Foreword: We Will No Longer Be Your Monster

by Chesya Burke, Ph.D

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

[page 7] I am a Black woman horror writer and a Black woman horror scholar, but first and foremost a Black woman horror fan. It’s important that I continue to reiterate that I am Black and a woman because for an unreasonably long period of time, horror has been almost strictly the purview of white men. During this time, horror took on many facets, but no matter the era, Black people were always no less oppressed within the genre than they were outside of it—and often more so. While this is likely not a shock to any true horror fan, it’s important to note that horror genre enthusiasts often pride themselves on being outside the margins. In other words, horror fans, writers, and artists often express a sense of exclusion from mainstream society for their interest in the horrific, the vile, and the bloody. The problem, of course, is that these spaces were no more inclusive for Black bodies, who are more likely to experience socioeconomic and racial disenfranchisement than the average horror fan. Horror creators and fans have been just as content abusing Black bodies as mainstream spaces. Historically, lynching Black people was an American pastime where whole white families, including children, were invited to witness and participate. While white America used the lynching of Black bodies as entertainment in outside spaces, the horror film industry can be credited with helping to bring this tradition into homes so that viewers did not even have to leave their houses to see Black people terrorized, villainized, and murdered. We were your monster—as you terrorized us both off and on screen.

For Black horror enthusiasts, the landscape for this genre is often a turbulent, uninhabitable place. If you doubt this, I can regale you with stories of my time spent within the horror genre, including (but not limited to) being called Aunt Jemima at a horror convention by a white man in front of a group of solely white men. I mention this often not only because it has had a profound effect on me, but also because [page 8] it so clearly demonstrates the violence that people who look like me face within genre spaces, particularly horror.

Despite the people and the stories and the white supremacy, however, horror is always my first love. In a recent interview for The Horror Writer’s Association (I have been a member off and on throughout the years), I spoke about getting my love of horror from my mother. And it is true, my family would stay up late weekend nights, rent horror movies, and curl up on the sofa under the covers—me often hiding my eyes. I have likely seen more horror movies than the average person has seen any film from any genre. Believe me, I jest only slightly. As a kid, for me, that wasn’t enough, though. I was probably the only eight- or nine-year-old elementary kid who had researched the history of the real Vlad Dracula, werewolves, and witches, such as the Salem Witch Trials, and other real-life monsters. Along with these books, the librarian kept their one copy of Harriett Tubman’s biography on reserve for me (every now and again, after I’d checked it out for the maximum number of times, I was forced to return it and wait to check it out again, so she would hold it and let me know when my turn came back around). So, there was something about understanding the truth behind the stories and the history about our nation that fed me as a young child. I started writing. Stories. Longhand.

Then suddenly there were Black people in my horror. Not as objects to be ridiculed, but as subjects who’s lives didn’t revolve around existing for the white gaze. People Under the Stairs. Jada Picket Smith and CCH Pounder in Demon Night. Tales From the Hood. Now, not only were Black people protagonists on my screen, but the there was a history and stories that needed to be told around these Black bodies—this marginalized group that for so long had so proudly and loudly defended their right to exist. They weren’t the monster. They weren’t the victims. They were kicking white people’s asses.

“You hold on one minute. You just hold on one minute,” I said to myself (gold star for the person who gets this non-horror movie reference). “We can do this?” My little eight- [page 9] year-old storytelling self could not contain her joy. So, I wrote more. This time it wasn’t longhand; and this time the stories were different. The characters looked like me, acted like me and had the same fears, aspirations, and desires as me.

I would normally say that, for me, academia came later. But as I sit here, 9:00 at night, and I write this out (non-longhand) and I reminisce on my life of horror, I realize that academia and scholarship were always a part of my journey. I am basically still that little Black girl who needs to have her copies of Harriett Tubman and Dracula close enough to smell the pages. Only now, I have an office with shelves and shelves of horror works and scholarship, with a whole shelf devoted to my own work.

I have spent a lot of words in this Foreword proving to you that I am horror enough to accept within this space; and it is not lost on me that I have done this much in the same way that old slave narratives had Forewords written by white people to prove that the Black writer was intelligent enough to have written their own horror stories. And I am keenly aware that, as much as things change, they also remain the same for Black and marginalized groups.

This leads me to Jordan Peele.

Jordan Peele is a Black man horror creator. And a Black man horror fan. He is good at what he does. He often mixes history and horror (and humor) to explore the dangers of white supremacy in this country. He also just tells entertaining stories; ones that you want to see again and again to pick up on the nuances and what he likes to call “Easter eggs,” homages to other horror films.

