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Judith O'Dea and Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead (1968). The casting of a black actor in the lead role of an American film that did not explicitly explore ethnicity is often considered notable for its time.[1][2]
Judith O'Dea and Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead (1968). The casting of a black actor in the lead role of an American film that did not explicitly explore ethnicity is often considered notable for its time.[1][2]

Depictions of race in horror films have been the subject of commentary. Critics have discussed representation of race in horror films in relation to the presence of racist ideas, stereotypes and tropes within them. The horror genre has conversely also been used to explore social issues including race, particularly following popularisation of social thrillers in the 2010s.

Throughout the history of the horror film genre, especially in American-produced horror films, racial minorities did not receive as much representation in horror films as white people and were often relegated to lesser roles compared to white characters in narratives. For most of the 20th century, American horror films had predominantly white casts and audiences.[3] Minorities were often subject to tokenism, being frequently cast as supporting characters rather than main characters or as violent characters or villains.[4]


According to a 2014 study by San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, racial minorities do not receive as much representation in films as white people.[5][6] Oftentimes in these films, female and minority characters have only a minor role in the plot.

Historically, black males have been given recognition in the film genre as the best friend character or the first victim in horror movies.[7]

The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film's study examines on-screen representations of female characters in the top 100 grossing films every year. In addition to revealing some pretty dismal statistics when it comes to women in film and television, such as chronic underrepresentation, the prevalence of gender stereotypes, and lack of behind-the-scenes opportunities, the study also reported on the lack of ethnic diversity among the same media.[5]

Within the films that are examined, the study showed that "only 12% of all clearly identifiable protagonists were female in 2014".[5] Within those low numbers, most were still white (74%), with 11% being black, 4% being Latina, 4% being Asian, 3% from other places, and 4% other.[5] Imaginary alien female characters had become almost as likely to be seen as a Latina or Asian women.[5]

First to die

Generally, it is believed that minority characters are the first victims within horror films.[8] However, this purported trope has been disputed; Complex compiled a survey of 50 horror films starring black actors. Only in 5 of these (10%), did a black character die first. In most of the movies, a black character did die, though it is largely to be expected due to the content of horror films.[8]

On top of their imminent death, these characters are also notably given a lack of character development, especially in comparison to white counterparts.[8] According to Valerie, in her breakdown of the development of black characters in horror, black characters stand a greater chance of survival if they are teamed with a white woman by the end, if the entire cast is black, or if the villain is a black person. However, Complex also reveals that black characters who survive the film almost certainly die if there is a sequel.[8]

Themes and plot devices

Much of the attention that minorities get within horror films is through the use of their culture as plot devices and structures to scare or guilt the white protagonists.[9][unreliable source?] References to such things as the "Indian burial ground" or the "medicine man" are commonly used in the horror genre, to create a stereotype of "the other" and frighten its white audience.[9] Many of the themes and plots relate to the taking land from the aboriginal peoples and the horrific outcomes.[10]

Horror films often rely on minority cultures and their signifiers, being reduced to a mythical standpoint. The films do not portray these minority cultures enough to be an active part of the world, or in the lives of the main characters, but they are there to be part of the mythological background of the evil that threatens the protagonist's life. American horror films have attacked the substance of both Native American and African American cultures, using them as devices but ultimately pinning them down to be aspects of the past and no longer a part of the current American culture. "The Indian burial ground motif, heavily featured in horror film cycles of the 1970s and 1980s, is an example of how mainstream cinema renders Indigenous people both hyper visible and invisible."[9]

Native Americans are often hyper-visible in North American films [and] at the same time they [are] rendered invisible through plot lines that reinforce the trope of Indigenous people as vanishing or inconsequential. Native Americans stand at the centre of the dominant culture's self-definition because Euro American identity submerged and formed upon the textual and visual culture register of the Indigenous other.[11]

Mythical negro

See also: Magical Negro

The "Mythical Negro" character is usually an older character who serves as an all-knowing aide to the main characters.[8] The "Mythical Negro" usually informs the protagonists of the realities of the horror they face, and guides them along the way. This character is set up to be sentimental and usually dies at some point in the movie, giving the main character more cause to defeat the evil. They act as an outlet for exposition and their death is usually seen as necessary for the plot.[8] Movies like The Shining show this trope, with the only black character, Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers), being the one who understands the protagonist's true powers and the evil surrounding the plotline. However, in line with his trope, he dies in an attempt to rescue the protagonist from the antagonist.[citation needed]

