a handful of directors attempting to address issues of race and sexuality, and the exploitative power that horror movies have. Many Native American and African American directors/screenwriters and actors have begun to use the horror genre to bring issues of racism and violence to audiences. Using the symbolic and graphic nature of the films, they can express their views and issues uncensored, and break through the white-centric audience to depict a more real, diverse world.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Racism in horror films" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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