Horror Clichés: Is it Scary or is it Bigotry?
TW: mentions of body horror, ableism, sexual assault, rape, racial harassment, and suicide.
Horror is by far my favorite storytelling genre. It’s fun and allows us to explore so many aspects of fiction and go beyond our imagination.
So how is it that a genre where you can invent gods that encompass your worst nightmares remains so cliche and uncreative at times? The sad thing about horror is not the lack of creativity in its creatures and monsters, but its bigotry.
Let’s talk about some of these common cliches, how they are rooted in bigotry, and some tips on how to not perpetuate them.
Starting with one of the most prevalent forms of bigotry: ableism. And one of its most harmful tropes in horror: The Disfigured Killer, where the villain has some form of facial disfigurement.
There is a thrill to seeing people in the middle of nowhere being chased by cannibals in movies like Wrong Turn and the Hills Have Eyes! I wondered, however, why do people with naturally occurring birth defects need to be presented as horrifying flesh-consuming monsters?
Writers who rely on these tropes refuse to think outside the box, instead, they’re focusing on their own bigoted perceptions of what counts as “monstrous,” unaware, or cold to the real-life people with these faces. If you can make these villains eat bullets like cotton candy why not give them non-realistic disfigurements. I mean, imagine having more than two eyes over your face? Or how about multiple mouths? Ooh, how about multiple mouths with eyes inside them!
Disability portrayed as evil is all too common, whether it’s physical, like the Disfigured Killer, or mental, like the many films featuring “multiple personality disorder” (dissociative identity disorder), among others.
Lights Out (2016), presented the villain as a product of depression. Not only did it portray yet another disfigured individual as monstrous, but it also messed up the metaphor of mental illness. Why? Because the monster, a product of depression, could only be destroyed through suicide. As someone suffering from mental illness, I found this extremely disappointing and harmful. Although the creator addressed his discomfort over that idea, it doesn't change the fact that this is what the audience saw.
An example of a movie that got it correct, is n Babadook (2014), which succeeded in presenting this metaphor of depression by making the protagonist live with the monster. Tim Teeman described “the real monster was grief” and the end goal was not to destroy the monster but to accept that it was there, that it would continue to be there, and that was okay.
Where Lights Out says “it’s too horrifying to live with,” the Babadook said, “I know it’s scary, but you can live with this”.
Another unimaginative and bigoted cliche in horror: the portrayal of women.
For a genre that represents women in empowering leading roles, it’s still riddled with misogyny. How many times do we need to see films where women are being chased naked, assaulted, harassed, or even raped?
These films present these acts as horrible, but there’s a difference between showing a horrible death and sexualizing the victim during their death. What is being said about the value of women when the sexually active or assertive one is killed while the pure virgin is the one who survives and outsmarts the killer? This trope has been a long-standing tradition based on the puritanical belief to punish women who aren’t “pure” and perfect.
Even outside of puritanical beliefs, many male writers simply don’t know what to do with women characters.
While John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is still one of my favorite horror films, I was sad to read that he refused to include a woman because he would have to make her the love interest. It’s truly disappointing to see a man bring to life such an iconic monster and still have no clue how to write a multidimensional human woman. Actually, you actually don’t need to make her a love interest, as evidenced by the movie’s prequel.
The Thing (2011) features a much more relatable female character. She’s not “pure” or “virginal,” she’s just a woman placed in a terrifying situation who uses her smarts and wits to fight against a dangerous life form. While the film shows her dealing with sexism, it’s not the gross sexual harassment other films would employ for shock value. It’s actually a very mild but relatable kind of sexism, the kind women deal with daily which adds another level of fear. Being placed in this situation is scary enough, but being placed in this situation among a group of men who refuse to listen to you is even scarier.
The same level of tiredness can be said for every film that kills off characters of color, usually in brutal ways, and usually after having them experience racial profiling, aggression, assault, or even minor racist incidents unrelated to the plot. In Blair Witch (2016), there is a scene where the main group meets two white characters and the camera pans from their confederate flag to the two Black characters. Was that necessary? No one in the scene acknowledged it and it had no relevance to the plot. The characters and the audience were just forced to accept the presence of triggering racist symbols and characters.
You don’t need to witness hate crimes, sexual brutality, racism, or anything like that to feel fear. Focus on something everyone can be scared of: a dark location, a stranger with a creepy smile, spiders, isolation, meat (an oddly effective scare).
It is not only white or majority writers that have failed at this.
There’s a difference between watching the chestburster scene in Alien (1979) and watching a Black woman being raped while her baby is murdered in Them (2021). One leaves us to fear the idea of a parasite killing us from the inside, the other leaves us uncomfortable because this kind of violence already happens and we don’t need to treat it as a spectacle.
This brings me to the most unimaginative trope full of tired cliches: torture porn.
Seeing marginalized characters being hurt is not necessarily a problem. Marginalized writers use horror as a way to process trauma and discuss the innate fears tied to their identity. The problem with torture porn is that its only purpose is shocking the viewer with how gory and graphic it can get. And while it succeeds in creating discomfort, it’s because it depicts a person’s pain as a spectacle, it’s saying “hey, look, I can be graphic and edgy and grimdark.”
So how to get past all these uncreative aspects?
For a good example, look to the guy who’s shown creativity unlike any I know of, Jordan Peele.
Us (2019) gave us a very creepy concept, “what if there was a monstrous version of you?” What’s haunting and terrifying about Us isn’t the violence characters go through, Us deals in matters of classism, of people trapped in endless loops, forced to be a part of a system they didn’t ask for while others remain oblivious to it. It begs the question: are you the victim or the monster?
But the truly unique work was Get Out (2016). This movie successfully incorporated racial violence without the torture porn.
In this movie, Peele doesn’t show a Black man’s violent assault or harassment. Instead, it features a more subtle fear that every person of color has had, fear of the Seemingly Nice White People. At first, Chris’ hosts appear welcoming and friendly. They say awkward but well-meaning things like “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could. ”
The real fear isn’t of violence, it’s the slow build-up to it. Because little by little with every comment he gets, with every look you realize… He is not safe!
So what did Jordan Peele do right?
First, he showed us his deep fear without relying on cliches.
Get Out showed Peele’s fear: kind and friendly white people can be the most dangerous because they make you lower your guard. It incorporates subtle racial politics tied to his identity, abstaining from dramatic hate crimes.
Second, he focused on suspense more than shock. The slow build-up stays with us more than horrible violence. Because at the end of the day, horror is supposed to leave something for us to still fear and dread.
And third, perhaps the biggest break-away from cliches, is that he didn’t fear the happy ending.
Jordan Peele did something I, and from what I’ve seen, his Black audience, thanked him for; (spoiler alert!) he changed the ending of Get Out to a happy one after multiple cases of Black men and women being killed; he understood Black audiences were already living in that fear. They were angry and tired of seeing the Black guy die, (or get sent to jail).
I love a good Bad Ending as much as any horror fan but it’s important to think about works and where the balance lies between our worst imagined fears and the real ones marginalized people already live in.
So, if you’re a horror writer, please: look past all the sexist, racist, and ableist cliches we’ve been indoctrinated with. Horror is a fun genre, but it’s only fun when you show us what truly horrifies you, not what kind of people you don’t like.
And, from now on, I don't want to see disfigurements in your work that aren’t a set of teeth running through the eye!
Gabriel CP (they/he/she) is a writer and digital artist who has been working as a sensitivity reader for several years, with a background in the study of cultural influence and interpretations of literary works. You can request Gabriel as your sensitivity reader on the Writing Diversely Directory.