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Building on my answer in Proven psychological or scientific means of scaring people?, I'm working on a universal horror-theme structure for a branching-narrative series with an occult detective. I won't discuss the whole system, but the idea is that each story has multiple themes that progress incrementally. Choices take the reader deeper down a particular horror scenario, with branches to other juxtaposed themes.

One of my universal horror themes is strong, but problematic.

Body Horror – this theme is a problem because it plays into universal fears of aging, disability, amputation, disease, birth defects, injury, bad plastic surgery.... It's a legitimate horror theme that I can see escalating to its logical conclusion. Examples are Stephen King's Thinner, and Tod Browning's Freaks.

I don't see a PC way to handle body horror tropes. I don't think horror needs to be PC, but a recent lecture about zombies by a guy in a wheelchair has made me question the whole theme as reenforcing a bad message. Nearly every body horror idea I run through my system reflects real world ablism, or a hierarchy that body-shames real people.

I'm not trying to be PC police of an entire genre. Body horror is legitimately scary. I would rather be able to tap into it.

How can I portray body horror and still be sensitive to people with disabilities?

We have visceral fears about our bodies coming to harm or being consumed. Disease, decay, and body revulsion seem like a big part of horror, definitely one of the few universal fears that everyone shares. I've only identified 8 universal fears – losing 1 knocks out a lot of story possibilities. I could limit it to metaphor and abstraction (a decaying house), but it's not visceral and personal like the body.

Body horror is also the theme that sometimes knocks me out of the genre. Films like Saw become just so much torture porn. I wouldn't indulge in gore, but still the threat and consequences of physical harm works as a logical escalation of a horror theme. Horror without consequences is like Scooby-Doo.

Can I raise the stakes in a body horror theme in a way that avoids an inherently ableist message? Can I tap into this anxiety without simultaneously punching-down on real life disabled, sick, and differently-bodied people? This is not about putting a hero in a wheelchair to make an empowering statement. Rather this is about leveraging a particular universal fear, without crapping on people who already have it rough.

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    If the body deformations are inflicted by an external malicious agent, why should that offend someone who was born with it, or received it by accident? – NofP Feb 19 at 17:47
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    I'm not sure? I'm not trying to speak for disabled people –– but if a malicious agent made someone obese, or old, or have minority skin, I think that sends an authorial message that those are bad things…. Also the body revulsion might be external, that's usually how the trope works, a character sees it in others initially, and then it happens to them, or it comes to them incrementally, like a degenerative disease. Often they just see someone repulsive and there is a value judgement innate to that situation. – wetcircuit Feb 19 at 18:04
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    Have you seen the Twilight Zone episode Eye of the Beholder? The story deals with 'What is beauty?' Perhaps the answer to your dilemma is to turn the message on its head--you may be able to tap into horror while acknowledging the problem with an ableist message. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Eye_of_the_Beholder (FTR I have no idea if this is a PC comment or not, but it seems that good stories are layered and that idea may be part of the answer.) – DPT Feb 19 at 18:21
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    @DPT, that's a good example. It actually invokes the value system but in a critical way, and the end leaves you feeling ambiguous and unsettled, not preached at. You make me realize, there are probably other angles to playing with the same ideas... – wetcircuit Feb 19 at 20:14
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    I'm really, really, happy that none of these answers (so far) are garbage or ableist. fingers crossed that the trend continues. – user49466 Feb 20 at 14:03

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Disabled people fear losing functionality as much as anyone else. Perhaps even more so, because they need to rely on existing functional parts more strongly than others do.

What you want to avoid is putting a value on it. For example, losing a limb is awful and creates huge challenges in performing tasks of everyday living, transportation, and may require changing careers. No one is going to dispute this. You can show all that. You can show the fear of going through that. Just avoid judgements like "no man would want her now" or "his life was no longer worth living."

You can use disability as a starting point as well (hopefully you'll have some disabled characters in there). No one would want an accident that makes them deaf, for instance, but for someone who is already blind, the very idea of it would be terrifying beyond belief. Someone who is already Deaf would be far more horrified at the idea of losing a hand than someone who is hearing.

An additional disability can be easier for someone who already has one or more, because they're used to the idea of making changes to accommodate. And the changes they've already made might be useful for the extra need too. Other times though, it's harder than the first one. Because if you have already gone to extensive hassle and expense and changing not just your life but those of the people who need to accommodate you, doing it all over again is just too fracking much.

