Robert Hoge’s 2013 autobiography “Ugly” shares some harsh but staggeringly true words– not everyone is pretty, and unfortunately, some people are ugly. Hoge himself was born with deformed legs and a giant tumor between his eyes, and in the opening chapters of “Ugly,” he recounts how his mother’s shock over his appearance left her uncertain over whether to bring him home or not. It’s a poignant and heartrending account of otherness rooted in physicality, of a look so ostensibly “monstrous” one’s own mother conjectures that a child might not simply be worth loving. Hoge, now a motivational speaker and writer, contends that not everyone can be pretty. We can teach ourselves and our children and our children’s children to accept and love everyone everywhere– to treat them with respect– but the immutable fact remains that there will always be standards, always cultural impositions on what it means to be pretty and what it means to be ugly.
The horror genre writ large– for as profoundly progressive as it has historically been– ordinarily others and marginalizes those who look different– those who are “ugly.” Images of Hoge at birth are not all that unlike Jason Voorhees’s unmasking in Friday the 13th: Part 2 or Lon Chaney’s Phantom. Pulptastic slashers, for instance, beyond equating virginity with survival, similarly contend that one’s own good looks were considerable deterrents to death. Attractive characters died, yes, but ugly characters never lived. There were times when the exhibition of my own body was a show I didn’t want anyone to go to. Perennial exorcists Ed and Lorraine Warren were Hollywood glam, gorgeously styled effigies of the industry’s and the genre’s own standards, a tacit postulation that to hunt ghosts, one must look good while doing so, likeness to the real-world subjects be damned. I never saw much of myself in it. I was Bathsheba to the gorgeous exorcists.
It’s a perennial problem both within and beyond the genre, perhaps rendered all the more potent within on account of the genre’s very framework. Horror needs monsters, and what easier way to design a monster than to make them ugly. The purpose here, though, is not to relitigate horror’s checkered history with otherness and monsters. Physicality, race, gender, and sexuality, particularly in the early years, were easy graven images for the brutes and bogeyman terrorizing on screen. That much is a given, a commonality that once existed, no different than the innate misogyny present in some early “women in peril” flicks. In the years since, however, the genre has morphed and evolved, and for every monstrous incarnation urging you to hate your own body and the way you look, there’s a story or creature that defies the odds.
In Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins’ Elisa develops a relationship with Doug Jones’s “Amphibian Man.” A Golden Age mosaic of love and loss, the body of Elisa and the “Amphibian Man” become one, a vessel of transcendent connection with another living creature, otherness be damned. Little Monsters, too, embraces the thesis of star Lupita Nyong’o’s own children’s book “Sulwe” where a dark-skinned girl learns to love the way she looks. In Little Monsters, Nyong’o is serenaded with Neil Diamond songs and deftly avoids the living dead, all the while shielding her young charges from harm. It is a welcome change from the “medicine man” or “mythical negro” tropes whereby the ostensible otherness of one’s skin was augmented and perverted to frighten white audiences.
Contemporary movies aren’t entirely immune to the stereotypes of the past, however. The First Purge’s central antagonist Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) is a deranged drug addict with Freddy Kruger-esque syringe claws, the first of the Staten Island residents to purge. His spotlight scene is a graphic massacre where he cuts down partygoers at a block party with a knife. With an exaggerated, almost minstrel look, Skeletor is coded as scary because of how he looks. These ideals are so deeply entrenched, it’ll likely be some time before they disappear completely, and perhaps more than anything, the structural shift in the horror landscape has been profound enough to make these depictions all the more conspicuous. Body-positive horror films like Raw and Teeth are indie juggernauts that remain disturbingly erotic yet primally rich. Otherness may still be a monster, but from the right perspective– the perspective of the other and the marginalized– it is abounding with subtext, an urgent scream to accept bodies no matter how they look.
Most famous of all is perhaps David Cronenberg’s The Fly, a meditative yet nonetheless terrifying examination of one man’s transformation into a giant, oozing, Brobdingnagian fly. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis imbue their characters with such empathy and ceaseless humanity, Goldblum’s scientist Seth is never rendered monstrous for his looks, but rather for his actions.
He is a monster of hubris and avarice, not form. And through it all, Cronenberg never loses sight of the humanity. Even in the final moments, Davis’s Ronnie still loves him. She loves him now and could still love him. Body horror eccentricities empower the audience and challenge the societal constraints on what makes a body worthy of acceptance; all bodies are.
Horror is better posed than any other genre to interrogate the undying ills of society. The core formula is to recontextualize the specious monster and redirect the lens to the true behemoth lurking beneath the surface. The monster is not the fly man or the deformed child in the lake, but rather the assemblage of our own prejudices and collective propensity for eliminating the perspective of the peripheral. First, we make monsters and then challenge them on screen. That’s a tenuous proposition, though, because too often, we misidentify the real monster. To preserve and protect, we turn the innocent into bogeymen. Burn victims that stalk our dreams and asylum patients who conspire to steal our children. Long and gangly specters in the woods or giant, paunchy beasts in the night. Horror, however, is on the right track. There’s a long way to go, though in due time– as evidenced by the genre’s current output– otherness will no longer be synonymous with “scary.” Anything short of that is, well, just plain ugly.