Fear In An Age Of Real-Life Horror : Code Switch It's Halloween, and people are leaning into all things scary. But sometimes those celebrations of the macabre hit a little too close to home, brushing up against our country's very dark past. So how do you navigate fake-horror in the midst of so much that's actually terrifying?

Fear In An Age Of Real-Life Horror

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/770687072/774469835" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We've been thinking a lot about race and friendships here at CODE SWITCH; about what we've learned about race through our friendships and also when we've made big mistakes or been really hurt and disappointed. We're working on an upcoming project about this with Death, Sex And Money from WNYC. And we want to hear from you. When has race been a flashpoint in your friendships? Tell us your story. Send a voice memo or an email to codeswitch@npr.org. Thanks.


GRIGSBY BATES: Chimes and everything, yeah.



(Laughter) You are listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR.

GRIGSBY BATES: (Imitating The Wicked Witch of the West) My little pretties.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby (laughter).

GRIGSBY BATES: I'm Karen Grigsby Bates, sitting in for Shereen.

DEMBY: So, y'all, here on CODE SWITCH, we have this little nickname for the Halloween season; it's called blackface advent because you can almost set your watch to it. Like, every October, we hear news stories about costume parties at schools or at workplaces or on college campuses. You know, some grainy footage of some sorority party will leak out into the world. And it becomes a whole controversy around, you know, people doing the most or doing the worst. It's a month of blackface controversies and redface controversies and yellowface scandals. And it all culminates in blackface Christmas on October 31.


DEMBY: Racial mockery and trash candy - 'tis the reason for the season. Karen, can you tell I hate Halloween?


DEMBY: OK. Good.

GRIGSBY BATES: But you know what? Almond Joys are not trash candy.

DEMBY: What? They are the worst.

GRIGSBY BATES: But we'll take that up later. Anyway...

DEMBY: They are better than Mounds, but that's not saying much.

GRIGSBY BATES: You know, lately, it's kind of felt like people were in the Halloween spirit all year long...

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

GRIGSBY BATES: ...Not just on Halloween, what with all the elected officials who've had their own little blackface scandals this year.

DEMBY: Yeah - almost forgot that that Northam stuff was this year. It feels like so long ago.

GRIGSBY BATES: It's been a long year.


GRIGSBY BATES: And more recently, the same thing happened with the prime minister of Canada. Although, Justin Trudeau's people called it brownface when he got darker while in college, I think, in costume as what he thought an Arabian prince would wear.

DEMBY: 'Cause everything is terrible.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah (laughter). Everything is terrible right now.


GRIGSBY BATES: Whether it was historical ignorance or lack of understanding of the weight of certain symbols or genuine malice, it's easy for these celebrations of the merry and macabre to brush up against our country's very dark past.

DEMBY: And, listeners, that's what we're talking about this week - celebrating fear in an age of actual horrors; how it can make things worse and how it can make things better. So first up, KGB, you were telling me this wild story from not too long ago...

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).

DEMBY: ...About one of your neighbors who is very zealous about this time of year.


DEMBY: OK. So set the scene for us. I know you live in a black neighborhood. But it's become a hotspot for gentrification. And the neighbor in the story, who loves them some Halloween, is a white dude, correct?

GRIGSBY BATES: Oh, yes. So there have been a few cultural misunderstandings as the new neighbors move in. He's a relatively new neighbor. He's been here less than two years. And apparently, he and his wife are really into Halloween. Their house stands out because it's the most elaborately decorated one on the block. And, Gene, I came out of my house recently to see a skeleton hanging from a noose attached to the big magnolia tree in front of his house.

DEMBY: (Vocalizing) Y'all can't see me right now, but I slid all the way out of the chair. I'm, like, melted into the carpet.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. Yeah. I thought it was just me.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

GRIGSBY BATES: And while I was there sort of blinking at this amazing sight, a couple was walking up the hill. And I heard the guy say, what the [expletive]? So I knew I wasn't hallucinating.

DEMBY: Oh, my God. So is that - is it still hanging up from this dude's tree?

GRIGSBY BATES: No. My neighbor, who is black, lives between him and me. And she went over and knocked on his door and said, listen. You need to take that down.

DEMBY: Bless her.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. She told him that nooses strike a particularly unfortunate note in black neighborhoods and that many of the residents who live in this neighborhood might have older relatives or come from places who...


GRIGSBY BATES: ...Know someone who's had that lived experience.

DEMBY: Yes. So what did he say?

GRIGSBY BATES: He was horrified. He said he had no idea, didn't intend the message. And he took skeleton swinging from the noose down right away.

