The horror community often compares itself to one big family, but that is a platitude that hides an ugly truth. In the past week, the “unity” of the horror community was deeply shaken when some LGBTQ horror fans asked for accountability from horror host Joe Bob Briggs because they were hurt by his words in an article from August of last year. Many of his fans retaliated with vitriol, attacking the LGBTQ fans with slurs.
As a result, the community feels even more divided than before, but simply silencing him or the dissenting fans isn’t the solution. Making the horror community more inclusive is complicated and it’s messy. We’re not going to solve it by trying to “cancel” every bad egg in the system; we’d be playing asshole Whack-A-Mole until the end of time. So how do we fix things?
While marginalized individuals are sometimes more likely to succeed in genre film because people are open to bigger ideas, there is still a surprising amount of resistance. We all worship at the holy altar of George Romero, so you would think we would be united in wanting to dismantle systems of oppression and consumerism. The horror community is a little punk rock, a little anarchist, bound by our shared status of misunderstood outcasts.
Writer Alice Collins, who opened up a dialogue with Briggs about her experiences as a transgender fan of horror, was disheartened by the way her fellow Last Drive-In fans responded to the most recent criticism.
“I have personally been treated with respect by Joe Bob Briggs; he has used his power to lift up my voice as a transgender woman,” she said. “Be that as it may, I'm appalled at the community I have been deeply entrenched in for decades. We're better than this. There is a feeling of exclusion among our own and that needs to be addressed. Especially when it comes to a community that claims to be all-inclusive of misfits and weirdos.”
Like so many other communities founded on a shared love of something that others don’t understand, the horror family started to become pretty insular. Alienation became something to be worn like a badge of pride. People who spent years being bullied often become bullies themselves, and that’s what’s happening in the horror community. Whenever someone points out flaws in the community, the immediate response is to get defensive and decry “you just don’t understand”.
We do understand. We’ve been here all along: queer horror fans, horror fans of color, horror fans with disabilities, and female horror fans. We’ve watched the same VHS of Evil Dead II so many times that our VCR eventually chewed it up and spit it out. We’ve cried over lost heroes of the community. We’ve inked iconography from our favorite horror onto our skin. We love horror and we’ve always loved horror, and we’re tired of feeling like the horror community doesn’t have any love for us. Many have been afraid to speak out for fear of ostracization or worse.
“It's important for folx to understand that these are not new feelings,” said horror writer BJ Colangelo. “Marginalized voices have been feeling this way since the very beginning, but it's only been recently that some people in power have been willing to listen, learn, and make legitimate changes to be more equitable, diverse, and inclusive. Sadly, the emphasis is on ‘some.’ There are still people in positions of power who view any form of someone's criticism or desire for accountability to be ‘difficult,’ ‘sensitive,’ or ‘disrespectful’ and will close the doors for opportunities. They've been keeping so many of us silent and thereby complicit in our own oppression.”
The #MeToo movement ripped through Hollywood, but never quite caught on in the horror community. Female journalists and creatives shared their stories and opened up about why rape-revenge cinema spoke to them, but it was all brushed back under the rug pretty quickly. The horror community loves when people speak up about trauma or injustice, as long as none of their faves are indicted along the way. People quickly revert to tribalism, defending atrocious behavior because they’re unwilling to deal with their own cognitive dissonance. This person is special to me, they couldn’t possibly be bad. You must be the bad one. Social media only makes this reactionary behavior worse. A Twitter callout can quickly become a dogpile. One person’s desire to create change can turn into cancel culture hysteria without that being their goal.
“For far too long, the queer community has been enjoying horror from the sidelines. So recently, when it felt like we finally got a seat at the table, we were polite because we wanted to be good dinner guests. And no one wants to get asked to leave before the main course,” Sam Wineman, director of the upcoming queer horror documentary for Shudder, said in a series of tweets. “Now, we’re starting to set healthy boundaries. We’re interrogating language. We are demanding allyship. And that must feel really scary for some horror fans because the currency of horror fandom in 2020 is nostalgia. Nostalgia for a time that was, frankly, not very inclusive.”
Much like any other fandom, many horror fans have developed a narrow view of what the community represents. The backlash against last year’s Black Christmas is a perfect example of this intolerant mentality. Instead of recognizing that horror has always been progressive (the original film contained a subplot about abortion rights!), some fans bemoaned the film’s progressivism as a “woke agenda.” The issue became instantly polarized because a contingency of horror fans aren’t willing to have their beliefs or nostalgia challenged.