I don't know if your definition of "body horror" includes the brain. One great fear we all have is losing our memories. Not an amnesia situation (though that could be a horror too), but dementia and similar conditions. We all rely on our memories to get through life but someone of may need them more than others. People who are face blind, for example, have trouble recognizing even people they may know well. If you can no longer count on your memory to figure out who the person is (based on clothing, hair, context, etc), you're in trouble.

A person with an invisible disability may fear exposure. It doesn't have to be about shame. They may fear the social ostracization , the change in how people treat them, losing their job or not being allowed to do parts of it, losing a spouse, or even having their children taken away. Invisible disabilities can become visible if they get worse or if a second disability changes the person's ability to function in a way that doesn't seem "different."

My biggest concerns with showing a character acquiring a disability are:

  • That the fear and horror is of becoming disabled. If you show disabled people also going through this horror, that turns this on its head.
  • The idea that being disabled means your life is worth less. No more post-accident suicides (my God! really, just no!).
  • The idea that people with disabilities are less physically attractive.
  • A value judgment on the newly disabled person (lazy, demanding, not important, can't work any more, needs lifelong help, etc...even if some of these things are true, they can still be stereotypes).
  • That using adaptive equipment is a sign of "giving up."
  • And the worst: inspiration porn. If you just work really hard and want it enough, you'll get better!
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    This is the best answer. My sister has a permanent disability and a recent film ended with the disabled character committing suicide to "not be a burden" which was absolutely the worst message. I wish I had more than one upvote for this. – linksassin Feb 19 at 23:26
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    Thank you @linksassin. I'm disabled myself and so are most of my friends. Those "burden" movies make me sick. There's just no excuse for them at all. They're nondisabled people's horror-fantasies. – Cyn Feb 19 at 23:29
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    Thank you both! @linksassin is right, this is probably the most important perspective. – wetcircuit Feb 19 at 23:46
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    no man would want her now could be useful if you're trying to portray the cruelty of society. – forest Feb 20 at 3:53
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    @forest Yes, sure. But there are so few depictions of disability as usual and okay. Even though a huge percentage of people develop one or more disabilities over their lifetime, and many more have temporary conditions (like a broken leg) or medical conditions that they need to work around. As a disabled person I must say I'm pretty fracking sick of feeling like I exist solely to show the cruelty of the "real world." – Cyn Feb 20 at 14:53
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Having a villain lop off an arm or leg ought not offend someone who either was born without them or lost them due to accident or combat. Losing limbs is not desirable.

I have some disabled friends. One has told me on multiple occasions that he envies me my kidneys. One complaint I hear is people treat him differently. They treat him like he is disabled.

There are jerks and wonderful people who are disabled. Being dismissive of their status as human beings and treating them as though they are special is more likely to offend.

I have two things that some call disabilities;a permanently injured ankle due to a car accident and epilepsy. I am not disabled by them, so they are not disabilities.

Fears are valid themes. Hitchcock would take a single fear, so would Poe. Some fears were exotic, others more universal.

Fear of dismemberment can be more visceral than fear of death as it encapsulates a fear of losing one’s independence. With death, it is all over but anything less than that is survived and such survival and the adaptations required can be terrifying.

I knew a man who thought because he was in a wheelchair, his life was over. I told him it was just another way to get around - same thing I told my mother when she became wheelchair bound after a stroke and heart attack.

When I was recovering from the car accident, I was temporarily wheelchair bound. This man thought I was done for because of the wheelchair. Later, when I walked in to visit him, he did not recognize me. I was supposed to be in a wheelchair.

  • Thank you, reality check is good. It's suppose to be horror after all. – wetcircuit Feb 19 at 23:48
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    "I have some disabled friends.... They treat him like he is disabled." I'm sure the irony doesnt escape us. – Laurence Payne Feb 20 at 15:40
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    @LaurencePayne - Would you prefer I list the multiple reasons they are confined to a chair? One had cerebral palsy, among other things, so had no control over her limbs. The other has nine maladies including a recent loss of strength and muscle mass due to an infection in a hospital. Shorthand is useful at times. – Rasdashan Feb 20 at 16:47
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If you want to be PC, stick to symptoms of infectious diseases, where the sense of body horror would reinforce prevention and be justified as a mean towards avoiding contagion.

