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.