Screams with a Black Timbre: On Jordan Peele’s “Out There Screaming”

By Jason Ray CarneyJanuary 7, 2024

Screams with a Black Timbre: On Jordan Peele’s “Out There Screaming”

Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror by Jordan Peele

WHEN WE HAVE a horrific experience, certain things happen to our brain and body. An almond-shaped set of neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe, the amygdala, is activated. The amygdala then signals the hypothalamus, adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, and a chain reaction of physiological responses is initiated, including increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and sweating—all part of the “fight or flight” reaction managed by the autonomic nervous system. Even as the hypothalamus activates the autonomic response, it also sends signals to the brain stem, and a scream is triggered.

While reading horror fiction can also evoke fear and anxiety, the physiological experience is different. Reading scary stories involves multiple deliberate cognitive processes, which tend to dull the acuteness of horror-inducing stimuli. Projecting mental images onto the screen of one’s mind engages the visual cortex and involves the interaction of several other brain areas, including the parietal lobes, the prefrontal cortex, and the thalamus. This engagement provides readers with control over how they mentally construct and pace the experience. As a result, reading typically does not elicit the intense involuntary physical reactions that more direct sensory experiences provoke.

These thoughts about the neuroanatomy of horror were inspired by the novelty of a celebrated horror filmmaker editing a collection of horror fiction: Jordan Peele’s recent anthology, Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror (2023). I must admit that I didn’t involuntarily scream while reading its 19 excellent tales; indeed, contemplating why they did not make me scream led me to question the nature of the artistic success of horror fiction. How do we judge a work of horror as a success or failure when, from the point of view of neuroanatomy, the medium itself seems to work against the affective objective of the genre? Despite a writer’s skill in orchestrating our emotions, there are no jump scares in prose fiction, no atonal noise music cues to evoke a sense of anxiety and mounting dread, no spectacles of bodily mutilation to engage our mirror neurons.

Peele himself addresses the conditions for the success or failure of horror in his brief but insightful introduction. He writes, “I view horror as catharsis through entertainment. It’s a way to work through your deepest pain and fear.” So although a prose horror story likely won’t make you scream, it can still provide a safe context for a reader to psychologically process, and perhaps resolve, their inchoate pains, fears, and traumas. Peele’s speculation about the psychological utility of horror is rooted in Aristotle’s Poetics, with some help from Freud, for whom the unconscious is akin to a basement room where we store disturbing desires, fears, and impulses that need to be put out of mind for us to function socially.

From a Freudian perspective, horror might be useful because, to the extent that it reminds us of what we have repressed and thus strategically forgotten, it provides us with a valuable opportunity to bring these unprocessed materials back into consciousness. Unresolved fears and traumas fester and rot, and thus it is almost always healthy and wise to draw them out. Repressed feelings, like the unquiet dead, can haunt the conscious mind from the depths of the spectral unconscious. Horror fiction allows us to unearth what we shouldn’t have buried in the first place. And while it might not make us scream, it does help us to confront and process our fears, importantly providing a contemplative distance that the cinematic immediacy of jump scares and gory effects collapses.

But Peele’s interest in horror extends beyond catharsis as a putatively “universal” human experience. As one of the most influential living Black horror filmmakers, Peele also explores the role of horror for Black readers and writers. He notes that “for Black people [catharsis] isn’t possible, and for many decades wasn’t possible, without the stories being told in the first place.” Peele highlights the difficulty, often the impossibility, of experiencing catharsis through horror for Black Americans, a group that has been historically terrorized and culturally silenced by a white majority society. And he points out an obscure cultural inequity: Black readers and writers have not had access to psychologically useful horror stories, an access others have taken for granted. Is it fair to say, then, that for Peele the gothic horrors of Edgar Allan Poe are partially inadequate as psychological templates for Black people to process their collective traumatic experiences? It seems so. Poe’s works, according to this view, catered to the fears of white people in a slaveholding society, especially those in the antebellum South living in cities like Richmond, Virginia, a hub of the American slave trade. Stories like “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), “The Black Cat” (1843), and “Hop-Frog” (1849) can be seen as psychodramas for contemporaneous white readers, helping them process unconscious guilt about enslaving people and incipient paranoia about the threat of slave uprisings.

