WIHM Interview: Robyn Citzen

Robyn Citizen.
Robyn Citizen.

February is Women in Horror Month. Every Tuesday this month, I’ll be featuring an interview with an excellent woman in horror!

Today, I’m featuring Robyn Citizen. Robyn works with the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and has her PhD in Genre and Race Film Studies; with a special interest in horror and sci-fi. Read on to learn more about this amazing woman and the work she’s done in film and film study.


Sonora: You have your PhD in Genre and Race Film Studies (which sounds amazing). When did you first become interested in film as art? As commentary? As academic study?

Robyn: I became interested in film very young because I come from a family of movie watchers. My dad — history buff — in particular liked to watch older films and go on about the history around their release and how they were received. So I knew who Hitchcock was at an early age and since I was born liking horror and scary things, he was the filmmaker who stuck with me as I watched movies with my parents.

I’ve always had both an analytical and fan approach to films and wrote movie reviews for my high school newspaper, but was a Government major in university because I didn’t know that you could make a living in film outside of film production (turns out you can’t for the most part lol). I worked for a social justice nonprofit after graduating and hemmed and hawed between going to law school or grad school for film. When I got into NYU for Cinema Studies that made my decision for me! I earned my PhD with honours in 2015.

Sonora: As a fellow film studies student, I’m curious about your thoughts on the current state of film academia. What’s lacking in an average film studies program? What do these programs do well?

Robyn: At NYU I always thought it was weird how separate they kept film studies from film production. I wanted to take editing classes and it was discouraged. I had to get internships at production companies and talent agencies to apply what I was learning to the day-to-day workings of the industry. Also, depending on the film studies program they don’t concentrate enough on professionalization and what you can do outside of academia because there are not enough professor positions to justify the number of people with humanities postgrad degrees, unfortunately; so we have to find other places to go! What academia does well is allow you to really specialize and do a deeper dive into your niche of choice. Who else would let me write at length about representations of blackness in japanese cinema?

Sonora: What is a dream course you would teach? Conversely, what have been some of your favorite courses that you have taught? 

Robyn: Asian Horror Cinema was my baby, I proposed it to the Department of Asian Studies at UBC [University of British Columbia] and they approved it. I built the curriculum and screening list on my own. It was my favorite class to teach as a horror fan and as someone who is mainly interested in transnational, cross-cultural encounters in film, but Korean Cinema was a close second. I taught that latter course for the better part of five years so I am beyond thrilled to see what’s happening for Bong Joon-ho since I would teach Memories of Murder in every semester of Korean cinema and gush about how it was a perfect film and how he was The Korean Director of his generation.

Sonora: You say you have a penchant for erotic thrillers from the ‘90s. What do you love about them? What are some of your favorites?

Robyn: And the 80s! Erotic thrillers genuinely have interesting roles for women — not positive roles necessarily but complex, interesting, powerful. They tend to directly confront how sexuality for women is punished or transactional in this society in a way that most rom-coms only address obliquely or accidentally. This definitely has roots in my affection for Lifetime movies and the woman-in-peril TV movie genre which I grew up watching on cable. Also, these films are totally over the top which makes the woman’s punishment seem less egregious somehow because its already bracketed by the unreality of the film. The histrionics draw attention to the films’ own problematic characterizations and plot twists.

I remember seeing Jagged Edge AND Fatal Attraction in the theatre with my parents — I was 5 and 7, so not my parents best parenting choices for sure; but they had a big effect on me. And of course Jeff Bridges is the seducer in Jagged Edge while Glenn Close is the slow-on-the-uptake dupe so that gender flip was very productive for me when I rewatched the film as a tween. I also love The Last Seduction and Basic Instinct as the peak quality works of the subgenre, and Body of Evidence and Sliver as truly dumber, yet hilarious examples of the subgenre.

Sonora: How long have you been interested in horror films? 

