Killing Like They Do in the Movies
“Black ghosts dangle in all the corners of my horror flicks lately.”
1. Digging beneath my uncle’s feet
In 1996, I knew nothing of the word “lynch,” only that it was also the last name of a girl in my grade whom none of us talked to.
They found Uncle Craig hanging from a tree on McKeever Road. I remember that his skin was darker than most of the skin I had seen, remember thinking later that his body and the tree must have shared a darkness. Crooked silhouette of limbs and fingers and trunks, all that Carolina morning burning holes through it. I shouldn’t have been able to beautify that image. I want to take to task my mind’s archive of envisioned, consumable violence.
At seven, I knew only what it was: a hanging. Not who, not why, and not since when.
A chain of associations drags me out of sleep. I dreamed someone tattooed on my forearm a talismanic pentagram. I somehow surface recalling the gruesome kills of Michael Myers throughout the Halloween franchise. All the white teenage girls, strangled or bleeding out, and then Tyra Banks: gutted and hanging by the neck from a wire. I demand a metaphor for how these scenes are imagined—how dust and waste and forgotten things might collect in the bed of a huge river, how I could pick up a small stone formed from centuries of this and wonder about its weight in my palm, the color contrast, and never question the river, what cut across it, sank through it, floated on its surface.
It’s not that Michael Myers had never strung up a body before Halloween: Resurrection (2002). On the contrary, it was by then the killer’s hallmark to suspend his victims, cocking his head in odd curiosity or appraisal of his work. It’s that Banks’s Blackness, her Black woman body silent in the center of the room, reveals the grotesque as no curio but a well-known wound. I’ve been failing to write a poem that ends with the lines this body didn’t teach you all / you know about gore, but damn / if it didn’t try.
I haven’t thought about Uncle Craig in I don’t know how long, had forgotten ever having known someone who was lynched, and this lapse is what troubles me when I throw back the sheets. I ask my mother for details, and she calls from work, and yeah it had to be about ’96 because that was the year after Daddy died and left her with two sons and the year my sister was born, and she wants to send me pictures of Craig’s daughter’s daughter, who is beautiful and in one picture is holding my baby niece, and our girls are always beautiful, but yeah, Momma doesn’t think they ever found who did it, doesn’t think they were really looking, no use in me being mad about it now, she’s gotta go visit Craig’s wife Aunt Deborah in Columbia and see the new granddaughter, and she’s gonna send me all these pictures of the beautiful girls.
2. We live on Elm Street
Wes Craven died. Brain cancer. Violent, but relatively goreless, considering. Features and images went up online to commemorate what Craven had given us. I wonder if maybe lately I don’t have much grief left on reserve for famous white men, or if I have trouble mourning in general, but in a predictable mix of homage and nostalgia, that evening I decided to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Craven’s classic franchise-starter in which razor-fingered Freddy Krueger stalks the dreams of four archetypal suburban kids.
I rarely think of Craven, but I can easily visualize many of the kill scenes that made him famous and his killers infamous. I keep a mental library of the kills. I often call on them while writing poems as though for a diction of fantasized violence, a showcase of its pronunciations. This is what Craven and his counterparts have given me.
A few minutes into the film I began to dread the rest of it. Each scene seemed to climb toward the least red death in the film—that of Rod, the first victim’s dark, “rough-edged,” pretty-faced boyfriend, the prime suspect in her death; Rod, whom Freddy—existing somewhere between nightmare and poltergeist—hangs by a bed sheet in what will appear to the always-ain't-seen-nothin' cops to be an otherwise-empty jail cell.
It’s a bloodless kill. It looks to the adults like a simple guilt-fueled suicide. Meanwhile, I barely register it as the scene of a film. My ears fumble the dialogue. My eyes take in the images from the laptop screen, but my mind is digressing, recycling props kaleidoscopically, replacing Rod with Sandra Bland. That I can color in the glue-and-scissors details around Bland’s death with a scene as outrageous and inventive as this one irritates me. The story from the Waller County jail has as many holes, cuts, edits, and special effects as Craven’s slasher. Black ghosts dangle in all the corners of my horror flicks lately, even when I am not looking.
