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.
I just wanted to distract myself. I thought: let’s watch a favorite kitschy 1970’s Horror movie for fun…
Nice to know at my age I can still be naïve. So, so naïve…
For many of us, these times remain endlessly exhausting. It is just so desirable that we find something, anything to stop the loudness of the explosion of truths all around us. We are looking for diversion, for a moment of rest, of pause. But the truth and trouble is we shall not have it. And this is a necessary lesson because those who have borne the burden of our societal failings have themselves been denied respite.
The reckoning has come.
It’s time to not-be surprised.
What’s Love Got to Do With It: The Trilogy of Terror
For most of my life in the genre, one of my favorite films was the 1975 schlock B-movie Trilogy of Terror, which I first saw as a teenager during some late summer night horror fest on television. Maybe it was because the best offering of the trilogy was about a doll that comes to life (dolls being a chief Horror-button-pusher for me), although others might surmise that it has more to do with Grimm’s Fairy tales, gullible age, and the requisite poking around in the occult and folklore that comes with that stage of youth…
That movie haunted me and I loved it. I even bought a copy as an adult trying to recapture the mood and the fun, and despite the kitschiness of its age, still loved it…
Naivete is an amazing thing… And love (I can tell you as an older person) gets increasingly weird as time passes and you begin to rationalize bad Life choices.
Because for many years, everything that came after – including the whole possessed-doll franchise family of this decade has been subconsciously measured against the Trilogy as remembered in my mind.
I thought loving it was “safe.” I thought grabbing some microwave popcorn and tuning the world out by slipping that movie into the dvd player would make the unpleasantries of the world right now go away.
Imagine my Horror: Trilogy IS today.
Imagine my Horror part two: I have been in love with a damn dog whistle and didn’t even know it.
By the way, this is what happens when white people wake up… why we struggle to stay asleep.
We remember what we wanted (and maybe needed if there was familial dysfunction) to be there… we were swimming on the surface with sharks and crocodiles, and we felt immortal, untouchable… We “use” it now – we look for diversion from unpleasant Life all of the time; we accept what we need to be leadership because thinking gets to be hard work.
Sadly, we miss those puppet-mastered moments when we thought we were JUST being entertained when what we really miss is PARENTING and slamming the door to our bedroom with the “Private” sign on it–we really miss being mothered and assured that our world will be alright. We miss the illusion that we don’t have to fact-check every word and reveal the magician’s trick every time because that is someone else’s job. We miss the “fun” of BEING tricked, of being children because being a grown-up loaded down with responsibilities isn’t fun after all. And then we discover…(surprise!) we were being TRICKED…by something bigger than strict parents. Talk about your Freud meeting fairy glamour…
Who really WANTS to see the ugly, twisted monster masquerading as messiah? Who ever really wants to see the man behind the curtain?
The whole problem for white people is this: we have been complicit without knowing because we, too, have been whitewashed. We have been raised to not-see and not-hear the things we are conditioned to repeat which Others are meant to take note of; this was part of the plan and a place where the cigar is never just the cigar.
Freud was right. Maybe we can’t help ourselves. Maybe that is good and means there is hope for us if we can learn to see what we really think. And avert the consequences. Do damage control.
Trilogy is a perfect example to understand where we as white people do not hear ourselves.
And it is also a perfect example to explain why the burden of all of this guilt is both unabating, and doubly painful for women in the genre (white women and nonwhite women now being threatened with the additional truth that it is not our star that is or should be rising in the genre or elsewhere, but that we now risk becoming the minority’s minority… shelved again in the shadow of Something More Important – racial injustice… because it IS more important when it supplants all other forms of discrimination, when it precedes and enables all other forms of oppression. And that makes the burden of truth somehow even more heavy for white women.)
So here I am, just another (now much older) white woman dragging her bones out of the shower, mindful of what might lurk outside of the stall. And it is all Trilogy’s fault. Or so it feels good to say, because I am now realizing that this may be the exact moment I went deaf and blind… and fell asleep.
