I am a big fan of the show Penny Dreadful. One of my favorite characters on the show was Sembene, (played by Dani Sempani), a former African tribesman and slave trader, turned house servant to Timothy Dalton’s character Sir Malcolm.

 

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Unfortunately, *SPOILER* Sembene was killed off of the show after two seasons. His character was so underdeveloped. He was just token diversity for the show. Upsetting? Yes. Suprising? Absolutely not. In fact, this is a typical trope of what happens to people of color, particularly Black people in the horror genre. While Sembene was not the first to die in the Penny Dreadful horror series, he did die, and in most ridiculous way possible.

In 2013, Complex Magazine did a survey of sorts and reviewed 50 horror films that featured Black actors and actresses. Here is what they found:

“Out of the 50 horror movies considered, 10% (5 out of 50) of them have Black characters who die first. As it turns out, Black characters don’t always die first in horror movies. In fact, they rarely ever die first. Their mortality rate is, however, extremely low, but at least Black characters get to hang around long enough to either crack plenty of comic-relief jokes or awkwardly stand around in the background, behind the bland Caucasian heroes and protagonists.”

So what they are saying is, Black people in horror films don’t always die first, but will die eventually. Well, isn’t that promising?

Being a lifetime horror fan, I made it my business to research, and I observed there are typical archetypes that are prime for death in horror films. There are many types personalities and characteristic you will see portrayed in horror, but there are only a few specific to Black people.

THE BEGINNING
Black men and women were added to horror films for the sake adding to the film body count. These characters usually appear on screen solo or as a part of the group. This group consist of the usual horror losers like: the jock, the slut, the nerd, and the virgin. It wasn’t until years later that these Black men and women slowly developed their own personality within these groups. Take a look at original Night of the Living Dead film. This a hallmark for Black actors , not just in horror but in cinema overall.

 

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Having a Black hero saving white people was unheard of for that time period. Naturally, the main character dies, but to be seen as a hero is something that horror fans have not forgotten.
Since then, the characterization of Black horror actors seemed to de-evolve, and then re-evolve into something completely different. I cannot recall a role that came close to what from what fans saw from Duane Jones in Night Of The Living Dead.

With that said, here is a look at the four archetypes you might see while watching a horror film:

 

1: The Ghetto Dweller

 

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The 6 foot tall petty thug, or, the loud mouth, sassy Black female were added to horror cast to add to the body count. From the start, you know damn well this character is going to bite the dust. They are obnoxious, stupid, and pretty much here to shuck and jive. In spite of all that, they are intimidating, and have a tough time dealing with the reality of the situation at hand. They mistake themselves for the killer’s equal, and they are usually met with horrendous deaths. Once you find out this character is finally gone, you realize you this character was written just so you didn’t care about him/or her.

 

2: The Mythical/ Sacrificial Negro

 

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This character is mostly played by someone elderly, but, can come in all ages. They advise, they counsel, they know the spells, potions and urban legends to share. They tend to feel so deeply for the white hero. The Mystic tends to be the sacrificial lamb of the film, and usually ends up dead at the film’s peak. Probably as a result of putting their lives on the line for the white lead character. You feel bad this person had to give up their life, but you realize it was needed to further the plot.

3: The Voice of Reason

 

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“You don’t want to go in there!” A classic line used by the voice of reason character. They are scared to death of EVERYTHING. This person is a part of a group of assholes who won’t bother to listen to reason. Naturally, this is to further the plot, but at least this particular archetype displays some type of common sense. Nevertheless, they are there to add to the body count and end up dying after they have somehow defied their own advice. I will say at this stage, not only is the character a little more intelligent, but they have a bigger role and more lines!

 

 

4: The Sidekick

 

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This person isn’t really a hero. It’s more like they’re along for the ride. Of course they never have as many lines as the lead character, but they have more to say than anyone else. They get along great with other members of the group, but hell, they’re trying to live just like everyone else. So you will not see them sacrificing themselves for anyone. The sidekick does add some gravitas to the film by allowing the hero to stand over his/or her dead body and yell to the skies, “Noooooooooo!” Just to show that the lead care for their token Black friend.

EXCEPTIONS TO THE DEATH RULE

There are exceptions to the death rule, but those exceptions come with provision. If you see a Black person in a horror film, the character has the possibility of living IF:

Their companion at the end of the film is a White Woman

 

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If the film features an all-Black cast

 

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If a Black person is the villain

 

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 If the film has a sequel and the Black person lived in the first film, they will most certainly die in the second film if they are in it.

 

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Like in the case of Kinkaid (*Ken Sagoes-Left) Survived Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, only to be killed in the first 10 minutes of Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. That doesn’t feel like a victory to me.

 

Before ending this article I want to take the time to acknowledge the Black actor who has racked up the most horror deaths. From my research, THAT PERSON IS……

*

*

*

TONY TODD!

 

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Most famously known for his role in the Candyman franchise, Todd has been featured in over 20+ horror films over the course of his career, and he has died in most of them. Look at this impressive death list:

  • Are You Scared 2
  • Candyman 
  • Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh
  • Candyman 3: Donna D’errico’s Breast
  • The Crow
  • The Eden Forumla 
  • Minotaur
  • Wishmaster
  • Murder-Set-Pieces
  • Nite Tales
  • Scarecrow Slayer
  • Shadow: Dead Riot
  • Shadow Puppets
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  • Night of the Living Dead (remake)

Again, my assessment is based off of what I’ve noticed over decades of watching horror cinema. I have been searching for someone to give me cold hard facts that the information I have gathered is wrong. At least that would give me some hope that things are changing! With that said, what does the future hold for Black men and women in horror cinema? I wish I had good news, but right now, it looks like more of the same. The horror cinema in America has been down-right crappy the past 10 years and taken the longest amount of time to evolve. My advice is be prepared for things to stay exactly the same.

