The Women Who Knew Too Much

Horror cinema punishes its inquisitive black female characters

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Horror films might be the only genre that punishes black women credibly, or at least in a way that’s true to our lives. Modern comedies are often too slapstick to approach us accurately, whatever their intentions. Dramas tend to give us the Madonna-Whore treatment, or else they approach us as some critics’ Mary J. Blige: long-suffering, preternaturally strong, “too ghetto.” We’re rarely seen in action films or thrillers, Taraji P. Henson’s recent spate of gun-wielding performances notwithstanding. Dance movies, rom-coms, and musicals have offered worthy attempts, but in the end they’re too consumed with scene-setting—meet-cutes and costume changes—to stage the way black women are policed and punished. Dance films constrain black women’s bodies by conjuring up a manic energy and regulating it through complicated choreography—who could imagine a black woman at rest? Musicals persistently reference, again, tropes ascribed to Mary J. Blige (especially her turn in the BET classic Prison Song). And rom-coms too often present the high-powered black female executive whose role is to emasculate all comers, a more and more popular trope.

But, in horror films, at least we’re maltreated for doing shit we do and have done historically, since before Sojourner Truth supposedly asked “Ain’t I a woman?” or the careers of Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Toni Cade Bambara, and Toni Morrison: that is, asking questions. Black women have been humiliated and punished, in horror cinema as in life, for our incisiveness, for wondering aloud, for trying to get some answers. Think: Margaret Garner, Hope Foye, Serena Williams. Of course, horror films have their own rules: anyone who casts too much doubt on the world inhabited by the ghost, or slasher, or otherworldly bogeyman is usually not long for the narrative. And the horror genre relies, as all fictions do, on the suspension of disbelief, though for black women characters this disbelief becomes hard to suspend because the logic of the film does not typically factor their humanity—nor does it treat them with any nuance. Just as slasher cinema arose during the crisis of masculinity that followed the Vietnam War, the punishment of black women in horror films reflects American culture’s distaste for our triple consciousness (sorry, W.E.B.): the facts of being black, a woman, and, usually, American. In the essay “Triple Consciousness: The Reimagination of Black Female Identities in Contemporary American Culture,” Nahum Welang explains, “Unpacking the messy contradictions of this threefold consciousness allows black women to access alternate selves,” using narrative “to reimagine skewed perceptions of black womanhood.”

In Jordan Peele’s Us, released this March, Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide experiences this triple consciousness in a moment of childhood humiliation. In 1986, Adelaide visits a boardwalk amusement park with her bickering, soon-to-be divorced parents. She slips away from her distracted father and wanders around the park; eventually she ends up in a funhouse, where she meets a twisted version of herself—she flees. Years later, a shell-shocked adult Adelaide begrudgingly travels with her family back to the site of this existential confrontation. She ends up doing some of the unpacking Welang describes, and then some. The encounter prompts the eventual (if unfocused) explication of an America in which dark-souled doppelgangers, called tethers, occupy a shadowland where they mirror the primary characters’ every action.

If the child Adelaide is disciplined for her willingness to explore the amusement park, black men in Peele’s earlier Get Out (2017) are punished oppositely—they’re taken to task for not asking enough questions, for not being inquisitive or intuitive enough: Why would you go into the woods without telling anybody where you are? Why didn’t you let your friend know where you’d be? Didn’t you ever suspect your girlfriend was a little strange? But Us penalizes a black girl for her pesky agency (or else depicts the punishment knowingly—I still can’t decide). Unlike the predominantly white “final girls” of horror lore—those characters who survive to beat the baddie at the end—Adelaide’s mind is a fount of disquiet and dread. And the idea that she might not have survived in the story is a reminder that these punishment tropes play very differently for black women characters.

Death to the Critics

The 1990s laid the groundwork for this kind of cinematic mistreatment. Perhaps most memorable is Whoopi Goldberg’s star turn in Ghost (1990), a horror-fantasy that is more comedic than frightful. Nevertheless, as Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris explain in their podcast Still Processing, Goldberg’s Oda Mae Brown is little more than a conduit for an exploitative white-dude character, played by Patrick Swayze, who persistently uses her and never manages to pay her for it, a circumstance which presages the neglect and maltreatment of black women characters who followed (including those later played by Goldberg). Oda’s iconic line—“Molly, you in danger, girl!”—condenses in a phrase what black women characters have been trying to tell white heroines—and what cinephiles have been shouting at movie screens—mostly at a volume-appropriate level, for ages.

