R. Shanea Williams
By Ashlee Blackwell
“Take horror from these white boys.”
Actress Elizabeth Olsen once said this to the New York City-based filmmaker, R. Shanea Williams, who later relayed this simple yet profound gem of encouragement to me as an assertion. The momentum we both needed when moments hit us like lone survivors on an island, trying to keep our spirits alive in the midst of hopeless productivity. Hearing it a second time from Williams as our conversations approached similar topics, I wrote this down in my notepad so I wouldn’t forget. I remember her ever-bubbly yet perplexed reaction to this. I tend to let negativity overwhelm my sensible self, so writing down a need, an action—a pretty bold one at that—is necessary for my sanity. If I didn’t write it, my thoughts would default when days aren’t going so well. This mirrors, to an extent, my passion about the deeper struggle for visibility as Black women in horror. A space where Williams has decided to infuse her concerns as a filmmaker.
Williams is an award-winning filmmaker from Willimantic, Connecticut and Petersburg, Virginia whose gateway horror film was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). She has a Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Virginia and an MFA in Screenwriting from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She’s been a part of multiple, prestigious screenplay competitions from Slamdance to Urbanworld Film Festival, and co-wrote the 2019 Sundance selection Suicide By Sunlight.
Her short, Paralysis (2016), is a foundational signal for the nightmares she’s bound to conjure. The film is about a photographer named Jessica (Nia Fairweather) suffering from a sleep disorder who begins to experience strange occurrences in her apartment, blurring her perceptions of reality and the supernatural. Much like Williams' previous effort, Contamination (2013), Jessica’s isolation is the strength of the narrative we're more prone to seclusion, do we fear the repercussions of our tender sanity? If we are revived by immeasurable stimulation, how much is too much before we wonder if being alone is necessary or desirable? Is it all in her/our head? Or is there something otherworldly trying her emotional delicacy? These questions lead to more inner-discourse about our abilities to withstand and conceptualize loneliness and how much that plays into who we are and who we have been. And will our thoughts become our complete undoing?
To say that Williams has a gift for distinct, purposeful vision is an understatement. A criminally underrated artist who has no intent on playing it safe, I am personally drawn to Williams’ work because of her inspiring persistence alongside the inescapable imagery she lays down from paper to screen.
This interview took place at a Midtown deli in New York City, New York on May 19, 2017.
I love how you discuss psychological horror from the approach of both the foundational questions storytellers utilize like the, ‘is this person going crazy?’ or ‘is something supernatural happening around them?’ and your marriage of both. I find that ambiguity much more frightening.
You said, “I always wanted to write about mental illness in the black community because it’s a subject that is still taboo.” Another taboo could be argued is the horror genre itself. What pushes you towards combining these two things and what keeps you motivated?
This is what I think about every single day of my life! So starting from the horror element itself, as I started to really study the genre and became very entrenched with psychological horror and supernatural horror specifically, those are my favorite genres in horror. With psychological horror, it was really interesting to always see that it always starts with the question of sanity. Whether it’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or Repulsion (1965) or any number of psychological horror films, that question of sanity is always at the very beginning. It’s always something that this character is struggling with and I feel like when it comes to that, there’s so much depth that can be mined.
I feel like sometimes when we think about the true fear itself, it is what we’re thinking, what we’re imagining, what we’re not seeing and so I thought that that was just fascinating. I also, you have said, mental illness has always been kind of a through line, and I didn’t really realize that until I really started getting very serious about my writing and my vision. And I found that became a vessel for me. It felt like they were meant to merge in this unique way for me to tell specific stories that I wanted to tell.
I think it’s a great vehicle in a way to discuss mental health and mental illness because I feel like you’re getting an opportunity to kind of see in a more horrifying way what people go through who do suffer with mental illness. I just feel like when I made Contamination, I didn’t even think about it being a genre film at all. I just wrote it almost as a drama. I didn’t realize how dark it was until we started shooting it and editing it and suddenly watching the first edit, I was like, “Oh my God, this is really scary.” And my editor at that time had said, “You actually kind of made a thriller. You didn’t really make this drama you thought you were making.” And I think that’s where it really, really set in for me how horrifying aspects of mental illness can be for people and specifically, people who find themselves isolated and their minds start to unravel in unusual ways.
Also thinking about the movie Sunset Boulevard (1950) for some reason is coming to me but, that’s one of my favorite films of all time. It’s not a horror film, but it could’ve easily been a gothic horror film because I feel like Norma Desmond’s character, her idea of herself, the delusion of herself, the way in which she just kind of fills her whole entire mind with that space of the mansion, I found that to be horrifying. And I think that that’s why so much of what I’ve written deals with isolation as well. It’s not just the mental health issue, it’s also the isolation and what grows out of that.
Is that the easiest explanation of your definition of horror?
