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American Horror Story: Black Death/White Monsters pt.3

Point 3 • Successful Franchises Get Reboots


History is replete with inhumanly passive observances of the grotesque. William Bosman was a Dutch slaver. In his book, published in 1705, he wrote: “when dead Slaves are thrown over-board, I have sometimes, not without horrour, seen the dismal Rapaciousness of these Animals; four or five of them together shoot to the bottom under the Ship to tear the dead Corps to pieces, at each bite an Arm, a Leg, or the Head is snapt off; and before you can tell twenty have sometimes divided the Body amongst them so nicely that not the least Particle is left.”

By his own testimony, Bosman stood on the prow of a ship and watched the sharks devour the remains of human beings until the last bit of flesh was consumed. Many times. Enough times to note patterns of behavior. He watched this happen with eyes open enough to recount in grisly detail the specifics of the brutality. But he wasn’t writing a lamentation of human death. This quote is pulled from his writings on the behaviors of various species of shark. The Black death was merely an ancillary point of interest – a curiosity to feed the monster.

It is possible that as the evidence unfolds we will learn that Kenneka was killed by another Black person. We are certainly capable of  – even adroit at – killing one another. But we don’t have the kind of practiced dexterity and callous comfort with macabre horror that white people built their reputations on. The pedestrian gun and knife murders committed in the throes of outrage and passion in the so-called “inner city,” are almost quaint in comparison to the theater of torture white people employed just to prop up the economy of the antebellum South. Burning flesh, stripping skin and chopping off limbs were common occurrences – perpetrated and observed casually by white people.

2017 gave us Jordan Peele’s genre-defying epic horror film Get Out, a cinematic opus that was terrifyingly real to Black people and that largely fell flat on whites – primarily because they weren’t Black. The idea of people who looked like them being construed as villains by simple dint of hyper-extending white privilege and entitlement is impossible to see as horror when their history doesn’t remind them of the horrors they have been proven capable of.

White monsters – no matter how many may parade across the headlines – are viewed as one-offs and aberrations, uniquely troubled figures who do not represent the whole. Black aberrations are construed as cross-sections of our population, representations of the darkest urges of all Black folks and deepest fears of all white folks. They become the composite face of true villainy in white media – their Blackness painted in broad dark strokes absent the detail and nuance that defines humanity.

This is in keeping with the bent of history. Victors are not just winners – they are heroes. Accordingly, the defeated are not merely losers but villains. 

There is no glory in triumphing over weakened, sickly or isolated figures so the defeated are recast, they become Bucks, even demigods, surging with power from some supernatural force that makes them a threat, a necessary evil created to cast a bright light on the dark actions of the victors allowing the horrific acts of monsters to be cast as heroic. It is how Darren Wilson escapes universal condemnation, by making Michael Brown a golem, an unstoppable force that had to be put down. The trope is so typecast that we don’t even process it anymore. The big black one is the boogie man – that’s the one that must be defeated.

The nightly news cannot resort to the overly simplified tropes that Hollywood employs so they wrap terror in the context of drugs, guns and “inner-city violence”. These are the crescendos of strings, that program us to be fearful and heighten our awareness to everything around us until even the familiar is frightful. In horror movies, these are called jump scares. They are the psychological micro terrors that cause the prey and the audience to become unraveled and lose their focus.

America’s horror story relies heavily on jump scares. The media has taught white people to jump in fear at the threat of Sharia law but sit comfortably in the history that their great-great-grandfather chopped off a man’s hand for daring to write his name. Or his foot for daring to run free. The same media uses representations of thugs, killers and sex traffickers to condition us to fear the face of someone who looks like our brother but barely look askance at the face of a man who is but 2 generations removed from a bone collector.

Jump scares distract us from the real danger. They set us up to fear the shadow cast by whatever they’ve shined a light on. Meanwhile, the real killer stands in plain sight. Because in modern horror stories killers don’t hide in shadows. In modern horror stories, killers are fearless and untouchable.

This thought slips the key in the lock and I understand what the “accident” that befell Kenneka Jenkins reminds me of… KJ… KJ… Kendrick Johnson.

