A conversation with Comika Hartford is one of those rare treats that I receive from time to time as an interviewer. Intelligent and insightful with an ability to cut to the heart of a conversation to deliver her truth, Hartford is a creative force to be reckoned with and honestly, we need more people like her in the horror world.
Hartford, who appeared in last year’s Horror Pride Month series with her dear friend Skyler Cooper, returned this year to talk about all things horror. It was the first time she’d given a solo interview with me, and she did not disappoint.
Like most genre fans, Hartford’s love of horror and the macabre began early, and like many, she had to sneak around to enjoy it. Her self-described “hippie parents” didn’t want her watching a lot of TV as a kid. In fact, for a while, they had her convinced that the TV only worked for Sesame Street.
“Then I figured out that was bullshit,” she said laughing. “I was like, ‘No, my friends have TVs that work all the time. You guys are lying!’ They wanted me to read books first. I’m not saying they were wrong. It definitely led to a love of short horror fiction.”
Later she managed to sneak in a few episodes of The Twilight Zone at which time she decided she want to be Rod Serling introducing fantastic tales and inviting people into a world where nothing was at it seemed. It appealed to her sensibilities and added another layer of the burgeoning storyteller she would become.
Then came the fateful night when she was staying with her cousins and they managed to sneak around and watch Alien on cable.
“It was way too scary for us but it was so exciting and it was the first time I saw a woman in charge,” Hartford said. “It became such an exciting thing. And then the next day, of course, we played Aliens and I was a commander. We were those kids who got caught up in the fantasy of it. We loved to pretend. We were just these little black nerds running around on an alien ship all day.”
To anyone who thinks that it’s unusual for young black girls and boys to be interested in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, Hartford points out that these themes were based on universal experiences and stories, many of them drawn from African mythologies and methods of storytelling.
She recalled specifically the controversy of casting Halle Bailey as Ariel in the live-action adaptation of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Many naysayers jumped on the bandwagon coming up with every reason in the book why a mermaid could not be black.
“I understand that this is the Hans Christian Anderson mermaid story but the legends of the Mami Wata go back for centuries,” she said. “She is a beautiful black mermaid who interacts with human beings and is a kind of deity and has adventures. The concept of black mermaids has always existed for the people of the Diaspora so I think it’s intriguing. People want to say this legend only came from here but no these legends come from all over and they’re all tied together. These are human stories.”
These universal stories and themes can be remarkably similar. Joseph Campbell made an entire career educating the world about shared archetypes in everything from the mythology of the epic “hero’s journey” to similarities in folk and fairy tales. If you don’t believe me, look up Cinderella sometime. For every culture in the world there is a Cinderella story and the basic elements are almost identical.
On the subject of human stories, it occurred to me when we began our interview that I’d never really asked Hartford about her own identity on the queer spectrum, and as usual, the answer was enlightening.
“I do identify as bisexual and have ever since around I’d say high school or college,” she explained. “I always felt like a dual attraction, but that’s when I was finally able to act on it was around college. I definitely found that there’s a lot of different ways to be bisexual. So many people think it’s like right down the middle equally attracted to both but it doesn’t really work that way. I will say that I do think I am more attracted to men. I think it’s a higher percentage, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had very intensive attractions to women.”
Acceptance of bisexuality is an issue both inside and outside of the LGBTQ community and often comes with a mistrust of sorts or a complete erasure depending on who a person is in a relationship with at the time.
It’s an issue that Hartford says she understands to an extent.
“If you’re bisexual then you have the option of appearing ‘normal’ and then you don’t have to deal with tons of shit. The reality is who are you attracted to? What is sexual for you? What do you think about when you orgasm? If you’re a woman and some of the time you’re thinking about women guess what you are! You get a little flower and your own flag and everything.”
This greater understanding of herself as a member of the LGBTQ community wasn’t the only discovery in college, however. It was at Emerson that she began to hone her craft as a creative, first throwing herself into acting, only to realize that her real interests lay in the realm of writing.
By the time she’d left Emerson, she had already begun writing pieces for her friends to perform which translated into writing one acts plays and exploring those storytelling talents she’d been honing since she was a child.
She found herself on a particular path that led her to various positions that helped her continue honing her craft from working in an ad agency to helping write a children’s show for an tech company. Eventually she took on ghost writing jobs to help directors and producers refine ideas for films, and in the last couple of years wrote, produced, and appeared in The Grey Area, an evocative and at times chilling project that has gone through several iterations on its path to reality.
“Everyone has those projects that start out as one thing and then it becomes another thing and then you’re like, ‘Okay, I just need to finish this,’ Hartford pointed out. “I’m really happy with it as a short. You have to finish. You don’t get to start a thing and not finish. I don’t believe in that. You never give yourself permission to not finish.”
That tenacity has made her the creative woman she is today and as I said from the beginning, it was an honor to sit down with Comika Hartford to talk about that journey.