(Black) Women in Horror Month: How What We Think Horror Is About Determines Who “Writes” It (Part 1)


When it comes to Horror written by “minorities”, one has to wonder: just what are we afraid of?

During this Women in Horror Month we cannot help but look to our most obvious problem: exclusion of writers of color – especially noticeable in the volume of work not-included in the Horror genre… So here we are also in Black History Month in the United States. And here the twain will meet…

Because the off-putting drive to keep contemporary Horror tied to the white Weird Fiction of Lovecraft and not let it breathe and grow is perplexing. The message is clear: keep it clean, guilt-free, and colorless. Write for that prepubescent white male and yet produce “original” fiction – just not too original.

Why is it we still believe that no one wants to read Horror written by women or writers of color? Why is it we still believe that there are no people of color who want to read Horror?

At what point do we just do the math and see that the potential audience for Horror is far larger among both females and people of color than it is among white teen and preteen boys?

Perhaps it is really a confession that women and people of color – being the poorest paid and most frequently impoverished – are not worth courting for those precious “expendable” dollars… But if so it is stupid. Because for most of us living on less than white male counterparts live on, the only simple and affordable pleasure is the occasional paperback offering.

And if the argument then becomes that women and people of color just don’t like reading or writing Horror, you haven’t been paying attention. On purpose.

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Sumiko Saulsen                 Jemiah Jefferson                Tananarive Due

How We Rationalize White-Washing in the Horror Genre

When we try to think of Black and other female writers of color in Horror, we often come up “empty.” For certain we trip over the occasional “honorable mention” of a nonwhite female in a Best-Of anthology now and again, but we are never given any kind of comprehensive “list” – no surprise, really, because we seldom get comprehensive lists of women writers in the genre, either.

As a genre, we have a perpetual blind spot for any type of organizational thinking. We have a deficit of leadership in the genre (at least the kind that provides forum and opportunity for professional and layman interaction, analysis and conversation – let alone the kind that aims to represent the genre beyond the popularity contesting of dictatorship) and no access to any important part of the perceived “inner sanctum.” No one is keeping score, making decisions, arguing points or positions, or building our community. No one is interested in opening up opportunities within and FOR the genre community currently on the outside looking in. All of our professional organizations (like the HWA) are not “open” organizations – but rather, high school-like social clubs with graduated circles of “qualifying” admission.

We ask about writers of color, and with the exception of suggesting the purchase of an anthology here or there – we get crickets. Are Black women and women of color writing Horror?

We have to wonder why this is even a question… but this is part of the larger issue concerning the definition of both institutional racism and systemic racism that we are dealing with nationally and internationally.

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Patricia C. McKissack              Nalo Hopkinson          Jean Nicole Rivers                    (Childrens/YA)

These are not interchangeable terms, but they are interrelated, because one is what we think and the other is how we execute or embed what we think within the infrastructure of our society. What we “assume” or “accept” as truth because the assumption is embedded in cultural perspective (and thereby that which is dog-whistled) is institutional, and it is the hardest element for many white people to see because we participate based on misinformation we were taught by rote.

When you are raised not to think, you don’t…one reason education (and higher education in particular) is often considered to be “radical”… “subversive”…”liberal”…”dangerous”…

One of these “rote” lessons we are often taught and have reinforced within the white community of Horror writers, is that which all but declares that women don’t write competent Horror, and that Black or people of color don’t read OR write it.

The institutionalism runs deep: for example, white female writers simply (subliminally) assume that white men write better Horror because they are published more, awarded more, and are listed as the Classic Founding Fathers of the genre. Therefore, we are certain that they are better writers – action oriented, writers from and for the masses, inclusive, exciting, original…Women, we tell ourselves, are niche writers, fluff writers from a certain societal strata, or angry people full of exclusive unpleasantries whose actual writing is overstuffed with flowery prose and bitterness designed to shame. We burden women’s writing in Horror with all sorts of negative presumption. And as women we don’t always notice it. We simply assume and accept that we are rejected because we are insufficient writers – not that we chose the wrong venue or editor to submit work to, or that there is something wrong in our genre that valid Horror formula requires male protagonists and female victims, and certain actions on page 5.

All of this becomes compounded when we ask about writers of color. We ignore the fact of potentially narrower opportunities for a good education those writers may face growing up, and allow ourselves to be distracted by our own personal struggles getting published in the genre in order to parade the myth that either people of color don’t write Horror, don’t write it well, or have no audience because we wouldn’t want to read it, either…Yet how true is any of that? And how did it get in our heads and take up residence?