When a Black reader engages with “The Masque of the Red Death,” a story about an aristocracy isolating itself from a decomposing society and the pervasive threat of contagion, how might they view this aristocracy’s final destruction? Is the Red Death holding “illimitable dominion over all” truly horrifying? Perhaps instead it provides a psychological and symbolic resolution to the injustices of a slaveholding state? Similarly, consider “Hop-Frog,” the story of a tortured servant who burns his arrogant sovereign alive in response to dehumanizing treatment. Would an antebellum Black reader, aware of the ubiquity of the shackles and torture devices, view the vengeful jester as maniacal or as justified? The experience of horror, it would seem, is culturally relative.

Understanding the appeal of horror fiction as a cognitive tool for processing repressed fears becomes more complex when considering diverse reader perspectives. For instance, Stephen King’s Carrie (1974) is undoubtedly a frightening novel, but how would a female reader perceive this monstrous, psychokinetic young woman who strikes back at her tormentors? Perhaps as a hero? H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” (1927) provides the frightening prospect of an interracial occult conspiracy of devil worshippers, but Victor LaValle, author of a reimagining of the tale, The Ballad of Black Tom (2016), frames the Red Hook cult as a powerful network of mutual support. In essence, Peele argues that there are unique psychodramas for Black people living in a white-dominated society, and for horror to truly resonate with them, they need to write and read their own stories.

N. K. Jemisin’s contribution to the book, “Reckless Eyeballing,” is a deeply unsettling account of a psychopathic police officer who is blessed (cursed?) by a supernatural automobile to engage in vicious brutality, sexual violence, and extortion. This savage story offers a psychological framework for processing the imbrication of systemic racism, terrorism, and discriminatory policing in the United States. One can imagine Jemisin’s tale speaking directly to a Black community still processing the fates of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and so many more.

Or consider Nnedi Okorafor’s “Dark Home,” a haunting tale about a young woman grieving for her recently deceased Nigerian father. This grief, an inability to let go, stirs the ire of a powerful spirit. Despite the heroine’s modern, digitally enhanced life, the spirit wreaks havoc on her, dragging her screaming back into a world of premodern magic. The story artfully explores the consciousness of the postcolonial subject caught between multiple overlapping worlds and timescapes and the way a racially homogeneous modern suburban complex feels to an isolated person of color.

Another story, Maurice Broaddus’s “The Norwood Trouble,” addresses the specter of white supremacist terrorism in the form of a group of Ku Klux Klan raiders through the lens of a Black community with access to ancient sorcery for protection. Like James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” (1957), Broaddus’s tale explores the ways Black communities establish intimate networks of support in the face of white supremacy, and yet it does so through the idiom of folk horror tropes.

The artistic value of this anthology, highlighted in every tale of deals with the devil, alien pregnancies, and haunted dolls, is that it gives form to the possibility of Black catharsis. Like all good horror fiction, these stories serve as artful and psychologically useful cognitive tools for real people to manage real horror. Put another way, they provide a map to the expression of a uniquely textured subjective experience. And yet, despite their distinctive focus, they entertained and unsettled me, a white reader, and I speculate that they will appeal to a wide range of readers for a variety of unforeseen reasons.

Out There Screaming achieves a rare balance. It engages the universal structures of our brains’ aesthetic responses while at the same time addressing the singular experiences of Black readers and writers. In this age of anxiety and uncertainty, perhaps we are all out there screaming—but the 19 screams brought together in Peele’s gripping anthology are marked by a Black timbre.

LARB Contributor

Jason Ray Carney teaches popular literature in the department of English at Christopher Newport University. He is the author of Weird Tales of Modernity: The Ephemerality of the Ordinary in the Stories of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft (McFarland, 2019), the area chair of the “Pulp Studies” section of the Popular Culture Association, and the editor of The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies.


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