Why ‘the Black guy dies first’ in horror movies

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

“It's a Black man who is in that small farmhouse, kicking ass and taking names. We read him as such, we understand his relationship to those people, as a Black person, perhaps in a white space,” says author Robin R. Means Coleman of Duane Jones’ character in “Night of the Living Dead.” Credit: YouTube.

Horror films are ripe with tropes — the “Final Girl,” the evil doll or clown, and Black characters are usually the first to meet their fates. A new book called “The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema From Fodder To Oscar” traces 50 years of Black characters and culture in scary movies. It’s co-written by Robin R. Means Coleman, vice president and DEI officer at Northwestern University, and Mark H. Harris, long-time entertainment journalist and founder of BlackHorrorMovies.com

At the core of the trope is the idea that Black characters are depicted as expendable, Harris says. He points to the character of Dick Hallorann, who saves Danny and Wendy in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of “The Shining.” 

“His character is typical of a lot of these roles, in that his life revolves around this white family. He is there basically to worry about the little boy and his well-being. He can't even rest. He’s sitting in his bed, just waiting to be activated into sacrificial Negro mode to come save this family. He gets a sense using his magical Negro powers. He comes cross country, goes through all this trouble and ends up there … and he’s chopped down within minutes.” 

In the book, Hallorann doesn’t die. But as Harris explains, Kubrick justified the murder by needing to establish the extent of the danger at the Overlook Hotel. 

“Often, the Black guy dies in service or support to whiteness. … Black annihilation means that often in these horror movies that also feature a diverse cast, a predominantly white cast, it means that white people get to live on and see another day. So often, these Black characters are quite sacrificial,” Coleman says.

That sacrificial nature is historic and can be traced to the 1960s, including in the film “Spider Baby.” The Black character is an unnamed messenger played by Mantan Moreland, who is sent to a creepy house and meets his demise. Harris says the death is an epitome of the trope — someone who is seen as disposable and only serves to increase the body count. 

Coleman argues that “Spider Baby” and the trope overall established itself at the same time as the civil rights movement, and reflects some of that upheaval happening in society. 

“It presents not just Black and white relationships, but the relationships between Black men and white women. And so within that context, it's not just 1968, but it emerges along a long trajectory of Blackness as unworthy or even monstrous. And white womanhood is being complex, whether it's a King Kong where the monster is metaphorically Black and the white woman is held up, but there's a violence that comes through these interactions between Black men and white women.” 

Another genre also perpetuates the idea of Blackness being dangerous: the zombie film, which pulls from Caribbean religious traditions, and is later exploited, Coleman says.

“Religiosity is set up as other, as exotic, as dangerous, as evil, and scary. And the scariness is a threat to whiteness,” she explains.

Harris points to “Night of the Living Dead,” the 1968 George A. Romero horror flick. While the Black character (a man named Ben, played by Duane Jones) is the last to die, he says his death is striking. 

“He's ordering people around. He's bossing them around and he's organizing things. One by one, they get picked off, and he's the last man standing, only to have himself shot and killed by, for lack of a better word, a lynch mob, that is hunting zombies,” Harris says. “And the implication is they mistake him for a zombie, but there’s definitely a racial overtone to the imagery. … It really is food for thought, especially coming in an age when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in the same year.”

Coleman says Jones’ character wasn’t initially written as Black. And while viewers can debate about whether it was an example of colorblind casting, the impact of his role is longstanding. 

“Duane Jones as a Black man, as a Black actor, brings with him his Blackness and Blackness’ relationship to whiteness. And so whether it's colorblind casting, once he's on the screen, that is a Black man. That's a Black man, as Mark often says, who slaps white people around, who shoots a white man. It's a Black man who is in that small farmhouse, kicking ass and taking names. We read him as such, we understand his relationship to those people, as a Black person, perhaps in a white space.” 

Today, Coleman argues that real-life situations have paralleled horror seen only in film, including its racial dynamics. She points to the January 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol and the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

“It really evokes images of zombie movies where people have driven crazy with rage and are irrational and are just teeming over each other. Just nothing getting in their way. And it really was interesting seeing that the lone figure standing in their way was this Black police officer.”

She calls it a striking role reversal, where the Black person is a police officer and the bad-intentioned civilians are all white. 

Meanwhile, Coleman compares the Charlottesville rally to the dystopian film “The Purge.” 

“There's a way now that the images that are coming out of the reel look so much like what was, at one point, we thought so horrifying, but fantastical. … Both illustrate a danger and a trauma, particularly for Black people, but also a monstrosity. And a hero in a Dwayne Jones-esque way is standing alone at the door, protecting our democracy,” Coleman says.  

Excerpted from The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris


The year was 1968. Hair was big, lapels were bigger, and Hai Karate wafted through the air with impunity. Moviegoers flocked to crowded theaters throughout the summer to see
the big-budget, star-packed sensation that was Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, a film whose lurid blend of sex, violence, religion, and social commentary would help to usher in the modern era of horror cinema.

But, much more quietly, two shoestring-budget indepen- dent features also opened that year that would prove to be just as powerful a harbinger of the shape of horror to come: Night of the Living Dead and Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told. Both movies were unlikely influencers, given their minus- cule productions, with combined budgets of less than one-tenth of Rosemary’s Baby’s $3.2 million.

They featured debuting di- rectors—Night of the Living Dead’s George Romero and Spider Baby’s Jack Hill—relying on borrowed resources and favors from friends. They were released in cost-effective black-and-white film during an age of color (1961 being the last year in which the majority of Hollywood features were black-and-white, and 1966 being the last year the Oscars awarded a separate cinematography trophy for black-and-white films).

