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The Black Guy Dies First: A Poignant and Entertaining Ride Through Black Horror History

Plus: the limitless possibilities of the future.

the black guy dies first

We all know the horror tropes. The final girl. The cheerleader. The jock. The Black guy—and we all know how this typically ends. But why does the Black guy always die first? And what does it mean if he doesn’t?

Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris set out to not only dissect and understand the history and evolution of the Black horror genre but make their analysis accessible to the mainstream.

Both Dr. Coleman and Mark are prominent horror experts bringing years of experience and expertise to the genre. Dr. Coleman’s Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present, which was made into a documentary in 2019, gives a comprehensive history of Black participation in horror and how those narratives reflect societal ideas on race and culture. Mark, who was also in the documentary, has run the prolific website blackhorrormovies.com for nearly twenty years, creating a plethora of Black horror knowledge. 

Together, they wrote The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar, a hilarious and insightful dive into the history of Black horror through modern times. We were thrilled to sit and talk with them about their co-writing process, why they love horror, and which Black horror movies everyone should watch.

the black guy dies first

The Black Guy Dies First

By by Robin R. Means Coleman, PhD, and Mark H. Harris

We are so excited to chat with you both. Can you introduce yourselves to our readers?

Mark: I’m Mark Harris, or Mark H. Harris. I use the extra "H" to distinguish me from the other Mark Harris who’s another much more famous movie writer. 

Robin: Not anymore.

Mark: I’ve operated the website blackhorrormovies.com for close to twenty years. It’s a premier online site devoted to Black horror movies and the portrayal of Black characters in horror movies. I was in the Horror Noire documentary as a talking head. I know some people have given me more credit for the documentary than I had, I didn’t have anything to do with the actual production, just to clear that up. And I’m the co-author of the book, The Black Guy Dies First.

Robin: I'm Robin R. Means Coleman. I also use the "R" and the "Means" because there's another famous Robin Coleman who's a bodybuilder, and I'm not that. I am Vice President and Associate Provost for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, as well as a Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. I too was a talking head in Horror Noire, the documentary, and had a little bit more of a role because it was based on the 1st edition of my book, Horror Noire. The 2nd edition was released a couple of weeks ago.   

Mark and I have been collaborating and having conversations about Black horror for a very long time.  

When did you first get into horror and what draws you to the genre?

Mark: I think Robin and I had similar beginnings in terms of the movie room we might cite. We've told the story a few times, but the movie that really kicked things off for me was Night of the Living Dead, the original 1968 movie. I wasn't alive in 1968, but I watched it later in my adolescence and I remember being fascinated by it. 

It was this black-and-white, ancient movie. And yet it was so edgy. It had this strong Black character who was the leader and taking charge. It was something I didn't expect to see on screen, especially in a movie that old. It was not only entertaining and scary, but the fact that it ended on a kind of sad note where—SPOILER—the Black guy dies.   

It struck me as interesting because not only was it something that had some commentary behind it with almost a lynch mob type of imagery. But the fact that a movie could end on a sad note. The hero doesn’t have to go walking into the sunset and have a great life. That was something that drew me to horror in general because I’m drawn to darker storylines. So, the fact that you could have an ending that was he dies and that’s that. That really appealed to me.

Robin: Our horror origin stories are very similar. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, and for horror-heads, I don't have to explain that very much. That's where George Romero filmed Night of the Living Dead in and around Pittsburgh. He went to Carnegie Mellon University, which is also in Pittsburgh. I took classes there. And so, I talk about horror being in my DNA, starting with Night of the Living Dead, and have been watching and writing about it ever since.   

dr. robin h. means coleman
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  • Dr. Robin H. Means Coleman

You mentioned Horror Noire, both the book and the documentary, and The Black Guy Dies First almost feels like an extension of that body of work. How did it come about that you decided to write this book together?   

Mark: We see the book as a sister text to Horror Noire. It’s the nerdy, brainy sister, and this one is the popular cheerleader sister. Horror Noire is more academic, and it’s more serious than The Black Guy Dies First. We wanted to make something that had more widespread or mainstream appeal, maybe even to people who don't necessarily like horror movies so much. So, we wanted to make it entertaining and to draw people in by using a lot more humor, lists, and that sort of thing.

The interesting thing is that Robin was writing the 2nd edition of Horror Noire, updating it to current times, at the same time. We were able to keep them very exclusive. You can read both books and not have much crossover.

I think the humor worked so well in this book and there were so many laugh-out-loud moments, which made it a delight to read. Why did you decide to infuse humor with the history and the horror?

