We all know the old “the black character always dies in a horror movie” cliché and “the black character always dies first” trope. Although there are exceptions to both, the fact is it happens enough to be noteworthy. But when did it start and what reason(s) are there for it? Today I’m going to share my attempt to find out. But please keep in mind that my doing so requires posting spoilers for numerous movies.
In the old days of American horror cinema, “black” roles were often filled Caucasians performing in blackface, as evidenced in films like One Exciting Night (1922) and The Gorilla (1927). But even when actual African Americans got to appear onscreen, their roles were usually limited to natives, servants and comic relief (if not a combination of two from that list). Despite White Zombie (1932) being set in Haiti, black characters are barely present in the film. But I suppose that’s to be expected from a movie with “White” in the title. The earliest example of black characters dying in a horror movie appears in the original 1933 version of King Kong. Enraged by the loss of Ann Darrow, Kong bursts through the giant wall on Skull Island to step on and chew natives to death. When the film was released back into theaters in 1938, the death scenes were removed for being too gruesome and would not be seen again until they were restored in 1971. This will become important later. But characters in horror films portrayed by African Americans were able to make it to the end of the movie alive. That is, on the rare occasions they did appear.
But this all changed in the late 1950’s. Voodoo Woman (1957), Monster From Green Hell (1957) and The Killer Shrews (1959) feature what just might be the first examples of “the black character always dies first.” Although it should be noted how the doomed character in Voodoo Woman appears to be a Caucasian woman in makeup! It’s also worth noting how the titular monsters in The Killer Shrews kill off the only other person of color in the movie after the African American! The next horror movie to kill off an African American character seems to be Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told (1968, but was made in 1964). This is another example of “the black character always dies first.” But Night of the Living Dead changed that up by having killing Duane L. Jones’ character at the end. But if it wasn’t for Mr. Jones having given the best audition, the character would have been just one of the many white characters to die in the film. Initially scripted as a white uneducated truck driver, the character’s dialogue had to be altered once Jones got the part. However, he fought against the suggestion of filming an alternate ending where his character survives.
The same year in which the native killing scenes of King Kong were restored for another theatrical run saw the release of I Eat Your Skin (1971, but was made in 1964). The film is set on an island populated by black and Hispanic natives (with some portrayed by white performers). A woman whose character’s ethnicity is uncertain is killed off screen at the start of the film, a Hispanic character is decapitated onscreen and the black natives are all presumably killed when the island explodes. An African American couple is devoured in Beware! The Blob (1972), but the woman is the first human to die in the film. That year also had a black woman die in Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972). 1973 continued the black character death trend with Sisters and Scream Bloody Murder, with the former giving yet another example of the black character dying first. The Beast Must Die (1974) has its black character die last. However the role had originally been intended for a Caucasian actor until the producers decided to cast Calvin Lockhart in an attempt to cash in on the Blaxploitation craze! Chosen Survivors (1974) might be the first example of the “heroic death” of a male African American character. But the death of the film’s female African American character was your typical horror movie death. An African American character is the first human to die in
Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) and although Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) is not a horror film, the sheer amount of monsters in it makes the fact that the only member of Sinbad’s crew who dies is black worth noting. Although Alien (1979) is often praised for changing things up by featuring a strong female protagonist, killing off its sole African American character is one of the ways it didn’t deviate from the template set by films before it.
But the 1970’s were nothing compared to the 1980’s in terms of black horror movie deaths. The Shining (1980) killed off a black character who survived in the original novel because one of the screenwriters felt that someone other than Jack Torrance had to die since it was a horror movie. But plans for killing off Wendy and Danny Torrance were admittedly considered. That’s more than I can say for Wolfen (1981), The Hills Have Eyes, Part 2 (1983), Gremlins (1984), Aliens (1986), From Beyond (1986), The Monster Squad (1987), The Outing (1987) and Leviathan (1989). Action/horror hybrids like 10 to Midnight (1983) and Hero & The Terror (1988) got into the act. But those are only a mere sampling of the decade’s other examples, especially since I didn’t go into any of the countless slasher films of the decade. There’s also the rather interesting case of Jaws: The Revenge (1987). Mario Van Peebles’ character died in the film when it was originally released in American theaters, but survived in an alternate ending shot for the European market (which eventually made its way back to the US). Why the change? Some sources cite the film doing poorly at the box office and Jet magazine reported the decision was allegedly due to executives feeling “it was just too much for the public for Mario to die and the shark, too.” I kid you not.