Upon discovering Rod’s body, the heroine Nancy shrieks the beginning of her long frustration. She knows what’s killing her friends, what’s coming after her. Knowing makes her crazy. Disrupting everyone else’s resistance to knowing makes her the problem.
3. Everybody knows your name
When I enter the bar, its walls are talking loudly amongst themselves, the way a dead woods might always be filled with falling trees regardless of whether an eavesdropping ear would hear. One wall has its mouth full of Josephine Baker and all her feathers. Another holds Miles Davis in the dark throat of its holler, his trumpet paused mid-rapture. There are others, bound in frames, jazzing up the space. All the patrons are white. Their beer voices slap up the Black talent and bounce back. I come like a gap in a white caravan and grit my teeth against the din of it. Down an aisle of stools and minimalist tables, a vintage-looking man plays a vintage-looking piano, grinning at the skinny woman thinly singing another jazz standard, her hair in a vintage-looking bun. A young New Yorker sits across from me and gets bored with my pointing out how white spaces have “this thing” for making ornament of non-white strife and achievement—which are often difficult to tell apart. I’m also bored. I’m trying to understand this nearly ubiquitous need for the Negro edge. Bodies dangling like festive decorations, tricking the light. Somehow I’ve become a conduit for haunting—a needle pushed across the black cut, which spins even when I don’t want to lower my nose to it because maybe tonight my spine needs respite from the violent signals of memory and literacy. How hopeful. Not this night. What happens when I’m not here? What am I assumed to cosign when I am here? These are two different questions with similar answers. Sometimes, when I say I’m bored, I mean bored into. White nostalgia in the age of the hipster bar is a dense sulfuric stink. For one reason or another, I keep inhaling. I order a pizza and neat whiskeys.
4. Who kills Casey Becker
We are introduced to a blonde, and the plot seems likely to center on her. She is stalked and attacked, but her blondeness and surplus lines of dialogue are supposed to save her. She dies around twelve minutes in, murdered in the most violent way. The violent murder of a blonde who spoke frequently suggests that no one is safe. Craven’s Scream, credited with revitalizing the slasher subgenre in 1996, follows a formula previously deployed in A Nightmare on Elm Street. I can trace the tradition back to Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Some nights, when I want to slip inside the guilty space between guaranteed discomfort and the foreknowledge of it, I turn on the movie just to watch this paradigm-shifting first scene. The killing of Casey Becker in Scream was momentous. It marked the end of Craven’s hiatus from big-box-office horror. It marked Drew Barrymore’s return to prominence. It established the Ghostface Killer—that easily laughable horror symbol—as a significant addition to the lineage of masked murderers. It brought the Michael Myers tradition back to the unsuspecting suburbs, where high school girls are often home alone and anyone, especially their boyfriends, could be the home-invading butcher. It’s as if in the imagination of Smalltown, USA, few other perils exist.
The killing of Casey Becker was historic. It’s difficult to see the scene—her body disemboweled, dragged, and hanged from a large tree with the rope of a swing—as existing outside of American history, as created anywhere but in the continuum of a societal id that can’t forget what it’s seen its own hands do, that merely shuffles the moving parts of memory.
There being no Black characters in Scream and so few in its contemporaries illustrates a dissonance, the rasp of an unintended truth. These films imagine the extremities of white cultural depravity and brutality but do so in an America where only whiteness factors (and is in fact not “white” but some agreed-upon glare of homogeneity convinced of its comfort). This arrangement falls back quickly on psychosis-as-motive, in which the mysteries of mental disorder and individual deviance are alibis for the whites-only fantasy. The artifice of chance is the drama. In the case of Scream, the logic seems presented like so: “These two white teens are psychological anomalies and their killing spree of other white teens is an isolated incident although all of their parents are always circumstantially absent and there will be a sequel in which another white man terrorizes the very same white people . . .”
