women of colour in horror

All posts tagged women of colour in horror

Grace Hallworth and the Oral Traditions of Trinidadian Ghost Stories and Tall Tales

Published February 22, 2017 by rmpixie

Last year, I gained a new co-worker that turned out to be my sister from another mister. We share a lot of similar experiences, good and bad, and also a Trinidadian heritage. When computer glitches made us scream out in frustration, my lovely co-worker would stage whisper “Obeah!”, eliciting uncontrollable giggles from both of us. Obeah is a West Indian term for witchcraft and general supernatural trickery, often thrown into conversation in a West Indian household with a casual knowing, as if every little thing was explained by that one word.

When she brought me a book on folklore from Trinidad, I squealed! Entitled “Mouth Open Story Jump Out” (which basically means you feel free to gossip or tell tales), this book contains all the stories my mother and grandmother used to tell my sisters and I, either to scare us into good behaviour or just freak us out in general. I could once again read about “La Diablesse” or “The Suocouyant”; remembering how frightened I was when the women in my family would recount the “true” stories from the Trinidadian backwoods, otherwise known as “the bush”. This book inspired me to dedicate a post for Black History Month and Women in Horror Month to Grace Hallworth, a Trinidadian storyteller who carries on the tradition of the island’s folktale and ghost stories in both the written and spoken word.

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Hallworth, retired librarian, has a number of children’s books under her belt. Born in Trinidad and moving to England in 1956, her storytelling and writing would honour the tradition of Trinidadian folktales for decades. There isn’t a lot of information on her since she is senior and now resides in a retirement home northwest of London, but she is still active and celebrated within the storytelling community and a great reference for those in the children’s literature and academia world.

Storytelling is ingrained in our human DNA; from the beginning of civilization it has brought us together, connecting us and keeping our traditions and cultures alive through the spoken word, song, dance and pantomime.  It is an exercise in remembering ancestry, entertainment and community in one fell swoop.  In island culture, a simple gathering can result in stories about aunts, uncles, cousins and all the weird and wonderful things they encounter in ” Nancy” stories, a word spawned from the original tall tale figure Anansi, the trickster spider from West African tales.

The stories I remember most were the aforementioned “La Diablesse”, a hoofed woman who leads men astray and “The Suocouyant” an old woman who becomes a ball of light and sucks the blood of humans and animals. I thought about these ominous figures in an abstract way, in the same way a kid thinks about the devil or the boogeyman. These were our boogeymen, or women as the story goes. They were ours and everyone else’s it seems, as these phantoms went by other names across the world, like the Phillipines blood sucker The Aswang and the Succubus who keeps company with The Soucouyant, who in turn shares similarities with the Spook Lights featured in Eden Royce’s collections of Southern gothic horror. Even the Loup Garou, or werewolf, stays the same in France and the West Indies. It never occurred to me then how connected these tales were until I started to write about horror themes critically.

Before each set of stories, Hallworth writes a paragraph or two describing the traits of these entities in the chapter, giving a context to the oral tale. You can see a common thread with the spirits and demons that only makes sense since Trinidad and Tobago are like many Caribbean islands that have a long history of colonization. On top of the indigenous people of the islands, settlers from Europe, Africa, The United Kingdom, South Asia and China came in as well, so there is no wonder that some phantoms share the same traits as their originators back on their home shores.  It’s actually comforting to know that Hallworth worked to validate and document these folktales so that they could stand with their global counterparts in unity as they scare children worldwide.

Hallworth preserves regional dialect or patois, traditions and nostalgia as well as the tales themselves.  Some of the stories provide a moral like be careful what you wish for or living in harmony with the natural world, and some were just meant to scare the bejesus out of you.  It is a feat the can’t be done without some effort, but she takes these oral traditions and commits them to the page with an ease that makes me hear my mother and grandmother’s voices as I read the words. At the very least, it would be a treat to hear Hallworth herself recite these tales, as she will still do from time to time in the English libraries and schools even though she is reportedly in her late 80’s.

As kids become more sophisticated with electronics and adult life readily at their fingertips, it’s comforting to know this little book of Nancy stories persists on library shelves so the original monsters under the bed or at our windows don’t fade away.  I am grateful for Grace Hallworth because it is through her book that I remember my mother (my original woman in horror) and my heritage.  She is a storyteller, writer, children’s author and an honorary woman in horror for preserving these tales.

Grace Hallworth is a patron for The Society of Storytelling in the U.K. and has been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2016 and 2017.

For a list of all her books, check here.

Crazyhead’s Raquel: Susan Wokoma, Women in Horror and the Next Generation of Slayers

Published February 20, 2017 by rmpixie

crazyhead

Crazyhead (Netflix, 2016)

 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) was a phenomenon that continues to live on. A TV series spawned from the 1992 cult film, the fandom for a spunky high school student and her crew of friends as they battled vampires, demons and other supernatural fare while dealing with real issues knew no bounds, and new fans of her quest to save the world from creepy crawlies spring up even to this day.

