It’s often said how tough it is to be a female horror fan, given the sexism and misogyny that runs rampant through the genre. Arguably there’s sexism and misogyny that runs rampant through every genre – it’s just a byproduct of Hollywood being a place where the shots are made by old, white, straight men. Yet for women of colour who happen to love horror, finding a version of yourself reflected on screen is even tougher – although not impossible.
Ashlee Blackwell is based in the US and grew up watching, loving and obsessing over horror films. “Horror films were in my home for as long as I can remember and I was never sheltered from it,” she says. “I just became drawn to them and the fantastical elements so I remember loving Beetlejuice, Ghostbusters 2 and discovering A Nightmare On Elm Street 4 on my own.” Blackwell has been running a site since 2013 which has become somewhat of a safe haven for female horror fans of colour as much as it has a source of celebration.
Graveyard Shift Sisters is nearly four years old and just as boldly stands behind its motto now as it did back then: to purge the black female horror fan from the margins. And it’s something that desperately needed to be done. In the horror genre, there has been a startling lack of representation when it comes to people of colour that has slowly – very slowly – been improving. Yet even when people of colour are represented, there have been tropes trailing behind them or stereotypical roles to fill: things like being the ‘first to die’, the ‘comedic relief black character’ or the ‘mystical negro’ trope. Back in Halloween 2013, Complex decided to fact check the ‘first to die’ trope and surveyed 50 horror movies that had black characters. Although they found that only 10 per cent of POC characters were the first to die in said movies, many of those characters still died at some point in the film and very few lived on to become the central protagonists.
“Even in 2017, black women still hear directly the odd comment ‘you don’t look like a horror fan’,” says Blackwell. “Which I always interpret as a broader issue of who has cultural interest in the horror genre as a whole, stereotypes behind this, and a personal need to develop a resource for showing that black female horror fans do have a place in the genre. We’re still marginalised by statements like this.”
It’s not surprising then that Graveyard Shift Sisters has developed a loyal and “overwhelmingly positive” following over the years as other women of colour seek out a safe space on the internet to celebrate a love of the genre. As Blackwell notes: “I’m really glad that the site has extremely diverse readers and that it doubles as fun and informative. People are happy it exists because I don’t think anything like it has in the past.”
Women of colour in horror have given us some of our most memorable moments in the genre. Ladies like Naomie Harris in 28 Days Later, Angela Bassett in Vampire in Brooklyn, Pam Grier in Scream Blacula Scream, Sanaa Lathan in Alien Vs Predator and Blackwell’s personal favourite “Jada Pinkett-Smith in Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight was my first Black Final Girl/heroine. She needs her own sequel.”
Yet with Hollywood finally realising that diversity is something they might need to be proactive about – thanks to campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite and actors of colour tirelessly being vocal on the issue and utilising their platforms – will we finally start to see more women of colour in horror movies? Heck, even surviving horror movies? With Jordan Peele’s highly anticipated Get Out set to hit cinemas in a few months with its commentary on race in America, the overarching hope is yes. “It’s about what horror is to me first,” says Blackwell, nailing it best. “It’s never been afraid to be the most intellectually challenging film genre while simultaneously making commentary in the
“It’s about what horror is to me first,” says Blackwell, nailing it best. “It’s never been afraid to be the most intellectually challenging film genre while simultaneously making commentary in the most wildest, imaginative ways. And then the genre did something that feels completely accidental sometimes, which is centre female characters that have very complicated arcs. But not seeing enough and wanting more characters of colour that are fully developed is still something I like to fight for, and I’m glad more people are recognising this at least. Hopefully, more action will be taken in the near future.”
Maria Lewis is a journalist and author who can be seen on The Feed, weeknights on SBS Viceland. She’s the presenter and producer of the Eff Yeah Film & Feminism podcast. Her debut novel Who’s Afraid? was released in 2016 with the sequel – Who’s Afraid Too? – out now. You can find her on Twitter @MovieMazz.