Saturday, June 17, 2017

Changing Ableist Language and Tropes in the Horror Genre

Monsters such as the Shoggoth can unhinge the minds
of viewers.  What is the central horror in such a trope?
Is the trope inherently ableist?  How can the
trope be re-imagined to support understanding of
disability, rather than promote misconceptions?
For some time now I've been reconsidering the use of certain words - a subset of which center around labels for mental illness such as "crazy."  I am a person with mental illness/disability and am finding more and more that such words are at best lazy and at worst ableist.  Of course these words have been problematic for years.  I think one reason I'm late to this particular party, (especially as someone who has MI) is that I've developed a fondness for some of these words, if used in specific ways.

For example, as a research scientist who studies the Moon, I've sometimes self-labeled as a "lunatic" - a fanatic about the moon.  I learned this term from others in the field who also use describe themselves this way.  Another expression I've used for myself is "mad" scientist.  As a scientist who writes speculative poetry and fiction, this seemed like a very appropriate (and fun) descriptor. 

Certainly within the world of horror, tropes like the "mad" scientist are a issue.  Horror has a longstanding relationship with "madness," from monsters whose very visage causes "insanity," to haunted asylums, to the chainsaw-wielding "crazy" person.  I think these tropes can promote ableism and/or ableist rhetoric, depending on how they are approached.  Again this is not a new idea.  There are a variety of opinions about the many “madness” tropes in horror - positive, negative, and everything in between.

One positive example comes from the disability advocacy site “Cracked Mirror in Shallot” where the author says “ … the narrative of the haunted asylum allows us to reveal and name rightly the horror of abuse within societal structures.”  The author states, “So when a horror movie lays bare the reality of institutions and being disabled in those environments, I both shiver at the treatment and thrill that the polite skirting that normally hides what could be my reality is lifted.”

But at Everyday Feminism author Kris Nelson speaks of concerns that these horror tropes are inherently ableist, saying “… the scare tropes used in these types of horror movies don’t end when the credit [sic] start rolling," and "These depictions of mental hospitals and the patients within them contribute to the very real, very scary treatment of mentally disabled and neurodivergent people today.”  The author exhorts horror buffs to “become aware when the media you consume desensitizes you to the abuse of people like myself.”

So is there a way to reclaim some of these problematic horror tropes - to morph them in ways that make them (1) expand ideas of personhood and (2) work as effective horror?

In the Disability Studies Quarterly, author Melinda Hall says in her paper Horrible Heroes:  Liberating Alternative Visions of Disability in Horror, "I claim that horror, despite its frequent abuse of disability, has significant potential to structure alternative encounters with and visions of disability. These alternative encounters can build inroads to political inclusion by fostering the acceptance of vulnerability and pushing for the rejection of exclusive social norms and ableism by highlighting them as horrific."

Hall uses specific examples to support her ideas including the work of Tim Burton, of whom she says, "Ultimately, Burton brings forward portraits of difference in order to accept, not reject, them, thus subverting the basic thrust of horror fiction."  She goes on to say that the only thing in these stories that really end up horrifying the viewer is "the treatment of outsiders by an intolerant social context."

I wonder that this has been one of the reasons I have always been partial to Burton’s vision - this sense of the strange one as the protagonist, and how it recasts what we choose to see or call “strange.”

So what are the implications for the speculative writer who enjoys horror?  One idea I have is that I'm going to be more clear in the future about the motivation for dastardly deeds - they will be the result of evil, not "insanity."  Otherwise, that just plays into the misconception that people with MI are perpetrators of crime, when in fact it is far more likely they will end up the victims of crime.

To emphasize evil (and to cleverly wrap around to the beginning of this post) I'm going to avoid lazy, harmful phrases like "the villain was crazy." Instead I'm going to use words like "the villain was vile, disgusting, unworthy, contemptible, nefarious, nasty, tyrannical, wretched, corrupt, wicked, depraved, sinister, diabolical, and fiendish."  His deeds will not be "insane" instead they will be "unpredictable, irrational, atrocious, obscene, ruinous, destructive, outrageous, pernicious, malign, odious, shocking, violent and foul." 

I'm also going to be more proactive about seeing how tropes can be turned inside-out to create something terrifying that yet carries the truth of the experience of mental illness/disability.  I do think we can have some good, fun, ghastly horror that improves the world while creeping us out.  It will take originality and cleverness, which I think will improve the genre all around.

But I think for a while yet, um ... I'm still going to think of myself as a "mad" scientist ...

Image Credit:  Shoggoth CC 3.0 Wikimedia Commons