Robyn: My whole life! But horror literature came first for me. I’m hyperlexic and was reading at 2, then onto dark fairy tales, then Fear Street and Christopher Pike books, then Stephen King books by 9. One year later I watched Nightmare on Elm Street 3 at a sleepover and it utterly blew. my. mind. I was an anxious kid and still an anxious person and somehow horror’s worst case scenarios are therapeutic for me to watch. It’s a safe space to play out what I would do if the Worst Case came to pass.

Also, Stephen King in particular resonated with me as a black girl growing up in the U.S. because his stories are all about familiar, even friendly things — cars, dogs, drains, cameras, libraries — becoming menacing. It may sound funny because he’s not known for his balanced crafting of characters of colour in The Green Mile and The Shining for example. However, the experience of being a racialized person in Texas was one of doing regular things throughout your day, but being constantly confronted by micro and macro-aggressions as you move through the world. I’d be around people and friends I thought I was cool with and suddenly someone would tell a racist joke or ask a crazy question or I’d be singled out to be followed in a store — people having such a strong reaction to you simply existing in a certain body is a surreal, often horrific and violent experience.

Sonora: Recent films like Get Out and Us have opened up new conversations about Black horror films, but Black horror has been around for much longer than 2017. What are your thoughts on the way Black people and their experiences are treated in horror films? What do you think is done well? What do you think could be done better?

Robyn: I think black characters are not treated as badly in horror films in terms of the popular discourse about us always dying first. However, it’s more relational about how we die and then how are those deaths treated in the text of the film? Do the other characters just move on without registering it or is the death solely to advance the plot? Is it much more gory and focused on facial suffering and abject fear than other deaths? That’s the real issue for me and something that overlaps with non-final girl white women characters in horror films. Horror tells us a lot about who is valued in our culture and what traits are valued in our culture, what is worthy of protection and what is disposable.

Generally, horror films don’t deal directly with black experiences, rather those experiences are allegorized and mapped onto the monsters — the things that make them monstrous and their outsider quality are the traits that racist culture has historically associated with blackness.  Get Out is not the first horror film to use black experiences but it is one of the first mainstream horror films to be so explicit about depicting whiteness — the historical construct and how it is practiced — as something monstrous.

Sonora: You also study Asian cult cinema. What are some of your favorites? How do Asian cult films compare to American cult films? In your experience, how do audience reactions to both compare?

Robyn: Some of my fave Asian cult films are Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, and Mystics in Bali. It’s hard to say how Asian cult films as a group compares to American cult films because there is such a wide range of what constitutes “cult”. But in my experience sexploitation and sexual violence seems to feature in more Asian cult films (and European ones) than American cult which are often given that designation for transgressive gore, body horror, and cheesiness or kitschy elements related to production value and ironic reception.

Sonora: What have been your experiences as a Black cinema studies professor and doctoral student? What have been your experiences as a woman?

Robyn: I was the only black student in my M.A. and PhD program and while I made some friends in those programs and there was one black tenured prof who was great, it was a very lonely experience. Particularly challenging is when you choose a dissertation topic that is partially based on your identity and only one other person in the program is well-versed in that literature.

My proposal process was a mess. I had to frontload it with all this literature review and arguments that black-Japanese cinematic encounters were an actual thing, and something that could be traced and studied because there weren’t any book-length texts on black-Japanese cinematic encounters in the film studies canon. I incorporated a lot of sociological information and political history in my project and there was resistance to that as well. The professor leading the proposal seminar chose to tell me that my proposal likely would not pass two weeks before it was due. I ended up rewriting everything 3 times before the proposal defense, which I passed.

I really wish that me and the other women in my cohort had been more of a unified group but it was very “every scholar for him or herself” and people were more concerned with networking. The offshoot of this emotionally and professionally alienating experience was that I worked very hard to perfect my dissertation and therefore, my defense was very relaxed and short. My committee mostly spent time complimenting my prose and my project — I couldn’t believe it because it had been such a torturous process! —  before telling me that I passed with distinction.