This is what it means to have both institutional and systemic racism and misogyny in the genre… we tolerate it and enable it without realizing that just standing there empowers it; that silence endorses it. We are too busy worrying that we will be seen as reverse-racist, arrogant, overconfident, bitter, jealous, bleeding-heart or unprofessional if we say anything – if we even think it. We refuse to acknowledge that we are terrified of antagonizing editors by being disagreeable…of rocking the boat and endorsing something not currently deemed “proper” Horror…of becoming even more Other…

Worse… we are made to think that endorsing the admission of writers of color will lessen our own chances of getting published… Consider the insidious messaging of that…

And if that fails to keep Others out, isn’t it more palatable to just rationalize that writers of color or gender differences are just not qualified to be writing in our genre? And if that doesn’t work, isn’t it easier still to just narrow the “definition” of Horror by clinging to a one-size-fits-the genre formula and elevate it to the position of unbreakable “Tradition”? Like…Lovecraft?

So what happens when this bleeds out into Horror written by the other Other – Black and minority women?

When we get down to the bare bones of why we as the presumed white Horror audience don’t find ourselves often reading stories written by people of color (and Black writers in particular), we have a whole dynamic to confront – and one that is just as steeped in institutional racism as a lot of our other decisions about society.

Whites (the alleged Mainstream of Horror) have been taught not only does Horror need to “look” a certain way to be of salable interest, but that we –ourselves and our writing – our very essence of communicating – is so different we cannot possibly understand each other, interest each other, or even properly scare each other.

We as white Horror fans tend to think that if we read a black author’s Horror, we will somehow be excluded from the secret messaging of the story, not identify with the protagonist, or be made to feel “historical” (or contemporary historical) guilt. Worse, we may be made to feel irrelevant or (God forbid) marginalized…

How can we, we ask ourselves, picture ourselves as the protagonist? And what does it mean if we don’t WANT to? What does that say about US? About how we see that shadow of racism peeking out from behind us, destroying our own perfected self-image?

Yet reading has always been about the mental travels we can make to new worlds, new realities, new societies, new situations. Why are we seeing this as different? Is it because we are vaguely aware of the racial undercurrent we have been living with all of our lives, and are not sure what it means to confront?

This is a big challenge for white people who have been “asleep.” When you are raised in a dream, reality is terrifying. It demands action when we were dreaming we were taking action. And real action will have real consequences. Because even white people must be kept in line if institutional racism and its executive branch – systemic racism – is to survive.

Could avoiding writing by people of color be more of that institutional racism I have been warning about? Yes. Could it be that we have been led to believe we won’t like it, that we will be made as uncomfortable as we have historically made…”Them”? Yes! And it has worked, hasn’t it?

Of course there is a natural divide that has been seeded and grown as a wall between us all – and that includes things as innocuous as street slang and as insidious as ostracism. We have trouble not-seeing our sameness in between the pride we are told to take in ourselves – pride that excludes in its attempt to soothe, empower, and inspire. We have trouble hearing each other above the din of debate and defense, just as surely as we have trouble supporting each other without suspecting double-dealing and entrapment, or attempts to appropriate and commandeer the lifeblood of civil rights movements and self-identification.

Divide and conquer has never been so rampant. But it has also never been so vulnerable.

For the first time in our national history, we are more interrelated, more genetically connected, more culturally relevant to each other than ever before. The truth is Out There – in our daily lives and faces and interactions. And we have begun to notice the hidden mechanisms of institutional racism that has animated our country’s identity since its beginnings. The world of publishing is certainly no exception. But Horror might just be an exception – and not in a good way – because Horror has been a bastion of whiteness since the printing press took off.

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L.A. Banks                              Nnedi Okorafor (YA)                       Linda Addison

Waking Up Little Susie: the Nasty Surprise in Our Own Genre

At the precise moment we (the Mainstream) were supposed to recoil in orchestrated fear of the Other, we have been alerted to the reality that we have also been the victims of marketing from whole industries that told not only white and female aspirants, but writers of color and certain gender that only certain themes and concepts and plots and characters were acceptable – if you want to get published, or have a movie made, or a CD pressed…We all have stereotypes we are expected to conform to…

As has been done with women’s writing in general, Black and Other writing has been divested of recognition by the genre, re-classified as “Literary mainstream” or other-genre and expelled from consideration as Horror. We have even reconstructed our sense of acceptable Horror formula to narrow that door of opportunity – to the extent that women and Black/Other fiction is once again considered more “niche” than “Real Horror.”

