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Can Creators Redeem the Horror Genre's Inherent Ableism?

Whether or not it’s "spooky season," the horror genre has hordes of devotees, and well it should. Horror gives us a safe outlet for facing our fears, exploring our inner demons, and pitting our inner heroes against some of the most frightening scenarios ever conceived in creators’ minds. Whether in books, in film, on the stage, or in some other medium, horror has earned its place as a revered genre.

However, the 21st century has exposed a particular underbelly of horror: ableism. Many if not most horror villains either have some sort of disfigurement or disability, or can be read or "coded" as such. Frankenstein’s monster is a reanimated, grotesque corpse who speaks and acts like a caricature of an intellectually disabled man. The impetus for Dracula and vampires came from sufferers of porphyria, a fairly rare disease still poorly understood. Several seasons of American Horror Story, notably Asylum and Freak Show, paint disabled characters as frightening or grotesque if not outright villainous; at best, these characters are pitiable. The recent TV series Changeling centers on a demonic being whose changeling status has been compared to autism for centuries. Stephen King’s disabled horror characters aren’t villains, but are stereotypes, and pop up in almost all his novels.

These examples might tempt us to "cancel" horror altogether, and certainly, the ableism within warrants serious discussion. But is there a way to stay true to the horror genre in coming years without sacrificing its conventions (e.g., updating classics to the point of unrecognizability)? Can a form of "new horror" decry ableism while bringing true dignity to coded disabled characters, or characters who are shunned or feared? Discuss.

  • I'm not sure I'd say that ableism is a problem in all horror genres, but it's definitely a reoccurring issue especially when it comes to monsters - though some also pull on other negative stereotypes, like Dracula as a European foreigner. I definitely think this is an interesting topic! – AnnieEM 7 months ago
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  • There's definitely hope for horror, it's just a matter of getting more accurate portrayals of disability on the screen, and that does happen every now and again. Movies like Hush and Sightless are examples (moreso Hush, which was a box-office success). It's just a matter of writers realising that 1. disabilities are not forbidden topics, 2. disabilities should not be used as metaphors or treated as supernatural phenomena, and 3. disabled people aren't superhuman. Sometimes the issue is just plain ignorance (like Changeling) but other times it seems like abled-bodied writers and directors are frightened of getting disabilities wrong, so they stick to the status quo of either mystifying or over-powering their disabled characters. – Ezra Chapman 5 months ago
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