A Quick History of Black Queer Characters in Horror
Thanks to the recent success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, Black horror has become a force to be reckoned with in the horror genre. The subgenre has always been there, but not taken seriously by the mainstream horror audience and academics alike. There were several pieces written about black inclusion, or lack thereof, throughout the years. A quick Google search for “Black Horror” pulls up a lot of these pieces, as well as suggested watching lists that chronicle not only black participation in horror, but the history of black horror itself. However, when you do a quick Google search with the terms “Black gay horror,” you will find little to nothing concerning the black queer experience in horror. A prominent horror site featured Russell Clark’s portrayal of the lethal vampire Belle in Fright Night Part 2 as a means to celebrate both gay portrayals in horror and Black History Month. Despite their ‘efforts,’ the horror site fell woefully short when they mentioned that trying to feature black gay horror characters was hard due to the lack of them in the genre. This is quite the contrary. Before Belle in Fright Night Part 2, and especially since then, black queer characters can be found in horror, across several types of media within the genre, if you actually look for them.
The first known (at least to me) openly black gay character in a horror movie was Bobby McCoy (Ted Harris) in Blacula. An openly effeminate gay man, Bobby had a white lover and was also an interior decorator. Bobby was bitten by Blacula and later became a vampire, luring men to their deaths by leading them to the lair of vampires he shared with Blacula’s other victims. In 1988, the world was introduced to Fright Night Part 2’s Belle (Russell Clark): a silent, but deadly, androgynous vampire who engaged with his vampire leader Regine in seducing victims for the kill. Finally, in 1990 was Def by Temptation where a gay character was seduced by the succubus Temptation and actually penetrated with an object before being brutally murdered.
While these three are the easily recognizable black queer characters from the 70s to the early 90s, they all have problematic chains linked to them. For Bobby, he and his lover were dismissed as “faggots” a few times in Blacula, which was made during the blaxploitation era of the 1970s. Today effeminacy is celebrated (in more areas than in others) more openly, however back then it was not. If Bobby McCoy sashayed across a TV screen today, as Billy Porter in Pose, he would be championed for being a rich, black gay man with style and taste. Not regulated as “faggot” interior decorator. Horror Noire writer Robin R. Means Coleman talks extensively about this in her book, which compares and contrasts the way the heterosexual relationships are framed against Bobby and his lover Billy. In Fright Night Part 2, Belle doesn’t have one piece of dialogue throughout the movie’s entire 104-minute runtime. This travesty is made up for by Clark’s facial expressions, which conveyed a ferocious range of hunger, lust, menace, and just how fierce he could be. Clark (who choreographed music videos for Michael Jackson, Queen Latifah, David Bowie, LL Cool J, and more) was also the film’s choreographer as well. The problematic shackles attached to these portrayals could be seen as minuscule compared to the overall portrayals of blacks in horror, in general. With that said, it also depends on how you view those portrayals as a black gay man, while taking into account the zeitgeist and societal context of the era they appeared.
In modern times, those problems have been rectified, in a sense. With horror becoming more lucrative for studios, and welcomed academic fodder for critics and bloggers alike, the doors have opened for voices once dominated by the white male gaze to women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ content creators. These voices have taken horror into voids left explored and stones unturned. Characters reduced to best friends, stereotypes, and body bags now have purpose and have become icons in their own right. With HBO’s True Blood, Alan Ball (and Charlaine Harris, the creator of the Sookie Stackhouse novels the series is based on) introduced audiences to Lafayette Reynolds (portrayed by the late great Nelsan Ellis), an out and proud short order cook, who was a jack of all trades in the small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. Lafayette dies in the second novel of the book series, but the character’s unprecedented popularity ‘saved’ his TV counterpart from meeting the same fate. Lafayette eventually became a fixture of the show’s mythology by unlocking his powers as a medium, and, later, acquiring the powers of his deceased witch boyfriend Jesus. His cousin Tara, played by Queen Sugar’s Rutina Wesley, was also a black queer character in the show. While each character’s stories intertwined with overall shenanigans of the three leads of the show, they were still given their own story arcs that effect those of the other characters as well. They were main characters throughout the show’s seven year run and were cherished and debated by fans of different walks of life.
A couple of years later, American Horror Story: Hotel introduced us to Ramona Royale, played by the eternally beautiful Angela Bassett, a bisexual vampire seeking revenge on her ex-lover/maker The Countess (Lady Gaga) for killing her new boyfriend out of spite. The next year American Horror Story: Roanoke showcased a love story between a slave master played by Evan Peters and his black house servant played by Henderson Wade. This particular story was confined to one episode, but the sex scenes were memorable. Next, American Horror Story: Apocalypse, a crossover sequel to AHS: Murder House and AHS: Coven, presented Billy Porter as Behold Chablis, a powerful warlock and professor of the Hawthorne School for Exceptional Young Men, as well as a scene-stealing diva all in one. With a name like Behold, what else could you expect from Mr. Porter?
Thank you @HorrorHausFilmFest for honoring us with two of your highest awards this weekend. Congratulations @IAmJamalDouglas on your Best Actor win as well as the cast and crew of The Quiet Room for taking home Best Student Film. pic.twitter.com/drmZoZGaNA— The Quiet Room (@QuietRoomFilm) November 8, 2018
On the movie side of things, the recent slasher film The Ranger featured a black gay punk rocker played by Bubba Weiler. The film didn’t make a big deal about his relationship with his boyfriend and treated it without any bells and whistles. The fourth entry in the never-ending Wrong Turn series, Bloody Beginnings, featured a lesbian relationship akin to the one presented in The Ranger with Tenika Davis being one half of the couple. In the werewolf love story, Good Manners, a black lesbian (Isabél Zuaa) becomes the nanny of her female employer’s baby werewolf. Finally, Sam Wineman’s short horror film The Quiet Room features Michael (Jamal Douglas), a black gay mental patient being chased by a malevolent being after the death of his boyfriend Ben (Indar Smith).
The sole issue with most of, if not all, the characters I just listed is that their relationships were all interracial with the majority of them being with or ending up with white counterparts (The Quiet Room’s Michael meets a white lover by the end of the movie). While the list of black gay characters is growing, the lack of black gay relationships is still telling of us having a long way to go to be included fully in horror settings.
This may all change in the next few years as more queer people of color are getting behind the camera and keyboard to create more black queer themed horror. One such content creator is Monika Estrella Negra who has a site and production collective called Audre’s Revenge Film. The company has produced two short horror films (Flesh and They Will Know You by Your Fruit) and working on a new short called Bitten: A Tragedy.
Early depictions of black queer characters in horror can be considered “problematic” from a hetero-lens, especially with how the characters were treated within the heteronormative narrative at the time. There are other ways of recognizing our inclusion in a genre that has been guilty of reducing the black character in general to several stereotypes. With groups like Black Lives Matter and the ongoing Pride movement, the dual identity of being proudly black and gay is more visible now than ever. Bobby and Belle opened the doors, while Lafayette and Behold led the way. The characters and movies listed is only the tip of the iceberg, because I’m almost positive that there are more black queer characters out there in not just horror films, but television, novels, comics, and other forms of media. So this Halloween season, check out a piece of horror media with a black queer character. Support indie filmmakers like Monika Estrella Negra. And last, but not least, know your black (gay) horror history.
Is there any other black queer horror character not listed here? Any other suggestions? Let us know!