My grad school experience had a good outcome on paper but was also quite traumatic, and I struggle with imposter syndrome and serious anxiety around writing that did not exist prior to grad school, to this day. My advice to other women of color and white women is to find your people as soon as you can and form writing support groups or even ‘whine and wine venting sessions’ (these exist apparently!) and yes, zero in on mentors that can help you professionalize and understand how your racial, gender identities will affect your career trajectory. Friends that have done these things have come out of their M.A. and PhD programs in a much better place and even find tenure-track appointments faster.

Sonora: What are some of your favorite movies? Who are some of your favorite directors?

Robyn: I have a rotating list of fave movies but the ones that have been most influential to me are: Sex, Lies and Videotape by [Steven] Soderbergh, Blue by Krzysztof Kieslowski, and She’s Gotta Have It by Spike Lee. Probably add Nightmare on Elm Street 3 to that!

Right now my favorite directors are Masaki Kobayashi, Hong Song-soo, Bong Joon-ho, Agnes Varda, Charles Burnett, Mary Harron, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Byun Young-joo, David Cronenberg, and I’m very excited to see more from Nia DeCosta and Carol Nguyen.

Sonora: What are some of your favorite books? Who are some of your favorite authors?

Robyn: I was in a real Stephen King and Haruki Murakami rut for years because I prefer short stories and horror/weird fiction, both of which can be really bad in the wrong hands; so it was easier to stick to the people who I know do it well. Short stories are a more precise medium in my opinion. But, I became increasingly annoyed with Murakami’s portrayal of women in his later works so I had to branch out. Finally, this year I’ve discovered other writers! I’ve been enjoying Tananarive Due, Eden Royce, Carmen Maria Machado, Charles Yu, Nnedi Okorofor, Ted Chiang, Octavia Butler, Ramsey Campbell, and others. These aren’t new writers but they’re new to me!

Sonora: If you were in charge of making a movie — your perfect movie — what would it be about? What would its style be?  

Robyn: Even though I’m a genre person when I write creatively what comes out are these chamberplay type dramas with surreal elements. It would probably look like a cross between a Hong Sang-soo film, [Ousmane] Sembene’s Black Girl and The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant – very precise framing and blocking.


About Robyn Citizen:

Robyn Citizen, PhD is the International Programmer for Short Cuts at the Toronto International Film Festival.  Her primary programming interests are in representations of race, ethnicity and national identity and the horror/science-fiction genres. She was a lecturer in the departments of Asian Studies and Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia from 2012-2017, has written critical analyses for edited collections, is board co-chair of Breakthroughs Film Festival, and served on juries for the Philadelphia Film Festival, Reelworld Film Festival, and the Norwegian Short Film Festival.

Read her forthcoming book chapter on Get Out: https://ohiostatepress.org/books/titles/9780814214275.html

Read her just-released chapter on Asian Cult cinema: https://www.routledge.com/The-Routledge-Companion-to-Cult-Cinema-1st-Edition/Mathijs-Sexton/p/book/9781138950276

A Handy List of Where to Submit Your Work for Awards

Jump to the List

One of the challenges of self-publishing is that you need to be your own marketing department. You have to share the fact that your book is out in the world, and that includes letting awards committees know about it too!

It can be daunting to submit your own work for an award. I’ll admit, when I first got into self-publishing, I thought submitting my own work wasn’t sacrosanct. I thought that juries combed through books, selected their favorites, and made a ballot. Self-promotion for an award was rude and uncouth. I have since learned otherwise, and I’m glad I did.

Now, some awards juries don’t accept unsolicited submissions — but many others do! And further, they say specifically that you can submit as the author of the piece! So go on — submit that work! What’ve you got to lose?

But Sonora, where do I start? That’s where the list below comes in. I’m starting a living blog post — one I’ll keep updated beyond the initial posting — with links to awards that allow you to submit your own work. Please let me know if you know of any awards that aren’t listed, and I’ll add them as well.

