The horror genre celebrates anything and everything macabre. There are not supposed to be any limits, borders or restrictions to the creativity of whatever medium is used to honor the terrifying world we all love so dearly.
Much like the rest of the mainstream media, there have been issues along the way when it comes to being an all-inclusive club in the horror world. February’s Women in Horror Month celebration has been going strong for seven years now and as more voices are heard throughout the genre, more awareness is being raised for a multitude of horror outlets that haven’t gotten the spotlight they deserve over the years.
One such outlet is that of Black horror. No matter how old you are or what kind of horror film you enjoy, you simply cannot ignore the fantastic contributions the Black horror community has brought to the genre since the beginning.
From Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking Thriller video to the iconic Candyman, I have a special place in my heart for films like The People Under The Stairs, Tales From The Hood and Vampire In Brooklyn. Let’s also never forget that the true hero of Night of the Living Dead is Ben, played by Duane Jones.
One woman who is making sure to keep the Black horror community in the news and well represented is Ashlee Blackwell, the proud woman in charge of the fantastic website Graveyard Shift Sisters and the podcast Girls Will Be Ghouls. I had the pleasure of speaking with Ashlee recently and we discussed a number of topics that I’m sure will tickle any horror fan’s fancy.
Justin Hamelin/ Terror Time: What sparked the idea for Graveyard Shift Sisters and when did the website start?
Ashlee Blackwell: Just an informal, mental survey of how little to no recognition of women who looked like me, a Black woman, I saw, read, or listened to on horror websites, podcasts, conventions, and film festivals. With an awareness of Black women in horror films that we never even mention or have active content creators who focus on Black people in the genre and their work wasn’t being mentioned or pursued (I looked, and it was very hard to find if at all) I became angry at this idea that we were perpetually invisible. I read between the lines a lot and how I felt as a Black female horror fan was ignored, negated, under-valued, undesirable, and even experienced open hostility in my local horror film community because I didn’t ‘look’ like a horror fan.
After the foundation was laid to address this erasure on the Black Girl Nerds website, it lead to Graveyard Shift Sisters. Everything just flowed naturally from my frustration and need for empowerment in a genre I loved so much. I’m glad it caught on so quick and to know that there’s more actively engaged Black women horror fans than I think people still realize.
TT: One thing I really like and respect about the website is that there is a very focused, defined vision- to “engage in discourse on Black horror films- history, understanding older concepts, producing new meanings”. For audiences that aren’t familiar with the history of Black horror films, to your knowledge, what were some of the first Black horror films in the genre’s history?
AB: First I would suggest to those interested to buy Dr. Robin Means-Coleman’s book Horror Noire, which does the work of examining and giving readers context for what the first Black horror films looked like. What I usually start with is “race films” (also known as fright films) from the 1940’s produced by Black filmmakers with Black casts. They were usually morality, Christian-based tales that used supernatural themes with ghosts, angels, and the devil to produce a message. Like most horror films, they were very much a product of their time as well as attractive to the wider Black audiences.
TT: I don’t think it’d be a stretch for me to assume that the horror genre has lacked more Black horror films for a number of reasons, especially due to society’s climate and overall ignorance of those both within and outside of the film industry. Where do you see the history of Black horror films at in twenty years from now?
AB: Matt Barone wrote an excellent article about the struggle for Black filmmakers who want to make genre films as well as actor Tarik Davis discussing his struggles in working with producers when he tells them he wants to make a horror film. Hell, even Jordan Peele, whom I’m assuming by building his platform over time and now with mainstream appeal was able to get a deal with Blumhouse to do what he’s always wanted to do, which is make horror films was hard fought. All this to say that, regardless of the genre, equal representation and artistic autonomy is still a fraught battleground.
It’s really up to us as consumers to focus our energy on the filmmakers making web series or short films who have no money and rely on word of mouth and do not have a name or the backing of a big studio. I’ve felt a responsibility over time to really sound the horn on newer works being produced that are genre by women of color because as I said before, prior to this website, I wasn’t seeing that happening. Black horror films are going to have to continue to be the effort of us to support, share, and circulate and interview the creators about their work. I suppose in 20 years we’ll still be here, just hopefully with our own means of distributing with a consistent flow of cash so people can do what they love for a living. That’s my hope for everyone.
TT: Girls Will Be Ghouls is a blossoming podcast that is doing a lot to promote the diversity of horror cinema. How often do you record a new show?
AB: We record once a month. You can listen to the podcast on our website.
TT: Who are some of your personal favorite icons that you’ve had the chance to either meet in person or feature on your site?
AB: I’m still like most horror fans who go to cons and meet-and-greet the folks I’ve admired as artists. It’s hard to say because I’ve enjoyed everyone I’ve met and am in awe of everyone (yes, everyone) I’ve interviewed.
TT: What other projects are you working on?
AB: I really, truly would like to make everything I’m doing content wise to be in the college classroom. I’m excited about being published in a Black Women’s Horror Aesthetic anthology and working with others in academia. I hope to do more of that in the future.