Then there was Kasi Lemmons, who played the inquisitive black woman in two famous horror films: The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Candyman (1992). In the former, she’s Ardelia Mapp, a stellar FBI recruit who becomes little more than a source of easy exposition; in the latter, she’s Bernadette Walsh, a graduate student who attempts to debunk the urban myths surrounding the titular villain. Of course, this means that Candyman kills her during his pursuit of her best friend and colleague, Helen, played by Virginia Madsen. As it happens, Lemmons’s “Bernadette Walsh” might be cinema’s most telling inversion of the much maligned “Mary Sue,” film-nerd shorthand for a brainy female character who prevails against all logic. Bernadette, oppositely, dies in spite of her considerable intelligence; indeed, it’s notable that the characters Lemmons plays are punished for their peculiar ability to pierce the mythological veil protecting male killers. Perhaps this is what led Lemmons, in her own directorial project, Eve’s Bayou, to produce a masterwork about the subjectivity of black women and girls.

Black women are humiliated and punished, in horror cinema as in life, for our incisiveness.

Later films, like Scream 2 (1997), brought about the metafictional punishment of black women by setting it in movie theaters. The death of Jada Pinkett Smith’s Maureen Evans, which occurs in the first six minutes of the movie, is bracingly tragic, given both how early it takes place and how little the audience subsequently learns about her. Pinkett Smith’s short-lived existence in the Scream universe is made more alarming because she stumbles down a theater aisle and dies in front of the screen while the other moviegoers ignore her suffering; they believe her murder is part of a publicity stunt for Stab, the slasher film they’re watching.

Tellingly, Scary Movie (2000) raises the stakes by taking this metafictional horror to the level of farce. We see this especially in Regina Hall’s hilariously obnoxious Brenda Meeks, who is meant to critique black women’s early deaths in these films, while also skewering them in stereotypical fashion. Brenda, like Maureen, sits in a movie theater, though in this case she’s watching Shakespeare in Love and shouting at the screen: “Don’t go in there!” “Lord, I’ma have a heart attack!” “That ain’t no man!” She proceeds to loudly eat aluminum foil-wrapped food, answer her cell phone, record a bootleg version of the film, and argue with audience members who chide her for rudeness. The gamut of stereotypes about black women theatergoers as uncouth, abrasive, and over-the-top comes through in this scene, and fellow spectators, almost all of them white, repeatedly tell Brenda to shut up. When she refuses, one of the men seated near Ghostface, the masked killer, steals his knife and stabs her. Soon, the other annoyed patrons join in, and it’s not long before a line of society’s most pious figures shank Brenda in the name of their favorite films, all of which she (read: black women generally) presumably ruined: a Buddhist monk (“All Jackie Chan movies”), a rabbi (Schindler’s List), a Mother Theresa-ish nun (Boogie Nights), and a Catholic priest (Big Mama’s House).

Brenda is a critic, an incisive black woman: she makes some valid arguments about Shakespeare in Love. Gwyneth Paltrow’s costume was, yes, superficial! And it’s a shame that she remains unaware of the rules of the genre and how they apply. Still, both characters’ death scenes, Brenda’s and Maureen’s, highlight American culture’s all-inclusive ignorance, or otherwise outward hostility, toward critical black women and our fictional counterparts.

Time of the Hammer

When it comes to the punishment of black women in horror cinema, all roads lead to Elvira Stitt, the hero of Robert Aldrich’s 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? A one-way inquiry, as its title suggests, the film poses, it seems, a central question about the fate of “Baby Jane” Hudson, played by Bette Davis. Indeed, the characters in the film conjecture aloud about the life of the one-time vaudeville child star over cocktails, at the bank or the counter of a newspaper office. In the end, Baby Jane answers the question through a mélange of styles and effects: suspense, horror, dark humor, kabuki expressionism, and moments of grotesque, all of which have made the film a camp classic. Which is to say that Aldrich projects quite a bit onto his protagonist.

Of course, Jane’s obliviousness and her vengeful denial are major forces in the film. As children, Jane and her sister Blanche (played by Joan Crawford) competed for their parents’ affection, with Jane the child star garnering most of the attention. When they get older, the shoe is on the other foot; Blanche’s ascent as a silent-era Hollywood star coincides with Jane’s fall from grace, due in no small part to her alcoholism. In the film’s present, the pair live in one of Rudolph Valentino’s old Hollywood mansions, where Jane cares for and tortures the wheelchair-bound Blanche. Baby Jane is about a person wading through a hellish mental world, wavering between the emotions of arrested development and oblivion.

The more interesting question, and the one that fewer people ask: What ever happened to Elvira?