DEMBY: OK. That's good, right?

GRIGSBY BATES: He did replace them with big bags of simulated bloody guts or - I don't know. Maybe it was body parts or something. I didn't look too closely.

DEMBY: Oh, Halloween. There's no life in me. I've - I'm going up there yonder. I can't. I can't.


DEMBY: So KGB, your - let's say enthusiastic. Your enthusiastic neighbor is one example. But with Halloween, so much of the problem with tackling this imagery is that it's mass-produced in a lot of ways. Like, think of all those Native American costumes you can just buy anywhere, right? You know the ones I'm talking about, listeners. It's got a headdress, maybe some feathers and some fringe. Karen, you spoke to one of our colleagues, Leila Fadel, who said that particular costume has become a shorthand for Native Americans across the country, across time, no matter the tribe or nation.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: You know, you know those costumes. Every year, they're in the prepackaged plastic wrap - Native American woman, Native American man - on the shelves of pretty much every costume...

GRIGSBY BATES: Yes. I saw some earlier this week.

FADEL: Right.

HENU JOSEPHINE TARRANT: It'll be, like, a long-sleeved shirt with fringe on the edge of the sleeve or on the chest or something like that.

FADEL: I spoke to Henu Josephine Tarrant. She's a New York-based artist, performer. She's of the Ho-Chunk, Hopi and Rappahannock tribes. And she says those shirts actually hearken back to a very specific time in the 19th century, when white settlers were moving west, displacing Indigenous people.

TARRANT: During all of this and all of these Dakota wars and these other wars and these removal acts and starvation and famine and tuberculosis, smallpox - I mean, so many sicknesses and violence was attached to that time period. A shirt like that is meant to kind of, like, represent that, you know? - represent a war shirt or represent a ghost dance shirt. And these are shirts that would be worn by native people during this particular time in history.

FADEL: That this costume is literally based on a shirt that people were hoping it would protect them from violence as the land was settled is harder to acknowledge as problematic because that's the founding of this nation. And the founding of the nation is problematic. But - and she made that point too. How come this, like, violent moment in which we're depicted in one specific way...

GRIGSBY BATES: Is what you choose to memorialize...

FADEL: Yeah.

GRIGSBY BATES: ...Forever and ever and ever...

FADEL: Forever.

GRIGSBY BATES: ...Via these costumes.

TARRANT: In a way, it really is a reflection of, I guess, the nation kind of - depiction of what - how we look to them and what we are to them.

GRIGSBY BATES: The general world is making them eternal victims because of the time period they chose to freeze in amber.

FADEL: Exactly.

GRIGSBY BATES: So seeing these fake suede fringed shirts, the fake braids each year, what does she feel when she actually sees these costumes being sold and being worn?

FADEL: She's exhausted, she said. She feels like in a lot of cases, people will retire certain costumes when they finally understand the offensive nature. And although we still see people don blackface now and again, there is a national uproar because there is an understanding of the history of dehumanization and degradation that goes with that. And she feels like it's very hard for people to understand that same feeling for Native American communities because it's part of this sort of history that's depicted in the films and the silent era films.

TARRANT: After "Manifest Destiny" and through the silent film era into, you know, films with sound, there was a recurring theme of, like, cowboys and Indians always, you know, because that is kind of like the, quote-unquote, "American story" of how we conquered this land, how we went west and how the 50 states came to be.

GRIGSBY BATES: So this would be the sort of thing that we always saw in all the old John Wayne movies of the, you know, the war whoops and...

FADEL: Right.

GRIGSBY BATES: ...The riding bareback on ponies and swooping down and swinging a tomahawk and speaking in English that they don't use in real life.

FADEL: Right. And then the other side of cultural appropriation is that money that's being made off of all these costumes is not going to these communities. And she talked about that as well. Like, if you do want to appreciate us in some way, appreciate our culture, which has so much beauty and so much history in it. You can do that.

TARRANT: In a way, I completely understand, as a nonnative person, why you find our culture beautiful, you know? And I would never look down on somebody for thinking something is beautiful. But you need to find another way to support us.

We have products. We have jewelry. We have podcasts. We - you know, we have theater. We have all of these things that we're trying to work on too, you know? And we're trying to get out there. And I would say that's one of the best ways to support us, you know? Repeatedly in this country, we've not been honored, you know, from treaties to land agreements to, you know, annuities from the state, you know, to water rights. I mean, constantly, we're denied that support from this country.

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, hopefully, as time goes on, we'll be seeing less and less of those kinds of costumes and more and more support for the communities that the costumes are alleged to represent.

