Austin podcaster’s Black horror show getting big attention

Entertainment

AUSTIN (KXAN) — One Austin resident is using her love of horror to bridge gaps in the genre — and feed an ever-increasing demand and fanbase for Black horror.

“Why can’t Black people just write stories? Why does it have to be a ‘Black’ story? I want to showcase that not only are Black writers capable of writing about so much more than Black trauma or the experience of Blackness. We can write outside of that box,” says Tonia Ransom.

Ransom is the creator and runner of the NIGHTLIGHT podcast, a weekly fiction anthology series featuring original horror stories exclusively written and performed by Black artists. She explains that she, along with her all-Black writer’s group, was tired of being told by publications that her work was either “too Black” or “not Black enough.”

“It was always a white editor that was assigning an arbitrary amount of Blackness they wanted to see in a story. And we all felt that was incredibly unfair,” she says. “Who is anyone outside of the Black community to be deciding what level of Blackness the story should be?”

While it’s stressed that the show is meant for all to enjoy, the podcast exists to not only highlight Black writers but to pay them, as well. NIGHTLIGHT, which launched in June 2018, is completely listener-supported, so it relies on donations and subscriptions to its Patreon and Anchor channels.

Logo for NIGHTLIGHT podcast (Courtesy of Nightlight Podcast/Tonia Ransom)

Tonia explains that a study she saw at the time helped spur her decision to hit the gas on the podcast, saying she learned that around that time that only about 2.7% of work published was authored by Black writers.

“Now obviously, the population of America, [the Black population] is about 13%, so it’s a big gap. It’s not like Black people don’t write,” says Tonia.

Tonia, who spoke at the Austin Film Festival about producing a podcast, explains that she wasn’t always an expert, but started doing-it-herself and figuring it out in real-time.

Some of NIGHTLIGHT’s earliest episodes were recorded inside Tonia’s closet.

She says she also hopes that NIGHTLIGHT and its stories can help bring people together through art, showing that certain genres aren’t just for certain people.

“It’s still kind of surreal when people walk up to me,” Tonia says of her podcast’s success. “I wear T-shirts all the time and say, ‘I love that podcast!’ Obviously, they don’t know my face — and they’ll be like, ‘Oh! You’re her!’ I get a lot of DMs and emails of people being like, ‘Thank you for doing this, it’s really important work. I’ve found so many new authors through your podcast and I’m so excited to have diversified my to-be-read pile. And then, Black writers will tell me, ‘Thank you so much for providing this venue for me to publish my work because it’s been really hard for me to find a place that would publish this.'”

NIGHTLIGHT’s big Halloween episode drops on Halloween. The podcast can be streamed on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and via the NIGHTLIGHT website.

What is Black Horror?

While the term is broad, it can refer to either horror stories reflecting scary elements of Black existence and/or be horror stories focused on Black characters.

In an essay for WIRED, senior editor/writer Jason Parham explains Black horror this way: “The genre wasn’t just about literal externalized monsters anymore but about monsters one couldn’t see, the interior battle brought on by discriminatory social structures like poverty, a broken education system and class immobility. It’s perhaps the scariest story of all: about the limits of human deliverance.”

MORE: Black writers and filmmakers are bringing new scares to the horror genre

“From my personal definition, Black horror is any horror that’s written by a Black person,” Tonia says. “It’s informed by our experiences. So whether you’re tackling things like segregation or slavery or Jim Crow or systemic racism in your writing — that’s great. Black people can write horror about that. But there’s so much more to our experience that is colored by the fact that we’re Black and that’s how we view the world.”

Tonia pointed to a recent example, “The Girl With All the Gifts,” which cast a Black actor in the lead role, even though the character in its source material is white.

“At the end, she’s basically saying, ‘Why should it be us who die for you?’ That’s not a line from the book, it’s something that was added for the movie — and I think it played out really well considering the race swap.”

Many Black horror authors say the genre aims not only to expose the insidious, but as catharsis for survival.

Parham explains:

“Discord and dread writhe all around, but even in the darkness, even in the sprint to survive, to endure, you manage to see yourself. There is comfort in that.”

Jason Parham, WIRED

Black horror writer Tananarive Due (and executive producer of “Horror Noire,” a Shudder documentary on Black horror history) says the genre is currently in a renaissance and that the visibility and representation are good for everyone.

“The entire genre is having a renaissance,” Due told CNN last year. “More people are accepting that horror doesn’t have to look like they always expected it to look. There could be more women, more Queer heroes, more Latinos. There’s room for us all.”

