I rarely watch a horror movie without mulling over what was going on in the screenwriter's head when he or she wrote the dialogue. Luckily, I know one that is readily available to answer all of my inquiries. John Doolan is an individual who has been heavily involved within the film industry for years, both in front of and behind the camera. John's screenwriting credits include Remains, Dead Souls, Wishin' and Hopin' (as seen on Lifetime) and Deep in the Darkness (which can be seen on Chiller TV). Knowing my interest in feminism and horror, John graciously allowed me to interview him, and gave me permission to share his responses to my burning feminist questions. John also allows me to barrage him with requests of being written in as a werewolf in one of his films; dream big, right? The following are a series of questions I asked in italics, with John's responses below.
As Kier-La Janisse states in her book The House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, Cinema is full of neurotic personalities; but few things are transfixing as a woman losing her mind onscreen; the horror genres seem to be the most welcoming platform for that. What are your thoughts on that? What made you write your female characters differently?
I feel like that was extremely prevalent during the 70's period horror films; like the early slashers "Black Christmas" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Where now we refer to the leads in slashers as "final girls;" these early ones are commonly known in the horror community as "survivor girls." They're rather passive and make it to the end almost purely by coincidence, and not because they fought back. A lot of people think the "losing their mind" aspect was a sign of weakness to the female, but I truly believe filmmakers back then were more interested in just showing realistic events. When someone is put through such a traumatizing experience as these characters, there's going to be a residual repercussion. Do I think they went a little overboard and exaggerated these parts? Absolutely, but more so for dramatic effect. Because that can be read as completely sexist and a weakening of the female character, I like to write my female leads with a purpose. They're proactive, which I think is a result of my childhood being populated by the 80's slashers where the lead character learned how to fight and kick ass.
What influenced the casting decision of the interracial couple in "Deep in the Darkness?" I thought that the decision to have a strong MOC (man of color) protagonist that is a Medical Doctor and survives until the end was a phenomenal choice, as that is so rarely seen in horror films these days.
Deep in the Darkness is based on a novel that features a white family as opposed to the interracial one that we have in the film. During very early stages of development, we had a man of color actor we had worked with previously interested in the lead, so we planned on making the entire family people of color. But the more we delved into adapting the story for the screen, which depicts a Doctor moving to a strange backwoods town with a secret, the more we were drawn to the extra layer of him not only being treated differently as an outsider, but because he was the only person of color they'd ever encountered. The actor originally lined up ended up not being able to do it, but this was after we had already established this extra layer, so we purposely went after other great people of color actors who seemed right for the role. The choice to make his wife white was made to beef up the loneliness and abandonment he felt in the town once she started fitting in with the locals and he was still this outsider. It brought a deeper level to the story and the character's struggle.
What do you think about the excessive nudity and violent deaths of female characters that stray from the patriarchal idea in the slasher aspect of the horror genre?
The demographic for most horror films has been found to lean towards more males, which explains excessive nudity being prevalent in slasher films. But to be fair, those are the kind of slasher films that will be forgotten about weeks after they're released. They're exploitation garbage that exist solely to showcase nudity and violence. However, the ones we remember, such as Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, etc, are very low on the nudity and violence, and tend to treat their female and male characters in similar fashion. It's an absolute shame that the cheap cash-ins have to exist and soil the reputation of the slasher genre as a whole, but I have faith that anyone above adolescent age watching them will be able to see through the smoke and mirrors and realize it's trash.
What are your thoughts on women that stray from typical gender roles, and therefore "scare" men becoming monsters in horror films? Is there truly nothing more terrifying than a vagina?
Listen, I think it comes as no surprise that most men are completely oblivious to the wants and needs of a woman. They're this enigma that we never quite crack, so when a film depicts a woman scaring a man, it's a representation of some deep-rooted fear in the male psyche. We're never quite sure what a woman is capable of. As someone who grew up in a house full of women, I'd like to think I have more of an understanding than the average male, but your run of the mill guy on the street is intimated and frightened when he discovers that not every girl is this delicate flower.
What are some of your favorite female horror film characters and why?
I think most people can agree that the number one horror female is Ripley in the original Alien. Because the character was originally written as a male, there's never a mention of the fact that she's a woman, nor is she ever unjustly sexualized, which is the way it should be. You don't have to be told in the film, "Hey look, even though she's a woman, she's still a badass!" She just IS one. I'm almost positive I've heard that at one point, all the characters were written with no specific gender in mind and it truly shows in that film. Even Lambert, Veronica Cartwright's character, is a great representation of what we need more in horror films.
In your opinion, what are some horror films with a feminist leaning and why?
There are a couple films in recent memory that stick out to me as having a feminist leaning. The most well-known would probably have to be Ginger Snaps. It was written by a very talented female screenwriter and captures a time and a relationship in many girls' lives that even the most gifted male screenwriter wouldn't be able to full wrap his head around. It never belittles the female characters and their motivations and actions are never false. I think Jennifer's Body, also written by a great female screenwriter and directed by a woman, fits right next to it. It boggles my mind when I meet women in the film industry who say they refuse to watch it because "Megan Fox is a slut" or "that movie exists just to show two girls kissing." Anyone who thinks either of those things is doing themselves a complete disservice.
Women of color have traditionally died very violent deaths in horror films, and rarely have starring roles. Do you think this is a reflection on racism that has permeated through society? What can the horror industry do to change this?
I feel like, even outside of the horror genre, this is a constant problem within the film industry. The powers that be are just not giving people of color enough strong roles. I do believe it is a product of residual racism in the industry. I can list quite a few horror films off the top of my head that feature predominantly people of color casts, so they do exist. However, they are few and far between, and usually have minuscule budgets, resulting in them overall being weak films. People of color make up a huge part horror movie audiences, so I'm kind of baffled how not a lot of filmmakers or studios have taken advantage of that and produced more well-made and intelligent horror featuring leading people of color characters.
What advice do you have for women who are aspiring to be horror screenwriters?
It's no secret that film is traditionally a boys club, and there's a severe lack of women in any kind of top of the line positions such as directing and screenwriting. I have a couple pieces of advice. First off, write what you know. Simply put, no one knows the inner-workings of strong female characters, quite like a woman. Create these great, well rounded and interesting characters within a strong narrative and stand out. My second piece of advice is to not let the fact that it's a male dominated industry detour you, or automatically put you in a negative mindset. I've worked in many aspects of filmmaking. The women that strive and get treated equally are the ones who put all their efforts into doing a good job. There are plenty of men in this industry that will absolutely automatically assume you are incompetent, or not right for the job because of your gender. It's a tough business and assholes exist everywhere. But let that fuel your fire even more to prove them all wrong.