Black Women in 80s Horror Films

Horror in the 1980's saw its most economically prosperous boom ever with droves of young audiences flocking to the theaters each weekend to catch the latest mainstream fare and the independent circuit got the taste of dollar returns with VHS technology, video rental stores, and small film companies not yet chewed and swallowed by the landmark Telecommunications Act in 1996. The abundance of films were endless. So much so, myself and other horror aficionados are still combing purposely through the virtual racks to find untapped treasures, and others we don't remember by name. Unsurprising, diverse character representations weren't entirely a part of this equation.

The best description of Blacks in horror films in the 80's is best left with "fairly fleeting or nonexistent". With major horror films in settings that reflected the "white flight" from "urban" (read: poor/working class, Black and Brown peoples) spaces, the reality of camps, suburbs, and modern, renewal terrains were a reality as far as their populace if not the supernatural. Of course, you had both non-White interlopers as insignificant, stand-in characters (actor Richard Lawson as Ryan in Poltergeist comes to mind) and the fly in the buttermilk characters I often mirror with the trend of the Black middle class during this time.

With a sparse African American presence on this foundation, "Black characters' value was confined to their ability to affect an assimilable air in cross-racial, interpersonal encounters," often reduced to tokenized roles that see them "blend" in with the group with no discernible interest in fleshing their characters out as multi- faceted, whole individuals. However, I thoroughly enjoy/sometimes defend 80s horror and many of the Black (female) characters, but it's crucial to give them context within the confines of their characterization. While it was important for them to be "seen", it's however disheartening that they were left to our imaginations to assess their merit.

Below are three of note as they are as diverse in characterization as they are in setting. Within the realm of Black women in 80s horror they are standouts and widely recognized; funny enough, because they are amongst the few. 

Grace Jones as Katrina in Vamp (1986)

There's one self-indulgent, academicky wish to have: to go back a few years to the pop culture conference I attended and to not have another meeting conflict with one graduate student's presentation on Grace Jones' vampiric performance in this film. I'm still wildly interested in her thoughts on the dynamics of this character.There's a lot to say about a significant character who does not speak. Your understanding comes from Katrina's movements and reactions to those with whom she interacts. Katrina is feared, respected, and desired as any head vampress of a seedy strip club should be. Regardless of the film's camp, it's sort of an original step with Jones' personae bringing to life such art and terror to a memorable character.

Toy Newkirk as Sheila Kopecky in A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

It's not without surprise to those in-the-know that this character is a personal favorite. Sheila is the first casualty of the barrier broken between the "Elm Street children" and the "fresh meat". She is the Black friend who her white high school co-horts can depend on for math tutoring and bug zappers. She is a part of the white female protagonist's (Alice) arc in avenging her fallen friends and defeating Freddy.

We don't learn much about Sheila: we don't see her at home, with family, taking interest in anyone romantically, or alone with her thoughts. To be fair, that's not the tone of this film with a clear focus on Alice vs. Freddy. A small grace that Sheila offers is the fact that she strays heavily from caricature often associated with Black women in mainstream films depicted as "sassy, eccentric, magical servants" long associated with Black women in horror films long before the blaxploitation period in the 1970's.

Lisa Bonet as Epiphany Proudfoot in Angel Heart (1987)

An ethereal presence in a surreal mystery, Epiphany provided both distraction and information to Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), a private investigator who travels south to find the whereabouts of a musician named Johnny Favorite. The story was Angel's, Epiphany's presence had its share of significance considering the structure of the story. Bonet's role was of a mystical practitioner of voodoo, more inclined to offer Angel rather cryptic facts about her mother, Evangeline who was the deceased lover of Favorite's. Angel Heart's place in genre as a period mystery has me refraining from revealing too much of the story, but the beats found within matters of race are much better for analysis than the prior two films mentioned.

It is difficult to separate artist from the art here. Bonet was on a highway to super stardom during the film's release, and her explicit love scene with Rourke's character, considering their age difference and grisly imagery accompanying, sent a tizzy of rumors rolling around at the time, citing this role as possibly being one of the reasons she and Bill Cosby were at odds which Bonet has disputed.

In what may be considered more cult than mainstream, Angel Heart has earned its stripes as being one of the more bold and richly dark thrillers of the decade.

Feel free to utilize the comment section below to discuss Black women characters in horror of note from the 1980's that are personal favorites of yours.

*Additional information and references not linked are from Dr. Robin Means Coleman's book, Horror Noire

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