The Monster in the Mirror: On Horror, Disability, and Loving Both at Once

One delirious summer night when I was nineteen, I went on a blind date with a man I met on Craigslist who was covered in beautiful tattoos from head to toe. About fifteen minutes after he picked me up from the barn where I worked, he began to get annoyed with my admittedly shallow and casual knowledge of the horror genre (he said in the ad that he wanted to meet ‘a Sherri Moon Zombie character,’ not a horror critic, but I digress). Now, I might technically be a horror fan, he began to explain to me, but no, I was not a very good one, and he was starting to feel like I’d lied to him.

It was then that I noticed he had a set of knuckle tattoos that originated during the Napoleonic Wars, and hoo boy.

Ten minutes later, I was walking back to my workplace via someone’s ditch-side lane, smoking a cigarette and trying to convince my friend on the phone that I was telling the truth about this disaster. I was one scary lady, he had told me, interrupting my very well researched Special Interest Monologue about Nelson’s Navy by slamming on the brakes and kicking me out of his car. Yep, I explained, that really happened that way, I started sperging about the Napoleonic Wars and he told me I was too scary and he drove me almost back to work and he kicked me out of the car.

God, I love horror stories.

I tell fictional ones, too, which may seem a little bizarre given that I’m a weird bathrobe lady who can’t always talk but who also has no problem with loud, profane public meltdowns (and can you please feed my critters this week I’m in a psych ward and I’ll explain when I’m out). The horror genre isn’t always, shall we say, kind to people like me. And yet, I find that I can’t talk about disability—can’t write about my own experiences with autism and comorbid mental illnesses, can’t tell fictional stories about disability—without incorporating elements of a genre that objectifies and vilifies disability so frequently.

It’s been a lifelong thing, my fixation with horror. Steven King’s It was the first real horror I ever encountered, seven years old and terrified of the Bumble in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It was also my first introduction to queer people, but that’s another article altogether. I’d re-read it later on when my brain could actually parse a whole novel, but what I remember from the seven-years-old reading were (1) the exact meaning of a few words I heard on the bus and (2) the concept of something terrifying, shapeshifting, formless—something that was going to beat the everliving hell out of you if you strayed off into the dark.

It wasn’t that I was to this point unafraid of the formless, the slimy, the alien—it was that I hadn’t considered up until now that you could voice fear itself as a topic of conversation. Fear is not encouraged in rural communities, as a general thing, and I was weirdly afraid. I was weirdly everything, especially weirdly afraid, to the point where teachers and strangers and relatives would remark that there was something wrong with me. It was hoped that this was all just me being a pain in the butt, that with discipline and determination I could be less weird. Being afraid, like screaming in public or ‘splaining to strangers or being too squirmy or getting too excited about my books or not excited enough about sports, was against the rules.

So, I guess, there was a thrilling novelty to the idea that you could intentionally just be scared and not have to pretend that you were just okay with the current developments happening around you. Goosebumps books and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark were petrifying when I was small and very anxious, but they were fascinating. The desire to feel fear and the ability to feel it without consequence were just new and cool. There was a kind of decadence to the act of being anxious, and I still have a soft spot for that kind of kitschy, over-the-top spooky: heads rolling off, dead girls haunting drunk drivers with their bicycle bells, inevitable eyeball removal. I miss that kind of spooky.

I have a different relationship with the kind of spooky I rolled into as I got older—as I began to learn that I wasn’t the only kid who got whisked away to therapy appointments for Behavior, who got threatened with the State Hospital, whose peers suspected them of all kinds of unrealistic evil.

There’s a lot of learning that comes with a diagnosis. My first one was autism. The simple meaning of that diagnosis is that I have a hard time speaking, a hard time understanding speech, and a really hard time understanding tasks with a lot of steps. The less simple meaning of that diagnosis is a little harder to explain. Carrying on an unscripted conversation with me, for example, is kind of a wild ride. If I’m comfortable around you, I just won’t look at you. If I’m not comfortable, I’ll aim my twitchy Kylo Ren stare right between your eyes and shred whatever object I happen to have in my hands.

Whether I’m comfortable with you or not, some things remain constant: my speech is best described as ‘Boomhauer Uncensored.’ I monologue, loudly and rapidly, about things that fall under my Special Interests. I can’t really control when I laugh, how loud I speak, how fast I speak, and sometimes whether I can speak at all. As you can tell from the story that began this article, my decision-making and overall common sense are so far above par as to be incomprehensible to the average person and even myself. I have a bizarre memory for detail: without trying, I can recall a specific fact pattern a judge made note of in a ten-year-old case, or I can recall the exact board game some bare acquaintances were discussing among themselves five months ago. It took me a while to learn that the first use of my memory made me Unique and Different and Not Really Disabled At All, More Like Extra Super Abled—while the second use of it just made me a dangerous predator who was obviously doing these things deliberately so I could make people uncomfortable.

And I was one of the lucky ones. I was tiny, white, and cute, with rich parents and a Real Diagnosis and a clean criminal record. It was unpleasant to be shuffled from school to school. It was not remotely the same thing as being funneled from school to jail, or school to the State Hospital, or school to jail to Wilderness Torture Camp where they literally starve you into obedience in the desert in Utah—all while being told that there was nothing wrong with you, that the only disability you faced in your life was your attitude.

So, maybe it wasn’t weird that we all bonded over bad horror movies: Rob Zombie flicks, outlandish exploitation movies, Edgy Internet Horror of the worst varieties. Maybe it wasn’t weird that we spent all that time gossiping and bonding in musty basements while we watched insulting parodies of ourselves stalk and cackle across the jumpy TV screen. Maybe we liked that they confirmed our suspicions, confirmed the things we picked up from the conversations our parents and probation officers were having about us, confirmed the content of the books they brought home about kids like us.

