Halloween’s arrival in cinemas is a brilliant reminder that Jamie Lee Curtis is the ultimate scream queen. The label is an apt one for Curtis, who has starred in more than a few horror films since making her debut in John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher film. Having played Laurie Strode multiple times in the Halloween franchise, the actor cemented her status with roles in The Fog, Terror Train and Prom Night in the 1980s. However, as audiences welcome Michael Myers’ survivor sister back to the silver screen one can’t help but notice the lack of women of colour able to pick up Curtis’ mantle.
It’s clear enough that mainstream horror has long been white-dominated, with ethnic minority characters confined to playing the supporting roles. In recent years, with the resurgence of the genre, that hasn’t changed much. Get Out might have been a brilliant step forward for diverse representation in 2017 but a year on, white-led films like Hereditary, Slender Man, The Strangers: Prey at Night, Mandy, Unsane, The Little Stranger, Truth or Dare, Apostle and A Quiet Place are still very much the norm.
The new generation of 21st-century scream queens are also near-universally white. There’s Vera Farmiga, who plays The Conjuring’s paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (as well as roles in Orphan and the Psycho prequel TV series Bates Motel). Her younger sister Taissa joined the Conjuring universe in this year’s The Nun, after earning her horror stripes in The Final Girls, Mindscape and multiple seasons of FX’s American Horror Story. Lulu Wilson is one of the youngest scream queens out there after appearing in Annabelle: Creation, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Deliver Us from Evil and The Haunting of Hill House.
Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split), Maika Monroe (The Guest, It Follows) and Chloe Grace Moretz (Let Me in, Carrie, Suspiria) are all members of this exclusive club and I could list 50 more; but if you’d asked me to name a female actor of colour who has featured as a lead in more than one horror movie I’d struggle to name any.
Jennifer Lopez qualifies, sort of, for Anaconda and The Cell: Betty Gabriel has had roles in The Purge: Election Year, Unfriended: Dark Web, Get Out and Upgrade — but they are supporting not leads, so it doesn’t exactly place her on an equal footing.
In general, mainstream horrors with an ethnic minority lead tend to focus on the social and political horrors of real life. George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead started this with the film’s black lead, Ben, being mistaken for a zombie by a white mob, while the Candyman series touched on discrimination against interracial couples. This year’s The First Purge bluntly examines the terrifying condition of being poor, black or brown in a white, gun-loving America, while Get Out highlights how scary it is to be a black person no matter how ostensibly friendly an environment they are in.
It’s certainly important that these films are showing a diverse range of storytelling, as well as offering opportunities for diverse film-makers and actors, but it’s just as vital that ethnic minorities play roles that aren’t defined by their skin colour. Laurie Strode could have easily been played by a black, Arab or Asian actor without it changing anything about her characterisation or narrative journey. That’s the thing about representation: it needs to ensure that people aren’t pigeonholed into stereotypical roles defined by their race, gender or sexuality but rather it allows them to play the same superheroes, action stars, romantic leads or scream queens as their white counterparts.
There’s no reason why there isn’t a string of non-white actors leading horror movies other than industry gatekeepers being uninterested in giving them the opportunity. Or maybe it’s because they are under the mistaken belief that ethnic minority actors aren’t there or interested. Modern horror supremo Jason Blum was called out recently for suggesting there was a shortage of female directors wanting to make horror movies when really there are plenty. Just like there are plenty of ethnic minority actors out there ready to follow in Jamie Lee Curtis’s footsteps.
She will forever be an icon of the horror genre but after 40 years it’s time for a new generation of scream queens of colour to hit the silver screen.