This is the summary of Amelia — the Trilogy’s best offering — from Wikipedia (which just had the best summary I could find), and THE one of the trilogy I am referring to, the one most of us who saw the trilogy misremembered as the Devil Doll one…
”Amelia lives alone in a high-rise apartment building. She returns home after a fateful shopping spree carrying a package containing a wooden fetish doll, crafted in the form of a misshapen aboriginal warrior equipped with pointy, sharp teeth and a spear. A scroll comes with the doll, claiming that the doll contains the actual spirit of a Zuni hunter named “He Who Kills”, and that the gold chain adorning the doll keeps the spirit trapped within. As Amelia makes a call to her mother we learn that she suffers from her mother’s overbearing behavior. Amelia struggles to justify her independence and cancels their plans for the evening by claiming she has a date. As Amelia leaves the room, we see that the Zuni fetish doll’s golden chain has somehow fallen off.
Later, Amelia is preparing dinner, using a carving knife. She enters the darkened living room, and realizes the doll is not on the coffee table. Amelia hears a noise in the kitchen and when she investigates, the knife is missing. Returning to the living room, she is suddenly attacked by the doll, which stabs at her ankles viciously. She attempts to flee, but the doll chases her around the apartment. In the bathroom, Amelia envelops the doll in a towel and attempts futilely to drown it in the bathtub. She later traps it in a suitcase, but the doll begins cutting a circular hole through the top of suitcase with the butcher knife. After several more vicious attacks, Amelia manages to hurl the doll into the oven where it catches fire. She holds the oven door while she listens to the doll howling and screaming as it burns and, while black smoke billows out, she waits until the screaming eventually stops. Opening the oven to ensure that the doll is “dead”, she is struck by some force that pushes her backward and from which she emits a blood-curdling scream.
And now after you have a full appreciation of Richard Matheson’s scary-tale abilities, let’s look at the message in its full Hollywood subtext. Let’s see what is hiding in plain view, and has little to do with the story or its author…
Of course the doll comes to life. Of course it chases a half nude young white woman around her apartment trying to kill her by stabbing her thousands of times with its tiny spear in a blatant (though little “known” reference) to an ancient Chinese torture known as Lingchi, or the death from a thousand cuts… Of course the doll is Africanized in a grass skirt and not-native looking war paint and carrying a spear, yet referred to as a Native American tribal relic (Zuni)… Here we have weaponized and slandered no less than three minorities: Black, Asian, and Indigenous Peoples… dog-whistling our way into the white suburban subconsciousness with a messaging that resonates with any white woman who has ever looked at a minority man in an elevator and wondered if she was “safe.”
Imagine my disgust when I finally – FINALLY—saw this.
Yet this is how it is done, folks. And since it is largely white audiences that this is created for, realize that the conditioning has been just as much for that white audience as it was for minorities.
Doesn’t it make you mad? It should. Because despite all of the defenses offered (including the one that says the writers were products of their times and probably ALSO couldn’t hear themselves over that ever-present whistling in their own ears) THIS is how conditioning is DONE. This is how we look at different peoples and cultures and worry about the “unknowns”… the “unknowables”… the differences between us. This is how we learn to fear each other…
And how do we navigate this in Horror, where fear of the unknown is the single greatest tool in the toolbox?
Funny things happen when you “wake up” to betrayal… First you get mad. Then you get madder. Then you make a decision to just cut this out of the heart of your passion.
This is NOT the time to leave the genre. This is the time to reinvent the genre.
And maybe that means we have to look at Chucky, too…
Child’s Play It Isn’t
How I hated this movie… Still do. And it is not because of the doll, but because of the blatant violence. Where Trilogy gave us the concept of a death of a thousand cuts (less bloody-seeming but equally fatal – if not worse in its execution if you are the victim) and simultaneously instilled some weird sense of random minority vengeance, a 1988 Chuckie in Child’s Play gives us the angry white male killing not just white women, but everyone. How is that better?
For me, even the creepy factor couldn’t save the film from all the pointless violence. And according to a 2019 Variety article, I wasn’t apparently alone:
“Something happened to horror movies in the 1980s, starting a few years earlier with films such as “Halloween” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”: The villains in brutally violent slasher movies became the heroes — or, at least, the characters audiences found themselves rooting for — which in turn created the opportunity for franchises, where these virtually unstoppable killing machines came back in sequel after sequel, like some kind of recurring nightmare, to wreak more havoc. Michael, Jason, Freddy Krueger loomed iconic in the cultural imagination, spawning a wave of imitators, of which the most surreal may well have been Chucky — a blue-eyed, battery-operated doll possessed, via voodoo curse, by the soul of a deranged psycho.” https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/childs-play-review-1203248744/
(Battery operated… I’m not saying a word.)