Mark: I think it goes along with our approach to draw in more of a mainstream audience. We wanted it to be less academic and more accessible. And because we’re touching on heavy subjects, we thought we could do that by adding humor. You can only draw in so many people being really serious about topics like race. So, we wanted to make it entertaining to draw people in and then have some messaging underneath. On top of that, it’s a reflection of how we feel about horror in general. Horror is a fun genre. It’s scary, but it's also fun and we wanted to have fun with the book. Horror movies often have messaging underneath the entertainment, so that’s the approach we took with the book.

Robin: That's absolutely right. The important thing we've been highlighting is that the horror genre is funny. It often has comedic elements and we wanted to make sure that was highlighted. We didn’t want to suck the entertaining parts out of the history of horror. You’ll see that come through in the book. 

The book is also funny because the genre has made it easy for us to write in that vein. There are some great lines, zingers, and performances that are in the book from the comedic elements of movies like The People Under the Stairs and Vampire in Brooklyn. The puns, the double entendre, they’re so embedded in the horror genre, and we work to capture that in the book. 

Mark H. Harris
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  • Mark H. Harris

Horror tends to be dismissed or shunned by the mainstream for being too campy, too out there. Were you worried that the lighter tone would take away from the deeper messages woven inside the book?

Mark: I wasn't. I find it hard to write seriously. I always want to add humor, it’s always my inclination. And like I said, I knew we were touching on heavy topics like race. One way to get people into the book is to make it entertaining. If they happen to learn something along the way, then that’s great, too.

Robin: It's interesting that you bring up horror as being shunned, as the most disrespected genre. There’s a film critic, Anne Billson, who talks about that. When an elevated horror movie or woke horror movies arrive, people get all giddy with excitement because people hate the genre so much. I think that’s why people wrap their arms around Jordan Peele and Get Out, and subsequently many of the movies that are coming out of his production company, Monkey Paw.

Where I think The Black Guy Dies First is successful, is talking about the long history of pretty amazing films. They don’t all have to be pedagogical about teaching and learning and messages and lessons. They don’t all have to be elevated work or Academy-Award worthy. This is a rich deep genre that has really fascinating stories to tell about our social world, about what scares us, and also about some pretty innovative solutions to some of the things that are going on in our world that are both civil and very uncivil.

Mark: Yeah, that's horror really. I mean it reflects society's anxieties and fears. Even if it’s just a supposedly cheesy slasher, even if it doesn’t have any apparent messaging, it’s still reflecting society’s morals and where they’re at right now. I think there’s a lot to really dig into as far as that goes.

What was your co-writing process like? Was it hard writing together or did you guys find a flow that worked?

Robin: For me, the beauty of this collaboration has been this interview process, where people read us excerpts from the book. Sometimes we'll say, oh, that was you, to each other. But other times we're honestly a little stumped. And I think that's the strength of a collaboration. 

Mark: We had certain areas where each of us felt a little more comfortable starting the writing process. We would show each other what we've written and give comments on each other's work. We’d meet by zoom every week, and just talk things through. But it was very it was very cohesive, very fluid. We still haven’t actually met in person. It was done completely online.

Robin: This was certainly a book written during COVID. So, it wasn’t even possible to meet in person, which had always been the plan. But we couldn’t have traveled during that time. Thankfully digital technologies allowed us to connect, and we could continue the project anyway.

Given your combined collective careers and experience with horror, what kind of research did you find yourselves doing for the book? And were there any surprising revelations that surfaced?

Mark: One area that I wasn't really up on and that I had to dig kind of deep was the Black LGBTQ+ representation in horror. Because it's very hard to find. It's a minority within a minority, so I had to really dig to find even the smallest examples and pull what I could from those. So that was fairly eye-opening. I knew it was rare, but just how rare was surprising to me.

One example was a movie called Macumba Sexual that I referenced in the book. I had never watched it, but the lead Black villain is a trans woman. It was really eye-opening for me because that was the early 1980s. It was a subject I hadn’t delved into too much, and I’m hoping that those kinds of representation will grow so that there will be more examples for the next book.

Robin: I want to pick up on this thread, what we call here at Northwestern gender expansive representation, so LGBTQ+ and there's more under that umbrella of gender expansive identities. That certainly was surprisingly lacking, but it made me think further about possibilities. 

If the future of horror—which is now—if it's imaginative, then it's going to do a better job of being not just inclusive, but writing better stories that include incorporating gender identities. Tied to that, and I don’t think this is separate, is getting out of the specter of whiteness and white supremacy. Really leaning into and embracing the futurism, the Afrofuturism potential possibilities. What does a Black world look like in horror? Where do the horrors come from? If anti-Blackness and white supremacy aren’t looming large, what do those worlds look like? That’s tough to imagine, but I think we have a runway and the skills to explore those themes.

Speaking of imaginative, if you could rewrite any horror film, which film would it be and what would you change?