The fates of Jane and Blanche, as it happens, come to bear on the life of Elvira, their maid, played by Maidie Norman. The lone black character in the film, Elvira is inquisitive. She wants to know everything: why Blanche Hudson won’t put Jane, who’s clearly unhinged, away in a mental health facility; whether Jane is taking advantage of Blanche; why she’s abruptly given the day off. Elvira’s questioning even extends to the banal and seemingly inane: “Did you let that bird out on purpose Miss Jane?” and “Does Miss Blanche know about my taking a day off?” In reality, these aren’t harmless questions, especially in light of Jane’s descent into madness. As a demented Jane puts her disabled sister through the ringer, serving her pet bird on a platter and locking her in the bedroom, Elvira continues her cross-examination: “Miss Blanche, are you awake?” “Are you alright in there?” “I wanna know what’s going on around here!” “My God Miss Blanche! What has she done to you?” This litany of questions becomes the interrogation that ensures her demise. Meanwhile, it’s clear Jane thinks Elvira is “uppity,” but she won’t say it, instead opting to make her disappear rather than risk the optics of a racially charged outburst. This is L.A. in the 1960s, after all, rendered in black and white.

As if the film needed to crank up the camp another level, the moment that signifies Jane’s irrevocable moral decline is a literal hammer to Elvira’s head. The implication here is that Jane has gone so far past the edge, so far beyond the point of redemption, that a more nuanced plot—or at least a less symbolic method of murder—was deemed too subtle. The most obvious, get-it-through-your-thick-skull symbolism there is that Elvira, the recipient of that blunt force trauma (and some subtle ones, too, in the form of increasing microaggressions), has asked too many damn questions. It’s the recipe for death!

But Elvira’s death also signifies a turn for the worse, both as it relates to her character’s arc in the film and the morality of the world we’re in. The setting has gone topsy-turvy, and the toppling of this character, the tumbling of this inquisitive black woman in front of the white woman she desperately seeks to save, suggests that there is no more hope left in this place. After she murders Elvira, Jane goes fully insane, kidnapping her sister and taking her to the beach. Again, this is Los Angeles circa 1960, or “yesterday,” as an onscreen title explains, and it’s no technicolor dream: it’s a black-and-white farce and the perpetuity implied by “yesterday” stretches into the future—our present.

A Million Elviras Can’t Be Wrong

Everything is darkly funny in Baby Jane except for Elvira’s plight. Though Elvira is honorable and noble, maybe the only truly courageous character in the film, she’s fraught, too. She’s almost a magical negro, a stereotypical black character who cares more about her white employer than her own safety. She’s certainly an example of the “sacrificial negro” trope. As critic Ashlee Blackwell explains in the documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), the sacrificial negro is a black character who “puts themselves in the face of danger and dies in order for the white character to survive.” Even after Jane fires Elvira, she returns to the house, despite knowing Jane is deranged. She pretends to go home and doubles back to the property, intending to outsmart Jane. She has one role, one purpose, which is to poke her nose precisely where it shouldn’t be. A couple of analogues are Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) and Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), Scarlett O’Hara’s maid and servant in Gone With the Wind (1939). Elvira’s characterization is a mild improvement on those characters, not in the least because her questioning is about mapping the trajectory of things: what’s to be done, how she can help, what’s really going on, how far have things declined with Jane. In other words, Elvira’s curiosity is distinct from the gossipy questions of the film’s white characters. Unlike the film’s title, her questions are about action: Who cares what happened to Baby Jane? Elvira’s concern is what to do about it now.

The more interesting question, and the one that fewer people ask: What ever happened to Elvira? Baby Jane is, among other things, a read on Hollywood’s infrastructure. So is it, against the grain or not, also a commentary on Hollywood’s characterization of black characters? In 1995, Maidie Norman told the San Jose Mercury News that she had to rewrite her dialogue on the set of Baby Jane to avoid the simping, stereotypical, Stepin Fetchit lines screenwriter Lukas Heller had originally offered. “I’d say, ‘You know, this is not the way we talk these days. This is old slavery-time talk,’” she told the newspaper.

Nor is Elvira synonymous with her earlier fictional representation. In the Henry Farrell novel the film is based on, also called What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Elvira’s character is named Edna, and after she’s murdered, Blanche realizes that Jane is the killer:

Blanche brought her hand up to her mouth against an inadvertent sob of anguish. She knew now who the figure in the doorway was. She knew—that Jane had killed Edna Stitt.
  Miss Blanche, I just worry about you. I get to thinking about what could happen . . . and I lay awake at night.
  Mrs. Stitt had tried to warn her, and she hadn’t listened. Tears of remorse burned her eyes and she let her hand fall away. All these years she had gambled blindly. And she had thought herself so wise. Now she saw that her blindness had destroyed two precious lives—that of the person who had served her all these years—Jane—and that of the one who had tried to save her—Edna Stitt. The guilt then, was hers just as much as Jane’s.