 

Previously published on The Horror Honeys

 

imageValerie Complex is a freelance writer, and professional nerd. As a lover of Japanese animation, and all things film, she is passionate about diversity across all entertainment mediums.

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  • Keith Josef

    Thank you for this article. THANK YOU. I’m a playwright and screenwriter who loves (and writes) horror, SciFi and dystopic content for FILM and TV. My mission to see black/brown people central to stories in this genre, but also diffuse the investment in black expendability in film (we have enough of it life). My sci-fi/horror web series pilot, The Abandon, had some momentum but no one would help develop it further (Hollywood or BLACK Hollywood, indies included; and I tapped my resources). I have since written two other sci-fi/horror scripts and a disaster script that some execs at *** told me there wasn’t a demographic. It’s a struggle but Im still determined!!!!

  • John Sartoris

    Excellent, and magisterial, analysis. As a White kid who loved horror movies at a small age, my introduction to racism was my noticing the Black guy always died first. I was only 6 or 7, but that terrible tendency was so prevalent, even I was able to notice it…and be completely bewildered by it. Later, of course, I found the actual heinous reason behind it.

    As to Sembene, I agree that his role was the continuation of a racist trope, in both horror films and victorian literature…particularly the H. Rider Haggard’s Alan Quartermain–on whom Sir Malcolm is loosely based–novels. That being said, I think Logan did a solid job of including that character type in his paean to Victorian and Romantic horror, yet expanding his dimensions through his writing and the actor’s performance. So, while the Sembene type character–and all the unfortunate ones you mentioned–are ones modern horror needs to abandon, I do feel there was a place in this genre-inspired period piece and was done skillfully.

    • stevels_smith

      This franchise is dedicated to classical characters and situations of horror from literature, and as described in season 1, the Penny Dreadful theater of the 19th century. That time period did not even include black actors or characters nor did it include a trope that they had to be to be killed off.
      There is no homage to this trope in that period of horror literature and so his death had no basis in the theme of this series. His death was purely a modern trope of the sacrificial black medicine man and unforgivable after what the world has seen in Ferguson protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. People are tired of the same old racism in the justice system, in politics and in their movie and television viewing.
      Sembene’s new found inclusiveness and extra lines was to satisfy an actors guild contract that those about to die get those extra lines.

  • amayarad

    My name is Amaya, I’m a lifelong horror fan, and I approve of this post. Sembene’s death was absolutely pointless, and the way he died made me throw my popcorn at the TV. So tired, so so tired…

  • Aurora Thornhill

    Great article! Though I wanted to point out that with the correction of the quoted percentage to 10% (originally said 5 out of 50 was .1%), I wouldn’t say that the black person dying first in a horror movie trope is that rare at all. That’s 1 out of 10. It’s certainly lower than I expected, but definitely not rare. In fact, it would be considered an epidemic based on any of the CDC’s fluctuating thresholds of what constitutes one — it’s always below 10% and hovers around 7% usually fluctuating only by a few tenths of a percentage.

  • Harry Underwood

    The only horror film I have seen defy this stereotype (so far) is Alien v Predator, when (spoiler) Sanaa Lathan survived to the end. I don’t know why or how I watched it, and I’m not a big horror fan, but I thought that she was going to die until….oh wait, the predator’s working with her?!

  • Candice Frederick

    Shout out to Tony Todd! Yeah, the black horror genre is always something I have love/hate relationship with. Either the roles/stories are stereotypical or it’s just so poorly made. There are definitely a few exceptions though. Also, I don’t mind black actors as the villain–as long as their stories are three-dimensional and compelling. Sometimes the villain is the best part of a story.

  • I find the assertion that “their mortality rate is extremely low,” bogus, not to mention the grammar in that piece. It’s a bit of a cheat to include those “Scream” era movies in this very unscientific survey where everyone knows “the rules” so everyone is out to break them.

  • Lola Monroe- Horne

    This was a good read!

    I was searching the web for some sort of commentary that would shed light on “Spirituals”–a self-coined genre of horror that deals with demonic possession, cursed land/people/objects, spells, hexes, root, voodoo, obeah, hoodoo…you get what I mean. I see trailers to movies like Insidious, The Visit, Amytiville [INSERT NUMBER OF FRANCHISE HERE], etc, and thought “where are the black people?” I mean I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a disgruntled slave who cursed that Amytiville house, or a scorned lover of the slave master who cursed that doll that killed people.

    You mean to tell me Hollywood is gonna make a whole subgenre of horror based on spirituality and leave out the people who spend 15 hours in somebody church or mosque?! Why they can’t make a movie about the baptist preacher finding secrets from the past on a abandoned slave ship? Why they can’t make a movie about scorned Moors of Granada borrowing the bodies of Spaniards to exact revenge? Why they can’t make a movie about a beauty salon stylist who makes people insane when she does their hair? I am sure someone can come up with some more sophisticated story-lines, but the point is, why haven’t they? I may be an old woman before I see a movie about a cursed skating rink in Atlanta that was built on slave quarters!

  • stevels_smith

    We marched for 10 to 12 miles a day, every day for months on end in Ferguson and while we talked and chanted and fought in social media we came to a new compact that this is done. We drew a line in the sand and said never again. I will NOT keep viewing a series that only gives the sole black actor a preponderance of lines only just before their death in order to fulfill some contractual obligations from the actor’s guild. If they do not have a black main character next season: I’m done.
    I won’t play the same games in politics, our police/justice system nor in my movie and television viewing. I’m done with this b.s.