There’s this idea, you see, that gets posited at the beginning of the $5.00 Walmart flick about the insane asylum, about the madman in the trailer in the big empty field. There’s this idea that makes it scary that the Sexy Innocent Heroines in Tight Shirts are trapped in an insane asylum, trapped in proximity to people who have Issues like you.

The idea is that reasonable people are unsettled by you. Reasonable people do not want to be around you. Something about your reality, your boring, pain-in-the-butt reality, is fundamentally scary enough that it’s kind of cliché.

If I’m going to talk about the cliché horror of my youth, I have to talk about Saw, because there was a whole thing about Saw if you were a pretentious high school kid. The thing about Saw was that it wasn’t really a horror movie, it was a gore movie. The thing about Saw was that it wasn’t deep. It wasn’t psychological. I mean, you had to watch Saw, because if there was one thing a tiny queer theater nerd needed it was the edgelord cred that came with watching Saw and munching your pizza rolls and being ‘meh’ about it, but you also had to acknowledge that Saw was Bad.

And Saw was Bad for the same reason that the cheapo horror movies that we brought home from Walmart were bad. It relied on cheap scares—reasonable people are afraid of mutilation with needles and saws and broken glass and that whole bathroom situation. Saw isn’t deep like gothic novels or House of Leaves or Junji Ito comics or all the other cool stuff we were finding as we got older and read more. Bad horror like Saw, you see, just kind of shows you things we already take for granted. Saw doesn’t do anything new.

The point I’m trying to make here, talking about Growing Up Mentally Ill while surrounded by all of this dollar store horror, is that the notion of disability has been worked over in the genre so much that it has become corny. Ability and Disability are consistently at stake in horror works, especially ones designed to have a broad or visceral appeal. And of course the Victorian Hangover pieces of my college years (eldritch tentacles, weird racism, beautiful waifish misunderstood badasses locked in asylums) appealed to our culture’s centralization of ability. Madness, vaguely yet garishly described madness that either leads to death or a life of misery, was the backbone of so many of those stories we held up as Sophisticated Fantasy and loved so uncritically. Is there any outcome worse than disability? A lot of popular horror really struggles to come up with an answer to that question.

It’s a little weird, then, the disabled horror fan’s fixation with a genre that so often dehumanizes us and posits us as worthy or justifiable targets of violence. So much horror depicts disability as an end, or a brief stop down on the way to it—or does it? How many times does the last shot of the horror flick show the monster surviving to lurk another day? How many Saw films did they even wind up making?

See, there’s a thing with surviving disability in horror. If you survive your monstrous, evil disability in a horror movie, if you come back, it is not because you have been accepted by the loving arms of your understanding community. It is because you are a force to be reckoned with. You are going to wreck someone’s day, and it’s going to take a lot of different protagonists over the course of several profitable sequels to defeat you. You, my friend, are One Scary Lady if you are surviving your grisly and justified demise at the end of a horror story. You might even get to redeem your dubious franchise.

I was out of college—and done trying to go to grad school—when I went to go see Insidious II in the theater. It a few days after I got out of the psych ward, with some friends I’d made during that little adventure. It wasn’t really a movie as it was a collection of ugly tropes flung haphazardly at a screen. Cheap scares, bad scares, offensive scares—we spent more time complaining about having paid for the movie than actually watching it.

We got out about midnight, in the middle of a rainstorm unlike anything we’d ever seen. There’s nothing quite like coming out of a mental hospital and into a 500-year flood, let me tell you. The parking lot that night was a lake; the streets were creeks, and the rivers were devouring the highways. Everything was so reflective, and so loud, and so much—and we were here. We were still the same people we were before everything went south. We had not been defeated, and we would be back for a sequel, and then another one. The movie ended, because horror stories must end like all stories do, but we were still here, running around unsupervised, talking about things that made our families Uncomfortable, laughing at things we were supposed to be taking very seriously if we didn’t want to go back. There was a reason, I think, we had gone to see a bad horror movie that night instead of a mediocre romance.

Now, I hope I’ve made it clear this whole time that I’m not really sold, shall we say, on the idea that disability is inherently horrific. If I (a cute little white girl who Western Society will coddle condescendingly no matter what) can see the threat posed to me by horror movie scaryotyping, then it’s safe to assume that the rest of the disabled community is even less amused by the genre’s treatment of disability.

But I do find it very satisfying to work with the idea that Disabled People are Creepy, to at least take the idea in my own clammy, flappy hands.

In the weeks since The Drowning Eyes came out, I’ve seen several readers express a degree of horror at a story element I’ll just refer to as The Eyeball Thing. There was no question as to whether the Eyeball Thing was unsettling—it’s the kind of thing that sticks around in your mind for a while after you ponder it. The question people have concerning the Eyeball thing is why. Why did I feel the need to include a horror element in this upbeat fantasy story? Why did the price of living with her powers have to be so grisly for my protagonist?

The simple answer is that I like writing characters who survive unsettling realities. I want to read and write about people who learn to cope and live and move on with lives that seem like they should make people uncomfortable. It is so very gratifying, as a person who unsettles, to write unsettling characters and unsettling experiences, to rejoice in our survival when so many narratives kill us off or make us safe and tidy again. After all, some of the best classic spooky stories end with learning you’ve been at home with the horror all along.

Top image from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark; art by Stephen Gammell.

Emily Foster is a fantasy author, a science fiction gardener, and a pretty good maker of tuna casserole. Her debut novella The Drowning Eyes became available from Tor.com in January 2016.

12 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!