Places to start

Interested in consuming more Black horror?

Movies

“Candyman” (1992) and (2021): Widely considered one of the most influential Black horror films ever, 1992’s “Candyman” relocated the slasher genre from white suburbia to the Black Chicago housing project Cabrini-Green. The film follows a white researcher investigating the urban myth of the “Candyman,” a supernatural entity believed to come out of Cabrini-Green residents’ mirrors. While written and directed by Bernard Rose, who is white, the film centralizes the theme of racial inequities in housing and law enforcement. “Candyman” spawned several sequels, including 2021’s sequel of the same name, this time written/directed by a Black woman, Nia DaCosta, and written/produced by Black horror royalty, Jordan Peele. In the wake of widespread protests and calls for justice after several police-involved killings of Black people, 2021’s “Candyman” focuses on several “horrors” faced by the population, including differences in media narratives around Black “criminals” versus white criminals.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – AUGUST 17: Guests attend Universal Pictures, Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures and Monkeypaw present a special NYC screening of Candyman at Crosby Street Hotel on August 17, 2021 in New York City (Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Universal Pictures)

“Get Out” (2017): Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and grossing over $250 million, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” electrified audiences upon its release. The film follows its lead character, who is Black, meeting his white girlfriend’s family for the first time. But this weekend in the country quickly turns phantasmagoric, when protagonist Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) realizes something sinister is afoot. With “Get Out,” Peele, who was previously known for comedy, became the first Black winner for a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award. Four years since its release, “Get Out” still boasts a 98% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Peele’s follow-up, 2019’s “Us,” also featured a majority Black cast and, while its themes are open to interpretation, appears to tackle issues of classism, xenophobia and privilege.

HOLLYWOOD, CA – MARCH 04: Writer Jordan Peele, winner of the Best Original Screenplay award for ‘Get Out,’ poses in the press room during the 90th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood, California (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

“Tales from the Hood” (1995): Considered to be among the biggest progenitors of Black horror, the anthology film directed Rusty Cundieff and produced by Spike Lee, explores issues of violence, gentrification and white supremacists. While the film was successful upon release, Cundieff struggled for years to get a sequel greenlit. He told IndieWire that fervor for Black horror following the release of “Get Out” likely contributed to getting a long-awaited sequel made in 2018.

Books

TONI MORRISON
FILE – Toni Morrison poses with a copy of her book “Beloved” in New York. Morrison, a pioneer and giant of modern literature. Morrison died Monday, Aug. 5, 2019 (AP/David Bookstaver)

“Beloved” by Toni Morrison (1987): While not strictly a horror novel, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison’s novel is often mentioned among the most famous Black horror books. The story follows a freed woman haunted by not only the trauma of slavery, but her own killing of her child who she hoped to spare from slavery. The novel was adapted for the screen in 1998 and starred Oprah Winfrey. “Beloved” has remained controversial in U.S. schools since its publication and has been banned several times. As recently as this month, the novel became a centerpiece in the Virginia governor’s race. Earlier this week, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin released a video of a conservative activist and mother Laura Murphy in an ad promoting laws that would notify parents when readings of “explicit” material were assigned to students. Murphy previously worked to have “Beloved” banned in Fairfax County. Youngkin’s opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe rejects the law on the basis of censorship.

“The Other Black Girl” by Zakiya Dalila Harris (2021): Harris’ debut novel focuses on its protagonist’s experiences as one of the few people of color at a predominantly white publishing company — and the unexpected and terrifying results of another Black coworker entering it. “The Other Black Girl” sold at auction for over $1 million, a rarity for debut authors and was named the June selection for the “Good Morning America” Book Club. The novel is currently in development for a Hulu series. Harris is developing the project with actor Rashida Jones.

“Lovecraft Country” by Matt Ruff (2016): Ruff describes his fantastical and fearsome novel like this: “Some very nice, very smart African-Americans are plunged into netherworlds of malevolent sorcery in the waning days of Jim Crow—as if Jim Crow alone wasn’t enough of a curse to begin with.” The book explores the danger of “Driving While Black,” according to Ruff, and drops its Black characters inside the world of early 20th Century sci-fi/horror author H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft, known for works like “The Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness,” is also known for including racist and xenophobic commentary/allusions in his writing. “Lovecraft Country” and its HBO miniseries flip the work on its head by presenting it from a Black point-of-view.

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