On Horror: Code Switch Talks About Race and Horror

I’m a proud liberal dork, so it’s no surprise that I listen to NPR. In the last year I’ve started subscribing to a ton of podcasts as well. The majority of them are NPR podcasts, mainly because they are consistently Not Terrible, something I don’t see everywhere. Reliable reporting and sourcing in the news podcasts, smart content, good vocal talent, professional editing all in one place. And like a lot of smart, professional people they don’t get enough credit for how funny they are. I value humor not above all else, but as the quality that elevates information to the point where it becomes entertainment. You can’t add explosions to raw data until skater dudes proclaim it rad and then chug a Mountain Dew– all of my references are leftovers from the 90s– but you can make data’s presentation funny and accessible, and this is where NPR and its podcasts excel.

Speaking of funny and accessible…

The Code Switch podcast is where a handful of smart reporters and critics talk about the intersection of race and culture in America. It’s named after “code switching,” where people speak differently depending on who they’re talking to. As a Southerner, I know I sound more Southern when I address rural white folks. It’s not intentional, it’s just a mode I slip into, natural as pajama pants when I’m getting ready for bed. And lots of people of color do it when they address white folks because… well, because of the weight of history, as well as more practical matters like communication and wanting to be taken seriously.

Today’s episode zeroed in on one of horror’s most infamous tropes: the black dude dies first. It happens so often in horror movies that it’s a joke– not a funny joke, exactly, more of a thing we all know is stupid and shake our heads at, shrug. “When movies magically come into existence, that’s what happens,” seems to be our underlying feeling. And it’s certainly not the biggest evil in our society, the One Thing we should be spending all of our energy on improving. What it is… is interesting. I love it when stuff like this happens, when it feels like the barrel of book or  conversation is aimed directly at me. Intellectual claptrap about horror movies? Definitely my cup of squiggly tentacled things!

This episode talks about race in The ShiningNight of the Living DeadJurassic Park, and Alien. It talks about Cecil B. DeMille’s (extremely racist) Birth of a Nation as a horror movie with black people as the monsters, about the Gill Man in The Creature from the Black Lagoon, about Damnation Alley, about Blackula! And while it glosses over some significant details–Dick Hallorann is just as heroic in King’s novel The Shining, but he doesn’t die; John Hurt’s character is the first person to die in Alien— the substance of the episode addresses some important and interesting ideas. The way that Duane Jones’ character in Night of the Living Dead survives an all-out zombie assault only to be killed by white cops, for example. The way that horror filmmakers use big tough black men the same way Star Trek: The Next Generation used Worf.

As an icon of style?

Worf was an imposing figure from a warrior race– played by a black actor, b-t-dubs– who spent an uncanny amount of time losing fights to aliens and women. This was to demonstrate villain badassitude– if that bad guy took down Worf then he must be dangerous! For the same reason the first no-name to get velociraptored in Jurassic Park is a black guy with a gun— the monsters are so scary they can eat stuff that already scares white people. They repeat a non-racial– no wait, differently racial– version of this trope when the raptors kill the Great White Hunter later in the film, leaving the audience to wonder how a group of kids, scientists, and an old man will survive alone on Dinosaur Island. (Spoiler: they don’t. Raptors are too smart and they take over the world, mainly by turning doorknobs.)

None of this is to say that Steven Spielberg is a racist or anything of the kind. He is a white filmmaker making a horror movie, though, and he’s studied his art. He knows how these things are done and he’s doing them. When we don’t ask questions and don’t examine why we do things, that’s when we get the uncomfortable weirdness that comes from borrowing other people’s subtexts. For my part, I’d never consciously noticed that the Jurassic Park worker killed in the film’s first scene was black– but now that I’ve seen it, I can’t unsee it.

The conversation about the mostly forgotten post-apocalyptic film Damnation Alley struck a peculiar cord with me. I remember being in 4th or 5th grade after this film had aired on network television, and my classmates– all the little white boys in particular– talking about it. Talking specifically about the ignominious death of the Paul Winfield’s character Keegan– the black character– at the tiny mouths of “armor-plated cockroaches.” My classmates thought this was hilarious; years later, when I read the Roger Zelazny novella the film gets its title from I was strangely disappointed that the book was devoid of killer bugs. I didn’t think about the implications about how much black lives matter in horror movies… or the lesson those little white boys were learning.