In 2013, Kendrick Johnson’s body was found wrapped in gym mats; at some point, his internal organs were removed and his body was stuffed with newspaper. This – according to the initial reports – was obviously an accident.

Like Kanneka, Kendrick’s epitaph is written mostly in questions. His death, like hers, is so horrific, so bizarre that it doesn’t seem real. Nothing adds up. There is video footage but it is incomplete. Paperwork has gaps. The handling of the body is shrouded in mystery and everyone seems to be a suspect or complicit.

The situation was so hopelessly maddening that Kendrick’s parents jumped at every shadow; everything felt like a lead, everyone felt like a killer. They accused and filed charges against 38 different people and agencies.

These are the jump scares. This is the effect of psychological terror. Everything feels unsafe. Nothing feels right. And at this point, the killer stands and watches you torture yourself. Because in modern horror stories killers don’t hide in shadows. In modern horror stories, killers have family in high places within federal agencies who wipe the blood off of every surface including the killer’s hand and then stick the grieving and still terrified family of the victim with the clean-up bill.

On August 10, 2017, after the Johnson’s could no longer afford to pursue justice and dropped the lawsuits against the people they’d accused, a judge ordered them to pay nearly $300,000 in legal fees. 

Kendrick Johnson’s murder was not an indie production. It was a big budget affair with high-powered executive producers pulling the strings and working the story. And it was a part of a franchise. Because really successful horror stories become formulas that are repeated.

2012; Jason Smith of Eros Louisiana was found dead – organs missing. 2013; The body of missing model and actor Ryan Singleton of Atlanta Georgia, was recovered in California – eyes cut out, organs missing. 2014; Lennon Lacy of Bladenboro, NC is found dead, hanging from a swing set in an almost exclusively white part of town. It is quickly ruled a suicide.  2015; Otis James Bird of Mississippi is found dead in the deep of the woods, hung from a tree by a bed sheet, no chair or ladder is nearby – it’s called a suicide. 2017; Jeremy Jerome Jackson’s burned body is found in the bushes, his body shows he had sustained a gunshot wound to the leg, the horrifying asterisk is that his head was found a mile away, posted up on a front porch.  According to autopsy reports, it had been severed from Jackson’s body while he was still alive.

Jackson’s epitaph was not that he was a father of three who was working to complete his degree, but that his case, was “truly unique.” The police chief said his department had never worked “a decapitation case” and the FBI Agent in Charge, Christopher Freeze said,  “I have not seen this in my career, certainly not here in the United States.” Of course, the history of this nation doesn’t support his disbelief.

Jeremy Jerome Jackson’s case cannot by any measure be considered unique. He was killed in Jackson, Mississippi. A town in a region of the country that hosted roughly 2 lynchings per week between 1880 and 1930 – back when tickets were sold and special trains were chartered to attend. Black death was a booming franchise back then. And successful franchises always get rebooted.

These stories are underreported and not presented with the gravitas befitting the horrors they truly are. America is accustomed to its dark lens, and can look at anything comfortably; America can stomach these grisly stories and still have an appetite for finger sandwiches.

Just as it was in the era of slavery, American horror is still a successful franchise. And sadly, Kenneka Jenkins’ murder – and in the pit of my gut I will always feel it was a murder – is now a part of this gruesome franchise. It’s written in keeping with the style of the genre. Her frozen body invokes the specter of serial disembowelings, and the casual ghoulishness of white people preserving totems and souvenirs of Black death, – removing the salvageable pieces before tossing the trash. It’s written with jump scares that are intended to have us double checking the shadows and fleeing from our familiars. It’s written with enough holes and questions to invoke the kind of psychological torture that keep us on the edge of our seat and unsteady on our feet. It’s written with asterisks after her name to make us question her victimhood. And it’s written to eventually pass into history; an ancillary point of interest – a curiosity to feed the monster.

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Julian Long avatar About the author: Julian Long* loves hard, that’s just what he does. And he writes about what he loves. You can support his writing on Patreon. He’s on FB if you can find him or you could hit up his twitter – @magnet4awesome – but it’s dusty.

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