We deserve to see more Black vampires on the screen
The vampire is a nebulous being that belongs to the world, and that will always be true.
by Andrew Keahey
The image on the screen is alway the same: a young woman, unsuspecting of any danger, twirls her hair and chats with a stranger. He’s always tall, he’s well-dressed and clearly of “good breeding”, and he’s always white. Pale white. The young woman’s thoughts ring clear, “Is this charming man a little too pale?”
Pale sophisticates; it’s all they ever are, and have been for years. Despite the fact that vampires have existed in various cultures all over the world, and have for hundreds of years, we really only hear about the one kind, don’t we? Most people will rarely, if ever, think about that, or consider why that has grown to be the norm.
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A google search for the word “vampire” reveals an ocean of white faces, belonging not only to the vampires themselves, but also to the victims of these supernatural predators. Necks delicately bent to the side, awaiting the bite of death or eternal life. Because a white woman in a nightgown represents innocence to the world at large, and that fateful bite is seen as a corruption of that innocence.
Vampires apparently don’t know that Black people have blood, too. Or they do know, and white Hollywood just doesn’t have them drink it because they can’t fathom an audience sympathizing with the victim if she isn’t white. As a result, they keep the maiden one shade above pale, so the blood dripping down her neck really pops. It’s the stuff billion dollar film franchises are made of.
The whole vampire mythos is so commonly accepted as white and European that when people of color explore the legends, which aren’t at all exclusive to Europe, it’s seen as “turning the vampire genre on its head.” This is because, as with most things, white supremacy has worked to suppressed voices of color until there is only one white “standard” version of any given narrative.
It’s a box in the horror genre that’s hard to escape, because people are hesitant to accept other iterations of the myth, which makes producers and publishers less likely to take a chance on it. The cycle feeds itself, despite these stories being out there, and ready to be seen.
The short film Suicide by Sunlight, written and directed by Nikyatu Jusu, was selected to show at the Sundance Film Festival this year and was well-received with great enthusiasm. Jusu held the story in her head for some time — Valentina, a Black vampire, living and working in a near-future New York City and caught in a custody battle for her kids. When she pitched to the Tribeca Film Institute’s Through Her Lens program in 2017, she didn’t intend for it to be a short, but a whole series speaking on race and the struggles of a Black woman vampire able to walk in the sunlight thanks to the melanin in her skin.
Based on the staggering reviews her 17-minute short is garnering, the future looks good for Jusu, a talented screenwriter and director who has been struggling to break into the mainstream due to the challenges that being a Black woman poses in Hollywood. Her vampire tale shows us that we don’t have to make the same story again and again just because it’s what people are used to. Twilight’s Edward Cullen spends his immortality going to high school over and over, and that’s what mainstream vampire tales feel like at this point. But when we take vampire lore and recognize that it belongs to the world, not just Europe, the results are visceral, beautiful, and wholly unique.
The Ewe people of Togo and Ghana have the legend of the Adze, a being that takes the form of a firefly, and feeds on the blood of human beings at night, causing them to get sick and die. It also has the power to control people’s bodies and can be changed back into human form if they’re captured in their insect form. The Penanggalan is a creature of Southeast Asian origin that is human during the day, but at night, their head detaches due to dark magic. The head flies around with the other organs trailing behind it, catching the light and shimmering like, again, fireflies. It’s said to smell of vinegar, and has sharp fangs which it uses to drain the blood of children and pregnant woman. At the end of the night, it re-attaches itself to its body, and becomes effectively human again. The Asanbosam of the Asante is said to have iron teeth, pink skin, long red hair, and iron hooks for feet, which it uses to pull its victims up into trees.
These myths aren’t recent creations, they’re part of vast folklore traditions dating back hundreds of years, and the ones listed here are only a few examples. There are many more that you’ve never heard of, because it’s only recently that we’re able to bring our own stories and fairytales to the eyes of the world at large.
Many of these myths arose from cultures using stories to make sense of death and disease, which is universal. Fingernails and hair appearing to grow after death, people falling suddenly ill from bloodsucking creatures were used to explain malaria, and things like premature burial were attributed to the presence of the undead. This was happening all over the world, but we only focus on the one iteration.
However, like the ever inspiring rose growing from concrete, POC are finally able to put their own spin on the ever-popular idea of the vampire. Octavia Butler’s final novel was Fledgling, the story of a fifty-three-year-old vampire, appearing as an eleven-year-old child, who was the result of an experiment to create vampires with darker skin that could better handle exposure to the sun. It twists and changes vampires as we know them in a brand new take as only a master of the science fiction genre can spin it. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, a 2014 black and white film by Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour, takes a lonely vampire woman in Iran and gives her more humanity and life than anything in a Twilight book or movie. It’s an amazingly shot, semi-romantic whirlwind of cool that you need to see to believe.
And I have not even mentioned yet those that came before; the ones that managed to break through when the whole of society fought against them. Like Ganja and Hess, a 1973 experimental horror film starring Duane Jones of Night of the Living Dead fame, described by film critic Scott Foundas as a “landmark 1973 indie that used vampirism as an ingenious metaphor for black assimilation, white cultural imperialism and the hypocrisies of organized religion.”
We would also be remiss to ignore 1972’s shining achievement in Blaxploitation, Blacula, which for years I had assumed was simple parody, but in reality is a stunning vampire film in its own right. The titular character, who was turned into a vampire by Dracula himself when, travels back to Transylvania with his wife as an African prince many years later to ask the count for help in suppressing the slave trade. The opening scene alone shows Blacula possessing such poise and dignity that it’s worth watching for those five minutes alone.
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When watching horror, don’t assume you’re seeing everything, and certainly don’t draw the conclusion that all the stories about one particular subject have all been explored. There’s so much more to read, see, and hear, and in a greater volume with greater availability than ever. The vampire isn’t just some white man with a ruffled collar speaking with a European accent going around seducing dainty white ladies.
The vampire is a nebulous being that belongs to the world, and that will always be true, no matter how selective the storytelling of the gatekeepers. If you have such a story, put it out there. As long as you have blood in your veins, you’re able to change the narrative. Our spirits are just as real as theirs are, and our voices can be just as loud.
Andrew Keahey is a horror enthusiast and writer currently based in Austin, Texas. He’s been watching horror movies since he was far too young, and primarily writes essays, short fiction, and poetry. Find him on Twitter: @formaldehydefce