This blog is in development and will be the medium in which I express my critical analyses for "The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival, and the Black Horror Aesthetic" class at UCLA.
This blog is written by a white woman, UCLA anthropology student, and activist from Georgia who lives in Los Angeles, California.
By Jennifer Wood
“The Devil in America” by Kai Asante Wilson is very grim literary fiction as can only be expected from the title. Whether you see the devil figuratively or believe he walks to and fro in the earth, one can imagine truly evil creatures haunting the land here. America's history has been a hellscape more evil than any religious text that has been written. The anthropological concept of haunting and "hauntology" perceive the evils of America as having very real perpetual occurrences of ghosts from the past, known as "secondary hauntings". Douglas Hollan, a professor of anthropological psychology at UCLA, teaches about hauntology, and he discusses writings by sociologist Avery Gordon and anthropologists Martha and Bruce Lincoln.
From the beginning of the story, “The Devil in America”, the evils of America's past are mentioned, both explicitly named people and references to past horrors. Notes from the author’s father are interspersed within the story, and his father names Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Scott Burton, and a black friend from high school who went to Vietnam. He also mentions Arthur McDuffie, Amadou Diallo, and Sean Bell who were murdered by police.
“The Devil in America” follows the story of a little girl named Easter who lives with her mother and father. Early on, there is foreshadowing of horrors to come, as the father tells the mother about areas of town that are being burned to the ground and where black people are being murdered. The notes within the story from the author’s father indicate real events which mirror what happens in the story.
Magic is a theme in “The Devil in America”, and the magic first comes from Africa. The African magic is said to be more of a prankster nature, while it morphed into a malevolent magic in the Americas. When Easter visits the tobacco fields that are the livelihood of both her family and another family, she makes the innocent mistake of touching the ground with blood from a scab. Instantly, the “angels” whose magic she already feels, flee and the tobacco fields are left in ruins. The moment is frozen in time as the child realizes her grave error and screams for help. A white man appears to Easter and makes a deal with her that leaves her believing she has met the devil. Easter knows she’s been swindled by the spirits’ bank which she has been warned will want more than material gains.
A magical dog in human form who charmed a lady in Africa, has historical significance for Easter’s family. Another magical dog in America, who was once Easter’s human brother, has become a dog because of his willingness to engage in magic. The ending, whether or not it is intended, makes me think of the historical racist use of dogs to attack black people in America. Also, it seems to reflect the recurring perception of black people as monsters and as less than human.
“The Devil in America” is a beautifully written story with an ending that culminates into real horror and violence. The real Devil in America is the manifestations of white supremacy and racial capitalism on which the country was founded and have allowed it to flourish. Readers should take caution that this is a traumatic and disturbing story, and the ending will stay with you for a long time.
By Jennifer Wood
"Loneliness is in Your Blood" is a short story by Cadwell Turnbull, written from "second person point of view", and it tells the story of a character who is reminiscent of the Caribbean mythologized "soucouyant" or the "boo-hag" from Gullah folklore. In the story, the creature removes her skin at night and drinks the blood of sleeping victims in a vampire-like eternal existence. The enslaved African people call her a Sukunyoa, among other names. Though she is a creature who drinks blood, she has a deeply relatable human quality of feeling loneliness. The Sukunoyoa has lovers, both men and women, and they all love being with her. The Sukunoyoa believes she is free and eternally beautiful, until the passage of time reveals to her that is not true and her lovers leave her. Vampires and vampire-adjacent creatures reflect the human desire to be immortal, but there is usually the inevitable revelation that the concept of eternal life is never as sweet if it means being alone. Isolation is a common theme in black horror, and it pairs well with vampire stories.
