Culture

Normal People Don’t Scare Me: A History of Ableism in the Horror Genre

I have always loved horror films. 

From the anticipation of what’s to come, to the dark, shadowy figure emerging from the corner of the screen, I have always loved being scared. I find that there is something quite psychological in this – something introspective

To confront your deepest – and sometimes unconscious, unknown – fears is personal, psychological, and, if you’re as big on adrenaline as I am, thrilling.

 More than that, however, it speaks volumes about the times in which we live. 

When you take the most classic horrors, from The Exorcist to Texas Chain Saw Massacre (interestingly released a year apart), each is a carefully-crafted, neatly-packaged statement from director to audience – a treatise on how to terrify the modern psyche.

Sometimes this takes the form of a slow-burning, cerebral thrill – i.e. Midsommar (2019, d. Ari Aster) or Suspiria (2018, d. Luca Guadagnino) – and sometimes it’s a campy, theatrical romp. 

With this in mind, there’s something about the horror genre that has always stuck out to me: why is it so ableist? 

From Vampires to Victorian Literature: A History of Ableist Horror 

Before I delve in, I should note that in this article I discuss ableism in terms of both physical disability and mental illness. Through this, I’ll explore the ways in which disabled people, or those we would not class as ‘neurotypical’, are portrayed as villainous, feared, or ominous. 

It would be unsurprising to learn that the genre’s use of The Other as a fear tactic has a long, fruitful history. Its origins, both rich and intriguing, are thus deserving of a brief description. 

One of the most iconic figures within the world of horror imagery is the vampire, or vampyre. Whilst theories describing the origins of this blood-drinking, terrifying creature of the night are vast and culturally heterogeneous, a key explanation may actually lie in a medical condition known as porphyria. 

Common to Eastern Europe around the time of the Spanish Inquisition, porphyria is a genetic blood disorder which causes the sufferer to produce less heme, a key component of haemoglobin. With symptoms including sensitivity to sunlight, receding gums (causing fang-like teeth), and an aversion to garlic, due to its sulfuric content, this condition quickly became termed the “vampyre disease” (Hefferon 2017). 

It is therefore highly interesting, and relevant, to note that the origin of one of horror’s most recognised ‘monsters’ may stem from the sufferers of a hereditary disease. 

In a similar manner, it is no secret that Victorian literature and Gothic culture are rife with ableist ideologies. We may observe this in the suggestion of a “gruesome appearance reflecting inner evil” (Bluth 2019), or nineteenth century melodramas, which regularly featured deaf, mute, blind, or “crippled” protagonists (Ferguson 2005). Rarely does a more prominent example spring to mind than the portrayal of Bertha Mason, the ‘madwoman in the attic’ in Jane Eyre (1847), or even The Monster of Frankenstein (1818). 

What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal…” (Jane Eyre, p. 291).

Thus, in plain actuality, the horror genre is entrenched in ableism at its most basic levels and earliest origins – due to its use of bodies and minds that vary from the norm, in the hope that they will cause fear (Bluth 2019). 

It is paramount to this discussion to recognise that horror as a genre, and its use of ableism therefore, reflects the contemporary fears of a given society. Indeed, Sarah Garcia writes for FEM Magazine:

“the image of perfection often boils down to someone who is cisgender…white…able-bodied and neurotypical”.

Garcia advances to explain that the horror genre characterises disabled antagonists as ‘evil’, suggesting that there is “nothing ‘scarier’ to the able-bodied and neurotypical than those who are not physically and mentally similar to them.”

As I progress to describe the use of ableist scare tactics onscreen, I hope to demonstrate that we, as viewers, have the responsibility to recognise the biases of the camera and the ableist perspectives it may provide (Bluth 2019). 

‘Classic’ Horror: 1930s – 1980s 

As soon as horror media was being developed for the screen, its ableism was apparent. The 1930s saw a peak of “eugenicist horror films”, unsurprisingly coinciding with the rise of Nazi Germany. Straight away, this speaks volumes to the ability of horror filmmakers to exploit contemporary society’s fears for mass consumption. 

However, perhaps the most obvious example of ableist horror involves the rise of the slasher film in the 1970s and 1980s. Characterised by a hidden or masked figure who would terrorise their victims in grisly ways, these films often end with one adolescent girl – known as a Final Girl – who, in her chastity, purity, and all around ‘clean’ character, escapes the killer’s clutches unscathed (I could write an entirely separate article about the feminist musings of Final Girls, but that’s for another time).

Photograph by Justin Campbell via Unsplash

With prominent examples including Friday the 13th (1980), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1972), Halloween (1978), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – arguably the Big Four of the genre – there are ableist attitudes aplenty, attesting to both physical disabilities and mental illnesses.