Happy submitting, and good luck!


Literary Awards You Can Submit Your Own Work To (last updated: October 27, 2020)

Ask the Author: A Q&A with Susan McCauley

susan mccauley
“I think it’s fascinating to explore what makes people do certain things, and what makes us afraid … I think reading and watching horror fulfills a basic need we have as humans to feel fear.”

Film is one of my favorite storytelling media. I minored in film studies, have written many papers on film (including an analysis of WALL-E based on postmodernism), and frequently go to the movies.

I was thus very excited when I saw that one of the contributors to Quoth the Raven was also a filmmaker. Susan McCauley, author of “The Cask,” has an extensive background in film. Read on for her thoughts on the overlap between film and literature, as well as what inspires her writing.

Bio: Susan received a B.A. in Radio-Television with a minor in Theater from the University of Houston, an M.F.A. in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California, and an M.A. in Text & Performance from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and King’s College in London. Susan also studied acting at Playhouse West with Robert Carnegie and Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, Independence Day) in Los Angeles.

While living in Los Angeles, Susan wrote the story for and produced a short film, which won awards at the Houston International Film Festival and the Seabrook Film Festival. In London, her stage adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” was performed at the George Bernard Shaw Theatre; and, scenes from her play The Prisoner: Princess Elizabeth were performed at HMS Tower of London. After returning to the United States, she was a producer on the Emmy Award nominated Civil War short film Now & Forever Yours: Letters to an Old Soldier. In 2016, she wrote and produced the award winning short film, “The Cask.” In addition to the publication of short stories, she is currently writing her fifth novel and has two feature film projects in development.


Sonora: You are a screenwriter, producer, and actress, as well as a writer. What overlaps do you see between filmmaking and writing? Do you find that one influences the other for you?

Susan: I don’t act much anymore, but I still enjoy doing it from time to time if the right part presents itself. I see myself first and foremost as a writer. I just happen to write fiction and write for film. I’m quite visual, which is probably why I started as a screenwriter and later moved into fiction. I see a lot of overlaps for screenwriting and fiction in terms of “show don’t tell,” using dialogue, and story structure. The major differences in film and fiction are the formatting, how much detail you can give, and the fact you can really dive into the head of a character in fiction, which you can’t do in screenwriting. For film, you can give clues to character emotions, but the main focus must be on sound, light, and movement. In screenwriting, you have to get images across succinctly in very vivid, condensed descriptions so the director and cinematographer can translate those to the screen. In fiction, you have more time to explore what things look like, feel like, and smell like with words. You can even share a characters thoughts in fiction, which you can’t in film, unless you’re using a voice over to capture what a character is thinking.

In terms of being a producer, I am working to produce things I’ve written or have co-written. I have to be passionate about the story I want to tell if I’m going to put all my energy into seeing a project produced.

Sonora: What are some lessons you’ve learned from filmmaking that can be applied to writing?

Susan: Film, in general, is a quicker paced medium than fiction. You have to keep the viewer’s attention or they’ll change the channel or turn the television off. In fiction, they can certainly close the book — but once a reader has bought it, chances are they’ll pick it up and keep reading at some point. They are also mentally prepared for a slower pace.

Of course film is a visual medium. I recently watched the horror film A Quiet Place. The opening shot of that film establishes so much of the world we’re entering in a few seconds: a broken, desolate, post-apocalyptic world. In fiction, it might take the author a paragraph or a page to describe it all. So it comes down to showing with words over showing with visuals.

I find that I’m a bit more sparse with description in my fiction than most fiction writers and, personally, I like the pace and think (hope) my readers will like it, too. My use of more condensed description in fiction probably comes directly from my background in screenwriting.

Other than strong plot, dialogue, and screenwriting techniques that focus on keeping the story visual and active, I can’t think of anything else I apply to fiction writing — at least not consciously. Filmmaking itself is a totally different animal than writing a book. Filmmaking is a monumental team effort. With a book you work with editors and the publisher, but people tend to do their work individually, and then regroup. With a movie, you can have five or ten or fifty or more people all working together at the same time to make the script come to life. Books are more personal in how they’re written and consumed; films are more of a group experience in their execution and consumption.