In the film "Ganja and Hess", by Bill Gunn, Dr. Hess Green is a wealthy anthropologist who is turned into a vampire when his assistant stabs him with an ancient dagger from the African tribe of people Dr. Green studies. In the beginning, Dr. Green naturally and quickly acclimates to vampirism, and voraciously laps blood surrounding the dead body of his assistant who has committed suicide and fallen onto the bathroom floor. The film is meant to reflect drug addiction through the use of vampires and blood imagery, and Dr. Green’s unabashed compulsion to get his fix of blood is clear in this scene. Dr. Green lives the life of a vampire with his partner Ganja Meda for a while. Then Dr. Green seems to conclude that immortality and a partner are not enough for him. Unlike typical vampires, he finds himself seeking to reach a higher spiritual self in the end.
The Sukunoyoa is unbearably alone as she desperately tries to be with the living around her, while Dr. Green experiences a deep loneliness alongside his love. Sometimes in our lives, the only feeling we have is wanting to return to the sea, the universe, or a number of afterlife landscapes. We still usually cling to life despite the common human experience of despair, and we can feel the pain of empathy for characters who reflect that shared feeling back to us.
White Women as Myth
By Jennifer Wood
“Candyman” is about a ghostly, monsterous black man who was violently murdered because of his relationship with a white woman. In the present day, many people recount urban legends about Candyman, and they profess unquestioning belief in the stories. The protagonist is a pretty blonde white woman named Helen, who is remininist of Marilyn Monroe. Helen is a student, and she is researching urban legends for her thesis. She is fascinated with Candyman and decides to investigate a housing project where Candyman allegedly murdered a woman in her bathtub.
Helen is presented as the "good white lady" character for which viewers are supposed to feel sympathy, but she behaves as if she believes she is superior to the residents of the Cabrini-Green housing project. She feels entitled to trespass in the housing project and explore apartments with her camera. She treats the housing project and its inhabitants as a means to an end for her work and not as actual human beings living there. The housing project scenes contrast the "good white lady" with the imagined horrors of housing project life and the people who live there.
When Helen and her sidekick Bernadette, a black woman and fellow student, first visit the Cabrini-Green housing project, several young black men are milling about outside. They immediately begin to show attention to the women, but only mention Helen specifically. "Ask blondie where she goin'," says one man. Helen and Bernadette meet a black woman who lives upstairs with her baby and her dog. Helen is patronizing to the woman and tries to flatter the woman and her baby. Later, Helen returns alone and manipulates a black child to help her look for Candyman by slyly side-eyeing him and saying, "Unless you're scared," after the child makes it clear that being tough and courageous are important character attributes he possesses. When Helen goes into the bathroom to take pictures, a group of black men from the housing project soon come into the bathroom and attack her.
The film “Candyman” also feeds the delusional horror fantasy of black men being obsessed with white women. Each time Candyman comes to Helen, she falls into a sleepy trance and the camera is in close focus to Helen's face. She looks more innocent and angelic than ever in these scenes, while her pursuer is a frightening black man with a bloody hook for a hand and bees filling his chest cavity. Candyman implicates Helen in murder and continuously says he wants to kill her, but there is a component of sexual violence as well. He begs her for a kiss at one point, and he fills her mouth with bees. He picks Helen up and lays her down in the housing project. Then he glides his hook up her inner thigh, pushing her dress up further and further. It is extremely intimate imagery twisted into the mythologized idea of black men and their compulsive desire to sexually assault white women.
"Be my victim," says Candyman, as if black men's goal in life is to possess a white woman and violently destroy her. In reality, white women have been far more dangerous for black men in America. White America's obsession with the black monster man myth and the innocent sweet nature of white women has led to countless deaths of black men and children throughout history. Emmett Till is one of the most famous black children to be murdered for this reason. Even today, white America still balks at the idea of a black man and a white woman being together. The real horror of "Candyman" is that it's propaganda which exemplifies how Hollywood has perpetuated white supremacy, classicism, and the enduring myth of black male monstrosity.
By Jennifer Wood
The dark existential horror of family secrets is a theme in the film "Eve's Bayou" and in the novel "The Good House" by Tananarive Due. Toxic masculinity is an aspect of that horror.
