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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
“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
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
If the film features an all-Black cast
If a Black person is the villain
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.
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……
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 2: Farewell to the Flesh
- Candyman 3: Donna D’errico’s Breast
- The Crow
- The Eden Forumla
- 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