5. My other education
I was a queer and skinny child whose dominant emotion was fear. While other boys practiced succeeding at masculinity, thrashing and breaking their bodies in hours of commune, I hung back and cultivated a knowledge of exits, of how to get out alive, how to avoid entry. I was probably sitting on the floor, legs in a bow, safe from my cousins’ game of tackle football in the front yard, when my aunt and uncle put a rented copy of Scream in the VCR.
When I was a fifth- or sixth-grader in after-school care, Momma had an HBO subscription and I had a habit of unwrapping the aluminum foil from the school’s afternoon snacks, folding and shaping it into a hook circa Ben Willis of I Know What You Did Last Summer, and smuggling the flimsy prop out of the cafeteria and onto the playground, where I stalked my classmates throughout the plastic fort. I daydreamed of drafting a horror novel but only got as far as the cover image. I filled sketchbooks with color-penciled movie posters for teen slashers that existed and some that I hoped soon would. My drawings were decent. My illustration of the new playground had graced the school yearbook cover. One of my tornado scenes, inspired by Jan de Bont’s 1996 special-effects montage Twister, had aired on the morning news. In third grade, my post-Titanic sketches of nude women had stirred some quiet controversy among the faculty, but in the end the principal was lenient, even impressed, having found the renderings “tasteful.” I managed to keep the slasher sketches to myself until middle school, when all the low-boiling parts of me wanted to be acted out. My crosshatched knives stabbed no bodies but hovered in white space, dripping potential.
6. The punch line
I’m a queer and skinny adult whose flesh has known more blades than fists, whose mind knows the MOs of Bundy, Dahmer, Gacy, Ramirez, and others, who is still a bit bolstered by being able to stomach certain information without a cringe.
One study purports that Black people are believed to feel pain to a lesser degree than whites. Another supports the existence of racial PTSD. Another: the physiological effects of racism can substantially shorten a life. What Black bodies perhaps know: You can spend a long lifetime performing the role of a retort, a punch line. I want to make of this an if-then statement, a colored optimism. My poetry students are optimistic about clichés. They hypothesize that if an artist acknowledges the cliché and/or transforms it just enough, then an audience can more readily accept the cliché.
In 1997, singer Brandy played the lead role in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. The cast—portraying mixed-race families, royal and common—still (humorously) perplexes people on IMDb message boards. The year after, Brandy was Karla Wilson in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, a sequel for which the filmmakers seem to have taken a cue from Scream 2 and included Black characters in the supporting cast and allowed them to survive more than half the action.
Scream 2 cast Omar Epps, Jada Pinkett, Elise Neal, and Duane Martin. In the first minute, Pinkett’s Maureen delivers the line: “All I’m saying is the horror genre’s historical for excluding the African-American element,” and the sequel laughs loudly at its predecessor. Epps’s Phil jokes about “an all-Black movie,” and Craven maybe giggles a little at himself. (His directing credit immediately preceding Scream had been Vampire in Brooklyn, which grossed less than its budget and boasted a predominantly Black cast.) Martin’s character Joel—a source of comic relief—is the only one of the four who survives Scream 2; the others suffer together a total of at least thirteen stab wounds, Phil and Maureen having been targeted, it turns out, because their names loosely replicated those of white characters who died in the original Scream.
Karla Wilson is the best college friend of Last Summer veteran Julie James, played by Jennifer Love Hewitt. Julie runs a lot but lives again, as does her partner Ray. Unlike her partner Tyrell, Karla—having fallen backward through the glass ceiling of a bedroom, having fallen backward through the glass roof of a greenhouse, having fallen backward through a glass door and played dead—also lives, limping into the penultimate scene.
