I have heard this so many times and always wondered - how did this horror film cliche (black guy dies first) begin?
As with all tropes, it's very complex to really identify when the cliché began - are we looking for the earliest horror film where a black person died first, or a film after which there was a notable trend?
Spider Baby, Or The Maddest Story Ever Told from 1967 is a possible contender, where a black person dies in the very first scene.
However, it's difficult to tell when the common trope became popular. Most of my research suggests the trope has been warped, so it doesn't really look at a black person dying first in a horror, but rather a black person dying at all. Obviously, this makes the range of possible films vastly greater.
This trope seems to have gained favour for a few reasons:
Black actors were (and still are) often not leads
In horror films, it's not unusual for everyone other than the lead and perhaps another character or two surviving. When a film has a lead actor, and ten supporting actors/actresses, the probability the black actor will be among those killed is pretty high. But as race is instantly noticeable, it seems people are far more aware of when and how the black person dies in comparison with the rest of the cast.
So ultimately, by not being leads, it's likely they'll die at some point. But unlike the other supporting actors, as they are minorities their death tends to be more noticeable.
Continuation of the trope
As the trope has become more famous, I'm sure other directors have found it fun to "continue" the trope which has led to it becoming even more famous.
Greater awareness of trope
When audiences are aware of a trope, they are far more aware of when it happens. As a Cinema Slasher blog covered:
Now here’s a list of horror movies where an African-American man survives the entire events of the film: Anaconda, Child’s Play 3, Dawn of the Dead (1978 & 2004), The Faculty, Halloween: Resurrection (sorry for bringing it up), Halloween: H20, Prom Night (2008), The House on Haunted Hill (1999), Night of the Demons (1986), Scream 2, Stephen King’s IT (miniseries, but close enough), Urban Legend (a black women survives. Take that, inequality!), Wrong Turn 2: Dead End, and many more that I’m sure I’m forgetting.
There are tons of films where black people not only don't die first, but don't die at all. But in the few cases where they do, because it's so noticeable it gets called out immediately.
This is similar to the socio-political phenomenon of believing violent crime is on the increase because there is so much reporting of it - whereas what might have increased is the reporting, not the crime itself.
In other words, as more and more people talk about black people dying first, more and more people are aware of it. So if a hundred films are released without the trope, no one notices - but everyone notices the one film where the black person does die first.
To quote from Black Horror Movies.com:
By the 1970s, however, the success of blaxploitation films made the inclusion of black faces in mainstream fare all the more palatable and expected. But, while bigger roles meant more screen time, more screen time meant a higher chance of dying.
I worry I've just provided an answer to a question you didn't ask, but I'd summarise my findings as the following:
- It's very difficult to know when the film that began the trope came out.
- A strong contender is *Spider Baby, Or The Maddest Story Ever Told from 1967.
- The trope has warped to cover any films where any black person dies.
- For a variety of reasons, these deaths are much more noticeable, even if the trope itself isn't actually true.