As the OP suggests, body horror is about body transformations that go in undesired directions. Thanks to evolution, and sometimes thanks to human activity, we have a very large pool of examples, for instance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_congenital_disorders

The list is even longer if we consider diseases that can be acquired during the course of life, and human interventions such as prosthetics from centuries past, and some plastic surgery.

Political correctness is aimed at avoiding forms of expression that exclude or marginalize certain groups of disadvantaged people. There are however some groups of people that are necessarily excluded from normal interactions with the rest of society. These are people with very contagious and lethal diseases. For the normal, medically untrained individual, to be able to recognize the symptoms of such diseases and avoid them is actually a desirable goal.

I think that body horror that would play on the physical symptoms of these diseases would not just be politically correct, but also desirable as a mean toward a form of contagion prevention. In addition, our mind is probably tuned to feel disgust and horror towards the most obvious of such symptoms. Even more so, it would be natural to feel very scared after finding such sings on one own's body. Play on them, exaggerate them, make sure that your readers can feel the horror, and in a sense you'll be even doing a service to mankind.

Some examples, not for the faint of heart:

black plague, Zygomycosis, Certain fungal infections, Peruvian warts, and Syphilis, Smallpox & Co.

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    omg, those links give me anxiety. Added benefit is it could strike anyone in any order, and be associated with an eerie artifact that "brings back" the disease, and could be a way to track a MacGuffin through its victims. WOW! Thank you, yes I think this works on multiple levels, and also minimal marginalization since it would presumably be egalitarian in how it strikes. – wetcircuit Feb 19 at 20:06
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To the best of my understanding, the main problem with the zombie genre is that it positions decay-disease-disability as non-human evil to be eradicated, and as a threat to humankind. (I don't necessarily agree with that statement, but that appears to be what the guy in the video you link to is saying.)

If we accept that premise, the way to write more PC body horror would be to break this connection. Some examples of how one can do that:

  • Maybe you tell the story from the POV of the zombie. His yesterday friends and family treat him as humans usually treat zombies in the genre, only he isn't in fact a crazy monster hungry for human flesh. (Doesn't have to be specifically zombies. The subject of being unfairly marginalised because of one's disability would be familiar to the group you want to build up.)
  • Maybe the story isn't about surviving/defeating the monster, but about finding a cure. Maybe the MC has to observe his own degeneration, or the degeneration of a loved one.
  • Maybe what is being inflicted on the victims is not "ugliness", but beauty - some dictator makes everyone look like Holywood actors, against their will.

Those are just off the top of my head, more examples can be found.

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    Metamorphosis would be a good example of a story being told from the POV of the transformed person. Your post made me think of it. – Cyn Feb 19 at 23:53
  • There's also a show (movie?) I never watched called I Zombie that resembles your first bullet point. – Aethenosity Feb 21 at 16:08
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I wonder if you might be able to get somewhere by subverting some of the expectations of disability or body horror - maybe subverting some of the expectations that might have ableist implications, or even challenging ablistic themes. Changing just one of "what the disability/change is" "what it looks like" or "how others react to it" might be pretty interesting and still let you keep the theme.

Yeah, that sounds really abstract. I was thinking, you mention using certain changes or disabilities may be problematic because they reinforce certain kinds of social expectations or judgements. If there are changes to a person's body that aren't "usual" disabilities, or have (perceived) tradeoffs, that might change, well, quite bit. There is (I think) body horror in being something one had thought poorly of being, which it sounds like you're seeing may be problematic, but also body horror in, say, loss of control or threat to identity, or in differences to how others react, and those might work to shape the scenario differently.

Concrete examples, I think, would help. So, you worry that making a character suddenly obese (and that it is a source of horror) may have poor implications about certain body types and their societal perception. If you make a character suddenly thinner, though, that could have a very different set of implications. One suddenly becoming thinner may still have issues with the lack of control, a nonconsensual modification of their body. Or there may be other changes going on, like a loss of strength (less muscle mass, less leverage). Maybe the newly graceful and elegant hands lack strength of grip, or heard-earned [craftsmanship] skills, leaving their person fumbling or suddenly clumsy. And this kind of change is still a threat to identity, that they no longer look like themselves, can no longer fit what they had been or what they could do.