Enter a new generation of shows that have found a home on Netflix. Here, writers and directors have the free reign to offer more than your local cable provider with shows like smash hits Stranger Things (2016), Luke Cage (2016), and Daredevil (2015). There’s also room and the desire for many international contributions as well, including the 2016 comedy horror from E4, Crazyhead.

Crazyhead is the story of Amy (Cara Theobold) and Raquel (Susan Wokoma), two young women who suffer from what doctors think is a mental illness. They see things – people with demonic faces – and are continually told that it’s all in their heads. When they meet one night after a frightening attack and realize they both see the same thing, they join forces to destroy these demons on earth. Raquel also has a special lineage that makes her of interest to the devilish clan, and along with Amy’s perverse puppy-dog of a friend Jake (Lewis Reeves), they go through some crazy hijinks to find answers and not get killed.

With this being Women in Horror and Black History Month, I must focus on British-Nigerian Susan Wokoma, the woman behind the off-the-hook Raquel. I first noticed her in hysterically funny and outrageous Chewing Gum (2015-2017) as the main character’s religious and fearful sister Cynthia. Her performance kept me laughing and cringing, and I was thrilled when I saw her in Crazyhead. Here, she once again kills with one liners and holds her own as the sharp-tongued and zero-filtered but vulnerable Raquel, who just wants to kick some demon ass and figure out life as a young woman with this unbelievable vocation. Wokoma breathes a vibrancy into the character that allows her to take up space and be present, even declaring at one point that she deserves better from Amy since she is a “strong, powerful black woman.” Even though Raquel has issues connecting with people and making friends, she has a great relationship with her patient brother Tyler (Arinzé Kene), full of playful jabs, sibling rivalry and lots of love. I also applaud the writer Howard Overman for making her confident in the way she looks and her space as an attractive black woman. Raquel gets “hers”, she is sexual, she is attractive and doesn’t look to others for validation, even though she may be looking for love. It is refreshing to see a black female character in a leading role own her sexuality in a healthy, non-stereotypical way like it was meant to be treated; like it always had a place at the table. North America should take note of this representation of female sexuality in general.

 

Her counterpart Amy is the perfect foil for her zany observations and plans with Amy’s voice of reason as a helpful, if ignored, counter argument for Raquel’s actions. Together they are a believable representation of young women in today’s world trying to carve out a space for themselves while dealing with the trials of being “normal”. This brings to light a couple of things: it shows how as a woman, your mental health is sometimes glossed over with medications and misunderstanding, and how once they found each other, Amy and Raquel’s bond strengthened their courage and belief in themselves. Although they have some rocky moments in their relationship, it is a real sisterhood.  In terms of mental illness, the title is a touch misleading as they are not actually mentally ill but battling supernatural forces.  They are however, at the mercy of either indifferent mental health professionals or ones that have an agenda.  Either way, this brings out how those living with mental illness may go mismanaged or pushed out of the medical system without much thought to their situation.

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Crazyhead is a comparable British counterpart to Buffy. It holds it’s own as a show, but it wouldn’t be here if Buffy hadn’t blazed a trail, and that’s ok. Joss Whedon paved the way for shows to push the envelope and have fun doing it.  Like Whedon, Crazyhead’s  writer and producer Howard Overman ensures that the dialogue is sharp and funny with a good amount of raunch, and thanks to the cast members, the delivery is on point.  He’s worn the same hats and worked his magic for The Adventures of Merlin (2008-2012), as well as being the creator for The Misfits (2009-2013), Atlantis (2013-2015), and the UK Dirk Gently (2010-2012). Each of these series has come in with a bang, created a huge following and left before they overstayed their welcome. I have complete confidence that Crazyhead will do the same and make a lasting memory in the world of #BlackGirlMagic as well as in the minds of horror comedy fans for years to come.

Crazyhead is streaming on Netflix now, so do yourself a favour and watch!

Sevdaliza’s “Human”: An Unlikely Woman in Horror

Published February 12, 2017 by rmpixie
sevdaliza

Sevdaliza in “Human”

 

 

A screenshot of a woman, her arms stretched out, intrigued me. She had piercing dark eyes, long black hair and was wearing an intricate, bejeweled bra-like contraption that left little to the imagination. “Can you click on that one?,” I asked the horror boyfriend as we cruised different music videos one snowy, Saturday night. And so, he did. What unfolded before my eyes took me down a rabbit hole to a world of danger, sensuality and speculation.

After the strong features of a woman flicker on the screen, a waiter, ebony-skinned, handsome but with an unsettling milky eye, pushes a loaded service tray down a grand hall. He arrives at a viewing gallery populated by well-dressed men. They watch, with a palpable expectancy, the dirt floor of an empty and grand arena below. A cloaked figure descends ornate stairs; it is a woman and she moves with a strong stride into the arena. The men sit stoical but the beads of perspiration betray their stony faces as she turns and slowly drops her cape, facing them. She wears only bejeweled cups covering her breasts and a bejeweled patch between her legs. She gazes back at them calmly, and the camera cuts back to show her full body profile. We see she has the legs of an animal. Strong, hooved legs hold up her body, complimenting her curves as she begins to undulate and sway. Her face is defiant and unsmiling as the men watch, her dance exuding a confidence that conveys fearlessness and sensuality.