"Eve's Bayou", is a beautiful southern gothic film which focuses on a seemingly happy, black family in Louisiana. The film quickly shifts from a joyous, upscale party inside of a luxurious southern home to a little girl waking to find her father having sex with a woman he had been dancing with at the party. The father, Doctor Batiste, tries to manipulate his daughter, Eve, into believing she'd witnessed something else, but she's not quite young enough to fall for his lies. Her father confidently answers her questions, then suddenly Eve asks, "Daddy why don't you ever dance with me?" It is an innocent question, but then she proceeds to say he always dances with her sister Cisely in public. The question of why Cisely gets preferential treatment further develops in the film.
The greatest horror of this film is the charming and beloved doctor's true nature. Much like Tariq in the "Good House", Dr. Batiste has charm, and he knows exactly how to use it as a social engineering technique. He smiles and laughs at the right moments and usually knows what to say to placate the women around him. The doctor's arrogance overtakes his charm sometimes, and he boldly acts in ways that reveal his true self to others. His daughter, Eve, knows he's having sex with his patients, because he is daring enough to do it while she waits outside a patient’s home. In another scene, Cisely has been waiting up for her father, and she warns him the women of the family are mad at him. The doctor smiles and laughs, looks in the room at the women who are obviously upset, then turns back to Cisely and still smiling, says, "They always mad." The scene encapsulates the essence of this man and how he treats the women in his life.
Tariq, unlike Dr. Batiste, is constantly trying to keep his internal anger in check. He has not been a violent person toward his ex-wife or his son, but as the story progresses, his anger surfaces more and more frequently. Tariq grabs Angela, taking her by surprise, while she is getting dressed before her party. When she is visibly startled, Tariq becomes upset. Then he shifts back to the picture of charm. Tariq's internal rage attracts the demon, and Tariq begins to cause chaos and destruction in his life. He attacks someone at a bar, where he also chooses to participate in sexual acts with a child. When visiting a bookstore, a spiritual man can smell the demon's smell on Tariq and wants to help him. Tariq, at this point, is already far gone, and wants to harm the bookstore owner. In real life, whether we believe in demons and spirits or not, rage does manifest itself in chaotic and destructive ways in our lives. If we don't figure out how to harness our rage, at least sometimes, it can consume us and those around us.
Tariq and Dr. Batiste both epitomize toxic masculinity, even though they are very different people. In the same way Tariq's rage consumes him, the doctor's arrogance is his undoing. "Sometimes a soldier falls on his own sword," said the fortune teller. If the doctor had only contained himself at the bar, he would not have died that night. He was so bold in taunting the husband of his lover with "Goodnight Matty." The husband's wounds were already raw with the discovery of betrayal from his friend and his wife, and then the doctor pushed too much. The husband was toxic in his own way, because he dragged his wife from the bar like she was his property, when really, he should have just walked away. Instead, he allowed his rage to best him and he died too.
Cisely's accusations about her father were believable in part because of his unbridled sexual behavior and his unlimited arrogance. Cisely's behavior from the beginning of the film makes a critical viewer question her relationship with her father. Cisely feels the need to be seen as an adult, even though she is a child. She defends her father without question, and she even disrespects her mother to defend her father. She waits up for her father every night, and wants him all to herself. She defies her mother's rules about leaving the house so she can go to her father's office and to the salon where she copies her mother's hairstyle. She doesn't want her father to know she had her period, and she has a dramatic reaction when Eve says she is going to tell him. As the movie progresses, and before Cisely confides in her sister, it isn’t reaching to think the doctor could be sexually abusing his daughter. In the end, Cisely says she doesn't know what happened with her father, but I think she is suppressing trauma. People who blame Cisely or think she initiated anything sexual with her father, do not understand the power dynamic in the relationship. A child who behaves in that way has been groomed and led by the adult to interpret their relationship in a sexual way.