Mythical aboriginal figures

In a similar manner to the racial stereotyping of the "Mythical Negro", there also exists several Native America stereotypes, including the "Shaman" or "Medicine Man". These caricatures enforce the idea that Native American cultures are not seen in present day, and are rather a part of the distant past.[citation needed]

Race as a theme

Further information: Social thriller

Director Jordan Peele's 2017 horror film Get Out received acclaim for its exploration of race in the United States.[12]
Director Jordan Peele's 2017 horror film Get Out received acclaim for its exploration of race in the United States.[12]

There are a handful of directors attempting to address issues of race and sexuality,[13][14] and the exploitative power that horror movies have. Many Native American and African American directors/screenwriters and actors have begun to use the horror genre to bring issues of racism and violence to audiences.[10][14]

Using the symbolic and graphic nature of the films, they can express their views and issues uncensored, and break through the white-centric world view to depict a more authentic and diverse setting.[neutrality is disputed] With the rising success in the portrayal of minorities in lead roles in recent horror films, there are various opportunities that directors can explore in respect to the historical mistreatment of minorities in the horror genre. Through exploring the differing perspectives and insights that diverse characters have, based on their racial lived experiences, directors can depict societal horrors, themes and traumas facing these groups with nuance and depth.[15][16][17]

See also


  1. ^ "How Casting a Black Actor Changed 'Night of the Living Dead'". August 31, 2010. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
  2. ^ Wilkinson, Alissa (July 22, 2017). "The late George Romero didn't mean to tackle race in Night of the Living Dead, but he did anyway". Vox. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
  3. ^ Means Coleman, Robin R. (2011). Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to the Present. Routledge. ISBN 9780415880190. OCLC 548660379.
  4. ^ Benshoff, Harry M. (February 1, 2000). "Blaxploitation Horror Films: Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription?". Cinema Journal. 39 (2): 31–50. doi:10.1353/cj.2000.0001. ISSN 1527-2087.
  5. ^ a b c d e Cipriani, Casey (February 10, 2015). "Sorry, Ladies: Study on Women in Film and Television Confirms The Worst". Indiewire. Archived from the original on June 6, 2016. Retrieved April 11, 2016.
  6. ^ Pahle, Rebecca. "MPAA Statistics Break the Stunning News That Most of the People Who Go the Movies Aren't White Men." Archived May 18, 2016, at the Wayback Machine The Mary Sue. 27 March 2014. Web. 11 April 2016.
  7. ^ "Fact Check: Do Black Characters Always Die First in Horror Movies?". Complex. Retrieved July 4, 2022.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Complex, Valerie. "Will It Get Better For Black People In the Horror Genre?" Archived May 29, 2016, at the Wayback Machine Black Girl Nerds. 31 July 2015. Web. 11 April 2015.
  9. ^ a b c "This Essay Was Not Built On an Ancient Indian Burial Ground". Retrieved July 4, 2022.
  10. ^ a b Smith, Ariel (2013). "Indigenous Cinema and the Horrific Reality of Colonial Violence". Decolonization Indigeneity, Education & Society. S.l.: Journal Publishing Services. ISSN 1929-8692. OCLC 848920283.
  11. ^ Raheja, Michelle (2011). Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film. University of Nebraska Press. OCLC 940646862.
  12. ^ Hiatt, Brian (January 29, 2019). "The All-American Nightmares of Jordan Peele". Rolling Stone. Retrieved July 4, 2022.
  13. ^ Blackwell, Ashlee. "Black (Fear) On Both Sides: Thinking About Candyman, Blacula and Race in Horror Films." Archived May 29, 2016, at the Wayback Machine Shock Till You Drop. 10 February 2015. Web. 11 April 2016.
  14. ^ a b "The woke undead: how zombie movies are taking on racial politics". the Guardian. November 29, 2019. Retrieved September 30, 2022.
  15. ^ Adjei-Kontoh, Hubert (February 8, 2019). "From Blacula to Get Out: the documentary examining black horror". The Guardian. Archived from the original on February 10, 2019. Retrieved February 11, 2019.
  16. ^ Bernucca, Carolyn (November 11, 2017). "After 'The Walking Dead,' Steven Yeun Is Ready to Beat the Crap Out of Asian Stereotypes". Complex. Archived from the original on February 12, 2019. Retrieved February 11, 2019.
  17. ^ Bruney, Gabrielle (March 27, 2019). "With Us, Jordan Peele Forces Audiences to Feel Black Characters' Pain". Esquire. Archived from the original on March 28, 2019. Retrieved March 28, 2019.