We all know the cliché: The teenage girl suffers through a horror movie, while cowering behind her boyfriend. The equally frightened girl onscreen takes a sinister phone call from the slasher who is terrorizing an otherwise bucolic town.
But what about the women who live for horror movies, or wait in line for midnight creature features?
Fans of horror movies are not all white men, and the makeup of the filmmakers working in the genre is starting to reflect that. People of color, especially women of color, are making themselves heard in the industry. Jordan Peele’s sublime “Get Out” is one of the highest-grossing films this year. Critics raved about the Iranian-American director Ana Lila Amirpour’s beautiful vampire western “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” Karyn Kusama’s “The Invitation” was a tense, uncomfortable delight. Julia Ducournau’s “Raw” was so gory that viewers vomited in theaters. But meaningful change does not happen overnight. There are decades of assumptions about who should be making, and watching, horror films.
I recently spoke with three filmmakers who are women of color: Jackie Kong, the Chinese-American director of the 1987 cult classic “Blood Diner”; Mattie Do, 36, a Vietnamese-Laotian-American filmmaker who directed “Dearest Sister” and was the first woman to direct a feature film made in Laos; Maria Wilson, 28, the daughter of a white Honduran mother and a black father who directed her debut fantasy short “Venefica” on a budget of $1,000. Their comments have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
FH: What is it like for you in the industry?
JK: I don’t see anyone knocking on my door, I still have to bang on the door hard for them [film studios] to pay attention to my ideas. I am absolutely sure of that. This is real life. People ask me: “Have things changed?” I say, not really. You’re still not trusted; you’re still not hired. You can be this icon, this cult figure, but they have to be enlightened already, otherwise you’re fighting an uphill battle.
MD: I was born in the States, a child of refugees, and I’ve experienced a lot of identity crises. Some people say I’m too American, too Vietnamese or not Lao enough. At this point, I don’t give a rat’s ass about what anyone else thinks about my identity. I guess I’m a really belligerent person. It only makes my storytelling stronger. In the arts, you have to have the tenacity to do it. As the only woman who’s only made a feature film in this country, that has been a roller coaster. Either you can make a film if you’re extremely wealthy, or if a nongovernmental organization backs it. People scoffed, “Oh you’re not a filmmaker, you’ve never even been to university!” I had come to a point that dwelling on that wasn’t adding to my work. So I put my nose to the grindstone to make more content, almost proving I don’t care.
MW: On set as a woman, you get this sense that you have to buckle down on emotions, and that way, people take you seriously. You don’t want to be highly emotional. The exclusion comes across so subtly. In between takes, men on set discuss films, and you’re not part of the discussion. Nothing is outright or blatant, and women have to prove themselves, whereas men are given the chance automatically.
Gender, in my own experience, is harder. The P.C. culture around race is so sensitive that even if someone is thinking something, in America it’s so hard to engage about race, whereas passably offensive things to a woman happen all the time. On set, I would say it’s more that I’m a woman, and in discussion with the world, I’m a brown person. It comes down to representation. We see diversity onscreen, and as bad as that diversity is, it doesn’t equate to the diversity as to who’s signing the checks. There’s no diversity in the lenses in which the story is being told.
Ultimately though, this is a liberal, progressive community. The world of horror and genre films is a very warm community; if you love horror, we love you. If the work resonates with them, they 110 percent want to help.
FH: How do you pay it forward when it comes to diversity?
JK: I explore that in front of the camera and behind the camera. My behind-the-camera staff was at least half women; my whole production staff were women; my dolly grip was a woman and my right-hand supervisor was a woman. I never saw that women couldn’t do the job. My set and cast looked like the U.N. I’m trying to now champion female directors of horror as a series. Kind of like how “Masters of Horror” was done with men.
MD: I care a lot about this. In my movie, the sisters look very different. In Laos, we have this ideal of light-skinned beauty. The blind girl in my film has very dark skin and has climbed a mountain of effort, and is now very famous. I wanted to show different kinds of people onscreen. The makeup of Laos is varied, including lots of ethnic indigenous people. I was the first person to make a story about women in the country. Women are usually the one that cries on cue, the one that waits to get rescued, or the one that waits to get proposed to. Women are the main characters in my movie, and people love it.
FH: Why do you think women of color like horror?
JK: Horror captures people’s fears in a way that might be symbolic; it represents some of the fears you have psychologically, and it lets you react to it. Everyone wants to pretend everything is business as usual, but horror lets you scream about it. The vicarious thrill of being scared feels cathartic. That’s why young women today get it and like it.
MW: So many women of color who have had traumatic experiences gravitate toward horror movies and geek out over comic books; it’s kind of a no-brainer to me.
Horror is very therapeutic. When I’m dealing with a lot of stress and anxiety, it helps you get away for a few hours and it’s a great way to be humbled. You realize your troubles could be a lot worse.
FH: What movie resonated with you as a kid, and made you want to make movies?
JK: I usually gravitate toward filmmakers more than movies, but the horror movie that’s viewed more as a documentary — “Freaks” by Tod Browning — left a strong impression. It used to run in the art house circuit, and is about the circus. It was haunting; it was a slice of Americana that you didn’t see. Real freaks.
MD: One of the films that affected me the most was “The Killing Fields.” My Dad said: “I want to give you a lesson in life. While this is about Cambodia, I want you to see what a lot of us in Southeast Asia had to escape, the kind of life we left to rebuild a new one for you.” It tore me apart, and I can’t even watch it now without sobbing. It was a harrowing, amazing film. I think it scarred me completely, even into adulthood. To capture that kind of desperation and emotion that [the film’s producer,] David Puttnam had, I don’t know if I can ever achieve that. You feel all the pain and suffering these characters are experiencing.
MW: “Jurassic Park.” It’s horror when you start dissecting it that way. Bloody dinosaurs rip apart human beings and rip them around? Kids trapped in a car? It’s funny how it was classified as action. It packages so much in an enjoyable, terrifying film: the exploration of morality, mankind’s greed and our relationship with the natural world and technology. As a kid, seeing Laura Dern kicking ass, she showed me beauty and brains, and that as a woman you can do it all. It’s never left me.
Tell or show us how you would flip the script. How would you recreate a scene from your favorite horror movie from your perspective? For example, what would “Psycho” look like if it took place in Detroit? Or if “Train to Busan” was filmed in New Orleans? What would those characters look like? How would we react differently to the story? Submit photos or video remaking a favorite moment or character from your cultural or racial perspective.
If you submit video, here’s how to do it: Hold your phone horizontally and film yourself answering the question. You can also have a loved one record you, if that’s easier.
— Make sure you are in a quiet place so the audio is clear.
— Stand facing a light source so that you are well lit. (If the light is behind you, you’ll be silhouetted.) Also, try not to have too much clutter around that will distract viewers.
— Start recording a few seconds of silence before you speak and keep on recording for a few seconds after you’re done.
— Watch the clip to make sure you are happy with the audio and lighting.
— Email the video clip to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please keep your responses clear and concise (1 to 2 minutes).