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:
A Quiet Place
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
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.
In A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018), A husband and wife — played by Krasinksi himself and real-life partner Emily Blunt — fight to protect their children from creatures who hunt through echolocation — sound. One of those children, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), is deaf from a young age and wears hearing aids, which her father has been trying to repair. This conceit plays into the final conflict and leads to the defeat of the alien creatures hunting humanity. Millicent Simmonds, like the character she portrays, has been deaf from a young age and as such is the perfect actor to portray this character.
Hereditary’s (Ari Aster, 2018) main premise is that the spirit of an ancient demon, Paimon, inhabits the body of young girl Charlie, played by Milly Shapiro, an actor who was born with a cleft palate or some form of dysplasia which becomes part of the characterisation of Charlie. The twist in the story is that Paimon was meant to inhabit the body of their older son, Peter (Alex Wolf), and there are forces at work to send him back to the right body. Charlie’s physical disability is played upon to foreshadow this possession particularly a verbal tic of clucking her tongue which we see passed on to Peter after Charlie is decapitated. However I can’t help but feel that the casting of young actor Milly Shapiro as Charlie is exploitative of her unique appearance rather than true representation of the character, and not true to the writing. If you read the script for Hereditary by Aster, Charlie’s is first described “ a plump, androgynous fourteen year old girl”. Her tic is mentioned later, but there is no mention of cleft palate or other condition. The tic — not a condition Milly Sharpiro has — merely used as a device to show the transfer of Paimon.
This seems to be supported by images of Aster’s recently released follow up Horror film, Midsommar (2019), which also appears to continue the theme of the “other” through conditions which affect facial featurism though I’ve not yet seen the film. In the case of Midsommar, this appears to be achieved through the use of prosthetic effects.
Another poor example of diversity in an otherwise great Horror film is It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014).
Set in Detroit, Michigan, the premise of the film plays with the trope of teenagers getting killed by a vengeful spirit/unseen supernatural slasher because they are sexually active. The difference here, is that whereas in a straight slasher film these character would be one of the first to die, in It Follows the only way to survive is to pass on a curse through sexual intercourse.
The main cast is white Anglo American, which was the biggest issue I had with the film given its setting. Detroit is known as one of — if not the top city in America with a majority African American population of 82%. However, the only African American characters in the film were secondary or incidental — teachers and people in the supermarket.
There is speculation that this Detroit is an alternate timeline given the aesthetic of the film: a mixture of devices (including a folding mobile phone that looks like a compact), decor and vehicles from the 60’s to current times, however I don’t think this can excuse such an oversight.
Overlord is one of the more classical Horror films, people against monsters in World War II and the Nazis who created them. Its main character, soldier Boyce (Jovan Adepo) is African American, and his fellow soldiers — those that remain — are Italian and Jewish, which makes for a nice change and representation of those that fought in the war. However I couldn’t help feel that this was a case of colour blind casting, an opinion that was reinforced by the inclusion of another African American actor in the character of Sergeant Rensin (Bokeem Woodbine), who dies early in the story when their plane is shot down over France while on a mission to destroy a Nazi radio tower.
There has even been a suggestion of “blackwashing”, of ignoring the segregation that was in place at the time of white and black soldiers and the real struggles and achievements of serving African American soldiers.
There appears to have been some effort to address Boyce’s background — his upbringing in Southern America and learning some French from his family, though from memory that was the extent of it.
Cargo (Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, 2017) is the first Australian Netflix feature, and also one of the best. A post-apocalyptic drama, the film is about the Rose family trying to survive a viral contagion. The father Andy — played by British actor Martin Freeman — is infected with a zombie virus after losing his wife to the same contagion. Andy must find safety for his infant daughter Rosie before he turns. He finds this safety in young Indigenous girl Thoomi (Simone Landers) and her people, who hunt the infected. This is a noteworthy change from the 2013 short film of the same name by Howling and Ramke, on which the feature is based. In the short, the lead character turns before finding safety for his daughter who is then saved by some white people holed up in a clifftop house.
The changes in the feature script, while highlighting Australia’s Indigenous population and actors, also does so in way that both makes sense and is true to those characters and their heritage. Their actions and why they take them are clear; Thoomi has lost her father to the infection but has kept him sustained with wildlife, hoping to find his spirit and get him back. The face paint that Thoomi uses to mask first her own, then Andy and Rosie’s scent from the infected; the manner in which the Indigenous hunters deal with the infected and their dead, including Thoomi’s father who she returns to find bound in a tree; and in the final scenes, the communal openness of Rosie’s new family with Thoomi and her people are all indicative of a genuine engagement with Indigenous culture.
Let’s finish with another of the best example of writing diverse characters in Horror — Jordan Peele’s Us (2019):
Like Get Out, the main character/s in Us are African-American, however they could just as well be from any other background as the story is not intrinsically tied to their culture. For those who are not aware of the plot, Us centres around a family that is terrorised by their “evil” doppelgangers.
What is intrinsic to the characters, however, is how they are portrayed: their dialogue, the music they listen to and the references to that music, their upbringing in flashbacks, the way they view the world and react to events. All of this would have had to have been in the story from the ground up, in the blueprint for the film — in the screenplay and writing.
The problem of how racial diversity is dealt with in films, and this is particularly relevant to the Horror genre, is made evident in how easily disposable characters are in any given film. This is illustrated on the TV Tropes website in their Sorting Algorithm of Mortality, which ranks the mortality rate of characters relative to the rest of the cast. As you can see from the chart below, if you aren’t a straight, white, male or “final girl”, the chances of you dying sooner rather than later are pretty high.
Which brings me to one of the films I left off above and am circling back around to Bird Box (Susanne Bier, 2018). The premise of Bird Box is that an unknown force presents visions to people which then drives them them to commit suicide in violent and often gory ways.
The first character to die in the film is what the Sorting Algorithm of Mortality refers to as a twofer — a “cast member or show participant who represents two Token Minority groups at once”, which in the case of Bird Box is the character of Greg, a gay Asian man played by B.D. Wong. And the last to die is Tom (Trevante Rhodes) — African American who sacrifices himself to save his white lover (Sandra Bullock, in the lead role) and the two children they have raised.
While I don’t believe the mortality rate of its ethnic characters in Birdbox to be deliberately malicious, it also does seem like there was little conscious planning to avoid or subvert such tropes..
Through the examining of these films and series and the tropes of the genre, I can only assume that the removal of diverse characters in Horror is being done by writers who are attempting to not offend, or believe that by doing so they are avoiding some disservice to underrepresented actors.
The tragic alternative is that they are simply not considering diversity at all.
It’s no secret that the television and film industry is just that — an industry and out to make money, and it should make more money to continue to put out more content. But it’s also no secret that the control of said industry and said money has been in the hands of business men, who I imagine probably erred on the side of caution with greenlighting “safe” projects. And I can only assume that “safe” means white … or certainly used to.
The winds of change are blowing and the execs and business men are paying attention to the success of stories like Get Out, Us, Black Summer and Overlord. The shift to TV and streaming, and a new openness to less “traditional” stories over the Hollywood cookie cutter or blockbuster extravaganza, the executives are beginning to respond to what the audiences want. And audiences clearly want diversity.
I’m just not sure the sails are being raised to catch those new winds fast enough.
I believe that we as writers have a responsibility. And that responsibility is to write so as to project the real world we live in and not simply the white, Anglo, “safe” characters that have come before; to project the people that we see and meet in every day life.
A lot of the time, that responsibility is shouldered by the writers who live within those communities, though it’s one that comes with a heavy weight as they feel that they have a duty of care to represent that community in the best light possible. And we must strive to conscious avoid falling into the same traps and tropes as represented in such films as Bird Box.
And I truly believe that genre — Horror among them — can play the greatest role in representation, inclusion and social cohesion, by opening the barriers for writers to include diverse characters, and the industry to include diverse writers. We as writers can be cognisant of that diversity and include those characters — not as an afterthought or colour blind casting them, but as informed decisions with conscious actions taken based on their culture, religion, sexuality. Because only then will we be truly doing our jobs as writers … representing our world and its people.
Just as we all live together, we all are food for the monsters together.
Cem Bilici was a Fellow in the 2019 Cinespace Social Cohesion on Screen Writer's Fellowship, funded by the Victorian Government.
Cem Bilici is an author and screenwriter of Turkish background based in Melbourne's South East. Writing as C. Bilici, Cem has published the first novel in his dark fantasy Ward series with its sequel and several other novels currently in editing -- including the 90's Melbourne supernatural thriller The Enlightened and his Ottoman inspired steampunk adventure The Mechanical Turk. A member of the Australasian Horror Writer's Association, Cem is currently also a judge for the Australian Shadow Awards (of which he hopes to win one or two himself some day) in the Collection category. Work-shopped in the Cinespace Story Lab 2018 and pitched at Melbourne Webfest Pitch ABC iView competition, his series project Kebabs of the Dead -- a story of a group of young Australian Turks questioning identity, culture, family and other issues...with kebabs and zombies -- is in pre-production and due to shoot a proof of concept short film soon. Cem is also an avid horror film and heavy metal fan.
This article was first published on https://medium.com/the-screenwriters-social-cohesion-toolkit