There’s talk about the humor Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy got out of these tropes in their stand-up routines, about the clash between how white Hollywood uses black people and how black people see themselves. Plenty of serious conversation, sure, but the conversation also made me want to stream The Shining on Netflix which is exactly the right tone to strike. This didn’t ruin horror movies for me, but made them more interesting. The show never stopped being light-hearted and fun.

They also talk to Jordan Peele about his new film Get Out which takes horror tropes and subverts them by placing a black man in the position white women usually inhabit in slow-building horror films. Sort of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner mashed up with movies like Rosemary’s BabyThe Stepford Wives, or Hot Fuzz. Running at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing, it sounds fantastic.

<digression>Wait! Was the Living Statue in Hot Fuzz played by a black actor? That would be grim– killed off-screen, his body is revealed for a grisly laugh and then… wait, no, false alarm. Very white British guy. I don’t think there are any black actors in that film. Is that… better? Or is it better to take the risk of exploring race and gender in art, and then possibly getting it wrong? Yeah, you’re right, rhetorical friend. Always take the risk, always try not to f*** it up.</digression>

One of the topics of conversation with Peele is how, for a black guy, meeting a girlfriend’s white parents can be a real horror situation by itself, even if nothing bad happens. And of course it is– meeting the parents is scary enough for any man; if you have even once had a door slammed in your face because of your skin’s color, you’re going to be terrified of relying on strangers’ kindness. I hadn’t thought about it that way before. It helped me come to a new understanding.

The fact is America’s scarier for black people than for whites or even many other minorities. Taking a good long look at their role in the movies that scare us is productive… and a lot of fun besides.

On Movies 1: The Devil’s Rejects

The Devil’s Rejects is a fan favorite with a good reputation in the horror community. Directed by one Robert Bartleh Zombie and featuring his wife in a starring role, I had my misgivings. His record on directing horror films is not spotless. However, I did sort of enjoy House of 1000 Corpses and TDR is a kind of a sequel to House so when I saw the film was free on Hulu I thought I should watch it. Eventually. Honestly, I don’t watch a lot of tv these days and I took my time getting to it. There is a lot to talk about in this film, so I’m glad I took the time. I’ll try not to spoil in the paragraphs ahead, but the movie is almost 12 years old, so I won’t be trying particularly hard. Caveat lecteur.

This film is about the fall of the murderous Firefly family, a crowd of marginally clever serial killers who stick together as a family and prey on the rest of the world– mostly ladies– from their decaying farmhouse. This sequel fortunately abandons the paperclipped-on subplot involving the cyborg-building Doctor Satan that semi-hilariously presented itself at the end of 1000 Corpses [is Doctor Satan the titular Devil of this film? If so, he is curiously absent.] and moves on to the day that local law enforcement closes in on the Fireflys (Fireflies?), killing and capturing several of their number and leaving the rest on the run. The film details their attempts to reunite their family and find a safe haven, murdering for convenience’s sake along the way and torturing when they get bored. This continues until the tables turn, forcing them to run from their own monster, and the wicked family meets its end Butch and Sundance style.

For the first half of the film I wasn’t engaged or having a good time. Otis and Baby’s cliched cruelties were not entertaining, and I was distracted by the loose plot threads I saw unraveling everywhere I turned. Oddly, I didn’t mind the myriad problems in House of 1000 Corpses nearly as much as I did in this film. I think my expectations were raised by the higher caliber camerawork and the fact that there were professional attempts to keep the plot moving forward and no random arthouse music videos slowing things down. I found myself mentally talking to the screen– “Nice homemade body armor! Looks cool, but did you know that you can buy those now? For a lot less money than y’all peckerwoods spent overstocking on guns.” and “Yes, leave the body in the road and take the car. No one will find a body in a road. It’s not like cars and drivers have some sort of connection police can use.” “Oh good, quote Charles Manson disciple Tex Watson, no one’s ever done that before,” and of course my constant cinematic refrain “Guns make sounds. Sounds travel. Motels call police when you fire guns.” All of these problems seemed positively designed to convince of the Fireflys’ stupidity. I don’t like horror movies with stupid protagonists; apparently when the protagonists are 90% evil this rule still applies.