FADEL: Yes. Speaking of, what are you wearing for Halloween?

GRIGSBY BATES: If I can find the right stuff, I might go as Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


GRIGSBY BATES: I need a gavel.

FADEL: And you need the, like...

GRIGSBY BATES: The little lace collar.

FADEL: Yeah.

GRIGSBY BATES: I think 9 zillion other people had that idea...

FADEL: You should do her workout outfit, actually.

GRIGSBY BATES: Oh, with her little...

FADEL: With the - yeah.

GRIGSBY BATES: ...(Laughter) with her little two-pound weights.


GRIGSBY BATES: That's about my speed.


GRIGSBY BATES: Leila Fadel, thanks so much.

FADEL: Thank you.


DEMBY: When we come back - how horror fiction can help us process real-life trauma.

TANANARIVE DUE: Real life is so scary. Racism is so scary. Climate change is so scary. That - a movie about some demons and monsters and vampires - listen. That's nothing.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's after the break.


GRIGSBY BATES: Stay with us, damn it.

DEMBY: Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.


DEMBY: CODE SWITCH - and we're back, talking about fear in an age of horrors.

GRIGSBY BATES: Gene, you sat down with Tananarive Due. She's an author of several supernatural thrillers. I've read many of them. And she's an amazing writer.


GRIGSBY BATES: And she teaches a class here in LA at UCLA on black horror and Afrofuturism.

DEMBY: Yes. And Tananarive told me that she got her love for scary movies from her mother, who a lot of people may know - the influential civil rights organizer Patricia Stephens Due.

DUE: As a kid watching horror, for me, it was like a roller coaster ride; like, wee (ph), because I hadn't been through anything. I hadn't lost anything or anyone. But for my mother, who had felt unsafe in her own nation, who had been targeted by state violence during the civil rights era - I really now believe that she found a kind of solace in the fake monsters...

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

DUE: ...The monsters that weren't real because she didn't believe in vampires. She didn't believe in zombies. She had no actual superstitions in real life that I can think of, so she was not a believer in any of this stuff. This was all escape.

DEMBY: Right.

DUE: So it's a way to sort of - you take that pain and the horror that you're walking around with, find something on a screen that replicates what your fear looks like and go through a process. So either the hero or heroine is going to fall or they are going to win. But either way, you've been through some kind of process where you can just - woo (ph) - exhale afterward...

DEMBY: Right.

DUE: ...And walk away. And oh, that wasn't even real, you know? So whatever's on my plate, whatever is dogging me is not going to be that. It's not a demon, at least (laughter).

DEMBY: Mmm hmm. And I guess, like, horror also has, you know, like - often has in-universe rules. So, like, the victims - usually, they've transgressed in some way, right? They're teenagers who were having sex. Maybe they covered up some kind of crime. Maybe they're just greedy. And so there's like an element of punishment there. But in real life, the kind of violence that people experience because of their identities is much more randomized, right? Like, it feels like...

DUE: That is - yes - so well put. I mean, that is true. I mean, I teach how to write horror too. And one of the common elements you find in both cinematic and literary horror is that because these protagonists are human...

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

DUE: They do have flaws. And what you do is you amplify those personal flaws as the doorway that leads them to the mouth of the supernatural. So there is this sense that even a small transgression can be so unforgiven in the world of a horror novel or a horror movie that it unlocks the door of the demon or, you know, it wakes the vampire or it leads you straight into the arms of a zombie because you weren't even supposed to be here right now.

DEMBY: Right.

DUE: (Laughter) You know, you're supposed to be somewhere else but now - too bad for you. And in on those old slasher movies in the '80s, it was so obvious too. Like, if you had sex...

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

DUE: If you did drugs, you were in big trouble in a horror movie (laughter).

DEMBY: (Laughter) Was there, like, a seminal horror movie that you picked up just, like, in proximity to your mom that, like - what were the movies of the books that she really, really rocked with that sort of resonated with you?

DUE: One of them is the movie "Mole People" (ph).


DUE: Right? I just remember being a kid, watching this movie "Mole People," thinking it was so scary.

DEMBY: Can you tell us a little bit about "The Mole People"? I've never seen this movie.

DUE: It's mostly very forgettable. But it's about a bunch of scientists who - I don't know. They discover, like, an alternate world under the Earth...

DEMBY: Uh huh.

DUE: ...Where these weird humanoid creatures have created some kind of dominion over deformed-looking mole people...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The bloodlusting mole people storming from their subterranean caverns.

DUE: ...Who were, you know, dark (laughter).

DEMBY: Oh, man.