Baby Jane, the film, doesn’t allow for this white guilt; it’s instead a morality play about sibling rivalry and white women’s fragility. Both the dialogue and the characters reflect exceptionally terrible ethnic notions, to echo the groundbreaking documentary of the same name. Jane is obviously racially hostile, while Blanche is racially passive-aggressive, each woman Elvira’s de jure and de facto torturer. The tension between Elvira and her employers mirrors the ideological friction between black women and white women, at the cusp of the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements, of which the film is roughly contemporaneous with.

I want to be an Elvira, even though I find myself screaming at her through the screen to wise up and take care of herself.

Besides her cinematic progeny, Elvira has echoes in literature. We can see her in the character of Malvonne Edwards, the observant housekeeper in Toni Morrison’s Jazz (1992). The protagonist of The Intuitionist (1999), Colson Whitehead’s first novel, is an elevator inspector named Lila Mae Watson. The Intuitionist is a speculative noir that’s also an allegory for racial uplift, set in a retro version of New York City (another “yesterday”). I like to think of Lila Mae, who the book’s narrator points out is not “rebuked for her innocent neophyte’s questions” as one of Elvira’s kindred spirits, an astute midcentury black woman negotiating her limitations and frustrations amid a mode of McCarthy-era inquiry.

What happened to Elvira? She died, of course. But her questioning spirit got transmogrified through other black womenfolk in films, who, like the actor who played her, never got their due for rewriting the visual grammar and language of black women characters in American film. One of Maidie Norman’s former students recalled that “she said that there was no such thing as black acting, but that there was a thing called ‘the history of black people’s theater in America.’”

Indeed, there is no such thing as black acting. Or even a particular way in which black actresses approach their roles in horror films. But there’s a kind of sensibility you find, a skepticism that comes from being marginalized, overlooked, and dismissed. It’s telling that in Ryan Murphy’s Feud (2017), which is all about the relationship between Crawford and Davis during the production of Baby Jane, neither Norman nor her character are mentioned. The 1991 ABC TV movie remake of the film, starring Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave as the sisters, omits Elvira, replacing her with a black man physical therapist character (Bruce A. Young).

Shadows in Paradise

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which has reentered the contemporary nostalgia cycle via Feud, might’ve come back for another reason. At this moment when black women have been hailed as a voting bloc for “saving” states (Alabama circa Roy Moore’s 2017 senate run, for example) and the country itself, Elvira serves as more of an icon for us likeminded women—of course, with the understanding that we’d be better served directing the sort of fierce inquiry Elvira modeled towards ourselves. In certain ways, I’m tethered, like the characters in Peele’s Us, to Elvira; cinema is kind of a shadow world, and they are my onscreen doppelgangers. I want to be an Elvira (and a Brenda!), even though I find myself screaming at her through the screen to wise up and take care of herself.

News recently surfaced that Sandra Bland, the twenty-eight-year-old black woman who died in a Texas jail cell in 2015, asked lots of questions before her death. On July 10 of that year, Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia pulled Bland over on a Prairie View, Texas, road for failing to signal a lane change. Encinia stuck a gun in Bland’s face, dragged her out of her car, and arrested her. (Encinia, who was indicted for perjuring himself in his arrest report, was eventually cleared of that charge—the only criminal charge he faced in the case.) In the police car’s dash-cam footage, Bland is seen asking a series of other pertinent questions.

“I’m in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?”
“I’m under arrest for what?”
“Why am I being apprehended?”
“You threatening to drag me out of my own car?”
“And then you gonna stun me?”

Then, after Encinia’s violence and aggression reach a fever pitch:

“You doing all of this for a failure to signal?”

Encinia eventually took Bland into custody, where she perished under dubious circumstances. She was found hanging three days later in a Waller County jail. For almost four years, the only video available of the traffic stop, to Bland’s family and to the public, was the police car’s dash-cam footage. But in early May, a thirty-nine-second clip from Bland’s cell phone was released by the Texas Department for Public Safety in response to public records request filed by a reporter; Bland’s family is now demanding the criminal investigation into her arrest and death be reopened. In both the official state-sponsored cut of what happened that day and the sousveillance footage she captured on her cell phone, Sandra Bland appeared in many ways to be the late star of a real-life horror film.

In the dash-cam footage we see Encinia directing Bland to “Get out of the car now!” His mental image of her took the form of a threat, despite the fact that he was responsible for escalating the encounter. Bland becomes, like an actor in a film, a tool of Encinia’s imagination. In the stories he tells after her death, she is aggressive, a potential killer. She is someone for whom the dramatic irony of her final days, is, as it is with most of us, crucially and cruelly unavailable. There is always more to know.

Niela Orr is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia. More of her work can be found at www.nielaorr.com.

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