The horror genre has long been used to expose deep societal anxieties, based on our greatest fears of chaos, unease, mystery, and gore. The frightful suspense of horror films, however, can often prove too intense for many viewers to handle, leaving the genre fairly inaccessible to a wide audience.
Critics especially have struggled to view horror as distinctly artistic, instead focusing on non-narrative filmmaking merits such as cinematography or special effects. Many of the scathing social commentaries present in horror films go largely unnoticed by the public, as horror is still seen as a cheap genre akin to the thrill of riding a roller coaster, not capable of containing potent societal critique. Certain feminist analyses of the genre, such as that of the “final girl” stock character by film theorist Carol J. Clover, have shed a light on the ways social commentary can be compatible with horror. This perception concerning race, though, has changed drastically with the recent popularity of filmmaker Jordan Peele and his contribution to the Black horror tradition.
Whether audiences realize it or not, the horror film genre is inseparable from the Black cinematic tradition. Take, for example, what is widely considered to be the first commercially renowned horror movie—and the very first to feature zombies as antagonists—1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Much of the time, blockbuster zombie films such as World War Z and Zombieland do little other than showcase a ridiculous spectacle of violence and grotesque body horror, a cash-grab pinned about the dead being stronger in numbers than the living. But Night of the Living Dead is different. The film centers on a Black man named Ben as he tries to find shelter during a zombie apocalypse. He ends up surviving the undead monsters, only to be shot and killed at the film’s conclusion by a group of white survivors who fear he is a zombie as well.
The etymology of the term “zombie” actually reveals its inception by enslaved Afro-Americans in the early 19th Century, describing a figure taken from West African legend and Caribbean Christian mysticism. The myth holds that witch doctors in the region would revive dead slaves to ensure they could keep working even after they had died. In Vodun (Voodoo) folklore, the zombie was seen not as an aggressor, but rather a victim—the physical manifestation of eternal servitude that a slave cannot escape, even in death.
Hollywood did of course appropriate the concept into the type of sluggish, brain-eating, undead army like those depicted in Night of the Living Dead. They flipped the symbol on its head: no longer a horrific fate that enslaved Africans foresaw but instead just a generic monster that should be feared by all. Ben’s horrific fate, then, is not to become a zombie himself and have his labor exploited, but rather to be killed by a white mob who view his image to be just as monstrous, evil, and inhuman as a zombie. The erroneous and fatal assumptions of the white survivors may further represent the misinterpretation of the zombie by white Hollywood. Despite this appropriation, the influence of Blackness and Black heritage on the horror film tradition is clear.
Jordan Peele’s movies have aimed to reclaim Black horror and trauma from the film industry. His most well-known film, 2017’s quadruple Oscar-nominated Get Out, concerns a Black man trying to escape his white girlfriend’s family who aims to use his body as a vessel to preserve the souls of their dying relatives. The film comments on the neoliberal use of Black images and representation to exert the force of white capitalism, much in the same way Afro-Caribbeans feared becoming zombies to preserve the white supremacist economic hegemon that enslaved them for their labor. But none of Peele’s films have been quite as self-referential to the Black horror tradition as this summer’s Nope.
The third film where Peele serves the roles of director, writer, and producer, Nope concerns brother and sister OJ and Emerald, who struggle to run their family ranch where horses are trained for use in film and television. The siblings are revealed to be descendants of the true historical figure known as the “unnamed jockey”—a Black man who is depicted riding a horse in what is considered to be the first film ever made. When a strange UFO begins to terrorize the farm by abducting the horses, the siblings reason that they could get rich on filming it and selling the footage. Their efforts to use security cameras and hire famous documentarians to capture the ship ultimately fail, forcing them to expose themselves out in the open to collect footage manually. As they encounter the UFO in increasingly dangerous situations to snap the perfect shot, however, they find themselves constantly risking their lives and essentially documenting their own traumatic experiences on film in order to save the ranch.
Meanwhile, next door, a theme-park operator named Jupe holds large crowds to see the UFO in person, having already found a way to profit from the terrorization of the area. Interestingly, Jupe is a former child actor who, as shown during flashbacks, survived an incident where a chimpanzee on the set of a popular sitcom went on a rampage and slaughtered his fellow actors during a live taping of the show. He uses this personal history to promote his amusement park, a similar utilization of trauma to gain material benefits in the present.
The film takes its name from a popular joke begun by Black internet users; when confronted with the bizarre supernatural occurrences of horror movies, they hold that a Black person would have the sense to say “nope” and immediately leave the situation. Crisis averted, roll credits. By contrast, white characters in horror films tend to be led by a series of bad decisions, such as opting to stay in a house they know is haunted. But Peele’s choice of title is ironic: the black characters of the film are constantly and willingly putting themselves in danger to film the UFO.
This is Peele’s primary commentary in Nope: what are the ethics of showcasing Black trauma on film? What does it mean for Peele to base his career on creating a visual, enjoyable spectacle of racism? Emerald and OJ have only the innocent goal of saving their family business, but in the end, their motives do not justify the perils they face to do so. Peele grapples with similar motives behind his own filmmaking: emphasis on Black traumatic horror to produce an antiracist societal ripple effect. With Nope, he acknowledges that his methods are morally complex.
Peele exposes the fragile implementation of one’s trauma to evoke audience emotion which, when done in haste, can have harmful consequences. For example, celebrated Black and queer television writer Lena Waithe became infamous for her horrific 2021 show Them, in which a Black family is brutally terrorized by their white neighbors and ghosts representing facets of violent racism. The show was panned by critics and audiences alike for what they found to be a ridiculous, offensive, and superfluous number of scenes depicting graphic violence against Black bodies. This “trauma porn” had virtually no purpose other than shock value. Peele uses Nope to warn us of this misappropriation of Blackness in horror, but he willingly admits that the voyeuristic nature of spectatorship within Black horror blurs the lines between ethical and unethical, making such work complicated.
Does broadcasting trauma, albeit artistically, beget a reclaiming of power over racist narratives in horror? Or does it contribute directly to the absorption of Black culture and history into the white Hollywood narrative, as with the concept of zombies?
In Nope, subtle nods to Black voyeurism are included in the details of the script. The name “OJ” is an obvious reference to OJ Simpson, who’s 1995 murder trial was perhaps the most blatant example of the consequences of making a spectacle of race and trauma in the media. Even the flashback chimpanzee represents the risk of voyeurism—overworked in an environment unnatural for it, the ape goes berserk in an explosion of frustration and rage at the witness of cameras, the performers, and a live audience. This rampage represents the state of the Black horror tradition, with white filmmakers historically using Blackness within a white context until the relationship reaches a breaking point.
Jordan Peele encapsulates this breaking point: a push by Black filmmakers to tell stories about themselves, for themselves. His message holds that Hollywood needs to be intentional with Blackness in horror and warns of contributing to the dominant culture of traumatic voyeurism, lest they make the same mistake as Lena Waithe.
Cinematic fetishisation of Black trauma does more harm than good to Black liberation in the arts, and Peele aims to keep his audiences aware of the crucial distinction. He still addresses the nuance required in doing so, reckoning with himself as his career in Black horror filmmaking continues. Just as Emerald and OJ resolve that they must endanger themselves for the sake of their future, so too does Peele acknowledge the moral instability of the very genre he popularized.
Everett Bonner is a senior in the SFS studying International Politics with minors in International Development and Japanese. He is the INDY’s Commentary Editor.