Which brings me to a point of interest. There’s an intentional protagonist problem in this film, and this fact pulled me back in when I was watching. Are the Fireflys the protagonists? Or Sheriff Wydell, whose quest for the felonious familias pulls the already over-intense cop over the edge and into the Dark Side? The film can be viewed either way, a twist that I appreciate. In fact, what I think happens is that the protagonist/antagonist relationship flips as the film progresses. At first the Sheriff is the protagonist, trying to bring the family to justice. However, as the Sheriff turns to hired guns and murder and the Fireflys reveal themselves as both pathetic and capable of familial love and sympathies shift. I never felt myself wanting the Fireflys to get away, but I didn’t want to see them tortured to death either.

As you can tell, this film has a depressing narrative. There are a few scenes that help buoy the film, keeping it afloat. I enjoyed the reveal that both the Fireflys and monstrous paterfamilias Captain Spaulding are named after Grouch Marx characters (This was my favorite Easter egg in House of 1000 Corpses. I love both Duck Soup and Animal Crackers where the names come from) even if the film critic character was a laughable (in a bad way) cartoon.

Seriously, <3 the Marx Brothers. Plus they resonate with the film’s twisted “family” theme surprisingly well.

I also enjoyed a scene that parodies Tarantino dialog, focusing Tarantino’s trademarked cadence and intensity on chicken fucking instead of on a “Royale with cheese.” Both of these scenes are probably middle fingers playfully directed at Tarantino himself– a notorious film nerd. This is in keeping with the Fireflys “smarter than you” brand of anti-intellectualism as well, making me suspect that Rob Zombie is putting his voice into the mouths of his least likable characters. That said, RZ is also obviously quite the film nerd, with obvious influences such as the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and visual references as diverse as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Jason Vorhees’ original sack-wearing appearance in Friday the Thirteenth, Part 2, and as I’ve already mentioned Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the Marx Brothers.

I also enjoyed the character arc for Captain Spaulding’s apparent half-brother Charlie. Charlie’s role as the Lando of the Dark Side is amusingly signaled early in the film, not only because he’s the movie’s only non-white character but because he’s a literal Nevada pimp with his own little town that the Fireflys seek refuge in, and one of his employees is adopting  a Princess Leia theme. I didn’t expect a ton of film literacy in an evil clown horror flick, and the nerdity added an enjoyable extra layer to the movie.

On the other hand, I didn’t like the unfunny slapstick of a woman running around wearing her husband’s face as a mask before she gets erased from the film by a truck like she’s Wile E. Coyote. It really undercuts the genuine emotions that Zombie manages to evoke in the second half of the story.

That’s where the screen finally got my full attention. When the story turns a corner and the Sheriff starts outright murdering prisoners, when the Fireflys are revealed as the pathetically human monsters they’ve always been, that’s when the movie got me thinking. For all of their bravado, all their hate speech and cruelty, all of their crimes against the unsuspecting, they are human. They are just as vulnerable to cruelty and brutality as their victims. They can and do sacrifice for each other, and when Baby is hunted the same way she hunted a girl in the first move she runs and bleeds and cries– just like the girl she chased down in House of 1000 Corpses. It’s a kind of corrupt Old Testament justice represented in the Sheriff’s odious person.

Sheriff Wydell is not as hideous as the Fireflys, but he’s strangely less likable… well, less likable than Captain Spaulding. The closest Otis and Baby come to being likable is when they’re desperate and broken. And make no mistake, the whole family is broken by film’s end. They’ll never find their strength again, the false strength that let them be boogeymen… not that they’ll get the chance. Sure, they strap on their brave faces so they can go down shooting in that beautifully filmed finale, but it’s the knowledge that it’s over for them that gives them the strength to make that token effort. Dying is easy, living is harder.

Still, I’m human. When I see a family, beaten and bleeding, on the edge of freedom I’m going to root for them… some. A little bit. Even if they are the worst cartoon villains to adorn the screen since Tranzor Z. If that’s Zombie’s point, then it’s a point well taken.

Both The Devil’s Rejects and House of 1000 Corpses are free with a Hulu subscription, and Hulu’s smart enough to not play commercials during movies, unlike Crackle. Stupid Crackle. A solid ‘B’ effort. If you’re a horror fan you’ll probably want to check them out.