7. She is (beside) herself
My first and only real conversation with my great-grandmother, the truest stoic I ever knew, was a warning after she caught wind that I “went around” with white girls. Perhaps she recalled how this would’ve ended in the early part of the century she had lived, had witnessed. The consistent drama of horror seems to be its nestling inside the trope of preying on and violating innocence, which is the domain ruled by young white women, if ruling is a way of being puppeteered. I wonder if Uncle Craig was somebody’s Black friend, or if I should mention that Aunt Deborah could pass as white.
In her poem “The Jailer,” Sylvia Plath writes He has been burning me with cigarettes, / Pretending I am a negress with pink paws. / I am myself. That is not enough. I hold these lines like a grudge. Plath’s speaker wants to level an indictment against the shadowy man who has imprisoned, abused, drugged and raped her. A numeration of injustices. To be burned with cigarettes—what holes this papery day is already full of!—is apparently a violence that a Black woman traditionally vests. Unambiguously, “paws” belong to an animal. I am myself, as if the rapist’s imagining the inhuman Black body in the speaker’s stead lubricates his brutality. He is deluded, unappeasable. The poem swells with the desperation of this moment. I am myself. For whom is that not enough?
8. Spectacle / sport
Consider the state-sanctioned hubs of public humiliation and mutilation. Gladiator death-matches, Crusades, the Inquisition, the evolution of legal public execution including lynching, from the advent of television into continuously looped video clips of police shootings—all as if there’s a consistent desire to access carnage from the safe distance of a spectator. Less than a century out of Jim Crow, I doubt it’s difficult to argue that a public imagination lingers with the same appetite for gore that lynchings—their rape, dragging, shooting, castration, hanging, burning, and displayed decay—once sated. Now it leeches elsewhere.
The physical kill. The imaginary kill. The execution that is “nigger.” The amateur porn subgenre of race-play. I tell a friend No, I won’t let a man call me that, fucking or not, but I’ve watched a Black man enjoy exactly this somewhere on MyVidster, threefourfive times now. When the white boys slap the hog-tied Rogan Hardy and call him “nigger,” their jaws glitch over the strange shape of the word, their faces momentarily funhoused away from human, the eyelids receding, whites waxing cartoonish. I watch and a heated radius expands. I’ve been sweating the matters of agency and impulse. My friend responds but it’s fantasy—which it is, for everyone except the actors: the man whose mouth makes the killing and the one whose body approximates a corpse. But maybe, I concede, even for them.
9. Unmaking the monster
I try to elude the burden. Then I attempt to share it. I remember how I got here, who sent me, the single sentence that propels me.
“What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have the nigger in the first place.” James Baldwin poses this challenge on a PBS segment of Henry Morgenthau III’s “The Negro and the American Promise” in 1963. “Cause I’m not a nigger,” he continues. “I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.” Skip to 2011: In Chapter 7 (“Black is Back!”) of Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present, Robin R. Means Coleman analyzes Craven’s 1991 cult favorite The People Under the Stairs, “in which the ’hood and the suburbs stood in confrontation against each other . . . with the ’hood proving victorious.” She writes of the white slumlords in the film:
The couple, then, represent a bundle of horrible taboos: (1) food (forced cannibalism); (2) death (they murder the two thieves); and (3) incest (among themselves and with their “daughters”). Central to the narrative of their taboos is that these are horrors easily hidden behind wealth and Whiteness; two positions of power which mean one would seldom be suspected of, or can get a pass for, evil.
Coleman has, by this point in the chapter, already made legible a few ills of Candyman (1992), a supernatural slasher that is perhaps more candid about its leaning on the myth of Black monstrosity than it means to be, practically in syzygy with King Kong and, Coleman argues, The Birth of a Nation. But Candyman’s eponymous hook-handed haint is only the Vader-mask to its messy racial mush-mouth.