I mean the simplest thing you can actually say to define horror is what frightens someone. What keeps someone up at night, what the reason we have to keep the light on instead of turning it off. As a genre, I mean, I find it to be so broad that it’s almost hard to pigeon hole the way people kind of do. That’s where my frustration lies with the outsiders of the genre. People who don’t really understand what it can offer. But yeah, I define horror as the exploration of fear and why we fear what we fear.
Talk us through your evolution of writing narratives.
I started writing really early in my life. When I first started to write screenplays on my word processor, now that I’m aging myself, this is long before the laptop existed in the real way that you could afford. I was writing high school girls who were always awkward and struggling with meeting guys, attaining goals, dreams, I mean the stories were very surface level at that point. I’m sure there was some depth there that I was trying to mine but they were very typical high school dramas just starring Black girls.
And then the ‘hood genre came along and I thought, “Oh, maybe I should write something like Poetic Justice”. That didn’t go over very well ‘cause it didn’t feel authentic to me personally. I realized I was never going to be a writer who could just write anything. I had to feel some connection to it. So before I even got into the horror genre, I was always writing about myself and changing the person’s name. A really fanciful version of myself, I guess.
Digging into horror, do you think your Black women characters present a way in which audience members can understand the realities of Black women and their ‘horror’?
I would hope so, I mean, I think that’s the uniqueness of centering a film around a person who’s always de-centered, right? Is that you have an opportunity to kind of get inside a world that you rarely get to tap into. I mean you were at the Black Star Film Festival with me. Our film screened very unassumingly because no one knew what it was. They had so many films before this film and then you were immediately in this world with Paralysis and from what I gathered, and to answer this question, I do think that it took on a different form for people because they never seen anything like this.
This is a Black woman really dealing with a horrifying reality. And I found that everyone in that room was with her and related in some way to what was happening to her and not knowing what would happen because they’ve never seen anything quite like it. They didn’t know where it was going. So yeah, I do think there’s something very centralized and specific.
Continuing on this path, I just want to keep creating really exciting Black female characters. Having opportunities to see them in a variety of stories. But for me the development aspect of it is that it always has to come from an honest and personal place in some way. And just exploring the way we slay the demons, the way we fight back, the way we handle the dark.
I’ve always kind of laughed at, I don’t know, how you would make a slasher film with an all-black cast. For example, if Jamie Lee Curtis’ character Laurie in Halloween (1978) was Black, there’s going to be a different type of story I think, right? Because culturally there are different things that we respond to and how we respond to them. I’ve actually thought about, early on, if I ever attempted horror, how could I make this honest? Black folks just ain’t gonna do as they say, that running in the woods stuff. You almost have to make it where there is no choice for us. I find that as a culture, we hear this every day. Just being Black is its own horror movie.
Everyday there’s a real fear that we might not get home. So we don’t go looking for trouble. That’s something very specific I always think about when I’m writing my characters because there’s things culturally, and I’m not saying everybody, that we don’t tamper with or jump into. So this idea of the typical slasher film where the guys breaks into the house and the girl runs upstairs, we’re not running upstairs. I know I’m saying this jokingly, but I do find that we respond to things differently because we’ve had different experiences. So the slasher genre, to do it in a way that would be really interesting for us, you’d almost have to find a way to deconstruct the genre, then reconstruct it.
Sort of like, with Get Out?
The way Jordan Peele was able to use some of the tropes, but also turning them on their head to make it feel like, ‘Yeah, this brotha would end up going through this’. With a Black audience, I feel like we kind of live on survival mode. The challenge of writing Black characters in certain aspects of this genre is making a Black audience believe the experience.
A lot of Black people will tell you that they live a horror movie on a day to day basis. Even at their job, the micro-aggressions and everything so our response to things, our survival tactics are different and unique. That’s why I think it would be interesting to explore. I hope somebody makes a really dope slasher film with a Black female protagonist. Because I feel like if they do it right, it might transform the genre itself.
What are your goals in regards to making horror films? Do you want to work independent of the Hollywood studio system, within it, or both?
I would like to continue to work independently as a filmmaker, but being able to sustain myself doing that. That’s part of what makes it tricky. I always say the only way I end up with Hollywood is if they came calling me because I need to be able to create on my own terms. I feel like there’s where the mainstream visibility lies and we definitely need more mainstream visibility. So I’m not opposed to it, but I still want to be able to be a unique visionary. Sure, Hollywood give me the money and I’ll will make the dopest, freaking horror movie ever.
In regard to these goals, what have been some of the challenges you’ve faced trying to create a film in general, a horror film specifically, and both as a Black woman if any?
There’s definitely challenges. Challenge number one is always financing. That’s in everything, that’s in all three of my questions you asked me. What makes it more challenging when you’re trying to finance horror or genre is that, horror is always seen as the ugly stepchild of cinema, which I hope will change soon. People just tend to run from the genre itself.
It’s been marked by the idea that it’s only gore, that it’s only torture, that it’s only this one thing. And there’s wrong with those things but I feel like people just box it in way that’s really, really unfair in comparison to how other genres can be equally terrible.
