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From horror, hope: Normal Theater screens EthnoGothic Film Series

Two men stand in a white-walled radio studio with framed images of jazz singers and certificates hung behind them.
Lauren Warnecke
Stanford Carpenter, left, and Eric Wesselmann co-teach an honors course at Illinois State University on EthnoGothic horror films.

Note: This story contains spoilers.

An honors course at Illinois State University called “Exploring the EthnoGothic” uses horror films as a catalyst for discussions on race, identity and culture. Cultural anthropologist Stanford Carpenter and psychologist Eric Wesselmann co-teach the class, which includes a set of public screenings at the Normal Theater.

The final two films, “Bones” and “The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster,” air Thursday and Sept. 28, respectively. Presented in chronological order, prior screenings included “Scream Blacula Scream,” “Ganja & Hess” and the original “Candyman.”

Wesselmann and Carpenter said selecting just five films was an enormous challenge. They compiled trailers to cover a wider array of films and contextualize each feature. Each features a Black protagonist, villain and/or anti-hero.

Carpenter developed the term EthnoGothic with John Jennings and other scholars to capture the middle ground between Afrofuturism and Afropessimism—the former inherently optimistic and the latter, well, pessimistic. The course uses this framework to unveil differences in how people of different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds experience horror in films and other media.

“One of the big, easy moments you can talk about in a horror film is when the police show up,” Carpenter said. “Depending on what your experience is with the police, there are some people who are going to be sitting in the audience seeing the police show up and seeing someone coming to save them. There are other people who see them as someone just coming to do more harm.”

Blaxploitation horror

The first film in the series, “Scream Blacula Scream,” draws heavily from 1970s Blaxploitation films. Like other exploitation films, these often B movies featuring Black actors (and occasionally Black filmmakers) leaned on lurid content, cultural stereotypes and killer soundtracks.

A leading lady of the Blaxploitation era, Pam Grier, is one current running through the EthnoGothic film series. She starred beside William Marshall in “Scream Blacula Scream” in 1973, and with Snoop Dogg in the 2001 film “Bones,” airing Thursday at the Normal Theater.

“Bones” pays homage to the era as Jimmy Bones (Snoop Dogg)—a long-deceased drug lord buried in the basement of his now decrepit (and, naturally, haunted) mansion—returns from the dead to seek vengeance on his killers.

Vigilante justice is the heartbeat of Blaxploitation films, whose role in the cultural zeitgeist has been contested for their depiction of stereotypes. Though on its face “Bones” is a silly and arguably mediocre slasher flick, it moved the needle on Black representation in early 21st century horror.

“You can really see a different way in which we are both looking at Black people and Black people are looking at themselves,” Carpenter said, “along with the input of studios. You’re seeing a real move towards very much placing it in the city. When we make the city a character, it becomes more about the ‘hood.”

A marquee reading "Ethnogothic film series Ganja & Hess" is on the outside of an old-fashioned movie house at dusk.
Stanford Carpenter
The 1973 arthouse film "Ganja & Hess" was the second film shown in the EthnoGothic Film Series. Written and directed by Bill Gunn, the film faced sharp criticism that Gunn said was motivated by racism. "Ganja & Hess" has more recently been praised as a cult classic ahead of its time.

Candyman, Candyman, Candyman...

It’s a different approach than, say, the original “Candyman,” shown last week in a classroom on ISU’s campus due to difficulty obtaining rights for a public screening.

Wesselmann said with more time, he’d show the 1992 “Candyman,” then “Bones,” then Nia DeCosta’s 2021 “Candyman” sequel co-authored with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld.

“Gentrification and issues of systemic racism and poverty goes through all of those,” Wesselmann said. “You also have the voice of the creative team. The original ‘Candyman’ started the conversation, but it’s also told through a white lens.”

Virginia Madsen plays Helen Lyle, a doctoral student researching urban legends at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The Candyman was thought to be the son of a slave with a hook for a hand who terrorizes Cabrini-Green, a public housing development a mile from Chicago’s Gold Coast.

“Cabrini-Green in that movie is put forth as a hellscape,” Carpenter said. “For thousands of people, Cabrini-Green is home. When you create a horror film and you take someone’s home and turn it into a hellscape, that in and of itself is a blow.”

The 'Final Person' ending

Released earlier this year, “The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster” presents a more nuanced look at communities who live in public housing. Bomani Story’s debut film is the final installment of the Ethnogothic Film Series on Sept. 28.

The main character, Vicaria (Laya DeLeon Hayes), is a teenage prodigy whose family is deeply impacted by gun violence. Fashioned after Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Vicaria believes death is a disease and tries to resurrect her brother. It goes poorly—this is a horror movie, after all.

Wesselmann connects with Vicaria’s grief and “what we are willing to do to keep someone in our lives if we can—even if at some level we ‘know’ that this is going to go poorly,” he said. “One could see that as hubris; one could see that as a desire to keep our loved ones in our life.”

The Final Girl is a trope used in horror films; the last person standing lives to tell the tale of what happened and warn others (and perpetuate a franchise). “The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster” confronts the trope as Vicaria and Jada, a young neighbor who befriended the monster, find their families murdered at the hand of Vicaria’s creation.

“She brings them back to life,” Carpenter said. “We don’t really see what happens but it’s kind of implied that they’re going to be alright. We talk about horror films as if they are these depressing, scary things. The concept that somebody survives is hope.”

“If [Vicaria] didn’t defeat death, she definitely gave it a good fight,” he said, “and there’s the possibility of a win. There were still a lot of people that weren’t coming back. It was still a scary movie. But I looked at that ending as the 'final person' ending that Black people needed.”

The Ethnogothic Film Series continues Thursday, Sept. 21 with “Bones” at the Normal Theater. The series concludes with “The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster” on September 28. Both films are open to the public. Tickets are $7 online or at the door.

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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