Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Black Woman, Why the Hell Did You Make a Horror Film?

You’re a black woman. You just made a horror film. How? Why?” 


This is me paraphrasing an audience member after a very well-received screening of my short psychological horror-thriller Paralysis at the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia in early August. The audience member meant no harm. He was genuinely clueless. I wasn’t at all offended because let’s face it, it’s still a very a rare combination: a black woman directing a psychological horror film with a black female protagonist.

But his question felt a bit existential for me. I literally asked myself the same thing as the evening wore on. I was still on such a high from the incredible audience response but I kept thinking to myself: How did I end up making Paralysis? That question lingered for days. Primarily because, although I knew since I was about 13 that I wanted to be a filmmaker, I didn’t see myself making genre films, let alone horrors or thrillers. It’s been a peculiar journey but one I feel like needs to be discussed because if you don’t see yourself often represented in something, it’s hard to see yourself as a creator of that very thing.

Psycho (1960)
Usually when people ask me when did you become a fan of horror movies or what was the first horror movie you saw and loved, I usually say Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Jackson’s epic video film Thriller. I know, looking back now, Psycho doesn’t feel like much of a horror film but you must remember the context of the time period in which the film came out and the horrifying subject matter it was exploring during that time. There is a justified reason why those unsuspecting viewers were terrified to take showers for weeks and why women were warned of dating a man with “mommy issues.” For its time, Psycho was considered one shocking and scary-ass film. And who wasn’t terrified of Thriller? I had nightmares as a child after viewing that video when my mother told me not to. She didn’t punish me, sleeping with the lights on and completely frightened for a whole week was punishment enough.

Yet as I’ve assessed my journey into my love of horror films, I feel like those two films are symbolic for me, yes, but it’s not completely accurate as to why I love the genre or why I wanted to make a film like Paralysis. In my pre-teen and early teenage years, I started consuming the slasher flick genre with friends during sleepovers. My friends and I debated over who was scarier: Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees? The correct answer is always Michael Myers (but that’s another post for another time). I also remember every kid in my neighborhood loving Candyman because we were so hyped to see a black man starring in a horror film. (I still believe the first two Candyman films are really great and deserve more attention for being groundbreaking in many ways.) I soon started renting many of the classics and once I’d seen The Shining by Stanley Kubrick, I was absolutely blown away by just the scope of such a film. The sense of dread and uneasiness I felt watching that was unlike anything I’d ever experienced up until that point. It was here my love affair with horror officially began.

Scream 2 (1997)
But it was the year 1997 that really transformed me as a filmgoer and teen who aspired to be a filmmaker one day. 1997 was the year Scream 2 came out. I was visiting my family in North Carolina and I saw the film with my cousins at theatre with a predominately black film audience. To this day, it’s still the most fun I’d ever had at a movie theatre. The audience was lively and engaged. But my eyes were glued to the screen when I saw Jada Pinkett-Smith and Omar Epps in the opening scene. I almost can’t explain it but seeing this black couple in this horror film shifted something in me. I also remember the audience rooting for Elise Neal’s character who ended up getting at least to the middle of the film. But for weeks, I would think about Jada and Omar’s characters and what if they weren’t killed off in the beginning of the film? What if this was their movie? What if we followed them on this journey of trying to figure out who this psychopathic killer was? Those thoughts stayed with me. Yet I wasn’t writing horror scripts yet or even made an attempt.

That same year, I also saw Eve’s Bayou, the incredible, supernatural gothic drama by Kasi Lemmons. That film made me question everything about myself as an artist. I’d never seen anything like that film in my life. I suddenly knew I wanted to make films like that—films that no one else was making about black people. But still, even though those were my thoughts, I continued to play it safe as a screenwriter. I wrote things I thought everyone wanted me to write. I did this for years.