Yeah. And on the lower note of being a young adult Horror fan at the time, the movie just seemed stupid. Just like today, apparently the creators then couldn’t just create a possessed doll for the sake of possession or evil, but HAD to include voodoo, with later sequels including a disgruntled Chinese factory worker who tampers with the electronics… (and that sound you now hear: woof).
The plot of a mother bringing home a doll for her son who self-proclaims he is too old (if you don’t have eyes or knowledge about kids in general) and which proceeds to come alive and kill everything in reach just doesn’t seem substantial enough to make a whole movie budget worthwhile. Continues the Variety article:
“This is the new normal for horror movies: The screenplays have to seem hipper than the premise they represent, which puts “Child’s Play” in the weird position of pointing out and poking fun at all the ways it fails to make sense.”
But I do have to at least applaud the fact that the doll was at least culturally relevant to the characters. At least the doll was white and clearly modern and clearly our own invention instead of misappropriated from a culture we feel entitled to rob. Then we had to add voodoo and muck that self-congratulation all up.
So why didn’t I like Chucky better than that cultural mélange of the Devil Doll? Why did the possessed white doll instead annoy me more than scare me? Does it mean that the greater terror for me WAS the racial ambiguity? That was the message I was supposed to get, right?
I think that the subtext is there. And maybe that means I have some soul-searching yet to do. But I also think that it means that fear of the unknown in general is potent – too potent to be removed from the Horror genre. But it is certainly time for it to be redirected.
The problem is that there are so, so many ways to convey the unknown without completely leaving your own cultural context (and I tend to think that Algernon Blackwood’s short story “The Willows” is just such a tale.) Yet for Americans, that can be still a challenge. Our mistake is that we tend to look at earlier “successes” in the genre without seeing them in historical context – meaning we are unable, and educationally unequipped to discern between plots that mirror their times and plots that exploit the racism of their times. These are not the same, but both can reinforce racist messaging. And if we use them as examples of how to successfully scare audiences, then we are ignoring the truth that audiences and their fears change and should change.
So just like the creators of Chucky, we grab onto a premise, but fail to execute properly. Sometimes that is a matter of Craft, but many more times it is a more human arrogance at work. Our genre is stagnant because we are making it a mockery of itself.
Yet the “solution” of cultural sensitivity is not an easy fix (and maybe especially for white writers in the genre), because there are layers upon layers of questions. For example, being of Scots-Irish descent myself, am I entitled to “borrow” from those mother cultures? Am I entitled to remake those myths and legends for my own storytelling? Or is that just another form of racism, not having come by those stories as a native Scot or Irish person living on native soil, hearing them first-hand? Worse, does my attempt to tell such stories come off as lame, incorrect, and even worse still –make me insensitive if not just culturally wrong? Trust me, the worry is there, exacerbated by our Black Lives moment.
So then and therefore, what can I as a white American Horror writer dare write about? What part of the unknown is rightfully mine to write about? And why can’t I find it?
For minorities yet to write in the genre, this will also become an issue. As we naturally homogenize, those cultural differences handed down proudly from generation to generation will fade. And then you, too, may find yourself a kind of cultural orphan. There will be times when attempting to “write-in” the oppression of whites at the moment will be offensive and stereotypical, where whites will feel culturally assaulted.
This is the curse of finding equality at the cost of individualized culture (formerly buffered by racism into “safe” islands of the oppressed). White people are there, which is why we are all River Dance fans. We ALL start looking backward – to the Good Old Days when we knew who we were even if it was because we were pushing against the weight of the rest of the world.
Native American writer Sherman Alexie has already seen this happening:
And it isn’t just Americans going through this – especially as we embrace a world devoid historical reference and emphasize self-aggrandizement. We are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, divorcing ourselves from the ancestors who were probably a lot more like ourselves than we are ready to admit, yet having this weird obsession with rewriting a history-flavored reality.
How can we reconcile the modern world with future Horror? How do we keep racial and cultural identity safe and a source of pride without admitting we don’t want to surrender those rich details in order to be the Majority – so big and so anonymous all else is lost?