For example, Friday the 13th’s antagonist, Jason Voorhees, notably wears a hockey mask to hide his dastardly disfigured face. Moreover, Halloween’s antagonist, Michael Myers, is frequently described to have some form of mental illness – though an official diagnosis is never divulged – which is not mentioned outside of its demonising context used to deem Michael as “evil”. 

Not only is this ambiguity ableist, but it is also lazy.

The manipulation of Michael’s illness to enhance the film’s fear factor whilst glossing over its complex intricacies effectively dehumanises Michael.  He is seen as a psychotic killer, and not a victim of mental illness in his own right. In fact, this also interestingly furthers the contemporary stigma of, and lack of understanding towards, mental illness by treating all complex diagnoses as homogeneous. 

In this manner, it is evident that such infamous horror films have utilised the disabilities, mental or physical, of their antagonists to pose those with disabilities as a threat – particularly to women, as evidenced in the slasher genre. 

In other words, disability is depicted as synonymous with fear.

‘Contemporary’ Horror: The 2000s and Beyond 

Of course, ableism in horror does not begin and end with slasher flicks.

In fact, ableist attitudes are still unfortunately deeply entrenched within society (see: when Tesco and Asda were forced to retract and apologise for “escaped mental patient” Halloween costumes in 2013). It is therefore sadly par for the course that these attitudes are displayed in today’s horror films, and media more generally. 

For example, I struggle to think of a more prominent example on television than American Horror Story. Between the first season’s tagline being “normal people scare me”, and the heavy use of characters with physical deformities in the fourth season, Freak Show, it is clear that physical and mental atypicality are relied on as a crutch to create fear. 

Evan Peters as Tate Langdon in American Horror Story, Season 1, Episode 1 (2011) – Directed by Ryan Murphy

Moreover, it is important to acknowledge that numerous modern horror films continue to manipulate and misrepresent mental illness to create terror. Take Split (2017), for example. This M. Night Shyamalan-directed thriller shows James McAvoy as a sufferer of Multiple Personality Disorder, whose unpredictable behaviour poses a threat to three young female protagonists. 

This perpetuates the already overwhelming stigma that those with complex mental illnesses are a threat to society and, as such, are something to be feared. 

Briefly, I find myself wanting to discuss the modern arbiter of independent horror, Ari Aster. Whilst I immensely enjoyed Aster’s debut, Hereditary (2017) – finding Toni Colette’s portrayal of grief and mental illness astounding and compelling –, I was left a little dispirited by Midsommar (2019)

Whilst Midsommar had all the makings of a dazzling, Wicker Man-esque cult horror, uniquely taking place in broad daylight, there is just one factor I couldn’t overlook– and his name is Ruben. 

A deliberate result of incestuous conception, Ruben is a young prophet of the Swedish Hårga commune in which the film’s action unfolds. In one instance, he is described by a character solely as “the disabled one”.

Though allegedly revered by the commune for his oracular significance, the only attention truly paid to Ruben throughout the film’s impressive 2 hour and 20 minute duration is about 30 seconds of screentime, in which his facial disfigurement is focused upon by the camera.

I fail to see the importance this could have had, other than intentionally using Ruben’s disability to create an atmosphere of animosity and ominousness. 

Ultimately, this is reminiscent of various damaging tropes I described earlier, and is an unfortunate example of how horror as a genre is still deeply prejudiced at its core. 

The Curious Case of Halloween: A 40 Year Gap

Recently, I watched the hotly-anticipated follow-up to Halloween (1978), the 2018 release of the same name. Released 40 years apart, these two films share more similarities than I’d have liked to see. 

For example, as previously noted, in the 1978 film, Michael Myers is portrayed as the figure of “pure evil”, according to his psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis. Interestingly, this assertion seems to be reflective of director John Carpenter’s somewhat ableist view of the connection between mental disability and “pure evil”.

Speaking in the 2003 documentary, Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest, Carpenter describes the inspiration for Myers’ character as stemming from a college visit to a mental institution. There, Carpenter encountered a boy with a “schizophrenic stare… a really evil stare”. By referring to schizophrenia as synonymous or interchangeable with evil, Carpenter brazenly shows a complete lack of understanding for those suffering from similar mental illnesses. 

Cut to the 2018 sequel. In the first few minutes, two English reporters have come to interview Michael at the mental institution in which he currently resides. As the two approach him, accompanied by a doctor, there are various eerie shots of a grey sky, a derelict concrete yard, and… chained patients. 

As the two reporters advance towards Myers, brandishing his infamous mask in front of him, the institutionalised patients slowly begin to unravel; they make noises, they move restlessly, they seem unpredictable. They seem dangerous.

This was entirely disappointing to me; 40 years since the film’s original release, and the ableist attitudes to mental illness were, in a baffling way, somewhat even more apparent

The Verdict 

I close by emphasising my previous assertion; as viewers, we have a responsibility to note when the camera is being biased. Every choice, every angle, every line of dialogue, is a deliberately crafted choice, designed to evoke fear. 

