Ah, horror. The Marmite of literature. You either love it or you hate it, right? Some people live and breathe this genre, while others won’t even read the blurb of a horror novel lest it keep them awake all night. I’m a massive horror fan, but like any genre, it does have its fair share of troublesome tropes and I’m going to be discussing some of them in this second instalment of my new Troublesome Tropes feature. As I said in Troublesome Tropes #1 – Paranormal Romance, I’m by no means an expert on all genres (or any genres with the exception of paranormal romance), so if you fancy writing a guest post detailing the troublesome tropes in your favourite genre, feel free to drop me a message, either through my blog’s contact form or on one my social media pages.
While mental health awareness has greatly improved in the last ten or so years, there’s unfortunately still a stigma attached to mental illness and what doesn’t help shake this stigma is authors using mental illness as a horror device. One example that springs to mind is Matt Wesolowski’s Hydra. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic book, but for me, the use of mental illness is troubling. Readers are introduced to Arla Macleod, a young woman who bludgeoned her family to death with a hammer. While she’s being interviewed, she reveals that she’s been plagued by what are possibly supernatural entities for years. Consequently, the question becomes did supernatural forces compel her to commit murder, or is she mentally ill? There’s this idea that people living with mental illness, in particular with conditions such as schizophrenia – the symptoms of which arguably match some of Arla’s – are violent and dangerous. However, studies into the link between schizophrenia and violence lend little weight to this assertion and characters with schizophrenia or schizophrenic symptoms being portrayed as such only serves to exacerbate this harmful idea. Moreover, to equate a real life mental illness with supernatural possession only serves to encourage the idea that people with mental illness are somehow scary, which could well discourage people exhibiting symptoms from seeking support out of fear of how family, friends and society as a whole will view them.
Be it in books or movies, sex is a dangerous pastime in horror, especially if you’re a woman. In Gregory A. Douglas’ The Nest, there are multiple characters who are gruesomely killed whilst in the throes of pleasure. In one scene, a drunken couple’s forest tryst is brought to an abrupt halt when the woman realises that something that isn’t her husband’s hand is touching her in “that place”. Moments later, both are being devoured by killer cockroaches. In another scene, a woman who became an accidental voyeur to a guy making, ahem, good use of a groove in the forest floor is similarly dispatched, with Douglas even going as far to tell his readers that she could feel the cockroaches in “her privates, front and rear.” Earlier in the book, this woman’s teenage daughters also meet their demise at the mandibles of the hungry cockroaches. How did they stumble upon these roaches? They were pursuing a couple of guys who they’d taken a shine to and, as he does with their mother later in the book, Douglas describes exactly which parts the insects target. Douglas – real name Eli Cantor – died in 2006, so whether these women seemingly being punished for their sexuality was a deliberate ploy, we’ll never know. However, the death by sex trope is one that appears again and again in the horror genre, particularly in movies, and it’s pretty disturbing.
The most recent movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches has been met with a wave of backlash for its portrayal of those with limb differences and, unfortunately, this isn’t the first time physical differences have been used as a means of identifying a character as being ‘evil’. In Gaston Leroux’s 1909 Gothic horror novel The Phantom of the Opera, the titular character is described as having sunken eyes and cheeks, no nose and yellow, parchment-like skin, and guess what? He’s the novel’s antagonist. Moving into horror movies, we have characters like Freddy Krueger, whose face is severely scarred and, again, he’s the movie’s antagonist. A quick Google search turns up results for villains across multiple genres who have some form of disfigurement, from Scar in Disney’s The Lion King to Safin and Blofield in the James Bond series. The continual use of physical differences as a way of demonstrating that a character is ‘evil’ is sickening. It perpetuates the idea that people with physical differences are something to be feared and it’s wrong that a majority of representation comes in the form of villains and antagonists. A person’s evil is demonstrated by their actions, not by how they look.
So there we have it. Three troublesome horror tropes. There is one troublesome trope that I haven’t mentioned, but there’s so much discussion on it that it deserves a post of its own, so watch this space! What horror tropes do you find troublesome? Let me know in the comments below.
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