Horror manifests in real life, and we find the real monsters are those around us, and the horror is what we endure from their presence.
Looking at Us
By Jennifer Wood
The movie "Us" by Jordan Peele opens with a beautifully filmed scene, which on first viewing, might seem like horror just for the sake of horror. Knowing Jordan Peele's previous work, I correctly anticipated there would be a deeper meaning. A little girl wanders away from a boardwalk and the safety of her parents and down a dark, secluded beach. She walks to a carnival fun house with an Indigenous man caricature painted above the doorway and the promise of a "Vision Quest". It is a colonialist’s composite image of Indigenous peoples created for the purpose of serving capitalism. Capitalism is founded upon and perpetuated by the exploitation of people based on racial constructions which are arranged in hierarchical value. The colonization of Indigenous land, the commodification of black bodies and the forced labor of these enslaved African peoples are capitalism’s inescapable foundation. The facade of the funhouse is an explicit foreboding message about what lies within.
In the present day, a black family is on vacation in Santa Cruz, California. They visit the beach, after multiple protests from the mother whose name is Adelaide. She finally relents when her husband Gabe agrees they will leave before dark. Before reaching the beach, they see an ambulance loading a dead houseless man into the back. Adelaide tells her children, "Don't look," and when they pass, she seems to recognize the man from her childhood. His sign reads, “Jeremiah 11:11” which is from the bible story when god is angry that his followers are worshipping false idols. He says, "Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them."
Adelaide telling her children “don't look” is the unforgivable act. They have the privileged ability to not look at the houseless man. They can pretend human beings aren't dehumanized and criminalized due to their poverty. They can ignore that human beings live and die in the streets. Adelaide, more than anyone else in her family, realizes the depth of the suffering she chooses to ignore. She has been in the funhouse, and she has been underground. She has suffered in the darkest depths of the underground and she has benefited from the exploitation of the people who continue to suffer there. Adelaide knows what the little girl found when she entered the funhouse.
Adelaide’s husband, Gabe, wears a Howard sweatshirt, demonstrating the privilege of education in the United States. When Adelaide tries to explain her life experiences to him, he doesn’t understand. Gabe sees himself as someone different than those in poverty and he thinks he can trade his material possessions for his life. Adelaide knows life is more precious than any possession and stolen life can never be satiated by materialism.
Adelaide remains on edge at the beach, while her wealthy white friend, Kitty, rambles about the vapid thoughts in her head. Drink in hand, she bombards Adelaide with friendly chatter, but she doesn’t seem genuinely concerned about Adelaide’s discomfort. After expressing that she can tell there is something wrong with how Adelaide is feeling, she continues to ramble, showing Adelaide her recent cosmetic surgery. Then she asks Adelaide “Do you ever wish you kept dancing?” Adelaide’s short responses make the conversation difficult, but her friend also used the dancing question as a segue into “I think I could’ve been a movie star.” Adelaide’s lack of interest in the conversation could be partially because it is shallow and obnoxious, but she displays an awareness of danger on this picturesque beach which her friend seems to lack.
Adelaide, though privileged, is a black woman with a very different life experience from her white friend. Kitty tries to call the police with her voice activated system, because like Adelaide and her husband, she trusts the police. Adelaide and Gabe’s trust is ironic, considering the history of policing in the United States. Kitty, in her last moments, experiences a horrific death. The sound of blood gurgling in her throat signals her impending death as she crawls across the floor toward her husband. Kitty experiences the lack of privileged comfort of police being on the way to help her as N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police” plays instead.
Adelaide has fought hard to escape the hellscape of her youth, but in doing so, she has caused extreme suffering of her tethered counterpart. She can never give back what she has stolen, and she fights to the end to keep it. In the last moments of the tethered Red’s life, she whistles like she did in her childhood, and Adelaide’s face takes on the insane smile of Red.