Writer Jordan Crucchiola explained the problem with nostalgia in a brilliant Twitter thread:
My issue with the nostalgia set isn’t their preferred tastes. It’s the fact that worship of relics and a yearning for “the good old days” so often comes with a conjoined FIERCE resistance to fully interrogating earlier eras to call out and condemn the bad as we celebrate our past. And people who refuse that conversation, that interrogation, are just going to perpetuate the thing they hate - being told by “PC police” that what they love is Bad - because they too insist on seeing things as just a bi polarity: “I love it and if you critique it you HATE IT.”
Two things can be true: There is a century of inspiring and wonderful cinema behind us to love and exalt. Also, that art was FAR TOO OFTEN created on the backs of abuse, exploiting people, blocking anyone who wasn’t white and straight and male from writing our history.
It’s interesting that some fans are so steadfast in their beliefs, given the historically progressive nature of the genre. The best horror examines our world and comments on its problems. Sometimes it’s on its sleeve, like Romero’s skewering of racism and consumerism in his Dead films, or Jordan Peele’s takedown of performative allyship in Get Out. Sometimes it’s a little more complicated, like Cronenberg’s examinations of how deeply entwined technology and sexuality have become. Regardless of how straightforward or complex it’s presented, nearly all horror has social commentary at its root. To deny that would be to misunderstand the genre entirely.
There have been tremendous strides forward in the past few years. The success of Peele’s Get Out and Us has helped open the doors for other creators of color. Horror Noire and the upcoming Queer Horror documentary from Shudder are helping people understand how horror has always been a way for lesser-heard communities to express themselves without fear of backlash. It’s a great start, but it’s only a start, and progress can be tenuous. Even a single underwhelming horror project can hurt opportunities for an entire group of marginalized creators.
On the Shudder blog, Horror Noire executive producer Tananarive Due said, “… as someone who has been pitching in Hollywood for more than a decade, I have learned from experience how the fate of any one project can have a dampening effect on other creators trying to tell Black horror stories. It has been a long road back for some of the Black directors who created iconic Black horror in the 1990s, such as (Rusty) Cundieff (Tales from the Hood) and Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), who did not get immediate follow-up opportunities. A few underperforming or undercooked Black horror movies could deeply damage prospects for those of us pitching in their wake.”
She also noted the need for authenticity through hiring diverse voices.
“Many things have changed since the 1990s such as the rise of more platforms, crowdfunding, and the ability to shoot an entire film on an iPhone, so I don’t believe Black horror will dry up and go away,” she said. “But without Black creators at the helm to tell our own stories, the films are much more likely to ring with inauthenticity and perpetuate the troublesome tropes Horror Noire was created to help us all avoid.”
We need to ensure that the voices of the marginalized are heard. Studios need to hire more people from a variety of backgrounds, instead of repeatedly giving jobs to the same familiar handful of cishet white guys. Creators have been pushed into subgenres for too long – Black horror and Queer horror are wonderful, but they should be a part of the mainstream. When creators tell stories outside of their perspective, they need to hire people to help them truly understand it. It’s so easy to do something harmful on accident, with no malice, but it is still harmful. Having open conversations with people from these communities could prevent so much hurt and misunderstanding.
Often calls for inclusion are viewed as a call for censorship, or a desire to shoehorn progressive ideals into traditionally conservative fare, when neither is the case. Inclusion means making sure everyone has a seat at the table and truly has their voice heard.
That means the most important thing we can do is listen. Listen to the voices when they share their stories of injustice or exclusion. Don’t take it personally or feel as if they are blaming you directly for that exclusion, because it’s part of a much larger systemic problem. You don’t have to agree with everything the person says, but the way forward is to listen and open your heart. Practice empathy. Empathy can bridge any gap, because it means setting your own preconceived notions aside for a moment to truly attempt understanding.
Too many people in this community have been forced into their own quiet little subcommunities. Many don’t feel safe talking about their love for the genre publicly because they don’t conform to the standard set by a very small contingent of people who try to destroy anything that’s different. If the horror community is going to survive and thrive, we can’t splinter off and create echo chambers. If we are truly one community, from the top down -- from the producers of films and editors of magazines to the fan who just watched their first slasher -- we must be accountable to one another. We may share different beliefs, ethnicities, sexual orientations, genders, or levels of physical ability, but we all love horror because it made us feel seen when the world excluded us.
Danielle Ryan is a freelance writer and critic who specializes in writing about mental health, social equity, and entertainment. Her love for extreme horror and exploitation cinema is unmatched only by her love for her dog.