Each of the men’s faces show something different in their barely-there expressions. Inklings of lust, fear and fascination play on their brows as the otherworldly woman sways and her jet-black hair swirls around her. She stops and stares back at them again, while the waiter seems to watch her as if he is waiting for a cue. She lowers her head, her eyes telling a story all at once: strength, rage, and again defiance. It is here that the video and the song end abruptly, leaving us wondering what will happen next.

The song that accompanies the video is called “Human”. The woman who sings it and performs in the video is Sevdaliza, an Iranian-born, Netherlands-based electronic artist who, while being somewhat new to the music scene, has blown up with her hypnotic sound. She works with producer Mucky and with 2 EPS out, will finally be releasing her album sometime this year.

With such a unique concept, I was struck by the fantasy-horror aspect right off the bat. While she has not claimed any allegiance to horror to my knowledge, she is an unlikely woman in horror with this tension building 3-minute clip. Her mythical character is very close to the Deer Woman, a Native American spirit who can be vengeful to men bearing ill intent to women. Her seductive dance is the last thing a corrupt man will see before she kills him.

This vision also struck me as an extremely important video for many reasons. First, I think some may find the video objectifies with this basically nude, fantastical woman dancing for an audience of men. I would argue that this is actually the opposite. She is strong, she is defiant and she is celebrating her body. I also embrace the implied horror that unfolds. To me, she is in league with the waiter as they exchange knowing looks at the very end. Perhaps she has lured them because of their wrong-doings and seeks to dole out her vengeance, much like the Deer Woman.  Perhaps they have elected to die by her hand, a penance for their evil past.

She includes a quote to accompany the video, “The basic human need to be watched was once satisfied by God.” It’s from a video game, Deus Ex based on a dystopian world made up of secret societies and artificial intelligence.  It’s a quote from Morpheus, a self-aware A.I. character, and goes on to end with, “Now, the same functionality can be replicated with data-mining algorithms.” Morpheus is apparently referring to the vanities of humans, and our need to dominate and control everything we touch.  Named after the Greek god of dreams who would bring messages to mortals from the gods, you can only speculate what Sevdaliza meant with this quote.  Is this dancer in a future world, created for the whims of these seemingly moneyed men for their male gaze and now she has a mind of her own? The theories are dizzying in their numbers, so one can only speculate.  At any rate, she looks like she is about to do some major damage to this gallery of patriarchy, but it is left up to our imaginations the ominous horror that awaits them.

The video was directed by Emmanuel Adjei, who works with Sevdaliza often. His beautiful vision is tinted with sepia tones and the visual effects are seamless-the stuff of feature films.  I would love to see what this dancer has planned, but the same time, I enjoy wanting more without a payoff. This is the crux of the clip. Everyone, from the waiter to the dancer, is waiting in intense anticipation for something, and it seems we will never know what. The desire that comes from the men, also comes from her. The difference is she isn’t afraid to show hers, embracing the animal half of herself.

The song itself is could be called an anthem for those suffering from the effect of current events. The words to the song are simple and effective:

I am flesh, bones

I am skin, soul

I am human

Nothing more than human

 

One could take the song as a plea for understanding or a rallying cry for the oppressed as they break through the chains of judgement.

The next stanza is intriguing:

It’s passing me by

Been in and out

And in front of my judgmental eyes

My precious disguise

Business so cold

Can’t cope with my own

How to not fail

In my interpretation, it appears she has become weary of hiding her true nature; tired of being seen as different or a thing and now seeking retaliation. It’s extremely telling of what could happen (and already is with all the protests and upheavals) if things continue to escalate within the U.S. political sphere. Sevdaliza, however, won’t reveal the meaning of her art, leaving it up to the viewer and listener to find their own truth.

Being Iranian, Sevdaliza has announced that she will not be travelling to the United States due to the political climate, and rightfully so. The travel ban will go down in history as yet another attempt for supremacy, and with it the call for a show of real humanity. Trump has shown his true colours, and it is evident minute by minute that he brings true terror.

With all the real world horror going on, this song comes at the right time and it couldn’t be more perfectly represented. What do you think? Does it objectify, divide, or show a woman’s strength despite her environment? Is she victim or victor? Was she a creation that has now gone rogue? You decide, because apparently there is no wrong answer in her eyes.

 

The video is up for an Edison Music Award (a Dutch music award) and you can find her at the following links:

http://www.sevdaliza.com/

https://www.facebook.com/sevdalizamusic

https://twitter.com/sevdaliza

http://emmanueladjei.com/

While researching mythologies from other cultures, I couldn’t find any other comparative deities or spirits from the Middle East aside from ancient Greek ones such as Pan and satyrs and the Native American Deer Woman.  Her legend is documented here;

And read my review of AKOÓ! that played at the ImagiNATIVE Film Festival 2016 for Cinema Axis. It features a similar mythical figure called the Caribou Woman that kills men who put women in danger here.

 

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