“Reclamations of Ourselves”: Ritual, Horror, and the Erotic in the work of Audre’s Revenge and Monika Estrella Negra
In 2016, Ashlee Blackwell of Graveyard Shift Sisters introduced me to the work of Audre’s Revenge, a film collective that foregrounds the voices and visions of queer, trans, intersex, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (QTIBIPoC). Co-founder Monika Estrella Negra and Audre’s Revenge’s films highlight a specific type of do-it-yourself ideology: if you want to see yourself, your identity, and your experiences represented in horror films, then make the art you want that represents you, and do it authentically. This approach is necessary in order for many of us to claim space within the horror genre as creators, fans, and scholars. Audre’s Revenge specifically addresses the intersections of identity that are frequently overlooked by horror. Ultimately, they unsettle the dominant paradigms of horror that operate on erasure and reductive stereotypes by reclaiming spiritual traditions and the power of the erotic.
When I first watched Negra’s Flesh (2016)*, I was enamored with the vibrant racially diverse and queer community represented and the film’s punk aesthetic. In my subsequent viewings though, it is the visual language of ritual magic that has stuck with me. In a recent conversation with Negra, she discusses that the use of rituals for healing in her films demonstrate “a reclamation of traditional African spiritual practices amongst Millennial Black Queer folk.”** According to Negra, the inclusion of ritual is a deliberate call to historical racism that criminalized and punished traditional spiritual practices. Those spiritual traditions often became prominent plot devices in early horror films such as White Zombie (1932), furthering mystifying, villainizing, and Othering not only the practices but also people who are Black and Indigenous. In Flesh, Rae’s (Ester Matthews Alegria) engagement in ritual sacrifice is a way of paying “homage to all the horror movies of the past that are stripping brains,” and Rae’s ritual is a way of flipping that traditional script and “adding context as to why that type of drastic action was needed.”
The invocation of power through ritual is at the heart of the work of Audre’s Revenge, and those rituals frequently rely on the potential of the erotic, grounding these films in queer theory. This is a radical act of reclamation in a culture that simultaneously reduces folks who identify as queer to their sexuality while also reviling them for that very sexuality. There is socio-political potency, though, in our sexuality. Audre Lorde writes, “Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.”*** In this way, the erotic is fuel for cultural change. Negra expands, “One of the best things…about Queer culture, especially radical queer culture, is that there has been a series of reclamations of ourselves and reclamations of our own sexualities, reclamation of our own sexual energy and deregulating it from the white male patriarchal gaze…In retrospect, I am definitely into the idea of us being able to control our own erotic nature and also our own sexuality to the point that it will no longer be profitable by others, who have the means to exploit it. It also sets us up to a higher standard of being able to claim spaces that we have notoriously been banned from because we will not allow ourselves to be either tokenized or fetishized within those spaces…When the power is in our hands and we are actually able to narrate our own story it becomes ten times more threatening for the industry as a whole.” Audre’s Revenge and Negra claim a space in horror for themselves and for communities of folks who identify as queer, trans, intersex, Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
There’s so much more to come from Audre’s Revenge and Negra, who was recently inducted into the Alliance of Women Directors. Negra and Audre’s Revenge co-founder Mariam Bastani have started production on Bitten, A Tragedy, which draws on vampire mythology and African Indigenous spiritual practices. It is set in the urban space of Philadelphia and focuses on the experiences of characters that identify as radical queer people of color. The film highlights the vampire as an icon that aids us in navigating transgenerational trauma because of their role in transgressing generations and the idea of blood memory. Audre’s Revenge can shape our conversations about the intersections of identities and the horror genre.
The horror genre has long offered space for meaningful social commentary and has always had the potential to create radically subversive cultural critique. With interventions like Negra’s, we are able recognize aspects of ourselves, perhaps even identify truths about ourselves, which honors our experiences. As Negra says, “Everybody has their own individual horror story that is only specific to them and whatever is happening in their life.” Negra, along with the other folks at Audre’s Revenge, are creating their horror stories that center their experiences, which is precisely what we need as a genre and a community. The challenge moving forward is getting these stories broader release, greater resources and access, and of course more funding because we know how important diverse representation is for us as individuals and communities as well as for culture as a whole.
* At the time of writing, Flesh is currently available streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
** All quotations from Monika Estrella Negra are from a phone conversation with the author in April 2019.
*** Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 1984), p. 59.
Amanda Jo Hobson is a popular culture scholar and serves as the Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Women’s Resource Center at Indiana State University. She is the co-editor with U. Melissa Anyiwo of Gender in the Vampire Narrative (Sense Publishers, 2016) and Gender Warriors: Reading Contemporary Urban Fantasy (Brill Sense Publishers, 2018).