Peele’s deep connection to the genre allows him to use horror as a sounding board for racial issues, while holding a mirror to the genre and white society. In his seminal film Get Out, Peele explores racism within the white middle class. In a recent article that I wrote titled “Horror, Humor and Satire in Get Out” for Gothic Mash-Ups: Hybridity, Appropriation, and Intertextuality in Gothic Storytelling edited by Natalie Neill, I said: [page 10]

The Armitages position themselves as good employers to their Black staff and are seen as upstanding, good people. . . . [T]hey would never call Black people by the “n” word, after all, they would have voted for Obama for a third time if given the opportunity. They are, by all accounts, liberal. As such, Peele’s film suggests that racism does not function in this way—with the angry white racist, saying the “n” word and trying to murder Black people, as seen in The Shining—but racism is instead often more insidious. It is built within the fabric of the American household and reflects what scholars call the “white epistemologies of ignorance,” whereby white people often downplay the “subtle” forms of racism in favor of “overt racism” (Combs 2018, 38). This effectively works because it allows white people to engage in not so obvious forms of racism without taking ownership of the harm they cause. It is when white people use systemic white supremacy, but maintain innocence because they haven’t, for instance, used the “n” word.

Jordan Peele is a Black man horror creator and fan. I reiterate this because his identity is important to his understanding of horror. Peele has often said that his inspirations come from comedians and horror classics alike. His horror influences include such films as Candyman, Night of the Living Dead, The Stepford Wives, and many more. Some of his comedic inspirations are Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, and Dave Chappelle. With this, we can understand that Peele knows horror and he understands timing, which allows him to produce horror stories that are filled with nuance and characters and thrills, but more importantly, that expose the hypocrisy of the same “white moderates” that Martin Luther King, Jr., rebukes in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” while also exposing well-known characters like Jack Torrance from The Shining, who though reluctant to say that “n” word, clearly embodies our racist history in the U.S.

The articles in this issue offer a variety of lenses through [page 11] which to view Jordan Peele’s work. From tackling unruly Black and Indigenous characters in Lovecraft Country in order to critique constructed social norms of race, gender and sexuality, to examining the meaning of safe spaces for Ruby, Hippolyta and Montrose, to the use of minstrelization, “the terrible place,” auditory sounds, and speculative storytelling to reckon with the long history of anti-Black racism within the U.S., the scholars in this issue not only understand horror on deep fundamental levels, but, as my fellow Supernatural Studies editor and scholar Dr. Jennifer Gilchrist says, they “use it to deconstruct, highlight, and interject [into] the broader conversation around topics of race.”

Scholars refer to literature, films, and other forms of art as living documents, not simply because they possess the ability to evolve, but because as cultural pedagogues, we are always adding to the understanding of works of art through our scholarship and analyses of these works. While Jordan Peele has burst onto the movie-making landscape, unfortunately his work has not yet received the scholarly attention that it deserves. I suggest that this is not only because he is relatively new but also because his work is intimidating and difficult to classify. We seek to change this with the publication of this issue. The scholars here bring a new understanding to Peele as a creator, while leaving space for the scholarship to grow and evolve—as Peele himself is likely to do.

This project, thus, participates in and contributes to the ongoing conversation on Jordan Peele the creator, as an addition to and continuation of Black horror moviemakers of both the past and present. Like Peele himself, the articles in this issue are bold and unapologetic in their critique of the endemic problem of white-dominated terror within the American landscape.

Black creators have worked hard to change the narrative around what the true American monster looks and acts like, and the articles within this issue offer differing analyses of Peele’s work, as he continues this tradition. While Black [page 12] bodies are still terrorized, the face of the monster has shifted and lost a considerable amount of melanin—especially within the works of Black and other marginalized creators, such as Peele.

And I, for one, am content to curl up under the covers and enjoy the show. When I’m not writing and creating my own, of course.

Chesya Burke, Ph.D

Stetson University

Dr. Chesya Burke is an Assistant Professor of English and U.S. Literatures and is the director of Africana Studies at Stetson University. Having written and published over a hundred fiction pieces and articles within the genres of science fiction, fantasy, comics, and horror, her academic research focuses primarily on the intersections of race, gender, and genre. Her primary areas of study are in African American literature, Afrofuturism, race and gender studies, comics, and speculative fiction. Her story collection, Let’s Play White, is being taught in universities around the country, and her upcoming book, Hero Me Not: The Containment of the Most Powerful Black, Female Superhero, from Rutgers University Press, is scheduled to debut on April 14, 2023.

MLA citation (print):

Burke, Chesya. "Foreword: We Will No Longer Be Your Monster." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 7, no. 2, 2022, pp. 7-12.