5 Questions With Horror Writer Melody Cooper

A native New Yorker, Melody Cooper began her writing career as a playwright.  She is the winner of the 2012 SheWrites Playwriting Festival and the Global Culture Play Award. In film, her niche is science-fiction and horror and her screenplay, The Devil You Know was a finalist in the 2012 Creative World Award and International Sci-Fi/Horror Film Festival. Another screenplay she's written, Breaking The Fourth won at the Woodshole Film Festival. She is currently directing a documentary about U.S. vet immigrants deported after their tours of duty and is represented by Abrams Artists.

I'm so happy she reached out to me to share her story as a Black female professional working in horror as well as sci-fi!

Everyone’s story is unique. Tell us how you became enthralled with horror as a genre.

I got introduced through  TV, films and books. My mom was an English teacher who loved Poe and fine literature. She was not below modern horror though.  I will never forget when I was a little kid, seeing her reading "The Exorcist" at the kitchen table late one night in one sitting. I was like, what is that about? I took a sneak peek at the book and I was hooked. We belonged to a few book of the month clubs (and a Sci Fi one too), and at 12 years old, I proudly walked into school with the latest Straub or King books before anyone else had seen them. 

I was seeing horror films long before any child should have that emblazoned in their memory, but I have to say that to this day, the gratuitously gory/torture porn genre just doesn't work for me.  And I hate constantly seeing women as victims.  Even as a kid,  if a female character who was being chased, ran and fell down, I always got so disgusted. I was more drawn to  supernatural films, where women often have meatier roles and take more sensible action (and can often be the villain, just as much as a man can).

What inspired you to become a horror writer?

I fell in love with two genres at the same time (Sci Fi - my dad was a Science teacher and an avid fan) and horror. And what I love about both is the freedom it gives the writer and filmmaker to examine human nature and the world. What makes us tick? What do we do in extraordinary circumstances?  What is the basic humanity that we all share and what happens when we forget about that?  What is beyond the edges of what we assume we know about everything? And since I'm such a social justice advocate, I relish how the genre allows me to examine race, gender, politics, war, the environment from such interesting, mind bending perspectives. All the issues no one wants to deal with can be so eloquently, passionately, frighteningly and unflinchingly explored in horror.  And I also thought, how are Black people and women represented in this genre? Both as creators and characters. I knew I had something to contribute.

What challenges and triumphs have you experienced as a Black woman in the horror industry?

I write strong female protagonists (of different races), strong action, I'm not afraid of violence and I create entire worlds. Someone once told me I write like a guy, and should try submitting my work under a male pseudonym to avoid any sexism in the industry. NOT GONNA HAPPEN. Going to my first horror film festival, Shriekfest, in LA a couple of years ago, when my first horror/sci fi screenplay was a Finalist was fun… until I realized I was the only woman of color nominated in any category  or to be had at any of the screenings or parties! I never let that stop me, but it certainly feels a bit lonely out there. 

The same screenplay, BREAKING THE FOURTH (which has a strong female protagonist who has to outsmart and battle an other worldly child that terrorizes NYC),  later won at the Woodshole Film Festival. Again,  I was the only woman of color and feeling the chill up there in Cape Cod, but I went and enjoyed as much of it as I could.  I did the same thing when I went to the very welcoming, but overwhelmingly male and white Austin Film Festival (AFF) this year.  

I met my first co-writer at AFF three years ago, and we had a ball writing a supernatural Somali pirate screenplay that a producer scooped up and had us make a set of rewrites on.  All good… until we got this request: "Can you take out the Somali pirates? They seem too sympathetic."  If you haven't gone, AFF is held in Austin, and is amazing and one of my favorite film fests. (My newest horror screenplay, MONSTROUS, was a 2nd round finalist this year). I had a chance to connect directly with filmmakers like Jonathan Demme and Shane Black.  

But when I met a small group of black writers and filmmakers at the end of a cocktail party (including a man from Ghana), I was in seventh heaven. I was home. They had to kick us out of the room, we stayed so long. That's why I was so happy to connect with you, and I've also reached out to author Tananarive Due. I've been trying to create a consortium of black sci fi and horror writers who can support and help each other. Connecting with her was a high point of my year.  She and her husband, Steve Barnes, are also trying to lead the way on this less traveled road we're on in horror.

What are your aspirations for yourself and other Black women writers in the horror industry?

One, to be hired as writers and filmmakers, to tell our own stories either independently or produced by studios, or brought on staff, whatever it takes. Two, we need a black-written horror series, okay?  One that can deal with our heritage and personal stories, but also explore non-race and gender related stories too.  That's when you know you've truly succeeded: when you can and do write or film anything you damn well please. I have so many ideas to create projects on my own, but also in collaboration. And that's where I see the strength of horror for Black women: in our collaborating to get work done, to co-produce each other's work, direct someone else's writing, bring each other forward and to rise up to the heights we know we can achieve. 

Then the Black Women in Horror Film Festival that we will all go to will be an industry draw and a celebration for all who enjoy and appreciate what Black women can bring to the genre. I don't see this just as a dream, but as a plan. It's tangible, attainable and a reality in the making.  We are on the precipice of a new age in literature, film and TV where our perspectives and stories are getting focus. There's interest in who we are and what we bring to the genre… slowly, but surely. Sometimes led by men, sometimes by other ethnicities (Roberto Orci and SLEEPY HOLLOW come to mind). Sometimes with us taking the reins, doing some crowd source funding and making our own thing happen (like Tananarive's short film DANGER WORD).

What are you currently working on?

I just signed with Abrams Artists as my literary agent, and I'm working with Amy Wagner, who loves the horror and sci fi genre. It is so important to work with people who understand your passion and who you are as a writer. I feel very lucky to be able to bounce ideas off of someone who gets it and wants to see a woman (and this woman of color specifically) make it in the industry.  I have some things brewing that I won't jinx (we're a superstitious lot, aren't we?), but a few producers and a major cable network are considering a couple of my projects.  

One is an original TV pilot, the other is an adaptation of a series of genre books I've been dying to see done. I'm also co-writing a new project set in the near future that turns everything we think about our society on its head,  and focuses on the horrific implications. And I continue to connect with and support other Black horror and sci-fi writers. There are more of us out there, soldiering on, than we realize!

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