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Amazon's New Anthology Series 'Them' Explores Terror In America

NOEL KING, HOST:

A new show on Amazon has made people ask whether horror makes a point about society or whether it's just gratuitous. "Them" is about the Emorys, a Black family that moves to an all-white neighborhood in California in the 1950s.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THEM")

ALISON PILL: (As Betty) I can't imagine living somewhere I wasn't wanted, all alone. You're all alone right now. Find someplace else to live, Mrs. Emory.

KING: I recently talked to Aisha Harris, who is the co-host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. So I'm going to confess something. I love horror movies and TV. A couple of weeks ago, my girlfriend sent me a link to the trailer, and I watched it, and I thought, I just do not have the strength for this right now. And then it turns out I have a lot of company. Let's talk about why this show is eliciting such a reaction.

AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Well, "Them" comes at a time when we have a small wave of films in Hollywood that are being made like this. Of course, you have Jordan Peele's "Get Out," which really kicked this wave off a few years ago. And since then, we've seen a lot of things like that. We've seen "Lovecraft Country" on HBO, the film "Antebellum" last year, and soon we'll have a remake of "Candyman," which was also produced by Jordan Peele. What I think connects all of these works is the fact that they are incorporating sort of very familiar imagery and historical anecdotes that when it comes to racism, the white gaze, blackface, redlining, lynchings - all these things can be found in "Them," and the problem with those things is that they privilege shock over storytelling. The family in this show, the Emory family - they face frequent harassment when they move into this all-white suburb in California. And the graphic - the violence is extremely graphic from every white person they encounter. And it's weighted down by their traumas, and they don't really feel like fully realized characters, only victims.

KING: The creator of the series, Little Marvin, offered a kind of defense to The LA Times. He said he wanted to force viewers to, quote, "contend with a history of violence against Black bodies in this country." What do you make of that argument?

HARRIS: Yeah, I mean, the thing about it is that that really depends on who your audience is and who this is for. And I think, myself, as a Black person, and I think many Black people - we see this all the time. We've always been able to contend with the violence against Black people in this country. And when it comes to white audiences, I think that it has also always been sort of entertainment for them to see Black people suffer. You can go back as far as the lynchings that were - the public lynchings that were held in the earlier part of the 20th century where they were actually handing out photographs and making it a party to watch Black people be lynched. And then, of course, in movies, you have Black people, often in horror movies, dying first. So I think that the problem with "Them" is that they could have told this story in an interesting way, but there's a lot of long, drawn-out, very, very graphic violence that is just overt and explicit in a way that I think victimizes Black people and does not offer any sort of solace or comfort. And to me, that seems like it's more for a white audience and less for a Black audience.

KING: And you mentioned Jordan Peele's "Get Out," which was a monumental movie that appealed really broadly to audiences, which makes me wonder whether this is a case of Hollywood doing what it often does. You've got a hit. You copy the hit over and over and over, and you keep making money. Do you think that's what's going on here, or is it something else?

HARRIS: I think that's part of it. You know, obviously, "Get Out" was a massive success, both critically and commercially. It spawned its own lexicon, like the sunken place, its own sort of cult following, in a way. And of course, Hollywood was going to repeat that success. That's not a surprise. The thing is, is that, like, Black horror and sci-fi is not new at all. You know, there's always been a place for social commentary when it comes to Black experiences within horror and fantasy. Of course, you have "Night Of The Living Dead," George A. Romero's film from the late 1960s. You have "The People Under The Stairs."

KING: Oh, yes.

HARRIS: "Tales From The Hood." So we've been here. We've always been here. The difference now is that Hollywood sees this as a market, and so when you have this on top of a, quote-unquote, "racial reckoning" of anti-racist literature and many companies declaring Black lives matter, et cetera, this is a sort of new dawn for the genre on film.

KING: Aisha Harris is the co-host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Aisha, thanks for taking the time. We appreciate it.

HARRIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SITUATION HANDLED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.