Mark: One that pops into my mind initially that I felt had potential was Antebellum from a couple of years ago. It obviously had an interesting, innovative set up with a mystery where you weren’t sure what to expect. But the revelation that it was—SPOILER ALERT—these white people kidnapping Black people and putting them in slavery summer camp, I think I called it in the book. For the first half, you think it was back in slavery days on this plantation, but it’s the present day and these people are just trying to recreate slavery for some reason in the modern day.

I sensed that’s where the movie was going, and I was hoping it wouldn’t because what Black person in the present day would even stand for that? I mean, I would immediately revolt. Because the captors didn’t have machine guns. They were in period garb with one-shot guns. These Black people should immediately try to overthrow things, but they were subservient. Even though they were getting whipped and beaten and sexually assaulted. I just couldn’t buy into the concept at all.

I don’t even know how I would change it, but I would definitely not go down that road.

Robin: I agree with you, Mark, and I do think there was a harm that Antebellum did because Alice with Kiki Palmer came out, I think the next year. I didn't know how to read Alice because of Antebellum. It was certainly a better movie, but I couldn't figure out if I loved Alice because Antebellum was released earlier and had stepped on the interesting elements of Alice

Mark: Alice was based on a true story, too. 

Robin: Would you rewrite Antebellum or just throw it out?   

Mark: That's one way to change it. I mean, I don't know. I really don't. I was interested initially because I knew from the trailer it was going to go someplace modern at some point. I wondered if it was like Kindred, where they go back in time, but they chose the worst option. 

Robin: For me, this one is hard because the movie I'm going to say I actually really do like. I have some critiques of it, strong critiques, and I've written about that pretty extensively. I think the movie stands on its own. It's not unproblematic, but I would love to rescript Bernard Rose's 1992 Candyman, and that's also been attempted. 

There are elements, like keeping Tony Todd, and the setting of Chicago and Cabrini Green. But I certainly would have rescripted some parts that I've critiqued, which is his sort of obsession for this white woman and exacting such horrific violence against Black folks. We get character development later, where this is really about how he’s been lynched, but he’s killing all these Black people and lusting for this white woman. It’s like King Kong and Creature of the Black Lagoon. We’ve seen that before. So, I would have liked to have done a little tweaking on Candyman. This is why it’s so important to have diversity in the writer's room.

What is one horror movie you think everyone should watch and why?

Mark: The easiest one for me to say is Get Out. As far as Black horror, it set the bar on a couple of levels. Creatively, it was really innovative. It had a lot to say. It was suspenseful and entertaining. But also financially wise, it was a massive it with a small budget, so it made a lot of money. That’s basically what triggered Hollywood to give all of these new opportunities to other Black horror filmmakers now. It’s probably the boring answer, but it’s really the truth.

Robin: What's your number two and three?   

Mark: There was a movie from a couple of years ago called His House. It's a British movie about African immigrants taking asylum in the UK and they're put in a haunted house. It's kind of like Get Out in that its innovative and unexpected. It deals with issues. It’s very scary but very entertaining. But it also has a big heart. I really thought it should have been considered for an Academy Award, it was that good.

Robin: Mine is Night of the Living Dead because it’s important for a couple of reasons. Obviously because of Dwayne Jones as Ben and what comes of casting that character, what it sort of says about the sociopolitical period and the long Civil Rights movement. So, I think that’s essential. But also because of the ways in which Romero snatches back and rescripts the zombie mythology and takes it out of voodoo and wicked Black religions. Now, maybe it’s a comet, maybe it came from space. I appreciate that because it reframes zombiedom, if that's a word.   

That's my top pick. But then there are two movies that people would not consider horror proper but do have spooky, supernatural elements that I wish people would watch. They are Charles Burnett's, To Sleep with Anger, and Kasi Lemmons’, Eve's Bayou.   

Those two are not by definition, the kinds of things that we would expect from horror, especially if you like The Purge or The Human Centipede. They’re not like that. But there are spooky, mythical elements. What I love about those two is that they both reclaim Black religions in important ways, but they also revealed the depth and richness of Blackness, Black family, Black traditions, and Black history and culture.

What’s next for you both? Any plans on collaborating again in the future?

Mark: I have an essay coming out that Robin actually edited in the Oxford Guide to Black Horror. It’s on Black horror movies from Brazil that explore the global phenomena of Black horror. I’m not sure when it’s coming out, maybe Robin knows, but I’m looking forward to that.

Robin: Well, this has already been a two-book year, and Mark is right, we’re wrapping up the third. We were waiting for an interview with Sherwin Ovid, who did the art in Candyman. We had to change the timeline a little bit, but we thought it was worth waiting for his availability, and the book is about Blackness and horror on the global cinematic stage.

Mark: As far as collaboration, there’s nothing concrete yet. Hopefully, the response to this book will be good enough that the world will want more from us.

We absolutely think it will. Grab your copy of The Black Guy Dies First, available everywhere books are sold.