DUE: But I mean, they don't look human so much. But they're definitely dark and hunched and dressed in rags. And, you know, that's probably what scared me most was that they were down there being abused that way. That was what was scary.


DUE: In adulthood, just a couple months ago, I went back to look at "Mole People" to try to see why it spoke to me so much. And I was very confused for the longest time. It was not well done. The acting wasn't good.

DEMBY: Uh huh.

DUE: It was really kind of bland. These scientists are on an expedition. I'm like, whatever. But then the mole people showed up. And they're supposed to be the scary monster, you know, to the viewer the movie was intended for. But I got it as an adult - why it had spoken to me so much as a child. I related to the mole people. They were dressed in tatters. They were being whipped and forced to work. They were a slave metaphor. And we were supposed to feel so bad for the heroine when the mole-person drags her under the sand and she's screaming, but I was like, you know, viva la revolucion, baby. Let's get - you know, let's rise up (laughter).

DEMBY: (Laughter) All right, Tananarive, so I'm going to play shrink with you for a second. It doesn't seem on the surface that, you know, going to watch people be hacked or hacked to pieces would be self-care for someone who...

DUE: (Laughter).

DEMBY: ...Thinks about race a lot (laughter). So what is it about the experience for you in consuming and creating horror that is therapeutic or cathartic?

DUE: Yeah, that idea of watching people hacked to pieces for no reason doesn't appeal to me either, I have to say. There are times I walk out of a horror experience feeling further traumatized, not less traumatized. You know, like, there's a family camping, and somebody killed everybody, including the baby. That's not fun to - you know, that's not fun to watch. And for some people, that's what horror is - like, every horror movie is just that, so they can't understand why anyone would like that stuff - when, in fact, there's a wide variety of kinds of horror, from psychological horror, which has no supernatural element but - to science-fiction horror, like, a movie like "Alien" or "Get Out" a science fiction because of the science element - supernatural demon horror, haunted house horror.

And for the ones that do appeal to me - and I love all of those. I love the haunted house. I love the family on vacation and something goes wrong story because every single time, I get to watch characters, hopefully that I care about - that's where I have to start - characters who seem real and whose lives I care about confront something they were either deathly afraid to confront or had no idea even existed until right now - you mean there's demons - right? - rise to the occasion, figure it out, fight back. You know, I really think that the survival strategies in horror appeal to me.


RUSSELL STREINER: (As Johnny) They're coming to get you, Barbara.

JUDITH O'DEA: (As Barbara) Stop it. You're ignorant.

STREINER: (As Johnny) They're coming for you, Barbara.

DUE: My students were all laughing at the way Barbara falls and trips and, you know, just sort of sags on a corner in "Night Of The Living Dead."


O'DEA: (As Barbara) Oh, no. Johnny, help me.

DUE: And that behavior does not appeal to me because that behavior will not do anything for me if anything really goes down where I have to run or fight. And I do think in a time of heightened political crisis and social crisis, a lot of us do sort of sit with that feeling that we don't know, was that a car backfiring, or do we need to dive under this table? And if I have to dive under this table, what do I need to grab so I can hit somebody with it? You know, this is more and more in the back of our minds. Are your neighbors going to descend on you for no reason because of something that has nothing to do with you? Are you going to have to run?

These are real questions. So for me, horror isn't theoretical. It's not, oh, like, what if scary things happened? It's like, it's scary things do happen. And I want to watch people dealing with scary things because they're teaching me how to survive, the ones who do survive. And they're also teaching me what not to do, the ones who don't survive. So either way, I walk out of a good horror movie feeling, like I said, empowered. And to me, it's worth it. Like, going through that gamut and being frightened and seeing characters rise to the challenge, and usually somebody can walk away - right? - that feeling of triumph really feeds something deep in me.

But I do - I will add this. As more and more black horror and horror starring black people gets popular, we do have to grapple with this question of how we treat black bodies and violence against black bodies on screen because this is very real, you know? A traumatized community - and it's entertainment - in some ways is not going to be able to sit and relax at watching certain kinds of violence, right? Of course, in horror, people do die. But you want to give death meaning, and you want to treat death with respect. You don't write lazily so that a character does something stupid and dies. You don't do that in any kind of horror, but especially for black characters. Do not let them go out being stupid.

DEMBY: Especially in real life in which, you know, violence, deadly violence against black and brown people, is often sort of treated as meaningless and almost like a natural thing.