“It’s us”, Adelaide’s son said, when he saw the tethered family for the first time. “Us” very simply shows the horror of economic inequality and a violent uprising by those who suffer under the system of capitalism. In the end, Adelaide’s son knows who she is and who she has chosen to be. His future is undecided, but his expression says he might not listen anymore when his mother says, “Don’t look.”
White Women, White Violence
By Jennifer Wood
In the film, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", a white woman brings her black fiancé to her parents' home. The white woman talks to her mother about her fiancé before he enters the room. Not only does the white woman feel the need to promote her fiancé's value through a list of positive attributes, but she even feels like telling about his tragic past, as if that would obliterate all of the racism from her mother's brain. She mentions everything she can about him, except that he is a black man. From the very first scene with Rose Armitage in the movie "Get Out", she heavily manipulates Chris into trusting her as his love and as his ally. She promises her parents aren't racist, and then she follows it with the absurd argument that her dad would have voted for Obama for another term. She tells him, "The love is so real." Rose tries to play a sweet and innocent character like the white woman in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner". Both women know what their parents are like, and bringing the men to their parents' homes is deliberate violence against the men they claim to love.
The white women are hypersexualized in the film "Get Out". The white woman at the Armitage's party very aggressively touches Chris and asks if it is true that sex is better. Rose uses sex and what she perceives as her sex appeal to manipulate Chris. She wants to talk to Rod on the phone and makes a big deal of claiming Chris is jealous. Later, she perceives Rod is suspicious of her role in Chris' disappearance, and she uses sex as a weapon against him, claiming he has always wanted to have sex with her. This violent action from Rose calls to mind Emmett Till and other black boys and men who were victims of white womens' violence toward them. In the film "Birth of a Nation", a white man in black face chases a white woman with the intent to rape her. She chooses to jump to her death to avoid being sexually assaulted by the black man. In "Get Out", Jordan Peele flips the myth of the black monster man chasing white women and makes white women the monsters.
Too often, white women see black men as sexual objects who they find physically attractive. They see black men as weapons to use against their parents in a rebellious battle within the parent-child power dynamic. They see them as caricatures with large genitalia. Even if white women like an individual black man as a person, do they actually value black men? Once they have their first fight with this man, do they simply return to their previous thinking about black men? Would this fight prompt them to commit violence toward him? Would the white woman suddenly hold up the keys she's been holding the entire time and break his heart with her betrayal? "You know I can't give you the keys, right, babe?"
Most white women, even those who date black men, are not anti-racist. They do not actively try to understand what anti-racism means or what role they as white women play in perpetuation of anti-black racism and white supremacy. White women will date black men and feel they have a right to appropriate black culture or they will have black children, and in either case, they feel they have fulfilled any need for anti-racism. White women have participated in Black Lives Matter protests and carried sexually explicit signs about black men. If a white woman's behavior is only to demonstrate her attraction to black men, she is like her ancestors who had sex with or sexually assaulted enslaved African peoples. Fetishization and sexual attraction does not make white women "woke". White women wore pink hats and marched in protest against Trump in 2016. In 2020, white women excluded Black Lives Matter, Los Angeles from the Women's March, stating their mission did not fit the theme for that year. If black women are not being included, what are white women really fighting for besides the perpetuation of white supremacy? If those same white women are dating black men, who are they really, besides Rose sitting on her bed looking for the next black man to victimize?
Black men have never fit the horror trope of hypersexual monster man, chasing white women in a fit of zealous lust. White women, as delicate and innocent as they have pretended to be, have demonstrated themselves to be the monsters time and time again. I don't know if white women can transcend this monster image, because it's one they have rightfully earned. If white women truly want to dismantle white supremacy and racial capitalism and fight for a better world, convincing anyone of their authentic image won't matter.
Note: This blog is written by a white woman, UCLA anthropology student, and activist from Georgia who lives in Los Angeles, California.