Even upon graduating from NYU’s graduate screenwriting program, I still wasn’t quite sure what kind of films I wanted to make and I wasn’t sure of my voice. It wasn’t until I had a pretty difficult break up with an ex-boyfriend, that I started exploring darker material. I suddenly remembered my NYU professor telling the class, “Write what you’re afraid of.” In 2013, when I wrote and directed my second short film Contamination that’s exactly what I created—what I was afraid of. Contamination opened the floodgates for me as an artist. I truly discovered my voice at that moment. The film was moody, dark and confirmed my unique vision as a storyteller. There were many viewers who said that the film was really unsettling for them. That wasn’t even my intention but it stirred something in me. Could I possibly take this further? Did further mean, horror?

When my producer Anthony Davis asked me about my ideas for our next short-film project, I told him I’d been toying around with writing and directing a psychological horror-thriller. I knew that I was writing a story that hadn’t been seen on screen before, and also it suddenly felt like this was some kind of calling as memories of Scream 2 and Eve’s Bayou resurfaced. I told him I had real fears about making a film like Paralysis. First, could I even pull it off? Horror films are difficult. How do I scare people or at least make them uneasy? Then I said there’s so little respect people have for this genre. A lot of festivals may reject us. Anthony believed in me and told me to write the film anyway, if this is what I was truly passionate about. I’m glad he pushed me to not give up because despite how incredibly challenging it was to write Paralysis (11 drafts!), I’m glad I did it. Directing it was an amazing experience and solidified my voice as a filmmaker. Paralysis is about a mentally unstable photographer who suffers from a sleep disorder. She moves into a new apartment that she fears may be haunted.

Paralysis (2016)
Since making Paralysis and experiencing some disappointment about some of the rejections we’ve received from festivals, it really got me thinking about what is it that makes this genre so polarizing. I mean, I get it: a lot of people just don’t want to be scared. But there’s something bothersome about this idea that horror films can’t be or aren’t “prestigious” in any way. As if they’re “lesser” films. Aside from a few that have received acclaim (The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Alien, Silence of the Lambs, etc), people really treat horror films as the ugly stepchild of cinema.

I’ve heard it argued that horror films are often bad and that there are only a few gems in a pretty rotten bunch. I don’t believe this. All genres have terrible films. What’s worse than sitting through a comedy and not laughing once? I’ve experienced this countless times. People often tend to see horror in very broad strokes, just torture porn or gore. Those are just two of the many subgenres of horror. I personally love psychological horror, supernatural horror and a good old-fashioned slasher flick. Whether it’s gore or a werewolf film, there can be excellence created in any of these subgenres. Truthfully, all of the horror subgenres have created really great films. Sometimes you actually have to do the work of seeking them out.

I think what makes the genre so polarizing is that horror taps into a place many people are afraid to go—it forces us to confront our darkness, the unknown, the monsters among us—real and imagined. Yet this is the very reason why I love the genre and think it’s so powerful. There’s so many profound ways to explore universal subject matter. (Examples—just look at the way grief is explored in The Invitation and The Babadook)

I also think people of color are often put in a box regarding what they should and shouldn’t like. There have been so few people of color centered in horror films and it’s really unfortunate. This summer I convinced my Mom to watch The Invitation and she was completely engrossed in the film. I asked her why she was so into it and she said, “I gotta see if the black girl is gonna survive!” That completely reaffirmed so much of what I’ve always felt about why representation matters in films. Why it’s so important to find someone to identify with on screen that looks like you. My Mom’s response made me think back to 1997 and that overwhelmingly black audience very excited and engaged in Scream 2. I sometimes think of how that audience might have reacted if Jada and Omar’s characters, or even Elise Neal’s character, were the protagonists of the film.

I don’t know where this journey as a filmmaker is going to lead me and what stories I’ll be telling in the future. But I do know for a fact that I’ll continue to explore the horror and thriller genres as this creative fire in me continues to burn. And soon I won’t have to imagine what a horror film will look like with Jada and Omar’s characters as protagonists because I’ll be somewhere on a set making that kind of feature film.



About the Author

R. Shanea Williams is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, script consultant and proud nerd, who resides in Queens, New York. She loves movies, music, and long romantic walks to the refrigerator. Follow her on Twitter (@rshanea722)
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