Skip to main content

Horror in the 90s: The Southern Gothic

Those films from the 90s that had roots in the southern gothic thematic tradition were relatively compelling and a had lasting impact on their audiences. And in these films, abundant were more of a variety and holistic look at Black female representation.

In contrast with urban horror, Black women had more of a central presence in 90s southern gothic. Likely because women were writing the books, scripts, and behind the camera. Additionally, it is even interesting to note the spatial contrasts where the southern gothic commonly has both feet in the rural south, with a touch of softness (or supposed natural femininity) to it but the grit of any urban setting is all too frequently coded as masculine. These concepts are a primary critique of mine when it comes to Black 1990s horror. This sentiment is in no way fixed, but it isn't difficult to distinguish within these very marginal genres.

Regardless, I wanted to focus on two southern gothic films from the 90s that did the job of creating a space for Black women in horror unlike anything else during its time.

Beloved (1998) - Thandie Newton, Oprah Winfrey, Kimberly Elise

Beloved, based on the book penned by Toni Morrison produced strong performances from its entire cast. It is clearly the film's piercing themes of a haunting and a fear of remembrance that brought out the strongest performances in its players. What is meaningful about watching Sethe's (Oprah Winfrey) story unfold is both past and present are moments of joy and sorrow. She is haunted by the spirit, then physical manifestation of the daughter she slain to save her from a life of cruelty by the institution of slavery. What was symbolically translated through talks with Paul D (Danny Glover), her lover, prior to her escaping for freedom are the differences between the Black male and female experience during slavery, which were the most powerful exchanges of dialogue throughout the film.

Although struggling with her past, she finds some semblance of agency through her voice as a free woman. She exuded sexuality as a means for comfort and pleasure equally. She insisted upon a selfhood for herself and her children.

Although the film takes place in rural Ohio, a southern gothic tradition of wide, open outdoors spaces surrounded by nature and minimal technology, fragmented bodies, spirits, and low functioning characters that drive the story sums up a wealth  of the plot and setting of Beloved.

Eve's Bayou (1997) - Jurnee Smolett, Meagan Good, Debbi Morgan, Lynn Whitfield, Diahann Carroll

Give writer and director Kasi Lemmons all the credit. She channeled her frustration for the lack of meaty roles for women of color in Hollywood into a film of her making packed with the richness of young and upcoming as well as distinguished and ageless Black female actresses and representations in her narrative.

Eve's Bayou makes family dynamics messy as a well-to-do southern family in the early 1960s is wrought with the natural and supernatural trials after Eve (Jurnee Smolett-Bell) gets wind of her father's infidelity. Later riddled with regret for her visceral and childish decisions, this tale told from Eve's center is enjoyable for its twists, the different relationships she has with each character, and Diahann Carroll... I mean, it's Diahann Carroll!

Both films give into the examination of the human condition's "potential to do harm." I find this fascinating as pertaining to Black women and the southern gothic because both films celebrate the complexity of these characters ability to be strong in the face of physical and psychological depression as well as show flaws that carry a substantial weight in their reasoning.

Both Eve's Bayou and Beloved are wonderful Black female character studies and remind us that horror in the 90s did have depth that transgressed the mainstream market.

Popular posts from this blog

28 Black Women Horror Filmmakers

1. Zandashé Brown, Blood Runs Down (2018) 2. Raeshelle Cooke, Last Words (2015) 3. Tamara S. Hall, A Night At The Table (2019) 4. R. Shanea Williams, Paralysis (2015) 5. Monica Moore-Suriyage, Black In Red Out (2016)

How MIDSOMMAR Utilizes and Subverts Horror Movie Tropes of People of Color

By Mary Kay McBrayer ( @mkmcbrayer ) For a film that could have been easily white-washed, Ari Aster’s Midsommar does have an inclusive cast. Before our characters are even taken to Sweden where most of the film's dread fueled action takes place, we meet them in their college town. Dani (Florence Pugh) stresses about her sister’s scary email while her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor) drinks at a bar with his buddies, only one of whom is black named Josh ( The Good Place 's William Jackson Harper). I have watched enough horror movies to know—and I’ve been brown enough long enough to know—that this setting does not bode well for a person of color. The token minority, say it with me, tends to die first. Because of this ratio, I expected a few other established tropes of the horror genre in Josh’s character, too, and I have to admit, I was delighted and surprised that nothing played out the way I expected.

DARKLY: At The Heart Of Goth, Is Blackness

"Horror has always been used to illuminate cultural anxieties and gives a voice to our collective fears. So, what to make of the gothic in America, a place which by the very nature of its founding is predisposed to a culture of anxiety? The dread knowing the enemy at the gate is understandable, but in America the enemy has already passed through it, and has been brought inside. The call is coming from inside the house." -words by Leila Taylor