Horror fans have long had to struggle with and reconcile themselves to an unfortunate but undeniable truth about their favorite films; Black characters never seem to make it to the credits. Think Night of the Living Dead (1968) or Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985) or Scream 2 (1997). These movies are among fifty films sampled in a recent study to conclude that, while Black characters in horror films don’t always die first, they almost always die. Because, from as far back as the 1970s, some Black characters have defied the genre and refused to die. Their survival to the end reminds us that the racist violence underpinning modern horror is inherently fragile and vulnerable to challenge.
Peter Washington (Ken Foree), the protagonist of George A. Romero’s zombie sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), survives as a challenge to the role police militarization plays in enforcing racism. Being a cop himself, he breaks ranks with his SWAT team as it raids a Philadelphia housing project in the face of a zombie plague. One brutal Caucasian cop gleefully kills Latinx and Black residents, before dying himself. Meanwhile, Washington (Ken Foree) and a few others flee the melee in a helicopter, and they eventually land at an abandoned shopping mall.
Washington’s defection signals the capacity of Black characters to transcend the structural violence that holds them back. He’s the smartest character in the film, and as zombies overrun the mall, he knows to kill members of his band bitten by the attackers. Surrounded at one point by the zombies, he contemplates suicide, but Washington rejects the idea and continues to fight. He soon joins forces with a pregnant woman, Francine, and the two flee to the safety of a helicopter on the roof. The movie ends with, what must have been for the time, a rebellious comment on interracial relationships. A Black man and white woman escape together toward an uncertain future.
BURN IT ALL DOWN
Equally subversive for the 1980s was the notion that a white man and a Black man could meet death on equal terms. The mechanic Childs (Keith David) is one of the few characters to keep a clear head in John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing (1982). In the end, he sits with Macready (Kurt Russell), calmly sharing a bottle of scotch and waiting to die in the Antarctic tundra. Nearby, the U.S. research station that shelters them, and the shape-shifting alien unearthed from the ice, burn to the ground.
Childs’ survival is key to a film that takes trust as its core theme. The outpost crew become suspicious of one other upon learning that the alien can assume their appearance. But Childs remains steadfast as others panic, mutiny, or succumb to the alien. That’s why Macready trusts him after he returns from pursuing another character into the frost. “If we got surprises for each other,” says Macready as they watch the station burn. “I don’t think we’re in much shape to do anything about it,” he concludes. Mistrust among white and black characters is of no benefit in a world already filled with dire environmental and extraterrestrial dangers.
Slasher films deserve their reputation for misogyny and bigotry. Black characters such as Anita Robb, Demon Winter, and Sissy Baker of the original Friday the 13th franchise die the most humiliating and gratuitous deaths of the genre. Robb is defenestrated and beheaded, Knight is impaled while sitting on the toilet, and Baker bleeds out from a slit throat. But, in one case, Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), a Black character makes it to the end with his dignity intact. Roland Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) not only lives to the final scene but provides valuable help in vanquishing Freddy Krueger.
Kincaid understands better than others the dangers of falling asleep in a Nightmare film. An insomnia patient at the Westin Hills Hospital, he winds up in solitary confinement for refusing to be sedated, but then Kristin Parker (Patricia Arquette) pulls him and others into the dream world to vanquish Krueger and rescue Joey. In the dream world, Kincaid is the strongest character. He uses his superhuman strength to remove obstacles and helps to save Joey from a pit. Kincaid’s influence in this horror film is timely and key, but sadly, in the next installment, Krueger kills Kincaid once he leaves the hospital and tries to get on with his life.
THE FIRST FINAL BLACK GIRL
Black women not only survive but start to kick some serious ass in horror films in the 1990s. Rachel True’s character, Rochelle, in The Craft (1996), not only lives to the end, but she uses her powers to stand up to a racist character who torments her about her hair and being a Black woman. Another iconic example is Jada Pinkett Smith’s Jeryline from Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995). Jeryline is a former convict on work release living in a boardinghouse when the Collector arrives looking for souls. Of the characters stalked by the demon, she alone puts down the evil and makes her escape. Although Demon Knight is not a slasher film, Pinkett Smith’s Jeryline is the first Black final girl in film history.
And, survival is her redemption in the face of the criminal justice system. Other characters criticize Jeryline for her troubled past; however, it’s her willingness to break the rules that facilitate her survival. The protagonist resists as others yield to the demon’s mind tricks or attempt to bargain with him. The only other character capable of holding off the demon, Frank Brayker, realizes Jeryline’s inner strength. As he falters and dies, he gives her an ancient artifact filled with blood that can kill the demon. “I’m not the right type of person for this shit,” she says. “You’re exactly the right type of person,” he responds. Jeryline spits the blood in the demon’s face, and the demon dies.
BLACK CHARACTERS MATTER
There are still other examples in film history. Brandy’s character, Karla Wilson, in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998) and LL Cool J’s security guard, Ronny Jones, in Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998) endure to the end. Freddy Harris (Busta Rhymes) saves Sara Moyer by electrocuting Michael Myers in Halloween: Resurrection (2002). The ghost in Gothika (2003) spares Dr. Miranda Grey, played by Halle Berry in the leading role, and helps her to escape a mental asylum. Simone (Tanedra Howard) loses an arm but manages to make it out alive in Saw VI (2009).
What these examples teach us is that we need not accept a racist narrative as fixed or inevitable. If horror is, in fact, a mirror to our collective experience, then the Peter Washingtons, Jerylines, and Miranda Greys of modern cinema offer up two important lessons. First, there’s a strong tendency in our entertainment and media culture to dehumanize the Black experience. And, second, from early on, some Black characters have provided the will to defy that bigotry, racism, and hate.
There’s still so much work to do. These characters are not complete in their quest for agency. They’re usually deuteragonists or cast in other subordinate roles. And, they often survive alongside, or with help from, white characters, usually female heroines such as Kristin Parker. Or, their survival depends on demonstrating moral virtues to white male characters like Frank Brayker. But, still, these virtues, the intelligence, courage, calm, and decency allow them to live, earn them a place alongside Marilyn Burns, Laurie Strode, and other famous horror film survivors. Their persistence clears a path toward a more just and equitable cinematic experience.