I propose that we call time on horror’s manipulation of physical disability and mental illness to create fear or terror – but this begs the question:

Is this truly possible without addressing wider societal attitudes to disability? 

Follow Amie on Twitter and Instagram.


Suggested Reading/ Viewing

Bluth, S. 2019. The Presence of Disability in Horror Films: Ableism and Counter Discursivity

Brontë, C. 1847. Jane Eyre. Penguin Popular Classics (pub. 1994). London: Penguin Books. 

Ferguson, C. 2005. Review of Martha Stoddard Holmes’ ‘Fiction of Affliction’.

Garcia, S. 2018. Villainizing Bodies and Minds: Ableism in Horror Movies.

Hefferon, M. 2017. Of Plagues and Vampires: Believable Myths and Unbelievable Facts from Medical Practice. Ontario: Woodpecker Lane Press. 

Smith, S. 2003. Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest. TV Movie Produced by Compass International Pictures, Fox Television Network & Prometheus Entertainment.

6 comments

  1. As a film student, I really enjoyed reading your article. However, I wonder what would be your suggestion for horror writers/directors in terms of an alternative source of fear?

    It is perhaps naive to suggest that mental illness isn’t scary. Anyone that has had the misfortune to experience complex mental illness, directly or through a friend or loved one, would surely confirm how terrifying it can be.

    It is also difficult to create a murderous villain without implied mental illness – people of sound mind simply don’t murder people.

    In terms of physical disabilities, I agree we have seen some pretty grim representation over the years within the genre. Sometimes though, inclusion of grotesque ‘monsters’ that we may view as physically disabled is not as clear cut as pure ableism. If we are to take Frankenstein’s monster for example: yes, the character generates fear, but the wider intention of the story is a critique on the shallowness of society and we all know that the real monster in the story is Victor, thus the creature is an object of sympathy. This type of reading is applicable to many horrors come to think of it. It’s certainly a way around the issue for future horrors.

    I feel it may be creatively limiting for horror writers if mental illness in particular was to be excluded from the genre altogether. The focus perhaps should be on changing the way these issues are represented in the genre, instead of offering the vague “mad killer” trope.

    In any case, it is essential that we remain critical of the media we consume and I found your article really interesting. I just thought it might also be interesting to generate some discussion! Thank you for writing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I totally agree with you! It was really hard to make this piece as encompassing and coherent as possible when there is SO MUCH to cover. Of course, like you say with examples such as Frankenstein’s monster we need to look at things contextually and it may not be as evident as just clear-cut ableism.

      I do agree that it’s still quite important to delve into the psyche of “villains” because, as you say, there’s clearly a cognitive thing behind it. I would ultimately say that you’re right – we need to look at the representation of it as opposed to excluding mental illness from the genre altogether.

      I would personally argue that if you can’t produce a good villain or source of fear without being mindful of the ableist tropes behind representation, then you’re already creatively limited yourself – and the people that have been harmed by these tropes time and time again are who we should be mindful of.

      As far as an alternative goes, it’s very tricky isn’t it! It’s one thing to notice and critique these sorts of things and another entirely to suggest a fair and reasoned alternative. My friend actually wrote a really insightful article about how Rob Zombie’s later Halloween films are much more conscious and mindful of mental illness (https://t.co/i2PLSChBKL?amp=1 ), and as far as physical disability goes I’m really a fan of films such as Hush which empower disabled protagonists in an effective manner.

      Thanks so much for engaging and sharing your thoughts – these are very important discussions!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for your reply! I think you did brilliantly to cover so much in your article – I know how hard it can be when you could write a whole book on the topic ha!

        Absolutely, I agree that writers are limiting themselves if they opt for overused, ableist tropes instead of delving into the psyches of their villains in a way that is both interesting and respectful of those that suffer from mental illness. Nobody wants a one-dimensional character anyway!

        I’ll be sure to check out your friend’s article and I agree that Hush was a fantastic film – they really nailed that unwavering atmosphere of suspense throughout. Truly scary!

        I’ll look forward to reading more of your work in the future! Thanks again.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment, Karis!

      A future Zoom call might provide a brilliant opportunity to discuss this is more detail. I’ve been drafting some of my thoughts but there is a lot of unpick in the points you have raised.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s brilliant! If you’d like to join the contributors’ group, we put up polls about Zoom calls so you can have your say on when suits you. Our next one is about Angela Carter and myths of femininity, but perhaps after that we can schedule one around horror and the gothic more widely – we’ve got a really interesting piece coming out soon about Ex Machina, which I think you’ll enjoy!

        https://www.facebook.com/groups/308673633525686/?multi_permalinks=356948372031545%2C356359018757147&notif_id=1604101064463632&notif_t=group_activity&ref=notif

        Like

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