“‘Are you OK?’ is going to be on my tombstone, with an etching of me looking concerned,” Rachel True tells me with bone-dry sarcasm. She’s elaborating on her point in director Xavier Burgin’s buzzy new documentary, Horror Noire (now streaming on Shudder), in which she states that black actresses in horror films like herself often play characters whose only job is to make sure the white female lead is OK. Tropes like this, and the one about black people being the first to die in the genre, are exactly what the insightful new film confronts as it reflects on the last several decades of horror and its portrayals of blackness.
The disposability of black people not only in horror but across cinema has always been an issue, but today in the Trump era—and even more profoundly in the digital age when previously suppressed truths are being bust wide open—there’s a more urgent interest to dissect it. “I feel in Trump’s America, horror is a perfect parallel,” True says. “The documentary does a beautiful job pointing out the parallels between people of color’s existence and a lot of horror that we stuff down on a daily basis—whether it’s small or large.”
Those parallels include Duane Jones’ Ben in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead beating up an all-white mob of zombies (only to later be killed by the police) and Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris in 2017’s Get Out impaling his white antagonist with a buck, which is what black slaves were called back in the day. Black horror has often been a form of resistance to white supremacy.
But as revolutionary as the genre has been in many ways, the film also explores its issues with black representation, where black characters have been relegated to the role of the magical negro (1990’s Ghost), otherized as an alien or a monster (1933’s King Kong), and—perhaps one of its most egregious offenses—rendered completely invisible. The latter has been challenging for black actresses like Scream 2’s Elise Neal and True, who starred in the 1996 feminist horror film The Craft, because even when they do headline a major film, they’re still erased in the conversation and publicity surrounding the film.
After experiencing this problem for years in the industry, and in the spirit of how Horror Noire confronts whiteness, True decided to “take a page out of the millennial’s book” and post a now viral Twitter thread last month after a convention excluded her from a panel on which her Craft co-stars—Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, and Neve Campbell—are represented.
“My team had been asking about this and several events at once,” she explains. “I didn’t name any names [in the Twitter thread], because it’s not just one specific person and anyone who made it about them did that themselves.” Among those people asking about her attendance was Balk. “Fairuza had asked me in November if I was going to be there. It took three different text passes to get her to understand that they basically had said no. She was like, ‘Why would they say no?’ And I was like, ‘What do you think? It’s because I do not hold as much value in their eyes, obviously.’”
Though the thread managed to get her invited to one convention, she is disappointed that she had to resort to Twitter just to be included among her white peers. Still, she says she’s at a point in her career and her life when she’s no longer biting her tongue about racism. “I forced one particular group [to include me],” she says. “All the girls are going to be together for the first time since 1996. [The fact] that I had to put up a Twitter thread to be included with my cast mates is unfortunate, but that’s just life, right? I’m Gen X; I’m bred to be quiet and just suck up everything. You know what, I’m tired. I’m tired of a lifetime in Hollywood of sucking up macro- and micro-aggressions in terms of my career. What I said in my thread, I stand by it. I will not be erased. Not when I am fucking alive.”
True’s demand for black visibility may have sparked the attention of audiences that are now beginning to understand the significance of representation in horror after Get Out. But the conversation goes as far back as 1973’s Scream Blacula Scream, the race-bending Dracula sequel in which William Marshall stars as the fanged legend. When one of Blacula’s new converts looks in the mirror and doesn’t see his reflection, he wails, “I don't mind being a vampire and all that shit, but a man has got to see his face!" Horror, despite the gimmicks and gore it’s often known for, has been a space for black people to not only explore deep-rooted fears like erasure and police brutality, but it’s also given black characters the chance to be heroes—like True’s Rochelle in The Craft, a badass witch who not only survives but prevails—and inspire the next generation.
Looking back on Rochelle, True says, “She was important for black girls growing up in the ’90s to see. Because until that point, for the most part, it was black teens in a white teen movie where they were the sacrificial lamb in the beginning or the magical negro who made it three quarters of the way through.”
Now that Horror Noire has become a social phenomenon and expanded how we talk about the genre, True is excited about how storytelling will continue to evolve and what new monsters will be born from our current era. “We’re now able to have these conversations out loud and in public. It’s not something we really did before,” she says. “I think horror is only going to get bigger because we are at a time now when it just blows away Watergate and anything else that happened that spurred ’70s horror movies. There are new monsters rolling around [in real life] wearing suits and looking like ‘normal people,’ so we should have new monsters. That’s why Get Out was so effective. It explores white fragility and has this beautiful white woman [played by Allison Williams] as the villain. It doesn’t need the blood and the gore. It’s paralleling history.”