(Way to impress Literary Critics of the future, oh leaders of our Establishment.)

We have yet again commandeered the narrative surrounding these writers and their works – all to discredit them so that fans will not seek them out, read them, and demand their inclusion in our future Horror Canon.

Indeed, most of us have noticed the careful messaging of “Black” movies, sitcoms, books… all of them have this homogenous, off-the-rack feeling about them that suggests that the fading white majority would not like them – not the story, not the characters, not the message. And just as in those other industries, in fiction those works are tied to a predetermined Black narrative that is neither ours nor theirs, but includes and excludes as surely as any genre section. Whites have been led to believe that there will be ridicule if not outright pushback or assault to physically “go” to a Black movie, and Black writers are pressured to write or produce “for their own” – to buy into the niche-myth and abandon the kind of writing that might “presume” to be higher Literature or Art because their readers wouldn’t read that.  Or can’t.

Well that is just another fable. And it’s time we stopped the nonsense.

At a moment in time in which Horror has lost its mojo, and our society has lost its sleep-fantasy that all is well with the world, we need to notice the writers we previously dismissed as…”not-Horror” because they were, you know, “Literary” because they are Other or their subtext was Other-speak.

Literary.

Isn’t that what our Horror Establishment says it wants more of? Or does it mean more of from white male writers of a certain bent?

The truth is that Black women in particular have been writing and telling Horror stories as long as the rest of us. And sometimes, telling better stories…. Yet still we persist in alleging that Black people neither read nor write appealing fiction – and certainly not Horror… We have, after all, carefully crafted yet another myth that Black people don’t like Horror… that they are too scared of the paranormal…

Well saddle up, partners. Because here we go again.

Says Sean Ferrier-Watson in his book The Children’s Ghost Story in America, “The ghost story was the central weapon in the white slave master’s arsenal of misdirection and fear. [Gladys Marie] Frye argues that ‘[g]hosts were unquestionably the most frequently used subject for this form of control’ [64]. They were the most terrifying device slave masters could concoct to keep slaves from meeting in the night, but such ghostly stories worked best when tied to the memories of the recently deceased….Tales that might have formerly taught lessons or entertained adults and children alike all the sudden assumed any number of negative connotations…” (110-111)

Here exactly is the historic seed from which we get the whole “Black people don’t like Horror stories” mythology — seen and “proven” in that caricature of overexaggerated terror we are all familiar with and see in older Hollywood offerings, ignoring the fact that Black actors have been extorted for decades into portraying on film those odious “comical” displays that border on cowardice in contrast to “much braver” white folks (you know, the ones who don’t leave the haunted house until it is too late…)

Historically, we continue to reinforce the very idea that Horror by its supernatural  nature is diametrically opposed to the Protestant leanings of American Blacks by claiming we ourselves as white Christians are also free of such silly nonsense — that Horror is just too petty for Black writers to indulge in. It is implied if not said that such superstitious fears (this time a religiously stereotypical mythology) are too unsophisticated for any Catholic or Protestant African Americans among their number to willingly entertain… This is why Black people don’t write Horror, we are assured…we intertwine our own religious insecurities into our neat little racism package.

But if that isn’t enough to rankle the senses of Mainstream white Horror fans, perhaps this little historical nugget will jar a few folks into some vibrant wakefulness, if not just piss you off.

Continues Ferrier-Watson: “As if the circulation of these false tales were not ghastly enough, slave masters also engaged in elaborate hoaxes and trickery to further instill a sense of dread within the southern slave population. They would occasionally masquerade as ghosts… These deceptive practices and costumes could take numerous forms, but frequently the white slave master would simply cover themselves in a white sheet and ride or creep within sight of the slaves’ lodgings…these tactics occurred both during and after slavery. The simple ghostly costumes worn by these slave masters continued to evolve into the costumes and uniforms worn by the members of the Ku Klux Klan…” (111)

Are you getting interested in Literature, Literary Criticism, and History yet?