The Candyman is the vengeful spirit of a lynched man, Daniel Robitaille, mutilated for his miscegenation. His bloody acts manifest his desire to seduce the live white Helen to her death. His trail of impoverished Black victims from the Cabrini-Green projects seems peripheral to this bizarre infatuation. Helen debuts as a (bored and scorned and) curious grad student in Chicago. After hearing the legend of Candyman, she’s taken in by a headline: “Cause of Death, What Killed Ruthie Jean? Life in the Projects.” Her arrival in “the 'hood” from the highway’s good side, looking for sources to inflate her thesis on urban legends, is cute and exploitative. What killed Ruthie Jean is more enigmatic and enticing than what usually kills the all-Black residents of Cabrini-Green, where, according to Helen and her friend Bernadette, every day a kid gets shot. Around seventeen minutes in:
Bernadette: I just want you to think, okay? The gangs hold this whole neighborhood hostage.
Helen: Okay, let’s just turn around then. Let’s just go back and we can write a nice little boring thesis regurgitating all the usual crap about urban legends.
In recent months I’ve been gradually collecting notes for the practice of centering Blackness. The Candyman is a distraction. Décor. I fold him aside. Helen needs this haunting. Her whiteness and access to a predominantly white institution of higher education have failed to elude the risk of mediocrity. Whatever is lurking in the gutted Cabrini-Green projects, whatever killed Ruthie Jean, can save Helen from disappointing namelessness. In a stasis-intrusion model of plot, little dissimilates the intrusion of Candyman (who appears only to her) into Helen’s high-story-condo life from Helen’s intrusion into Cabrini-Green—where most of the blood in the film is shed—except that nobody seems to hallucinate Helen, or the corpses made in her presence.
When I view the images of mobs huddled under hanged men, of Michael Brown’s half-fetal body four hours facedown and cops at compass points, I want to talk about necessity. I want to ask, What do you need? Do you know? What did the landscape of Darlington, South Carolina, need with Craig’s darkness? What does the urge toward mass murder need with anomalous madness? It seems that forms of atrocity have no use for the semantics of mental fitness. Darren Wilson hallucinated a demon and a body dropped. What did he need? What does ritual human sacrifice need with a god?
10. Grace and mercy
One of the most insidious facets of Dylann Roof’s massacre of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, is the matter of setting: The Black church is a testament to and tomb of America’s sustained racist violence, a memorial of the pillaged spirit poorly substituted with religion. Its insistence on the power of healing forgiveness is unwavering because what else. There is always something to forgive, to get over.
I was brought up in these places. My grandma can to be found in one three or four days a week. Even on the phone she has a suffocating hopefulness. All that she survives she does so “by God’s good grace.” I’m still not irreverent enough to tell her that her God and our Black lives are irreconcilable to me. I want to call more often. I wish she would just pray at home.
I’m anxious, ambivalent about the re-presentations of daily horrors—man shot down, gun planted; woman pulled from car, her pregnant body slammed—because I neither trust America to live with its own memory nor trust myself not to forget to live. I mean I might try to forget in order to live. I might try. I’m often afraid. I’m not above trying.
There’s a scene in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, after a hurricane hits and the body pile first peaks, when Julie—who took this vacation in the Bahamas in an effort to move on from the murders of the previous year—finally reveals to her friends that they’re all going to die and the who and the why.
Karla: How could you not tell me the whole story? I’m your best friend!
Julie: I just wanted it to be over. I didn’t wanna involve anybody else.
Karla: Well, it’s too late for that now.
They all stand in a downpour, distraught, on a useless pier.
With debt to Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark and gratitude to L. Lamar Wilson.
Justin Phillip Reed is a South Carolina native and the author of Indecency (Coffee House Press, 2018). His work has appeared in Best American Essays, Boston Review, Callaloo, The Kenyon Review, Obsidian, and elsewhere. Justin lives in St. Louis. Come see about him at justinphillipreed.com.
More by this author
“Manson’s magical proximity to massacres of gun violence is, we know, not magical. His practice is prismatic, his lyrics a sieve.”
More in this series
I know that their lips are touching, and that this is the first time it’s ever happened on a free-to-air telenovela.