Reclaiming Power Through Horror
by Chrystian Rodriguez, The Opportunity Agenda
When I was young, my grandparents, aunts, and uncles in Ecuador would sing a lullaby to me and my cousins called “Duerme Duerme Negrito.” It’s an old lullaby that stems from songs passed down over generations from our enslaved ancestors in the border regions of Venezuela and Colombia. The song is sung through the words of a caregiver, lulling a dark-skinned child to sleep while their mother is working under harsh conditions in fields to provide for them and keep them safe.
“Duerme Duerme Negrito / Que tu mamá está en el campo,” or, “Go to sleep little Black Child / Because your mother is out in the field.” The song goes on to say “y si negro no se duerme / Viene el diablo blanco / Y sas, le comen la patita,” or, “And if the Black child does not sleep / Then the white devil will come / And eat his feet.” With that scary image in my mind, I would stay up making sure El Diablo Blanco wouldn’t take my feet… and wondering why he even wanted to?
Similar questions began to replay in my mind as I embarked into the world of horror cinema. Around the age of 8, I snuck to the living room for a midnight-movie viewing of John Carpenter’s They Live (1987), a story about construction workers who discover a world domination plot concocted by a master-race of alien businessmen. Between the foot-snatching white devil and racist aliens enslaving Earth, the messages I was being told by my early experiences with horror were clear: Beware of white men and businessmen.
This is also around the time when I started asking deeper questions that dug past the face value of these storylines, looking into the ‘why’ behind what I was told… and by who. There was clearly something worth considering about these scary stories that my ancestors, family, and favorite filmmakers were sharing with me.
Now, more clearly than ever, I see that at the core of these monster metaphors, as is the case with many horror stories, lay critiques of slavery, colonization, capitalism, erasure, and racism. The horror genre, filled with stories about people who live under constant threat from an elusive yet ever-present monster, is a particularly apt vehicle to tell the stories of people who live in the margins and experience oppression.
Horror, as a genre, is a growing avenue for our people — people of color and other oppressed communities — to build power.
Think about the horrors in our daily lives, of undocumented Latinx people in Texas who must now weigh the decision of what puts their life more at risk: access to a safe abortion or the threat of deportation. Or take the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, once again shining a light on the perils of “citizens arrest laws.” Throughout history, horror stories have taught marginalized people — my people — to identify and handle enemies as a way to keep communities safe and intact.
As a media maker, storyteller, and educator, horror movies have always been an important tool for me, and I’m fascinated that the genre and industry are beginning to center stories of communities of color and folks in the margins. It’s 2021 and we now have a good number of big-budget horror tales like Attack the Block (2011), Get Out (2017), Lovecraft Country (2020), His House (2020), and Candyman (2021), all of which center critiques of systemic oppression as a central storytelling device.
As more and more of these stories make their way to mass audiences, my hope is that it will lead to a mass awakening that life in the margins means living under constant threat and attack. For me, horror is invaluable insofar as it allows the viewer to understand the forces of oppression and build resistance. Horror, as a genre, is a growing avenue for our people — people of color and other oppressed communities — to build power.
By honoring our ancestors in the fight for liberation, we acknowledge the history of resistance that allowed us to overcome the monsters. The goal of modern horror, like “Duerme Duerme Negrito,” is the same – our bodies and freedom are what we’re fighting for, to reach our fullest potential, which the oppressive monsters are trying to take from us. In the end, it’s not just about getting away from the monsters – it’s about dismantling their every fabric.