Television

Lovecraft Country’s Premiere Captured the Horror That Almost Killed My Grandfather

“Sundown towns” were all too real—and not just in the South.

In a still from the show, Majors and Smollett look handsome, stylish, and afraid, at night at a roadside stop. Smollett is holding a camera.
Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in Lovecraft Country. Elizabeth Morris/HBO

My grandfather was almost killed in a sundown town.

I never met him, but I distinctly remember my grandmother telling stories of how her husband, my grandfather, would sometimes take cross-country trips. And on many of these trips, because he was not familiar with the town he was in, he would have to find lodging before the sun went down because, well, this may be a sundown town.

Sundown towns, like the town I live in now used to be, were towns where Black folks were relatively free to roam during the daylight hours, but once the sun went down, they were arrested and sometimes killed—simply because of the color of their skin. Sometimes the founders and leaders of these towns would rationalize their treatment of people by talking about the menace of crime that followed Black folks, but, really, it was just a way to keep people who looked like me in their place.

Story has it that one night my grandfather found himself in one of these towns. He had to keep driving for hours until he found a place that would let him stay overnight. He never ran into a police officer, thankfully, because if he had, he may have been, at best, arrested and, at worst, killed. That is the kind of danger that Black people historically have found themselves contending with in this country—and it is something that HBO’s new show, Lovecraft Country, captures perfectly.

I was taken aback by how well Lovecraft Country portrays the horror that can be Black life in America. Yes, the show was intentional about showing the joy of Blackness by centering the music, dancing, and tenderness between George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance) and Hippolyta Freeman (Aunjanue Ellis) in the pilot’s first act, but once George, his nephew Atticus (Jonathan Majors), and Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia (the scene-stealing Jurnee Smollett) leave the confines of home, we are quickly made aware that being Black in this country is as fraught and full of danger as any horror movie.

For me, this is brought home when our protagonists have a fateful encounter with police toward the end of the episode. They are informed that they are in a county with a sundown policy (hence the title of the episode, “Sundown”), and they make their way as soon as they can to the county line in an attempt to not run afoul of the law.

Misha Green, who previously co-created WGN’s Underground, is the showrunner and wrote the pilot episode, but I can feel the influence of Jordan Peele, an executive producer, on this element of the show. Like Get Out, this series shows that the experience of being Black in this country is far more terrifying than any creature the creators could think up. And using horror and fantasy as a medium through which they examine this reality is what elevates a good show into something that has the potential to be great.

By the time the shoggoths show up—those many-eyed monsters imagined by H.P. Lovecraft, the notoriously racist horror author—we are intrigued by their existence, but what remains on the forefront of our minds is the fact that our protagonists were almost killed not by the monsters that showed up, but by the monsters that actually existed. We are left to puzzle over the beings that appeared, but the true horror of the show was centered in a very real phenomenon. The thing that almost killed my grandfather.

Sundown towns were not just in the Southern parts of the United States. Contrary to what many Northerners believe, these towns hostile to the presence of Black people were all over the country. In the first half of the 20th century, towns from Arkansas to Michigan proudly advertised that they were free of Black people. During the same period, deeds in Chevy Chase, Maryland, included “restrictive covenants” that forbade selling or leasing the land to “any person of negro blood” (in addition to “any person of the Semetic [sic] race”), and this too was not uncommon. Georgia’s Tubman African American Museum has a sign found in Connecticut that read “Whites Only Within City Limits After Dark.” And these signs weren’t empty threats: A story in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1940 reports that a group of Black people on a church trip through South Carolina was fired on by a group of white men who reportedly told them, “We don’t allow no d—n n—rs ’round here after sunset.” According to the article, five people were wounded.

In Sunday night’s premiere, the town our protagonists encounter is in Massachusetts. I have to believe that this was intentional on the part of the writers and showrunner. They illustrate the pervasiveness of this evil, and how inescapable the plight of Black people in America was.

It is not lost on me that the villains of Lovecraft Country’s first episode are the police. It’s the kind of thing that might tempt you to call this the “show of the moment,” or “the show we need right now,” but then, is this just a moment? Do we only need it now? The police, in any moment in history (including right now) have always been antagonists in the story of America’s relationship to Black people. Misha Green was not responding to George Floyd when she wrote this episode—she was responding to the history of police violence visited upon people whose skin has been kissed by the sun. The only thing that’s new is the mythical beings who save them.