How the news media uses 'horror movie logic' to villainize people of colour
'Horror movies offer us our fears at their most primal, and nothing is more visceral than fear of the unknown'
Reading the news lately reminds me of horror movies — and not necessarily in the way you'd expect.
Because I'm a writer, I've trained myself to constantly concentrate on story, and how that story is crafted to produce a particular effect. In the case of horror movies, what is it that makes a good one so terrifying? What makes an audience really fear and hate the villain?
Horror movies work on a slightly different wavelength than other types of films. Antagonists in most movies require motivation, a backstory, a history that brings them into direct opposition with our hero. Horror movies, however, offer us our fears at their most primal — and nothing is more visceral than fear of the unknown. What was that indistinct blur that ran past the window? What's behind that door that just slammed? What's awaiting any of us after we take our last breaths? When we don't know, we can imagine anything — and our imaginations are often much more horrifying than reality.
The scariest horror movies give us villains without logic or personal history or complex inner lives. These monsters are absolute evil — a designation that necessarily requires simplistic rendering. Anything more complex risks sullying the film's precarious black-and-white logic with inconvenient shades of grey. Imagine if Alien focused on the feelings of the Xenomorph on the Nostromo. It's born in a strange place; it has no idea where its family is or what the intentions are of the strange creatures around it; it just wants to get back home. Suddenly, the Xenomorph is a lost, scared child instead of the epitome of unknown evil. Suddenly, Ripley killing it isn't as unquestionably heroic.
As long as news organizations send out journalists who know nothing about the communities they're covering, we will continue to see these same villainous characterizations.- Alicia Elliott
It seems to me that the mainstream media often looks at black people, Indigenous people and people of colour with horror movie logic. In these stories, white people are always the heroes — and those who aren't white are, by default, the villains. Just one example happened recently during a press conference with family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people in Ottawa. CBC reporter Julie Van Dusen asked Bawating Water Protector Candace Day Neveau whether she agreed with "most Canadians" that Justin Trudeau was "making an effort." Neveau replied by bringing up the crisis in Thunder Bay, where seven Indigenous people have been found dead in the city's waterways since 2000.
There were many ways Van Dusen could have responded that would have acknowledged that Neveau, a young Indigenous woman, is a person whose life is directly impacted by Trudeau's policies, that she was in Ottawa for that reason and that her opinions on Trudeau's actions (or lack thereof) were valid. Instead, Van Dusen went with a series of questions meant to undermine Neveau: "How can he be blamed for that? You don't think anything he's doing is helping the situation? Is he an improvement over Stephen Harper? Talk about his record." When Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail and Sophie McKeown stepped in to point out how tone deaf that question was, Van Dusen didn't apologize. She defended herself and attempted to speak over Indigenous elders, demanding they "answer the question." Horror movie logic: these angry Cree women are irrational monsters heartlessly attacking the hero, a nice white woman just doing her job. They must be taken down.
Of course, these women aren't monsters. Some of them are family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Some of them are water protectors. Wabano-Iahtail's cousin's son Marlan Chookomolin was killed in Thunder Bay two days before the press conference. Why were these people in mourning being grilled as if they were criminals? Why were they characterized in editorials as "racist" for directly addressing and articulating the unacknowledged white supremacy in these reporters' coverage? Who is being depicted as the hero here — and who the monster?
There are countless others examples. In a recent article outlining Jonathan Shime's closing arguments in the Andrew Loku inquest, the Canadian Press refered to Loku, a black man in the midst of a mental health crisis when he was fatally shot by police, as a "hammer-wielding man." Horror movie logic: evil, violent villain comes at police with a hammer for no reason whatsoever. We can't afford context. He must be taken down.
Last August, CBC Saskatoon decided the killing of Colten Boushie by farmer Gerard Stanley was as good a reason as any to post an article outlining farmers' rights when it comes to protecting their property. This was published while very little was known about the case, as the article admits — yet the piece was still posted, swaying public opinion by comparing Boushie to an unknown man who invaded a woman's house in Saskatoon, threatening her and her children. Horror movie logic: this murder victim is not a "victim" at all; he's actually a violent home invader straight out of your worst nightmares. He must be taken down.
I understand why horror movies exploit fear of the unknown, why they refuse to give details that risk making a monstrous villain into a sympathetic character...But it is not — and should never be — the job of the news.- Alicia Elliott
It's clear that mainstream media outlets, post-Appropriation Prize, still struggle with how to cover the issues of those who are not white. They don't even know how to ask questions without making those they interview feel the need to assert their basic humanity, as McKeown did.
As long as news organizations send out journalists who know nothing about the communities they're covering, the history that they are stepping into and the ways communities of colour feel when even their tragedies get twisted into reasons to continue to demonize them, we will continue to see these same villainous characterizations. We will continue to see horror movie-style news coverage used to treat those who aren't white as unreasonable, evil villains instead of human beings with histories, families, communities. We will continue to see national news organizations give airtime to men who believe paying for Indigenous scalps was justified, instead of the Indigenous people whose ancestors were victims of those policies — something that happened just last week, when CBC News' Power and Politics invited Proud Boys co-founder Gavin McInnes onto the show to defend the white supremacist group's disrupting of Mi'kmaq ceremony. We will continue to see white Canadians use absurd justifications for the killings of Andrew Loku, Colten Boushie, Stacy DeBungee, Cindy Gladue, Barbara Kentner, Pierre Coriolan and so many more, showing as little remorse for their deaths as they would watching Xenomorphs gunned down by Ellen Ripley in Alien.
I understand why horror movies exploit fear of the unknown, why they refuse to give details that risk making a monstrous villain into a sympathetic character, perhaps even a hero. That wouldn't work for the genre. The job of a horror movie is, after all, to scare.
But that is not — and should never be — the job of the news.