What is clear is that we cannot look to modern Horror to tell us much. But that is what writers like Stephen King and Clive Barker get so very right in the genre: the sense of folk belief without mimicry. They write Horror that is about us, about now… It feels like the Old-Country stuff, but it is built of our own times and our own fear of the modernized unknown. Race just doesn’t enter into it in the same misappropriated ways.
And we clearly need more of that. But as most writers can tell you, we are victims of our own times. Things are moving too fast to keep ANY of us relevant in our own stories. Increasingly our older writers in the genre – like Stephen King – seem slightly off-step, knocked off balance by the kind of change that makes today obsolete by tomorrow. This is an accelerated normal, and we are supposed to be having new writers ready to step up and lead the genre. But here we have been felled by both these publishing-challenged times, and a lot less effective leadership from within the genre’s elite. So we are stuck in a kind of time capsule, looking for our way out. And that leads right back to these chaotic times.
This is a lesson that is not going to go away with any resolution of Black Lives. Will we only learn it when we are completely homogenized? Or will that kill the messenger of so much Horror?
That Devil Doll haunts me. Trying to understand if the racist accoutrement of the doll made it more scary also haunts me. Because like so many other white people today, I so don’t want that to be true. Yet we have to admit it: we have been conditioned to believe certain things, and this is a danger even minorities on the brink of becoming a majority are facing. We have been made to believe in conformity down to our immediate emotional reactions…Power corrupts.
Why else do we have to stop to ask, “but did he (or she) do something to deserve it?”
Why else do we ask other people as women how we “look” or worry how we dress because we don’t want to be blamed for our own rape/robbery/murder?
Why else do we worry about “good” neighborhoods? “Good” schools? “Good” jobs?
We need to start really looking within ourselves – not for the purpose of confession, but for the purpose of absolution and healing.
We need to exorcize whatever demon made us create that Devil Doll…and then made us like it.
A Cautionary Tale for Future Writers in the Genre
Being not-awake is a lot like death: it’s peaceful, and we can fantasize about what it is or will be all we want – even thinking we miss that sweet promised peace: but death is still being dead. It just seems stupid (and quite vain) to “miss” those times when we thought we were at peace, but were really just dead.
Being woken up roughly feels like waking up old every day: it takes a lot longer to get your bearings, everything hurts, and you miss the days you could bound out of bed in seconds ready for a new challenge.
Today is not those days. Today many white people feel the weight of guilt-spawning centuries we know we weren’t present for, but whose legacy is responsible for all of this mess nonetheless. We cannot divorce ourselves from it; and we just don’t know how to respond. Expecting white people to call themselves racist is wrong. But calling ourselves institutionalized racists is not. We are because we have been. But we, too, must have hope for a better future.
Yet why do I still kind of like Trilogy?! I want to tell myself it is because I find dolls creepy to begin with. Dolls coming alive is extra freaky for me… and a doll with a secret history and rules of carnage is even more scary. I want to tell myself it was a great story concept, and it was only in the details of Hollywood production that things went horribly awry…But I also now realize that we should have been able to tell the tale without stigmatizing Others. This is what waking up means.
We are not directly responsible for our horrible underbelly of history, but for its edification, for believing that the ends justify the means, for whitewashing the unpleasantries. We are not obliged to self-hate, but to just. Stop. Endorsing by silence or inaction…the INJUSTICE.
(Every Horror fan knows EXACTLY where that leads, and you don’t have to be wearing a flimsy nightie to KNOW it…)
What we are responsible for is what we do in this life; we do not owe our ancestors disgust, but an awareness that they may not have gotten it right even on their best days, that our actions have had consequences, that in a crowded pool, some will be drowned by accident, and some on purpose in the rush for oxygen. Now that we can see that trajectory for what it is, we need to take appropriate action. Just action… motion…movement.
So now that white people have been somewhat rudely awakened to the nightmare that has been playing in theaters near you for hundreds of years, what will you do with the new reality?
The future looks different for all of us, but really we can and should be on the same page. We should not feel threatened if we are white or are white women or minority women. This “awakening” is not about guilt (which is what dog whistlers want you to hear) but it is about taking responsibility for what we have collectively done or enabled.
It is about ending the insanity and valuing everyone’s contributions (including our own).
It is about hearing the dog whistles that we didn’t even know were going off everywhere and making darn sure we don’t accidentally repeat them.