Grotesque deformities and burlap sack masks: these are the faces of physical disabilities in horror.
Horror does not do disability well. Most “good” characters are able-bodied, whereas many villains in horror wear masks to cover birth defects, which the audience is supposed to find frightening. We’re supposed to learn that these faces are ones we simply can’t stomach; they’re meant to disgust us. Yet while special effects makeup often exaggerates a person’s features to make a strange mish-mash of a face, certain facial deformities do exist in real life and we cruelly shun them.
One film, The Orphanage (2007), which I included in my Scaretastic Halloween Edition scary movie list, sheds light on this reality. Spoiler alert: In the film, the main ghost is a young boy with a burlap sack over his head. We find out in the movie that he was born with birth defects that affected his face and they made him wear the sack on his head so as to spare him from teasing from other children, which no doubt made the teasing and curiosity worse. It was insightful commentary on how we perceive those with physical disabilities that are considered “odd” or “unconventional.”
In most of these movies, the deformities that affect a villain’s facial appearance also seem to mean the villain has a horrible personalities, for example the Wrong Turn franchise. In the franchise, the villains’ facial deformities inherently make them evil and devious. This is such a troubling notion. While I’m a sucker for the ridiculously portrayed cannibalism of the Wrong Turn franchise, much of the film’s gore is purposely heightened by their obviously deformed faces and that in and of itself is a problematic, albeit effective, scare tactic.
Take for example the classic Frankenstein: Frankenstein’s monster becomes a killer, not because he’s evil at the core, but because he is so neglected and hated because of his deformed appearance that he becomes angry and vengeful.
Other physical disabilities are entirely ignored. Society can’t fathom the idea that a person who uses a wheelchair, for example, could be able to survive in a horror film, despite the fact that people with various disabilities across the world easily prove that notion wrong. It’s muddled thinking that horror reinforces: Somehow, we find hell dimensions coming out of a puzzle box more realistic than people with disabilities (physical or mental) being the heroes and persevering.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, horror’s hesitance to diversify is the genres own downfall. The plots become tired, the characters start melding into mindless tropes that seem the same in every movie despite the change of actor. Horror diversifying and not relying on cheap thrills like “look at his messed up face!” will, for one, help in eliminating many of its problematic elements, and get people to take the genre seriously.
Next week, I compile a list of some of the most problematic horror films I’ve ever seen.