Sonora: Film and literature have an intimate relationship. What are your thoughts on film as a storytelling medium versus books? What’s been your experience creating both?

Susan: Obviously books and the written word are much older than film; but, historically, storytellers would act-out or dramatize some of their stories, and film is a modern extension of that. So they definitely go hand-in-hand. I think books and films impact the human brain differently. Books are slower; we can read and use our own imaginations to visualize what the author wants us to see and imagine how the characters feel. In film, we see what the director wants us to see and move at the pace the director (along with the editor) have set for us, which is usually much faster than sitting down to read a book. Modern film in the western world is typically fast paced with stimulating visuals and quick cuts. Most of us have probably heard doctors warn of too much screen-time because of the impact it’s having on our brains. I do think there is something to that. But I think there is a place for both books and screens. I enjoy watching television shows/films as much as anyone, but I know I can’t watch them right up until I go to sleep. My brain is too stimulated. So, at least an hour before bed, I turn off the TV and read. I definitely sleep better when I do that.

As for my experience creating both, I have to have a different mindset when I sit down to work on fiction versus when I sit down to write a screenplay. And when I switch into producer mode, that’s yet a different mindset: calls and emails with directors, other producers, attorneys, accountants, guilds and unions, etc. I’m definitely more at home writing, but there are aspects I like about producing. I haven’t directed theater or film in years, but I’m planning to get back into it in the next couple of years. As a film writer, I want to be able to control the full vision of some of my works by directing.

Sonora: People often say “The book is better” when a film adaptation comes out. Is there a movie you think is better than the book? What makes it better?

Susan: Not that I can think of. However, when a film or television show is done first and then a book comes out based on the show, I’m not usually a fan of those books. The few I’ve read of those don’t seem to have the depth or fluidity of original novels. I do think that The Lord of the Rings adaptations were extremely well-done. I like The Lord of the Rings adaptations because they were fairly true to the books, and the world-building and characters created by Tolkien in the books were beautifully captured on screen.

Sonora: Your short story for Quoth the Raven, “The Cask,” was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” What made you choose this story to adapt?

Susan: I’d taught “The Cask of Amontillado” to English composition classes when I lived in Northern Virginia, and something about that story captured my imagination. I’d heard true stories of people being bricked into walls alive on history tours in England and Europe, and those always bothered me. The horror of imagining what those people thought and felt knowing they were never going to get out struck a chord of terror in my heart. I still have a visceral response in my chest when I think about it. I suppose the true stories I heard made Poe’s even more impactful for me. And, when I lived in London, a disgusting, rotten smell started coming out of the wall of my flat … Eventually the smell faded away. (I think a rat died and decomposed in my bedroom wall). But I thought of that, too, when I read “The Cask of Amontillado.” I was also bothered that I never knew why Montresor killed Fortunato in such a horrific way, and I wanted an opportunity to explore Montresor’s motivation. So, when I saw a call for adaptations of Poe stories, I knew I had to adapt “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Sonora: “The Cask” is also a short film, which you wrote and produced. Can you tell us more about it?

Susan: I was teaching an online course for Margie Lawson’s Writer’s Academy about adapting fiction for film and, as I was pulling together material for the course, I adapted my short story, “The Cask,” into a short screenplay to use as an example. When I finished the script, I thought, “This would make a good short film.” So, with my background in film, I started reaching out to some friends in L.A. to help me make it happen. At the time, nothing came out of Los Angeles, but I was led to some filmmakers in Houston, where I live, who really loved the script and wanted to help me make it. In hindsight, I wish I would have directed “The Cask” since Hollywood really wants to see more women directors and it’s something I’m getting more interested in — but at the time, I was solely focused on getting the script produced. Long story short, I was the executive producer on the project. There isn’t money in short films so it wasn’t something I could go and seek out investors for. So, about half of the budget was my money, and the rest came from an Indiegogo campaign. I wish we’d had a bit more money since a couple pages were cut from my script … but we did the best we could with what we had (which is typical of filmmaking — especially indie filmmaking).

