Who's Afraid of Diversity?

Updated: May 21, 2020

by Cem Bilici

Horror is near and dear to my heart. Not only do I write Horror fiction and screenplays, but I have long been a fan of the genre. Since I was a small child being both scared and fascinated by the creature of the week on Doctor Who, then sneakily watching Horror films like Piranha on TV (the original 1978 film, not the 2010 remake with Jerry O’Connell — yes I’m that old and it was on a big arse CRT TV you could use as a ships anchor), to discovering Horror novels and films in high school much to the dismay of my Turkish family, who never quite understood why. I had more posters of Freddy Kruger and Jason Vorhees than models on my walls. Let’s not even get into my love for heavy metal.

So yeah, I’m not exactly the paragon of the Melbourne Turkish community.

When I turned my own hand to writing, Horror was always with me. But it was not until I began to write in earnest a handful of years ago that I noticed something odd about my writing. Something quite unexpected.

My Turkishness, that I thought I had packed up and put away, was creeping into my stories. This part of me that I thought I had locked up and thrown away the key was coming out to play.

Like Chucky, if you will.

Classic Chucky, not the reboot robo-Chucky voiced by Mark Hamill. But I digress.

Yes, my heritage had come back with a vengeance. Like good/bad ghosts always do, this restless spirit had unfinished business with me. And, as it became painfully clear as time passed, I with it.

The more my Turkish heritage came out, the more I began to ask myself: Why was I not seeing myself represented in the Horror novels, films and shows I so cherished for so many years?

It is a question many have undoubtedly asked themselves for years outside of Horror, and a question that we have seen being answered more and more as content creators see that there is demand for diverse stories. But, as a writer, I wanted to get to the root of the problem: writing.

As a writer, I have fallen into the same trap of writing what I consumed:White Anglo characters. It’s easy. It’s safe. And when you’ve not been long at the craft, you want training wheels. But if I recall correctly, my first BMX’s training wheels fell off from vibration on the bumpy dirt roads of Renmark, South Australia where we lived at the time. And boy was my road becoming bumpy!

So now my writing training wheels were off, I had the choice to ride on and teach myself or stop.

And that’s how Kebabs of the Dead was born.

Kebabs was a culmination of ideas that I thought would be the answer to that question of why my Turkishness was coming to the fore. A Horror-comedy about Turkish Australians in a zombie apocalypse. But through Kebabs, a much larger question began to rear its head, one which I had the chance to more deeply explore through gaining a place in Cinespace’s Social Change on Screen Writer’s Fellowship.

I wanted to find how much the screenwriting process played into the lack of diversity in Horror. Was the general consensus that Horror was a largely white led genre still? And if so, did the writing of the screenplays perpetuate this? And if so, why? Was it fear, of either being blamed for cultural appropriation or racism (I mean, let’s face it, most characters in Horror do NOT fare so well by the time the end credits come around)? Or could it possibly be that the writers simply did not consider any other option? Perhaps they felt they were “colour blind writing”, just as is done in casting.

Before I could delve deeper, I had to do some research into just what the state of diversity in Horror was and how I myself saw it. We’ve had several recent breakout successes, such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us. But what was the state of other films and series in the genre? And how could I then put this into use in my own writing?

To answer this, I set out to research. And for this, I had to watch a whole bunch of Horror.

I know, poor me, right?

But how best to go about this research? Horror is one of those genres that never truly dies — much like its monsters. There is always a film in production in all ranges of budget. And there is a huge back catalogue.

I decided then that I needed to approach this from the perspective of what would make the biggest deciding factor in the industry as a whole   box office hits and streaming success stories— . In the commercial world of Hollywood, this all plays into the success of other projects to follow. For this, there seemed little point in reviewing smaller productions, and this also then removed any foreign language projects and I decided I would start with the biggest Horror hits of the last five to ten years, whether on the big screen or small, given that Netflix and other streaming platforms are such major players and can hardly be ignored.

So I began with a online search for Horror films focusing on box office hits. I honed that down to some of the most talked about Horror films and shows of the last few years to better represent the state of things in 2019. That list being:

  • It Follows

  • Overlord

  • Cargo

  • Us

  • A Quiet Place

  • Hereditary

  • Birdbox

  • The Witch

  • The Autopsy of Jane Doe

  • Black Summer

  • The Walking Dead

You might notice the absence of one Horror film that you’d rightly think should be on there: Jordan Peele’s Get Out. My reasons for leaving Get Out off the list are simple — it is a film that is overtly about the African American experience as opposed to Peele’s follow up Horror film Us which is not specifically about race, so I treated it as an outlier. Also — and this may be a controversial opinion — I feel it’s really more a sci-fi psychological thriller than Horror, but we can debate that until the cows come home another time.

As an entrée, I can’t think of a better place to begin that with what is arguably the biggest Horror franchise on TV — The Walking Dead.

This pyramid of the characters from Season 8 of The Walking Dead is indicative of the diversity of the cast and their standing in the story. There is a fairly broad background of characters from Anglo to African American to Latinx, and those that are not visible in their LGBTQ characters and interracial relationships. The top of the pyramid has been occupied by, sure, a straight white guy, though the character of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) has now departed the show and been replaced with Michonne (Danai Gurira), an African American woman who is caring for Rick’s daughter and their son.

The spin-off show, Fear the Walking Dead, also features a non-white character as its lead in Morgan Jones (Lennie James), though before Morgan, Fear the Walking Dead’s main character was Madison Clark (Kim Dickens). who as a woman over 50 represented another demographic that is notoriously absent from screens.

The Walking Dead franchise did, it should be noted, inherited the cultural diversity of its characters from its source material; the comics — written by Robert Kirkman, who also produces the TV series.

Sticking with the theme of zombies, let’s move to Black Summer, a breakout Netflix series that was much talked about upon its release in 2019.

Here we see two of the main characters from Black Summer — Sun (Christine Lee) and William Velez (Sal Velez Jr). One of the most surprising — and refreshing — aspects of Black Summer to me was the character of Sun a Korean character who doesn’t speak a word of English. Most of her dialogue is in Korean. The remainder of the cast is as equally diverse, and one of the first characters to die is a middle aged straight white man — unlike what the tropes (more on that later) of the genre would suggest.

From a diversity standpoint, Black Summer is certainly a winner. If only the rest of the story was as strong!

The premise and budget of The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015) all but guarantees that this would be an Anglo dominated film — a low budget period, supernatural film set in 1630's New England about a settler family of seven are torn apart when the infant son is taken by a witch in the middle of winter. It’s essentially a “cabin in the woods” Horror film and apart from a scene where the father heads in to town and we see some Native Americans, it’s as white as the snowy landscapes.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (Anré Øverdal, 2016) is a contemporary supernatural Horror set in a mortuary where a father (Brian Cox) and son (Emile Hirsch) receive a body of a witch and then things go quite sideways. It’s a small cast and other than an African American state trooper, white all around.

Two of the biggest recent Horror releases, Hereditary and A Quiet Place, I found to be the poorest in terms of racial diversity, though they both did address disability representation, albeit from wholly different angles in my opinion.