Boogities, Vamps, Witches, and Slayers Celebrating Black Women in Horror Deux

I am a lifelong fan of horror, and it has been a hot minute since I have written a list showcasing kick-ass Black women in horror. Some people find horror films hard or distasteful to watch but good, bad, and low budget, many of them offer good social commentary when you see beyond the gore and special effects. It is not uncommon to get some nuance about class, religion, misogyny, respectability-politics, race, immigration, mental health, and sexuality. 

The 1922 silent horror film essay “Häxan” was based on the Malleus Maleficarum, a misogynist and ableist treaty on witchcraft written in 1486. Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen offered a look at the religious hysteria and what he described as the “psychological causes” of the witch trials that led to the persecution and torture of medieval and early modern women. And one can’t point out socio-political subtext in horror without acknowledging George Romero’s 1968 “Night of the Living Dead” starring Duane Jones, the first Black actor to lead and be cast as a hero in a horror film. 

Since Jordan Peele pushed everyone’s wigs back with his 2017 directorial debut, “Get Out,” it elevated Black visibility in horror films to an all-time high. Screenwriters, showrunners, and filmmakers were champing at the bit to center Black stories, especially Black women, as powerful characters in the horror landscape.

When I first set out to celebrate Black women in horror, I had to do a lot of digging to find notable characters because they were so few and far between and were usually only minor tropes cast as tokens to prop up white heroines. But things have continued to evolve since Jordan Peele raised the stakes. And I am thrilled to feature a 2021, post-pandemic list of films and series featuring Black protagonists in horror. 

Every character on this list is not a heroine and is downright sinister, but they are remarkable and wonderfully frightening.

Asjha Cooper – Black as Night

Finding a good vampire flick or series these days that’s not cringy and dull is still hard. But there’s a bit of progress. Blumhouse recently gave me what I needed with the Amazon original movie, “Black as Night.” In this 2021 offering, we have a teenaged protagonist named Shawna (played by Asjha Cooper) coming of age in post-Katrina New Orleans in a household with her older brother and hardworking father. Shawna must navigate having a drug-addicted mother she visits at a housing project called the Ombreaux, contends with colorism, deals with her burgeoning womanhood, and vampires preying on her community’s most vulnerable people.

Rutina Wesley – True Blood 

Keeping with the vampire theme, the woefully underused, kick-ass but tragic character Tara Thornton in the HBO supernatural series, “True Blood,” played by Rutina Wesley, 2008-2014. Showrunners dropped the ball with this character and really missed out on the opportunity to flesh Tara to her fullest potential. Especially after Tara became a vampire and finally denounced her troubled, sporadic, bible-thumping mother (played by Adina Porter). Showrunners did Tara wrong, subjected her to a lot of gratuitous trauma and violent misogynoir to pedestal Sookie Stackhouse’s irritating ass, and did not give the character the conclusion she deserved during the final season. I am honoring her because notwithstanding how poorly written she was, Tara is still a significant character. 

Kat Graham – The Vampire Diaries

Speaking of Black actresses that were fucked over in supernatural series, no one was more underappreciated than actress Kat Graham in her role as Bonnie Bennett in the CW series “The Vampire Diaries.” Bonnie was a powerful Black witch from a strong matriline. Unfortunately, the character was written as the proverbial “Magical Negro” who literally sacrificed her body, life, and well-being to save her self-centered white supernatural cohorts. It didn’t help that Kat Graham experienced racial microaggressions and mistreatment from some of the other Vampire Diaries cast and crew members on set and during media junkets. Nevertheless, Bonnie Bennett stood out. The series could have easily been centered around the Bennett bloodline or at least prompted a spinoff had Julie Plec and company not leaned into misogynoir and refused to see the humanity of the Black women in their fictional characters and in real life.

Lupita Nyong'o – Us and Little Monsters

Lupita Nyong’o is effective in just about every creative or acting endeavor she gives us, so I am not surprised she pulled through in the horror realm. Her demanding dual role in “Us” (another Jordan Peele offering) was next-level and memorable. Lupita played a woman named Adelaide and her doppelganger Red. Lupita's acting prowess also introduced viewers to a condition called spasmodic dysphonia, which inspired Red’s guttural sound. 

Lupita also shined as Miss Caroline, a sweet but quick-thinking and courageous Kindergarten teacher in the zombie comedy “Little Monsters.” Miss Caroline kicks some major zombie ass to protect her class during a field trip to a farm that becomes overrun by a zombie outbreak.  

Loretta Devine – Spell

Underneath Loretta Devine’s sweet, benevolent performance as an elder in “Spell” named Eloise was a menacing matriarch with a nice-nasty chuckle not to be trifled with. Eloise uses Black folk magic and creepy dolls based on effigies known as Boogities to wield her power. A Boogity is what keeps actor Omari Hardwick—who plays a privileged, big-city attorney whose plane crashes in town en route to a funeral— and the small Afro-Appalachian community she lords over in a line.

Octavia Spencer – Ma

Octavia Spencer’s performance as plain, divorced mother Sue Ann Ellington in the campy psychological horror thriller “Ma” made some Black folks side-eye at the film’s premise. But Sue Ann switched it up expeditiously, going from an unassuming veterinary tech to a psychotic villain. Sue Ann gave viewers chuckle-worthy memes and a sinister revenge plot against the former classmates who enacted a humiliating trauma on her during their high school days that she never recovered from. And Octavia uses the primary offender’s teenaged son and his friends to do it. As campy as the film became, Octavia’s range as an actress saved it.  