For those who are interested, here is The Cask on YouTube. (It did win an award for best film adaptation and played at several festivals around the United States.)

Sonora: Which short story of Poe’s would you like to adapt next?

Susan: I haven’t even considered adapting another Poe story. So many of them have been adapted, and adapted well. But, if I were to do another, I would likely do “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

Sonora: What is your favorite film adaptation of a Poe piece?

Susan: I honestly haven’t seen any others than my own! I probably should, but I purposely didn’t watch any when I was adapting “The Cask” because I didn’t want my work to be colored (or attributed) to someone else’s.

Sonora: How long have you been writing fiction? What drew you to horror?

Susan: Armed with my dad’s video camera, I started making movies for fun when I was eight years old … but I didn’t get into screenwriting until I was in my early 20s. I dabbled a bit with fiction in graduate school, but I didn’t fully swing my focus to it until about 8 years ago.

I blame my interest in horror and the supernatural on my parents. LOL. They took me on the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World when I was three. That’s the first time I knew I had any interest in horror. I hid by my parents ankles on the ride, but then begged them to take me again. I think I write horror because it’s a fun and engaging way to experience things I wouldn’t want to experience or do in life. I think it’s fascinating to explore what makes people do certain things, and what makes us afraid. To an extent, I think reading and watching horror fulfills a basic need we have as humans to feel fear. For hundreds of thousands of years (or more), our ancestors had to hunt and fight to survive. They experienced adrenaline on a regular basis. We’re much safer in modern times. And because of that, I think we still have a primal need to feel that fear — even if it’s in the safety of our local coffee shop with a book, or in a cinema watching a film.

Sonora: What are some non-literary influences on your writing?

Susan: Life. There is always something from my life in what I write. It could be a story I heard, history, a place, a person, an animal. But there are always grains of truth from life in my work. I think that’s probably true for most writers.

Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?

Susan: As a child, I loved Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe series. Laura Ingles Wilder’s accounts of life on the prairie also fascinated me. As an adult, some of my major influences have been William Shakespeare, Shirley Jackson, Johnathan Stroud, and Mary Downing Hahn. Some recent favorite books have been Took by Mary Downing Hanh and the Lockwood & Co. series by Johnathan Stroud.

Sonora: Who are some of your favorite directors? What are some of your favorite films?

Susan: Guillermo del Toro does some beautiful work. And Steven Spielberg is, of course, an icon. His films are extremely commercial, but he’s a master at storytelling.

I’ll admit, I don’t make it to the theater nearly as much as I used to because I have a nine-year-old son, but I watch what I can on Netflix and Amazon. As for favorite films, I won’t even try to explain why … but these have been some of my favorites over the years: The Color Purple, Star Wars, Alien, Ghostbusters, The Others, Quills, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Goodfellas, and Silence of the Lambs.

Sonora: Do you have any projects in the works that you’d like to tell us about?

Susan: I have a novel I recently “finished,” and is back in revision. It’s a young adult story called The Devil’s Tree, which is actually an expanded version of my short story of the same name on WattPad. It’s a ghost story about a teenager overcoming her life-situation and learning to accept herself.

I also have two feature films in development, for which I’m a writer and producer. One is a psychological horror, The Murdering Kind, which is being directed by my amazing, long-time friend, Academy Award winner Barney Burman. The other is The Lost Children of York, which is an adaptation of the play I wrote when I lived in London. The lovely and talented Edmund Kingsley is working with me on The Lost Children of York as a co-producer and lead actor.


Check out Susan’s books:

Visit Susan online at www.sbmccauley.com

Watch Susan’s short film, “The Cask”: