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When Theory Meets the Incredible: Changing Perceptions of Black Women in Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy

A young girl of seven sits transfixed and horrified, tightly gripping the plush armrests of her seat in New Orleans’ iconic Joy Theatre. Looming above her on the seemingly stories-tall screen is the unforgettable image of Katrina, the vampire queen played by Grace Jones in the horror film Vamp (1985). As the credits roll, the girl is awash in relief and pride at having made it through the screening. Then the unimaginable happens. Her Aunt Errolyn announces that the movie was so good, they’ll be staying for the next showing. The girl huddles back into her seat, fearfully anticipating another round of torture. But as the movie plays once more, stripped this time of the elements of surprise and mystery, a shift occurs in the girl’s perception – and her path in life becomes irrevocably altered.

Years later, Dr. Kinitra Brooks sits in her office in the Department of English surrounded by posters advertising her popular and innovative courses that explore the intersection of race and gender in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. “My Aunt Errolyn gave me a great gift that day by awakening my intellectual curiosity toward horror,” she reminisces about her childhood experience. “Watching Vamp again allowed me to really engage with the film rather than simply react to it.” The event, she says, set her on a path of personal inquiry that ultimately gave rise to the examination of black female characters in popular media that characterize her teaching and publishing today.

That day at the Joy Theatre brought with it another important realization. Even as the young Kinitra became increasingly enthralled by the enigmatic allure of Katrina, a dawning sense that there was something unsettling about the presentation of the character began to take hold. Why, for example, didn’t Katrina speak? More troubling still, why did her dark beauty give way to an exaggerated monstrosity when she revealed her true identity as a vampire? Simple plot details on the surface, these issues seemed to suggest a deeper meaning that the seven-year-old child’s inquisitive mind could not as yet decipher.

As her interest in horror developed over the years, it became increasingly clear to Brooks that the treatment received by black female characters in the genre was indeed problematic. The root of the issue seemed to boil down to the concept of the “final girl,” the female character who endures extra-ordinary trials and finally prevails to ensure her own survival. Brooks came to theorize that white women were capable of rescuing themselves while maintaining their femininity, blurring gender lines by assuming forceful attitudes and still remaining sympathetic figures. Black women who took on similar roles, on the other hand, were portrayed as unnaturally strong, losing their femininity and the sympathy of the audience in the process.

Her cinematic explorations engendered in Dr. Brooks a growing commitment to find more fair and complex characterizations of black women in horror. In time the quest became part of her academic path, and its scope grew to include the genres of science fiction and fantasy as well as the literary domain. Increasingly, she found that the representations she sought had existed all along in the often-overlooked works of black women writers of speculative fiction, which is the umbrella term for these genres. Equipped with this discovery, Brooks was finally able to weave theory, exciting source material, and lifelong passion into a unique approach as a professor and researcher.

Her current project, Searching for Sycorax: Black Women in Contemporary Horror, is a monograph that offers a pioneering gender- and race-aware horror theory that challenges the myopic representation of black female characters in mainstream horror. The book will represent a foray into uncharted theoretical territory while serving as an introduction to black women writers of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. “Most people know about Octavia Butler and a growing number know Tananarive Due,” says Brooks. “But very few have heard of L.A. Banks, Nalo Hopkinson, Phyllis Alesia Perry, N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor. A goal of my monograph is to give a scholarly introduction to some of these lesser-known yet incredibly talented women.”

Taking a break from her demanding project, Brooks spoke with us about her teaching and research:

Q: What led you to this unique field of research?

A: I think black women in horror have been ignored or constructed as characters based on dangerous stereotypes. I do a lot of work on the comic book version of The Walking Dead (2002) – so much better than the television series – and I find the character of Michonne fascinating, sometimes horrifically so. She was the tipping point for me to explore black women in horror. Her character’s treatment by series creator Robert Kirkman was so inhumane and heartbreaking, I was simply devastated. I knew I had to do something, to find more complicated ways in which black women were manifested in horror.

I started by looking at interesting horror films in which black women were central characters – Ganja & Hess (1973), Scream Blacula Scream (1973), Alien vs. Predator (2004). I then began to investigate black women writers and directors whose work was based in horror, and that’s where my research really began to explode and is what my book really analyzes. I am not only analyzing these women’s works, I am also excavating them and finding such talented black women horror creators. So far, I have compiled a list of over 175 horror works – poems (yes, there is horror poetry), short stories, novellas, films, and novels – written by black women! Who knew?

Right now, I‘m obsessed with two specific creators. Chesya Burke, author of a collection of short stories titled Let’s Play White (2011) is one of them. I’m especially excited by one of her stories, “Chocolate Park,” which is simple, beautiful, and mindblowing. The other creator is Bree Newsome, who wrote and directed a short film titled Wake (2010) that is beautifully shot and incredibly creepy. It’s available for free on Youtube and I highly recommend it.

What I’m finding in all of my research is that black women have been writing horror for a long time; they’ve simply revised and adapted the genre so that it fits the specific needs of black women.

Q: How did the highly interdisciplinary perspective you bring to your work come about?

A: I believe my background in Comparative Literature, which is different from English, helps the interdisciplinary nature of my research. Comparative Literature allows me to compare across texts—literature, film, comic books, etc. It also allows me to compare across national borders; I study literature of the African diaspora, so I have texts by women who are African American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Canadian, and Nigerian.

I also believe the genre of horror itself is interdisciplinary. Horror is everywhere. On television, film, literature, and comic books. There are also horror toys and figurines – I have one of Michonne and Rick! – as well as “cons” or conventions where genre fans gather and squee out together. I’ve been to WisCon and The World Horror Convention, where I got a chance to attend the Bram Stoker Awards ceremony with Linda Addison, a three-time winner who is also a black horror poetess. Next on my list is DragonCon in Atlanta and SlayerCon – because I will always love Buffy Anne Summers!

Q: Your courses are very popular among students. What are your experiences teaching horror theory in the classroom?

A: I find that I get several types of students in my classes, all pretty interesting in their own way. There are the true genre fiction fans who are already experts on particular authors and specific movements in the genres, and are totally geeked to take an official class. I love those students! Sometimes they will send me extra films and articles they know I will love. I try to build upon their energy and let them share their knowledge and excitement with ten-minute class presentations. I also have to be careful to temper their geekdom because I must use the first third of the semester to go over the basics for my other students. Sometimes those students become interested fans, sometimes they don’t. And that’s okay. I always tell my students that even if they never read another book or watch another film, my job is to help them build their own critical framework. I help them think about how they see the world and teach them to critically analyze information – from a graduation speech to a cereal commercial – so they can make solid and informed decisions in their careers and personal life.

Another group of students I encounter are those who mistake the subject of the class for an opportunity to make an easy A. I remove that illusion quickly and I lose some students that way. Again, that is okay. But it’s the ones that decide to stay and make a go of it that are so surprising! As they begin to see the themes and patterns in the fiction, reading and incorporating the different criticisms, I can see the ideas starting to connect and the wheels beginning to turn, and halfway through the semester they begin making graduate-level insights into the literature and the films – that is why I love teaching!