Their old-school veneer, however, belied their new-school marrow. These films were anarchic and transgressive, undermining social mores surrounding violence, sexuality, and general decorum in bold, unapologetic swaths of blood, breasts, and bizarreness. These ahead-of-their-time stories would stoke the fires of future generations of filmmakers, even inspiring the development of entire subgenres within horror. It’s hard to deny Spider Baby’s im- print on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and other “backwoods” horror. Night of the Living Dead, meanwhile, single-handedly rewrote the zombie mythos and “reanimated” the genre, spawning everything from sequels like Dawn of the Dead (1978) and offshoots like The Return of the Living Dead (1985) to “zom-coms” like Shaun of the Dead (2004), TV shows like The Walking Dead, and foreign frights like Train to Busan (2016).

Less acknowledged is Night’s and Spider Baby’s role as fore- runners of the treatment of Black characters in horror movies over the next fifty years, both the highs and the deep, dark, Blackensteinian lows. Spider Baby’s fatal dismissal of its lone Black character, played by the legendary Mantan Moreland, in its opening moments became a template for the proverbial “Black Guy Dies First“ scenario that would remain a persistent punch line for the genre. Meanwhile, Night of the Living Dead’s “Black Guy,” Ben (Duane Jones), likewise died, but he did so as the hero and the last man standing. His heroism and almost- survival were a rarity that signaled promise for a future in which Black actors and actresses could headline horror, Black characters could save the day, and Black horror movies could be commercial and critical successes worthy of the highest accolades—like the four Oscar nominations and one win for Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017).

This book explores the wild, wicked, waggish journey of Blacks in modern horror cinema, from the fodder epitomized by Spider Baby to the cinematic heights of Get Out and beyond. It discusses the themes, tropes, and traits that have come to characterize Black roles in horror since 1968, a year in which race made national headlines in iconic moments like: the Kerner Commission indicting “White racism” for U.S. social ills in February; enactment of the 1968 Civil Rights Act and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April; Olympic medalists Tom- mie Smith and John Carlos raising their “Black Power” fists in October; and Star Trek airing American television’s first interra- cial kiss in November.

Before that landmark year, Black representation in horror was lacking—quite literally, as in you’d need Easy Rawlins on retainer to find a Black role of significance in any horror movie from the late ’40s through the late ’60s. The roles that did exist were typically bit parts like “Nameless African Tribesman Who Menaces the White Hero and/or Gets Eaten by a Giant Mutant Cricket” or “Barely Named Domestic Who Hovers Politely on the Periphery like a Coatrack.” In prior decades, bigger roles were allotted to comedic sidekicks who specialized in delivering exaggerated expressions of fright (for lack of a better term, the “Spook” stereotype, although the etymology of that particular slur is hazy at best). When those types of roles fell out of favor, though, studios simply didn’t bother to fill the holes with any other Black characters.

While there were a few all-Black horror “race films” up until the early ’40s, they were bargain-basement affairs produced out- side the studio system that never gained enough of a foothold to become a long-term option. It was thus with something of a blank slate that Black representation in horror began anew in 1968, building an identity gradually, in fits and starts, with steps for- ward and back, sometimes in a circular motion with the hokey- pokey that made you wonder if progress was being made at all.

Even as frustratingly slow as it was, things were improving, and as the Black characters on-screen began to fare better, so did Black horror (loosely defined in this book as FUBU horror, either “For Us” or “By Us”) as an entity. More and more stories began to revolve around Black people, while Black people, in turn, increasingly evolved the stories from behind the camera as writers, directors, and producers, ultimately setting the stage for a virtual Horror-lem Renaissance. 

Indeed, Black horror is currently having a yearslong “mo- ment,” reaching beyond its core target audience to non-Black viewers and international theatergoers alike. For example, Get Out, which presents a decidedly U.S.-specific commentary on race and racism, saw 31% of its cumulative gross earnings, or approximately $80 million at the box office, come from inter- national ticket sales. Meanwhile, non-American audiences accounted for nearly 50% ($68 million) of the take of the un- abashedly Black Lives Matter–inspired The First Purge (2018).

Still, it must be emphasized that what is new—Get Out, Us (2019), Ma (2019), Candyman (2021), even a TV show like Lovecraft Country (2020)—is born out of years of Black hor- ror innovation from groundbreaking writers, directors, and performers who paved the way with a bold, unapologetically Black cinematic eye that celebrated diversity decades before the Academy Awards thought to create “inclusion standards.” These modern “renaissance” films owe a debt to the socially rel- evant, often politically charged, sometimes ridiculous but never boring “Blaxploitation”-era horror films like Blacula (1972), Ganja & Hess (1973), Sugar Hill (1974), Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975), and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976), not to mention the micro-budget Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984) and any- thing containing melanin that kept Black horror on life support during the Great Negro Drought of the ’80s so that ’90s classics like Candyman (1992), Tales from the Hood (1995), and Demon Knight (1995) could take things to the next level.
Unlike “The Black Guy,” Black horror has managed to not only survive, but thrive.



  • Robin R. Means Coleman - vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion at Northwestern University, co-author of “The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema From Fodder To Oscar” - @MeansColeman
  • Mark H. Harris - entertainment journalist, founder of BlackHorrorMovies.com, co-author of “The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema From Fodder To Oscar”