DUE: Yeah I'm still so upset that Mike Brown's body was left lying out on that street for hours and hours on some kind of display, you know, as if to some sort of, like, warning to the community. What - it's just a sick - someone might say, oh, it was an oversight or whatever. But that - oversight? Are you kidding me? That - and that kind of trauma is something that we live with. So even if we don't know Mike Brown, that might not be my son, we know it could be our son. That could be our street, right? And it feels very personal. So yes, knowing that, creating black characters and brown characters, you have - there's a wariness that a lot of us carry in life where - you know the joke that we make fun as we watch horror movies, oh, people would never do that, and that kind of - you know, just roll our eyes in bad horror movies, I would say. So our characters have to sort of bring that same awareness in the fiction and the horror - you know, in the fiction and in the films - that they're not arbitrarily doing stupid things, that they're thinking it through, that if there's a sign of trouble, you react to that sign of trouble. You don't walk toward it; you walk away from it.

DEMBY: I'm thinking about just the other day after President Trump made his comments about lynching, one of the things that's happening on Twitter was people were trying to make a point about lynching by sharing photos from lynchings - from actual lynchings of black people in the United States.

DUE: Yeah.

DEMBY: And it was this really sort of macabre thing that was happening where people were trying to use these very grisly photos to make a point about why people should not be cavalier about lynching, about using that language, even as they were being sort of cavalier about showing these bodies. And it sort of occurred to me that we rarely see white people's bodies treated with that sort of casualness to make a rhetorical point. And it sort of underlines your point - the point you're making about the way black bodies are treated in horror.

DUE: Well, I - you know, I totally understand what happened there because I felt an impulse myself. Like, lynching - OK, this is what lynching - I totally get it. I was so angry. And then I stopped myself because, you know, as my follower count grows, I start to realize I have to sort of be mindful about the impact of the images that I tweet have on my followers, who are already traumatized, right? So whether they're black, they're white, whatever, it's - we're all sort of like-minded in, like, what the hell is going on?

And daily trauma is bad enough. You know, I learned with Tamir Rice, the poor child shot playing with a toy gun in Cleveland, that I can't watch police videos anymore. So even if you told me this 11-year-old girl is only being beaten or whatever by a police officer, I can't - I know I can't watch that, which might sound funny, or ironic, rather, for someone who writes horror, but I don't have the same stomach for real-life horror. And to me, a police officer physically abusing or even berating an 11-year-old child at her school is horror.

DEMBY: So horror movies and horror fiction provide, like, a safe way to process the feelings of horror around things like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown that can't get resolved in real life.

DUE: Yeah. For me, real life is so scary. Racism is so scary. Climate change is so scary that a movie about some demons and monsters and vampires - listen; that's nothing, right? I can have fun watching that and get scared in a safe way that helps me engage with my fear in a way that won't hurt me or paralyze me and then expel it, walk out, go on about my business and be like, well, at least this president isn't a zombie, or whatever I want to tell myself.


DUE: Or, you know, at least there isn't a zombie outbreak going on while we're undergoing this presidency is what I mean to say, you know, 'cause that would be worse. It just would. So it makes you kind of grateful for the fact that there is no such thing as a zombie apocalypse that we know of, that, you know, we don't actually know people who are possessed - probably, you know? But, yeah, it's a lighter, gentler way to engage with fear.


DEMBY: Tananarive Due is a professor at UCLA, where she teaches a class on black horror and Afrofuturism. And she's also an author. Tananarive, thank you so much.

DUE: Oh, my pleasure. This has been great.


DEMBY: So many longtime listeners of the CODE SWITCH podcast know that we often ask people to tell us the song that is currently giving them life. We haven't done that in a minute. We're trying to get back into it. But since KGB is here, I'm going to put you on the spot. Karen, what song is giving you life right now?

GRIGSBY BATES: Gene, it's Halloween week. So what song would I be listening to except Stevie Wonder's "Superstition"?


STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) Very superstitious. Writing's on the wall. Very superstitious. Ladder's about to fall.

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. For even more CODE SWITCH Halloween content, check out our blog. Our intern Angela Vang wrote about all the Halloween nonsense that you should endeavor to stay away from this season. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. You can follow Shereen, @RadioMirage, and me, @GeeDee215. And, Karen, what's your screen name again?

GRIGSBY BATES: @Karenbates - fancy, right?

DEMBY: Yes, very fancy. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts, but it should be NPR One.

GRIGSBY BATES: This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan and Jess Kung. It was also edited by Leah Donnella.

DEMBY: And we would be remiss if we did not shut out the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - LA Johnson, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez and Steve Drummond. Our intern, as you heard, is Angela Vang. I'm Gene Demby.

GRIGSBY BATES: And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.

DEMBY: Shereen is back next week. Be easy, y'all.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.