Harry M. Benshoff’s essay in the 2000 issue of Cinema Journal titled “Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription?” explores the ways in which the sub-genre of Blaxploitation horror thwarted the canonic symbol of the American monster as not the “Other,” but as a sympathetic being. This sub-genre succeeded in doing so because its monsters shared a common identity: race.
“By embracing the racialized monster and turning him into an agent of black pride and power, Blaxploitation horror films created sympathetic monsters who helped shift audience identification away from the status quo “normality” of bourgeois white society. In some cases, they exposed white “normality” and especially white patriarchy, as productive of monsters” (Benshoff 2000: 45)
Blaxploitation horror can be defined as a category of cinema that’s predominately written, directed, and starring African American creatives in the early 1970s—a period in the backdrop of post-Civil Rights and at the cusp of the Black Power movement. The early 1970s were also known as the height of American New Wave Cinema, notably acknowledged as a strictly white auteur moment, highlighting the talents of Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, and John Cassavetes, for starters. This common narrative of the American New Wave not only sidesteps the historical legacy of Black American film, but disregards the nuanced exploration Blaxploitation horror cinema participated in as it humanized the heavily demonized identity of blackness as one of its core principles.
Blaxploitation cinema excelled in utilizing cinematic technology—historically a tool of white supremacy—and molding it into an artistic venue of black rebellion. Yet, despite its trailblazing proximity to radical notions of race consciousness, Blaxploitation horror fails in its understanding of gender and sexuality. When examined in the context of American politics, which often view progressive issues like classism, racism, etc. as singular problems rather than matters in need of intersectional upheaval, this shortcoming in Blaxploitation cinema is undoubtedly a symptom of a larger issue. Blaxploitation horror similarly fails in acknowledging womanhood and sensuality as equally important strides in the black liberation movement. In Blacula (1972), for example, the protagonist is a heroic, machismo vampire, while female characters with similarly monstrous appetites are seen as deplorable.
Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, showcases the feminist psychoanalysis rebuttal to the Freudian suggestion that women terrify because of their castering biological makeup. Creed tackles the many ways in which women in horror are seen as this castering monster through seven recurring tropes:
- Archaic Mother
- Monstrous Womb
- Possessed Monster
- Deadly Femme Castratrice
- The Castrating Mother
While Creed touches upon much of what makes the feminine “monstrous” in her psychoanalysis, she doesn’t explicitly spotlight women of color in horror cinema—much less Blaxploitation horror. I, therefore, will explore the breadth of patriarchal obstacles that alter the perceived humanity of three black female characters in Blaxploitation horror classics, all through the lens of Creed’s deadly sins:
- Possessed Monster: Carole Speed as Abby in Abby
- Deadly Femme Castratrice: Marki Bey as Diane "Sugar" Hill in Sugar Hill
- Vampire: Marlene Clark as Ganja Meda in Ganja and Hess
In Abby (1974), a mild-mannered, docile preacher’s wife becomes possessed by the disruptive Yoruba god of sexuality, Eshu. As a result of this foreign occupation of her mind, body, and soul, the sweet-tempered Abby transforms into a sexual creature, a more mature version of Regan MacNeil in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). The Monstrous-Feminine conveniently spotlights Regan's possession in The Exorcist, which can be compared to Abby’s similarly demonic takeover.
“[She may] appear pure and beautiful on the outside, but evil may, nevertheless, reside within…This is one reason why Regan’s possession is so horrifying…her gradual possession, with its emphasis on filthy utterances and depraved acts, seems so shocking...Regan’s mockery of all established forms of propriety, of the clean and proper body, and of the law itself, define her as abject. Yet, despite her monstrous appearance and shocking utterances, she remains a strongly ambiguous figure. Regan’s carnivalesque display of her body reminds us quite clearly of the immense appeal of the abject. Horror emerges from the fact that woman has broken with her proper feminine role – she has ‘made a spectacle of herself’ – put her unsocialized body on display” (Creed 2001: 42).
The reaction to Abby’s possession is one of pure conservatism, unsurprising due to her religious domestic life and marriage. Abby’s theologian father-in-law seeks to restore the young woman to her proper duties as wife and daughter by invoking the ‘backwards’ African Gods to drive the possession from her body. The film marvelously illustrates Christianity as the prevailing good against the barbaric nature of the Yoruba religion, a widespread West African faith, and simultaneously vilified female sexuality as a result of a tribal bodily invasion. Abby embodies the “monstrous appearance” in conjunction with Creed’s Possessed Monster. While her entire body and psyche lays inhabited by a foreign entity, it takes a group of men and the good book to relinquish her from ancestral ties to the motherland and most dangerous of all, displays oneself as a bold creature, empowered by “depraved” acts of audacious sexuality.