There seems to be multiple reasons for this phenomenon. We know of at least one case where it was due to the producers trying to cash in on Blaxploitation movies and this could mean some other “doomed black character” moments have similar origins. It is explained in the documentary The Beast Within: The Making of Alien that Yaphet Kotto was chosen to bring more diversity to the cast. It’s a shame they didn’t let his character live, but then again it took studio intervention to prevent the film from ending with Ripley’s death too. In the cases of The Killer Shrews and Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told, it wouldn’t surprise me if the deaths were supposed to be a shocking twist since they involved people who would have normally escaped unscathed in horror movies of the past. The popularity of Blaxploitation movies in the 1970’s meant an increase in movies featuring African Americans in the cast. Between the black character deaths in such movies (where primarily African American casts would result in more “doomed black characters” onscreen) and non-Blaxploitation horror movies, it was almost a given moviegoers would see several “doomed black characters” during their movie watching experiences. If something happens in a film enough times, it then becomes a genre “rule.” Especially if the film(s) it originally appeared in were successful. I suspect the reason so many slasher films have a “Final Girl” protagonist has more to due with the box office success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978) than a conscious desire to write a story with a female lead. BlackHorrorMovies.com also noted how “it’s not like horror filmmakers begin shooting with the thought, ‘He’s black, so he has to die.’ But black actors and actresses are are nonetheless systematically regulated to supporting roles in the Hollywood system, and in horror movies, supporting roles equate to dying roles.” This also ties into the persistent belief that films featuring a person of color in one or more leading roles will only appeal to people of that ethnic group. Spawn (1997) changed a character from the comic book into a Caucasian because, as revealed by Todd McFarlane, it was felt people would think the film was only aimed at African American audiences if they didn’t! The Bruce Lee biopic Birth of the Dragon (2016) was infamous for being filmed from the perspective of a Caucasian student for similar reasons despite Bruce Lee’s actual films having no such problem. Hilariously, the trailers released for the film ignored the student entirely! I can guarantee you this belief will persist even though the worldwide success of Black Panther (2018) should have proved once and for all that isn’t an issue. Even when the Blaxploitation craze faded, the “doomed black character” continued into the 1980’s and further grew in usage thanks to the home video boom. People were hungry for new content and pumping out by-the-numbers horror films helped fill that demand.
But sadly overt, conscious racism on the part of someone involved in the film’s creation is always going to be a possibility too. The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) involves the titular villain trying to obtain items once possessed by Genghis Khan, under the belief doing so will unite all Asian countries behind him. At one point he even urges his underlings to “conquer and breed” and to “kill the white man and steal his women!” A few years later, the serial The Lost Jungle (1934, later released in compilation form) involves a scientist who has developed an operation to make black people white. Not only is this character one of the film’s “good guys,” but he actually receives praise for this and those who undergo the process dance and whoop for joy! It would be foolish to think this sort of thing stopped after the 1930’s ended.
Then we come to the case of The Mole People (1956). In it, American explorers discover an underground civilization of Sumerians somewhere in “Asia.” Generations of life underground have changed the bulk of the population into albinos who are so sensitive to light that they cannot go up to the surface. But a slave girl named Adad has pigmented skin and falls in love with one of the explorers. Although it looks as if it’s going to end with her leaving with them and living happily ever after, the film suddenly kills her off! According to the actress who played Adad, her character had originally survived in the movie as it had been originally filmed. But then some people from the studio allegedly called them back to film a new ending since they had “questions about a Sumerian woman breeding children…strange children out into the world.” Were they concerned about albinism in the fictional characters’ offspring or did their use of “Sumerian” imply something else? The Sumer civilization was located in what is now southern Iraq, so it’s possible they were more worried about Adad being a Middle Eastern woman! Whatever the reason was, the fact a Caucasian woman couldn’t be paired up with a Caucasian man due to concerns about their offspring did not bode well for the chances of an onscreen interracial couple. Plenty of horror movies which had cast members of the opposite sex ended with the two as couple, if not outright engaged. Films like Dr. X (1932), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Fiend Without a Face (1958) and Invisible Invaders (1959) are but a few of the numerous examples. Could this be another reason why African American characters often found themselves excluded dead before the end credits (if not excluded from the film outright)? Although the “black guy” in Night of the Demons (1988) survives along with the female protagonist, they aren’t romantically involved. But they originally were in the script! But this was apparently changed for being “too controversial,” despite the film also featuring a relationship between an Asian American woman and a Caucasian male. This isn’t the only case of perceived audience racism changing a film. A scene of Denzel Washington and Kelly Lynch kissing was allegedly nixed from Virtuosity (1995) due to Denzel Washington’s concerns of audience reactions (which seems to have been based on crowd reactions to similar scenes in his previous work).
But it’s going to take a lot more information to track down the exact origins and reasons for the “doomed black character” and a single person can’t do it alone. There’s just too many movies! Researching horror films where characters of other ethnicities get killed might also help us reach a better understanding as well. I know The War of the Worlds (1953)’s first kills are a Latino character and two Caucasians, but there are probably other examples. The fact said character (“Salvatore”) was played by a Caucasian is also worth noting. I also skipped counting films where the doomed characters were henchmen, like Mesa of Lost Women (1953), since henchmen getting killed off seems to be its own category, but perhaps I missed some potential information there? Looking at this matter in foreign films, both those that got an American release and those that didn’t, might also be useful. Figuring out when the “rule” first became public knowledge could also be helpful. The earliest example of characters referencing it in a movie I could find so far was in Canadian Bacon (1995), and that was a joke about how “the black guy always dies” in all movies. But not matter what the reasons for such “rules” existing are, it’s still something that needs to change.
“The Black Dude Dies First” Origins & More Musings | Graveyard Shift Sisters
The Black Death: A Brief History of Black People Dying in Horror Movies – BlackHorrorMovies.com (along with many of their numerous movie reviews)
Flights of Fancy: The Great Fantasy Films by Kenneth Von Gunden.
The Complexity and Progression of Black Representation in Film and Television by David L. Moody.
Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever by Joe Kane.
The Most Dangerous Cinema: People Hunting People on Film by Bryan Senn.
Black Dude Dies First – TV Tropes
Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present by Robin R. Means Coleman. “Foreward.” Steven Torriano Berry.
‘The Shining’ crew explain why Stanley Kubrick changed ending – NY Daily News
Jaws: The Revenge (1987) – Trivia – IMDb
Jet, August 31, 1987. “People Are Talking About…”
loose talk cost lives 14: an interview with joe augustyn – Hysteria Lives!