I just want to reiterate that I find that we need to continue to stretch our classification of horror’s subgenre’s. I find that my films specifically don’t really fit into a category in that way. Even my feature film now, I mean, there’s definitely elements of horror, there’s elements of thriller, there’s elements of psycho-drama. As a filmmaker, I just want to keep pushing genre period. Horror has always been my way in, but I just want to push the boundaries of genre itself. And I want to use horror as my vehicle because I find it to be the most fascinating genre out of all film. There’s so much you can do, there’s so many things you can say in so many unique ways.
The greatest challenge is for someone to believe that my story, that just happens to be a horror story, has real value and great storytelling and something worthy of investing in. And of course as Black woman, I mean, the deck is just so stacked. Women in general as filmmakers make up like, I don’t know, 2% of Hollywood and then I mean, there’s several independent filmmakers that are Black women or women of color, even white who are struggling to get their films made. And then being a Black woman who wants to make horror films, I mean, I guess I’m just crazy.
I just hope that that is changing but I think it’s difficult for people to take horror seriously. That it can have prestige, can be just as critically acclaimed and masterfully directed or written just as any other genre. That’s why I’m such a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) because I felt like this is a great film regardless. Like there’s just a masterfully directed film and the acting was brilliant. I would just love to see Black horror films be taken that seriously. And I think that we can. I’m going to be doing everything I can to make that happen.
Why do you think there has historically been little to essentially no widely known Black women filmmakers who have produced a horror film for a major or well-known, independent studio?
I think it goes into how many Black women have produced or directed a film period for Hollywood. I mean, you can probably just name Julie Dash and Darnell Martin. Those are the first two names that come to mind. More recently, we have Ava Duvernay, but like I find that in general, just allowing Black women to take the lead on these Hollywood projects has been little to none. You know, and that always has bothered me and kind of scared me because I’ve always said, there’s so many Black women that have just made one film.
It’s usually independent, but I’ve seen just that one film and then nothing else. And I’m like, “How do we get past that? What happens to them? What happens to their career? Are they unable to get financing after that one film? Are they trying to make something bigger and no one believes that people would want to see it?” I don’t know, but it just seems like it’s been challenging for so long to just get the second film made. Thankfully, you know, Kasi Lemmons has been able to do that. Ava has been able to do that. Dee Rees has been able to do that. No one’s giving opportunities to us to helm films in general and horror specifically. It frustrates me to no end because I want to see a major film helmed by a Black woman. It’s so difficult to just get recognition, to get people to trust that you have a vision, and that you can execute that vision properly. It’s one of the most frustrating things, I think.
What are some of the easiest explanations for this frustration?
People hire who they know and people hire their friends and people who look like them. Stories that they relate to where they see themselves in are greenlit. But they have to understand that we want to see ourselves in stuff too.
What are some examples today of this model shifting to balance in favor of women of color?
The beauty of a show like Queen Sugar. Ava was able to find so many incredible women of color to direct this show. She has totally proven Hollywood wrong in that way. Yes, we are here, we exist, and we can direct, and maybe that will start opening the floodgates for other opportunities in film, not only TV.
We shall see. I will continue on this path to make feature films, horror films, and genre pushing films centering Black women and I’m not giving up on that.
Who would you like to work with?
There are like a bunch of amazingly talented Black female actors who I think would be fantastic in this genre. I would absolutely love to work with Angela Bassett, Nicole Beharie, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Rachel True, Lorraine Toussaint, Aisha Hinds, Debbi Morgan, especially after her performance as Mozelle in 1997’s Eve’s Bayou. I feel like Mozelle could have had her own movie. These are definitely women who I think would be just fantastic to work with.
And just a side note, I would love to see more Afro-Latina women, or just Latina women in general in this genre. I’ve often thought about adding Latina women to my own projects and seeing them in full form. I would love to see Lisa Vidal and one of my favorites, Luna Lauren Vélez. There’s a lot of fantastic women of color out there who I would love, love to work with.
Hopefully, the dream will become reality.
Ashlee Blackwell saw A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master when she was seven years old, forever cementing her love for horror films and detailed interest in women’s roles within the genre. In particular, the on-screen depiction of a Black, nerdy teenaged girl in the film was something truly rare. Ashlee saw this as a reflection of herself, and both the character and her impact became the seed for Ashlee’s later scholarly work. She created Graveyard Shift Sisters, which doubles as an educational resource and critical journal that chronicles the history and present work of Black women in the horror genre to undo the marginalization of their creative voice within this space. This work led to co-writer and producer credit for the critically-acclaimed documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror on the streaming service Shudder, under the AMC Networks umbrella. When she’s not trying to develop new knowledge for the Black horror renaissance, she knits while listening to stand-up comedians discuss current events. She currently resides in Philadelphia with an ever-growing collection of books and Blu-ray’s.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.