2020 Film Essays

Why Criticism: Dismantling the Boys’ Club in Horror

“Why Criticism” is a film criticism-themed Vague Visages column featuring various contributors.

Horror has always had a representation problem, in spite of its long-held reputation as a sanctuary for the freaks and weirdoes of the world. For far too long, the same group of straight, white men has ruled the roost, but finally (and mercifully) their empire is beginning to crumble. 

Over the past few months alone, beloved horror host Joe Bob Briggs has been accused of blatant homophobia and racism, podcaster and producer Rob Galluzzo was accused of rampant sexual harassment, legendary magazine Fangoria has come under fire for its association with right-wing movie studio Cinestate — which also allegedly covered up a pattern of sexual assault within its own ranks (the two entities have since parted ways) — and, in the midst of the biggest surge of support for the Black Lives Matter movement in many people’s lifetimes, Black female filmmaker Nia DaCosta’s name was taken off her own movie by Dread Central, one of the biggest horror sites in the world. 

In stark contrast to what’s happened in years past, each of these events was met with widespread outrage and derision from the horror community, particularly from women, with icons of the genre such as Barbara Crampton taking a public stand against them. Horror is a boys’ club, no two ways about it, and those of us who don’t fit the demographic have found clever ways to infiltrate it (like, say, going by a boyish nickname rather than our full, girly names) so we can get a foot in the door. But, lately, there’s been a real push to make this fucked-up little genre more accessible for everybody. There’s a sense that, finally, enough is enough, and that the more straight, white men who let us down — as horror fans, filmmakers and journalists alike — won’t be allowed to continue running the show (as though we weren’t sick of them already). 

Naturally, there’s also been pushback. Briggs doubled down on his so-called persona and all it entails, rather than opening himself up to listen and reassess his approach on a platform watched by millions of impressionable young people. Briggs still has legions of fans who tune in to his Shudder show The Last Drive-In and happily tweet along each week. However, it’s worth noting that reviewers covering the streaming giant’s recent release Scare Package — a horror anthology boasting the talents of female filmmakers and POC, among others — were asked not to spoil Briggs’ cameo ahead of its release. Maybe Shudder was simply safeguarding the surprise, but there’s also a sense that they knew the controversial horror host’s involvement would put certain fans off watching (I certainly, well, shuddered when he appeared onscreen). Galluzzo, meanwhile, offered the classic no-apology apology against, it was later revealed, the advice of one of his alleged victims. His Twitter account still has more than 10 thousand followers, with many of them being prominent men in the horror community. 

Back in the day, the focus was solely on finding a safe space in a hostile environment because we had no other choice but to force our way in. Now, it’s all about dismantling the boys’ club entirely and recreating it in our own image (there are several funny Twitter memes depicting female figures worshipping dark forces and making sacrifices that give a heightened idea of what this might look like in practice). Just a week ago, a Twitter user asked respondents to post photos of themselves to show an ignorant male journalist, who allegedly told a female filmmaker midway through an interview about her upcoming movie that she didn’t look like a horror fan, what they actually look like. The replies were overwhelmingly from women, non-binary, POC and queer folk.

As a bisexual woman myself, I’ve consistently faced criticism over my supposed worthiness to write predominantly about horror movies. Immediately following a recent documentary interview, a male friend gleefully pointed out how I’d mixed up the directors Brian De Palma and Brian Yuzna during the conversation. This man, who sees himself as a woke, liberal type, and for the most part is, felt the need to put me back in my box because, in his eyes, I’d been gifted an opportunity that should’ve gone to a man — or, to him, a lifelong horror fan who “deserved” it more than I did. The main reason I write about horror movies, aside from having a deep and abiding love for them, is that I have a perspective unique to me. But, for certain men, that’s not enough. I have to pass their stringent tests to prove myself as a “true” fan.

Horror has long been a beacon for outsiders. Similar to videogames, though, there’s always been an underlying feeling that only men are actually allowed to join the club. And, if women or other marginalized people attempt to gain entry, minor technicalities will soon get them ejected (like, for example, so-called ethics in videogame journalism). 

Film criticism desperately needs more voices, particularly from more varied backgrounds. Rotten Tomatoes recently took major steps towards including more women and POC critics in its ranks, which was a welcome move from the reviews aggregator that will hopefully change the landscape for the better in the long run. Plainly speaking, if the same straight white dudes continue to be the only ones covering movies, then film criticism will be stuck in an endless loop of the same boring takes (the pivot to video will finally make sense). But, when it comes to horror, it’s downright absurd to allow only the same tiny group of identikit writers to contribute their thoughts, especially considering they continually let us all down. As producer and horror warrior Heather Buckley recently wrote on Twitter, there have always been female horror fans, even if the gatekeepers refuse to acknowledge them. Lifting up female, POC and queer voices only makes film criticism richer in the same way giving marginalized filmmakers more opportunities to showcase their talents has gifted us so many fascinating horror movies in just the past few years alone. Hell, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman reboot-quel is one of the most anticipated horror movies of the year due to its skin-crawling trailer.

Most of us non-male writers have had to hide our identities just to get noticed, but — now that the tide is finally turning in our favor — nothing is going to force us to leave. We’re prouder than ever because we finally believe our voices are valued, and vital to the ongoing success of the genre. Ordinarily, I’d be writing this kind of essay to complain about the lack of representation while desperately calling for things to change, shouting into the void as it were. But, for the first time in all the years I’ve been writing about movies, it genuinely feels like there’s been a major shift in the conversation and that the majority of horror fans are finally fighting back against perceived injustices in the community. In fact, just a couple weeks ago, a former male colleague made contact to apologize for his previous behavior towards me, at a horror site we both contributed to at the time. It genuinely shocked me, but in a wonderful, life-affirming way. Hopefully, other men are realizing that things need to change and are not just accepting but actively encouraging it, too. After all, the horror genre is messy, emotional, multifaceted and often challenging, so why shouldn’t the people who write about it reflect that reality?

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.