‘Othering’: Facial Disfigurement and Psychological Thrillers

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What does it mean to ‘other’ an individual or group? Simply, it is to exclude another on the basis of what makes them different to the conventional. This includes but is not limited to: sex, gender, queerness, disability, religion, race, etc. In the horror genre, I see one form of ‘othering’ more often than others – body/facial ‘disfigurements’, which are deployed under the guise of ‘body horror’. There is nothing inherently wrong or malicious in including characters with facial or body ‘disfigurements’ in horror media, however, their prominence within the genre’s villains is staggering and propagates the harmful narrative that those who are physically ‘other’ to the conventional person are, more often than not, evil.

The Horror genre encompasses many sub-genres: thrillers or psychological horrors, slashers, torture porn – the list goes on. However, I believe that one of these deploys the process of ‘othering’ to a far larger degree than the others; this is the psychological thriller. Recent examples of psychological thrillers include The Invisible Man, Hush, Midsommar, and Gerald’s Game, the latter of which will be my focus. 

We have to question to a great extent why physical otherness would incite fear.

Gerald’s Game, the 2017 adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name, is a psychological thriller in which a married couple vacations to a secluded cabin in the hopes of reigniting the intimacy that has been lost between them. Upon their arrival, the couple head to the bedroom, where the husband (Gerald) handcuffs the wife (Jessie) to the bed so that they can engage in a sexual roleplay of a non-consensual encounter. It becomes apparent that Jessie is uncomfortable with the arrangement and she lashes out at Gerald who, in an unfortunate turn of events, dies from a heart attack following complications of Viagra use. This leaves Jessie in a position where she is alone, handcuffed to a bed, in a secluded area, with no food or water. The remainder of the movie details the psychological torment that arises from the direness of her situation. 

Whilst I was a big fan of the movie, the presence of the ‘Moonlight Man’, is deeply uncomfortable. The greatest point of tension is Jessie’s inability to determine whether or not the ‘Moonlight Man’, who she sees in the corner of the bedroom staring at her in complete silence, is real or a figment of her imagination. The encounter with the Moonlight Man, who easily stands at 7 feet tall and has both cranial and facial growths, uses his unconventional appearance to incite fear and discomfort in the viewer. The set-up of the first encounter relies on the ‘othered’ status of his appearance to imply that he is a scary and/or bad man. There are several issues with this. 

First, the Moonlight Man wouldn’t need to be a physical ‘other’ in order to incite fear within the first encounter. The fact that Jessie cannot tell if the stranger stood in the corner watching her is real or not is enough to send shivers down the spine of a viewer. Sure, one could argue that the physical otherness creates an additional layer of discomfort for the viewer, but if we are to accept that then we need to question to a great extent why physical otherness would incite fear. 

Writers play into and perpetuate the harmful narrative that one’s appearance correlates with their moral standing…

This brings me to a second point – in relying on this assumption that physical otherness is an apt method of inciting fear, writers play into and perpetuate the harmful narrative that one’s appearance correlates with their moral standing and that physical differences should play a role in how we perceive an individual’s moral character. Of course, this is absurd. But the perpetual use of this tired trope simply propagates this harmful narrative. Ultimately, it is lazy writing. 
As I have already mentioned, the first appearance of the Moonlight Man, in that particular context, is terrifying. Instead of relying on the shock of physical otherness, the directors (and arguably King) could have instead drawn attention to the fact that this individual was a stranger in her house. You do not need to implement physical ‘otherness’ in the stranger to highlight the undeniably terrifying context. Like I have said, the unnecessary inclusion of bodily and/or facial disfigurements within villains of the Psychological Thriller genre for the sole purpose of inciting fear from the viewer is a lazy trope that relies on and further perpetuates a ridiculously harmful narrative. For the psychological thriller sub-genre, it would lead to a far higher quality of psychological unease in the viewer if writers and directors focused their attention on creating a psychologically intense viewing experience than on the cheap exploitation of physical otherness for scares.

Image Credits: Florian Haun via Unsplash

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