The Black Women of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Jaz Sinclair 

The bookish and socially aware Rosalind (Roz) Walker started out as Sabrina’s ride-or-die sidekick (see Rutina Wesley and Kat Graham) in “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.”  But Roz shined as a standout character nonetheless with her story arc as a young woman who discovers from her blind grandmother that she is a seer (aka “cunning”) and that she and her ancestors were supposedly cursed with the gift for crossing witches. But Roz’s gift was anything but a curse because she was able to use it to become empowered and keep herself and her friends out of harm’s way.

Tatiana Gabrielle 

Tatiana Gabrielle was the unsung STAR of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” with her portrayal of young cradle witch, Prudence Night/Blackwood. I said it. Showrunners set out to make Prudence a nasty adversary, bully, and bigoted witch purist that ridiculed Sabrina for being a half-witch. But she became one of the more interesting characters in the series, inspiring young Black women to cosplay the fuck out of her Salem witch goth schoolgirl look. In the poorly conceived lynching scene in season one, showrunners decided to empower Sabrina by having her use magic to hang Prudence and her two cohorts from a tree. Bad idea, considering that Prudence (and Tatiana) is part-Black. Writers thought better of the visuals they gave us featuring the character and allowed her to serve during subsequent seasons. Prudence gave us Catwoman (Eartha Kitt) and Cynthia Bond's succubus character from “Def By Temptation” and was unapologetic about taking up space and not going along to get along. Prudence recognized her coven’s fealty to their Dark Lord and Church of Night’s High Priest for what it was…white, patriarchal fuck-shit.

Skye P. Marshall 

Skye Marshall portrayed beautiful voodoo priestess Mambo Marie in the final two seasons of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina." The character emphasized a Haitian creole accent that was touch-and-go and whack-ass ending. But Mambo Marie added some much-needed color and otherness to the series. To be honest, CAOS prominently featured white New England witches, and their power source was rooted in patriarchy. As wonderfully dark as it was, the series presented a one-dimensional, Eurocentric view of witchcraft that was biased in determining where magic came from and who got to harness and wield it. Marie showed up in Greendale after a friendly New Orleans encounter with Prudence and Black warlock Ambrose. And she offered help when the Greendale coven ran afoul of their Dark Lord, who cuts off their power source. Mambo Marie also prompts Sabrina's Aunt (Zelda) to unpack her prejudices against other types of witches. She also inspires Prudence to tap into a more revolutionary kind of power that is...well...rooted in Blackness. Marie also spills tea to Roz about her cunning gift and lineage. 

The Black Women of Lovecraft Country

The HBO series "Lovecraft Country" was a tour de force! It was activist art. It was an ode to Blackness. In many instances, it was a love letter to Black women. It was so many interesting, shocking, and wonderful things that made for amazing ratings and commentary. Which is why folks were a bit perplexed when HBO decided to cancel the series after one season. Anyway, every character did an amazing job bringing Lovecraft Country to life, including those who made minor appearances, and it was one of actor Michael K. Williams’s most memorable series characters since The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, which made his recent passing sting even more because he was an outstanding talent. 

Jurnee Smollett as Leti

Letitia (Leti) Lewis, played by Jurnee Smollett, may have been stubborn. But she was brave and had many memorable scenes. Among them: Leti taking a bat to the cars of her racist neighbors Lemonade-style in 1950s Chicago. The scene where she stood in a prayer circle to free the trapped spirits of Black folks unethically experimented on and killed by a racist white scientist (to cast his evil spirit out) gave me chills. Finally, I rejoiced when Leti stripped the sinister Christine (and all other white people) of magic forever. They were some of the most rewindable scenes in a horror series.

Wunmi Mosaku as Ruby

I'm not sure where to start with Wunmi Mosaku’s portrayal of Ruby; the character was that amazing. Ruby is fed up with her half-sister Leti's antics. She is also tired of being marginalized in the 1950s anti-Black workforce and experiences a transformation as the series progresses. The unusual change comes via what's known as body horror, and Ruby decides to use it to empower herself and center her own needs. Black Twitter collectively cringed when Ruby became entangled with the William/Christina Braithwhite hybrid. We will never forget the episode where William/Christina enabled Ruby to use magic to experience short-term moments of white womanhood. Ruby was initially pleasantly surprised by the instant privileges it afforded her. She eventually became shocked and appalled (because patriarchy + inside look at how whiteness works) and decided to fuck shit (and a white man’s butthole) up during her journey. 

Aunjanue L. Ellis as Hippolyta

Aunjanue Ellis’s performance as Hippolyta in Lovecraft Country was multilayered and complex. We learn that there’s more than meets the eye with Hippolyta. She proves to be more than just a devoted wife to her beloved deceased travel guide husband and mother to her creative daughter, Dee. Hippolyta proves to be proficient in math and science that proves to be helpful in the series. We get taken on a journey with her as she time travels her way to self-discovery.

Bianca Lawson – Buffy the Vampire Slayer  

Kendra was the groundbreaking Black girl heroine on a ‘90s horror series I didn’t know I needed. A slayer from Jamaica, Kendra was called to duty after Buffy temporarily died and became her ally in vampire slaying. Kendra only appeared in a few episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (before she was unceremoniously killed off). But she left a lasting impact. It would have been great to see her last longer on a show that was trailblazing for its time but lacked diversity.

Cynthia Bond – Def By Temptation (Repeat)

I was excited when I saw “Def By Temptation” on Prime and decided to rewatch it a few more times. I continue to be blown away and disappointed that James Bond III never made a sequel. And it included Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Nunn, and Kadeem Hardison and a few fun cameos. But Cynthia Bond’s portrayal of the tempting but demonic succubus continues to be iconic.