Here is living proof of how Horror is directly tied to our national shame of slavery, of racial oppression, of murder and institutionalized racism we apparently participate in every time we thought we harmlessly cut eye-holes in a sheet to go trick-or-treating.

Welcome to the world of institutionalized racism.

Are you awake yet? Still want to go back to “normal”?

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To be perfectly honest, like perhaps some other white people, I always assumed that the sheeted ghost came from Victorian times when the wealthy covered their furnishings in “sheets” when they went away from summer homes or winter homes, or even from the European practice of using winding sheets to bind the dead. Yet there it is – a likely truth my own ignorance of the facts supported, and one which was repurposed by slave owners (regardless of origin) to “remind” African Americans of their “place”… IS the sheet-covered ghost an American thing? I can’t say for certain; I know ghosts in winding sheets in Europe did do some walking – but covering the head in a flowing bedsheet with eyeholes? Now I cannot ever look at this kind of ghost OR Halloween and feel the least bit innocent – let along let any child I know go trick-or-treating in a mixed and potential African American neighborhood dressed as a ghost.

An unexpected discovery… in my own genre…thanks to institutional racism.

How many more discoveries are out there lying in wait in our white lives and white genre? Half-awake, I shudder to think. Only half…

But there there more consequences here… Because this horrid, evil root of Horror fabrication intended to intimidate and control Black Americans spills over into children’s Literature as well, where for far too long all minority children have been told how to see themselves by the definitions concocted by the white majority. And if you understand how young readers become adult writers, then you see what has taken so very long for writers of color – so often led by women of color – to produce the kind of works that perform end runs around our allegedly Literary intentions in the Horror genre and get them READ – to begin to be recognized.

It is not for want of trying. There are so many titles and authors out there already…but like ghosts, we just don’t want to SEE them.

Why is that? Because we have had some “academic” and editorial help in justifying our recoiling from certain writers. Black and Other writers of color – we keep being told – write differently. We hear the whistle, but we think it is the wind…we think people who know better are actually educating us, when they are tricking us into conformity.

Too often the intentional exclusion of writers of color is couched in academic terms to frighten the rest of us off. But if Black and Other writers are not writing Horror when they have ghosts and demons and zombies and vampires, then what the heck ARE they writing?

The answer comes in some handy “big terms” meant to disqualify their writing as niche or Literary or other-genre: magical realism, folkloric horror, Afrofuturism, Black feminism…terms that are meant to exclude them from mainstream Horror and so far it has worked. We hear the words and don’t know what they mean. They don’t sound fun. Or white. Or pulpy.

This means (yet again) it is time for the genre to have that bigger discussion about what Horror IS by definition and criteria, and what it is not. It is time to commit to technical analysis and debate, and it is time to confess that our genre has been participating in a kind of Literary red-lining since it was printed on paper.

Most of all it is time to realize that in mainstream Horror we as white writers are already writing magical realism, folkloric horror, futurism, and feminism in the genre – and selling it AS Horror…therefore our argument that Other writing will not sell to a Horror audience because “they” are doing the same is a fallacy.

Let’s look at why in Part Two. Let’s look at what Other writers are writing…and see why it is already Horror… The fact of the matter is that as long as we allow ourselves to be pixie-led along the path of institutional racism, Black and Other people of color will be excluded from our genre – because our own misconceptions are reinforcing the mythology that their writing is of no interest to the rest of us. Let’s get that door open… And see what Horror we are missing.

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References

Brooks, Kinitra D. Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror. New Brunswick, Camden, and Newark, NJ: Rutgers University Press, c2018.

Ferrier-Watson, Sean. The Children’s Ghost Story in America. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, c2017.

Saulsen, Sumiko. 20 Black Women in Horror Writing (List 1) | Sumiko Saulson

Wilson, Natalie. Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in 21st Century Horror. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, c2020.

27 thoughts on “(Black) Women in Horror Month: How What We Think Horror Is About Determines Who “Writes” It (Part 1)

  1. Another brilliant and thought-provoking article, KC. And this, “as long as we allow ourselves to be pixie-led along the path of institutional racism, Black and Other people of color will be excluded from our genre…” goes for ALL genres, and it’s just downright ridiculous.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It is all so nauseatingly true. And it is so frustrating that we have to fight against every system for it, even the arts. If fear can be monetized and made exclusive, nothing has ever been really spared.

    I look forward to part 2 and continued thoughts on the subject.

    Liked by 1 person

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