It’s a problem that’s always existed in the horror genre: portraying people with disabilities as monsters. But by writing with sensitivity, we can ensure the disabled body is not seen as an object of fear.
by Katie Marie
“Horror movies don’t create fear. They release it.”
—Wes Craven, American film director
Horror as a genre doesn’t have the best history with certain kinds of representation.
The horror genre’s uncomfortable linking of any kind of disability with monstrosity creates a negative, and often damaging, stereotype through the presentation of the disabled body as either an object of fear, public spectacle, or private seclusion.
But we are making progress with more inclusive horror stories being told, bringing light to deep-rooted societal issues around physical and mental disability—despite some problematic depictions still being produced.
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The dangers of poor representation
In my novella A Man in Winter, the main character, Arthur, is coming to terms with the loss of his wife and his dementia diagnosis.
One of the first questions I was asked when I started telling people the premise of what I was working on was, “Why is your horror story protagonist a person with dementia?”
At its worst, poor representation can create fear, disgust, or hatred towards those suffering with the disease.
The answer was simple: because dementia was frightening. I was hardly the first person to include dementia in a horror story, but I noted that the bulk of the narratives around dementia were ones where the sufferer becomes a danger to those around them. They themselves are the threat, the horror, or victim of demonic possession.
I didn’t want Arthur to be the “monster” in the story.
While I enjoy a good “monster” horror, seeing dementia used that way made me uneasy. I know some sufferers can become violent and unpredictable, but to see them portrayed as monsters was unsettling for the wrong reasons.
This kind of horror minimizes the suffering of, and exploits, intentionally or not, a tragic disease for thrills and scares, and ultimately shifts the focus from dementia and its inherent terrors to typical horror clichés. It cheapens the disease and detaches its audience from the inherent suffering of the victim, which I feel is where the true horror lies.
The demonic possession stories are worse, as they seem to say that mental health and cognitive impairments are another form of sin. They effectively demonize the sufferer.
Poor representation, at its least damaging, creates distance, making empathy impossible. At its worst, poor representation can create fear, disgust, or hatred towards those suffering with the disease. It can create an expectation of violence, which can cause harmful treatment toward an already vulnerable group.
What is good representation?
What good representation should do is show the horrors of dementia, and the isolating effect it has on its victims when they don’t know their loved ones or themselves, without making the sufferer the object of fear. The focus should be on the existential horror that is inherent in placing oneself in the shoes of someone with the disease.
In my novella, I wanted to highlight the frailty of the relationships and connections between Arthur and his family. How fear of the disease changed those who were bound by those relationships, and I hope I managed this.
Despite some problematic depictions still being produced, we are making progress with more inclusive horror stories being told.
Good representation shows the person, not the stereotype. It is a nuanced and personal portrayal that will, hopefully, forge a connection with the audience. Good representation should stress, not exploit, the horrors of dementia.
Benefits of good representation
Good, plausible representation creates an emotional connection and accentuates the horror of dementia without demonizing or exploiting the sufferer.
Good representation can create a bridge to empathy. People who have never experienced the disease base their ideas of it on what they see in the media. For people who exist outside of the ever-widening pool of those who have suffered or have had a relative who suffered can be hard to emphasize with the lived experience of these people.
It’s clear that powerful fiction has changed society in the past. For example, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is given credit for transforming American views about slavery, while books like 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell strongly affected readers’ views of government and politics.
By raising public awareness and public compassion for sufferers and their families, we will see an uplift in connection outside of the media, and an increase in resources apportioned to studies.
Overall, during my lifetime, I have seen a definite upshift in good representation across the spectrum. But we need to keep that going, so I ask that we all try to be mindful when selecting our next horror story.
Katie Marie is a horror enthusiast and writer from Norfolk, England. She has been published in several anthologies and magazines, including The Horrorzines Book of Ghost Stories, which won Best Anthology in the 23rd Annual Critters Readers’ Poll. Katie started writing while studying for her law degree at Aberystwyth University in the early 2000s, and several years and stories later she received her master’s degree and published her first novel.
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