From "Sugar Hill" to "Get Out": Celebrating Black Women in Horror Films

I'm a year-round horror movie fan but since Halloween is upon us, this macabre, candy-filled holiday wouldn't be complete without engaging in a marathon of 31 days of horror films. But when it comes to horror movies the Black guy being the first to die before we even get to delve into their characters is a common trope in a lot of movies. And even when there are strong Black male leads, we get taken on a perilous journey watching them fight to survive, only for viewers to have the rug snatched out from under them at the end. Though he cut an impressive lead character in George Romero’s seminal zombie flick Night of the Living Dead—the first time a Black actor was cast as the leading star in a horror film—who can forget what happened to Duane Jones’s character Ben at the end? And don’t get me started on the fate Eriq Ebouaney’s bad-guy character met towards the end of the French crooked cops-and-zombies flick La Horde.

The primary reason I enjoy watching horror films so much is that, despite the violence, blood, and gore saturating some flicks, horror is often imbued with social commentary on issues like race, immigration, misogyny, and even religious extremism. This year comedic actor and filmmaker Jordan Peele took the world on a tour de force with his timely race-based horror film Get Out, completely reinventing the genre’s wheel and offering up a no-frills approach to broaching the topic of casual liberal racism. In doing so, Peele also became the first Black filmmaker to helm the highest-grossing debut film based on an original screenplay. While Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya offered a compelling performance, one of the most unforgettable and complex characters was Georgina, played by actress Betty Gabriel. According to some Black film reviewers, Georgina symbolized many things and chief among them is the different intersections and mess Black women must navigate around for the sake of our livelihoods and survival, often at the cost of our well-being and lives.

In addition to Get Out's Georgina character, some of the most memorable horror movies I’ve ever seen featured strong Black female leads or supporting roles. In an industry that often pedestals white starlets and marginalizes and/or typecasts Black actresses, Black women have often found their niche in the horror genre, giving fans some of the most resourceful, unconventional, complex, badass, and even feminist characters. Black women aren’t always centered in horror movies and when they are, it’s to fill some tired Mystical Negress, sacrificial friend trope whose main function is to uphold the safety of white female protagonists at the risk of their own lives. So, I'm always delighted to watch a flick where one of the main characters is not only a Black woman but featured prominently and winning the fight to survive (in most of these cases, anyway) in the process.

Here is a list of films featuring Black women in horror films. Every character on this list may not have lasted until the end or played a primary role, but they left an indelible mark nonetheless…

[Content Warning: Clips and trailers contain strong language, adult situations, violence, and gore.]

Finding a good vampire flick these days without the camp, glitter, and cheese is a daunting task that prompts me to revisit old favorites. I've always considered Cynthia Bond and her portrayal of a demonic succubus in Def By Temptation to be an interesting character. In fact, the entire premise of the movie and its religious symbolism intrigued me; particularly the idea that women with sexual autonomy are evil, blood-thirsty, destructive and homicidal and are what prompt supposedly God-fearing men to commit infidelity, become immoral and to become lascivious. Revisiting this film with a feminist lens there are so many things to unpack, and much of it is riddled with misogynoir and respectability politics that position men as unwitting victims of Black female sexuality and bodily autonomy, even when they’ve willingly indulged in manipulative, adulterous, and lecherous behavior. I would have loved to see a sequel, though or wouldn’t mind a remake to suit today’s cult of personality. Also, singer Melba Moore has a cameo as Madame Sonia.

Sanaa Lathan in a brief appearance as Vanessa Brooks in Blade, the mother of the vampire-hunting dhampir played by Wesley Snipes, who was assaulted by a vampire while pregnant with her son.

Sanaa Lathan also played environmental guide Alexa Woods in the 2004 sci-fi flick Alien vs Predator, a member of a group of (mostly white and male) mercenaries and scientists on an expedition off the coast of Antarctica; and the last human standing after being caught in the middle of an epic alien battle and using her wits and #BlackGirlMagic to not only collab with the Predators but survive.

N'Bushe Wright also featured prominently in Blade as Karen Jensen, a hematologist who was attacked by a vampire and who essentially not only ends up helping Blade hunt and kill Frost the nefarious vampire leader and his nest but creates a vaccine to help suppress Blade’s vampire DNA and his growing bloodlust.

Grace Jones as an avant-garde exotic performer and vampire monarch Katrina in the campy 80s horror-comedy, Vamp; a film that may have influenced Quentin Tarantino’s vampire film, From Dusk til Dawn. And not for nothing, but Grace Jones’s looks in this film offers a slew of Halloween costume possibilities.

Marlene Clark as Ganja in the 1973 classic, cinematically pleasing experimental vampire flick Ganja & Hess, which also starred Night of the Living Dead's Duane Jones as anthropologist Dr. Hess Green. Clark played the no-nonsense widow of Dr. Green's unhinged assistant (played by the director, Bill Nunn). Ganja & Hess was later adapted into a remake by filmmaker Spike Lee called Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, and co-starred English actress Zaraah Abrahams as Ganja.

Jada Pinkett-Smith as tough, demon-fighting gamine Jeryline in Tales from the Crypt Presents Demon Knight, which also features the legendary (and sorely underrated), C.C.H. Pounder.

Of course, one can't (and shouldn't) mention Black women in horror flicks without referencing incomparable actress, director, and screenwriter Geretta Geretta. Geretta Gerretta has starred in several Italian Giallo films, most memorably as Rosemary in Lamberto Bava's Demons, which was produced by Dario Argento.

Zombie-fighting British badass Naomie Harris who plays Selena in the flick 28 Days Later. Selena is the stuff horror film heroines are made of. Resources and unrelenting, Selena did whatever it took to stay alive during a zombie apocalypse. If I had to travel with a band of survivors during a bleak, dystopian future that included flesh-eating zombies or rage virus predators, Selena would definitely be my pick (along with The Walking Dead's Michonne) to survive with. 

Marki Bey in the 1974 blaxploitation zombie flick Sugar Hill. Bey plays vengeful girlfriend Diana "Sugar" Hill, who returns to her hometown in the Bayou to employ the services of Mama Maitresse to enact some voodoo-laced revenge, to help settle the score against the racist mafia thugs who murdered her boyfriend, the proprietor of a successful club.

Angela Bassett as dhampir Rita Veder, an NYPD detective who falls under Eddie Murphy's vampiric spell in the flick, Vampire in Brooklyn.

Janee Michelle as Lorena Christophe in The House on Skull Mountain. Meandering (but tolerable) plot, shady racial tropes and cultural othering aside, Janee Michelle's turn as a member of a well-off Haitian-American family with strong voodoo leanings, convening at an ominous estate after the death of the matriarch, is worth mentioning. Particularly that snake, possession scene.

And last, but definitely not least, Rachel True as Rochelle in The Craft. An aspiring witch, member of a fledgling coven on the fringe, and seemingly the only Black girl at her high school who taps into her powers and uses them to become empowered and get revenge on the Mean Girls who've been racially abusing and bullying her. Like Georgina, Rochelle was representative of a lot of young Black women just trying to find their place in the world and fight or visibility at predominantly white institutions while navigating the trials and tribulations of various intersections and racial microaggressions.