Following the success of Blaxploitation horror trailblazers like Blacula (1972) and it’s sequel, Scream Blacula Scream (1973), American International Pictures—the independent production company home to some of horror’s greatest subgenre pictures—continued with its 1974 release of Sugar Hill, written by playwright Tim Kelly and director Paul Maslansky. Sugar Hill is not a place, but a young woman: Diana “Sugar” Hill, a vengeful femme castratrice who calls upon an aged voodoo priestess, Mama Maitresse. Hill needs Maitresse’s divine powers in order to build an army of zombie assassins and seek havoc on the local white gangsters who murdered her boyfriend and attempted steal her nightclub. Hill and Maitresse embody Creed’s Deadly Femme Castratrice trope due to their femininity and knowledge of voodooism:
“The femme castratrice is an all-powerful, all destructive figure who arouses a fear of castration and death while simultaneously playing on the masochistic desire for death, pleasure, and oblivion [in men]” (Creed 2001: 130).
Despite this “powerful” tool of sorcery against their male opponents, the film’s true monstrosities are the women’s Afrocentric essence of voodooism, a gawked-at and maligned practice that is commonly spread across the Black diaspora. Maitresse’s knowledge of voodoo, Diana Hill’s unquenchable thirst for revenge, and the camera’s visual method of moving the audience to empathize with the victims, rather than Diana herself, serve to exemplify and bolster Sugar Hill’s violent monstrosities, respectfully.
Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess (1973), a neurotic love story seen through the eyes of vampires, takes an intersectional approach in viewing race as monstrous. The only film of my examined trio written and directed by a black person, Ganja and Hess is now considered an arthouse landmark. Despite its lackluster critical reception upon release, the film violates the conventional Western linear narrative, and instead explores Otherness through the lens of race, sexuality, and theology, arguing that relying on these identities are like addictions—much akin to Ganja and Hess’s taste for blood.
In addition to rich cultural metaphors, the film offers depth and complexity in its lead characters: George Meda, a depressed part-time minister and anthropologist, his boss, Dr. Hess Green, and George’s wife, Ganja Meda. Before committing suicide, the mentally unstable George Meda stabs Dr. Green with a cursed ceremonial dagger, turning Green into a reluctant vampire. Ganja, meanwhile, sets out to find George, who went unresponsive after leaving for his anthropological research trip. Her quest gives way to torrid love affair with Dr. Green, and doesn’t take a backseat after the discovery of her husband’s body. Instead it jumpstarts Ganja’s journey from adulteress, to gunshot bride, and finally, to vampire, at the request of her new husband.
“The female vampire is abject because she disrupts identity and order; driven by her lust for blood, she does not respect the dictates of the law which set down the rules of proper sexual conduct. Like the male, the female vampire also represents abjection because she crosses the boundary between the living and dead, the human and animal. The vampire’s animalism is made explicit in her bloodlust and the growth of her two pointed fangs. Because she is not completely animal or human, because she hovers on the boundary between these two states, she represents abjection” (Creed 2001: 66).
Making the newlywed couple isolated creatures of the night, existing within the confines of a sprawling mansion on a far-away island, hell-bent on the blood of humans, the film aesthetically and visually paints the duo as sympathetic monsters for their unusual entrance into vampirism. Although violent creatures they are, it was a path the two had no agency in engaging with to begin with.
The guilt of vampiric murder later causes Hess to repent for his sins and symbolically die by the Christian cross, while Ganja continues her eternal existence. Perhaps Ganja’s monstrosity comes from her unwillingness to join George and Dr. Hess in death; her desire to “hover on the boundary between these two states [life and death]” marks a selfish existence of blood lust in a beautiful island manor with any man of her choosing.
What Ganja and Hess gets right, mirrors what Blaxploitation-horror at it’s height is capable of achieving. Establishing a shred of tangible yet symbolic truth in otherwise alternate universe, where cultural identities such as race, class, sexuality, and gender can become metaphoric markers of empathy for viewers. Benshoff said it best:
“What is most political about a horror film is what scares the audience in the first place.” (Benshoff 2000: 46)
There’s a possibility that the most pervasive scare tactic is ‘Othering’, it’s a successful methodology that has terrified audiences not just cinematically but politically. We’ve seen Othering during the Transatlantic Slave Trade by ways of scientific racism against the African population and again during the European Holocaust vis a vis scapegoating of the minority Jewish population. In horror cinema, Othering might be the key political factor in uniting our voyeuristic delights, but what that indicates about our threshold for multiple marginalized identities speaks volumes about where we’ve been and how far we still have to go.
Benshoff, Harry M. "Blaxploitation Horror Films: Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription?" 39.2 (2000): 31-50. JSTOR. Web.
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1993. Print.
about the writer
Rooney Elmi is the founder and managing editor of SVLLY(wood) Magazine.