First and foremost, Annabelle scared the crap out of me.
The prequel to the 2013 horror hit The Conjuring was certifiably creepy thanks to the scariest children’s toy in history—the porcelain doll (just one notch higher than the ever-frightening Furby). Since their creation, porcelain dolls have been a consistent source for scares. I had a porcelain doll as a child and, after learning of the plot line of Chucky from my big sister, it went in the trash.
So there’s no doubt Annabelle was scary: There were unsettling shots of that doll’s hellish smile;quick but terrifying glimpses of a looming demon figure in the shadows; and hold-your-breath scenarios in which a majorly adorable baby—seriously, cutest baby ever—is vulnerable to Satanic soul-stealing.
But what irked me was Alfre Woodard’s character Evelyn. Now this is in no way a criticism of Woodard—she’s a phenomenal actor, and I don’t want to attack her for taking the part. It’s a significant role in a blockbuster horror film—who wouldn’t take it? My issue is with the way the writers wrote the character Evelyn. It’s worth noting that Evelyn, a black woman, is the only character of colour in this movie. She is a secondary character, befriending the main character Mia, a white woman.
Evelyn is wise, and guides Mia on her journey to remove this demon from her house and ultimately protect her family. Any question Mia has, Evelyn has the answer. She’s knowledgeable about demons and religion and generally seems to know the answer to everything. Sounds nice right? Wrong. It’s actually promoting a very problematic movie trope, one that Roxane Gay looks at in her recent book Bad Feminist, adding onto commentary by Matthew Hughey. That is, the trope of the magical, mystical, black woman. And while it might sound cool, at least at first glance, its roots are in dehumanizing stereotypes of black women. Their supernatural wisdom is only really present to benefit the white characters in the film.
At first, I didn’t even notice that Evelyn’s character conformed to this racist trope. As a non-black person of colour, I admit I don’t always immediately pick up on these things. Like other audience members, I was mainly concerned with the good vs. evil battle against this ridiculously murderous looking doll. But the movie’s finale made it impossible to ignore how problematic Evelyn’s character is—an immediate red flag went up. (Also, spoiler alert!) In order to save Mia and her family, Evelyn grabs the doll and commits suicide, effectively offering her soul to the demon and therefore relieving Mia and her family of this haunting.
The only black woman in the whole movie, the only character of colour at all, plunges to her death in a selfless saintly act to save an all-American Christian white family, and then is never mentioned after. Her body lies on the pavement, white dress spread out like an angel with blood seeping from her head, and then that’s it. The picturesque white family goes to church where the Priest reminds them they’ve become stronger from this awful trauma, while making no mention of Evelyn, who really ought to be canonized for her selfless deed.
I could feel something wrong about the whole thing, but was unable to articulate it, until I had read Roxane Gay’s essay and the excerpt from Matthew Hughey’s 2009 article Social Problems that she cited in her book. The magical black woman kills herself for the sake of the white family. I challenge anyone who can seriously read that sentence and believe there’s nothing problematic about it.
And with that trope aside, it only reinforces the horror genre’s tendency to treat black characters as disposable, a topic I discussed in the first Oh, The Horror post. It’s no surprise in horror that black characters rarely ever make it to the end. They’re either killed suddenly and removed from the plot entirely, or die as heroic martyrs for the safety of the white characters. Though the latter might seem better with the whole “selfless characters dies for everyone else” appeal, it’s really just as bad as the former. Both things make it so that black characters are lost to the horror, while white characters thrive and persevere.
Next week, I explore heteronormativity in horror—originally scheduled for this week, but bumped because I just couldn’t give Annabelle a free pass!