There are plenty who would see losing weight as a positive, especially a transformation from someone on the heavier side to a body that is more coveted... and, well, that can also play into a kind of horror. Maybe that leads to the inclusion of the horror of, how do I say it, nonconformity (that others don't see or understand them, the lack of communication, lack of sympathy or aid, and other alone-in-the-crowd stuff which is also, I think, a kind of deep and widespread horror).

Another example might be someone gaining an ability, but traumatically. I think I've seen this more with unnatural abilities, but someone developing a natural ability they had lacked might still tap into some nicely horror-ish themes. So, say, someone who was blind is now gaining sight. It can be gained traumatically (something like non-consensual experimentation or supernatural interference etc, etc.) Or its gain can be paired with other losses, perhaps the whatever that is giving them eyesight is also interfering with other senses, ie, the sharp hearing or well-trained touch that let them navigate the world with confidence before, and that loss can be very disorienting because it is still damage to how they see the world, and their own skills that they had thought they could rely on. Or else the acquired sense is itself traumatic to them, one who was blind for a very long time or born blind might have very little reference for how to use this sight, it may disorient them or interfere with their sensory feedback in other ways - maybe to them it feels like suddenly hallucinating with all this extra input they don't know how to interpret.

Other kinds of bodily changes can be perceived neutral to perceived positive, and still horrifying to a person changing against their will, or coupled with other disabilities or "tradeoffs" that the person would never accept as fair trade. And, you can play a "lack of help" or "lack of understanding/sympathy" theme along with this, it kinda makes sense to me that the fears of the body failing or being consumed would be right there with the fear of a lack of help, lack of care, lack of understanding.

Another possible option might be more than one transformation - having paired or even sequential transformations that, um, point in different directions should also help make it about the (non-consensual) change, not about the direction the change was in. Someone being made obese, and then they (or someone else) being made boney-thin, would make it less about obesity-as-a-horror and more about alteration-as-a-horror. Or one change to make a person old and infirm and another changing to be younger and then being patronized, controlled, or otherwise deemed incapable (rightly or wrongly). Changing skin colors/ethnicity or other minority traits could become pretty interesting with more than one transformation, in more than one direction, and you can get a lot of "not-me-not-my-identity" horror rather than a judgement-on-being-that horror... especially if everyone changing comes out the worse for it one way or another.

I can't think of example subversions for the body being decayed or consumed at the moment, but it might still work to include tradeoffs, whether perceived or real and irregardless of if character thinks it's worth it. Or paired horrors with one transforming as doing, one transforming as being done to, and horror from both. This sort of thing might work to make the message complicated, and have your horror subverting instead of reflecting real-world injustices.

Ah, but a lot of this will depend on your style and your intent, maybe none of it fits what you want to see or do in your world, maybe the kind of inversion I'm describing isn't where you wanted to go. You might be able to find some different points where a change or reversal can offset what you don't want, and let you keep what you do want, it may just take some thinking and trying out different contexts.

I hope you find some of this rambling useful :)

  • Lot's of great suggestions here! I especially like emphasizing unwanted change over some specific change, and the un-sympathy of others…. Also the oddness of maybe not changing but everyone else perceives change (mis-identity). Also a great horror idea of getting something you want, but also getting something else in a Faustian bargain… Sounds like you have some great ideas! I wish I could upvote twice! – wetcircuit Feb 20 at 11:26
  • @wetcircuit - I'm glad you find something useful in my suggestions :) – Megha Mar 1 at 0:42
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Some works of horror use their monster to punish those who deserve punishing, in a Calvinist or Moralizing narrative. Think Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The factory chews up the bad kids and leaves only the righteous. It's one thing to say that a magical factory or a werewolf will punish the bad people. It's entirely another to portray disability itself as a moral punishment for being a bad person. This instills the idea that disabled people are disabled because they in some way deserve it.

So you should make your body-horror be morally indiscriminate. Do not use body horror to dispense justice. You could do this by putting at least one character in each category:

  • A righteous and deserving character becomes disabled
  • Another righteous and deserving character gets away with no new injuries
  • An unsympathetic and undeserving character becomes disabled
  • Another unsympathetic and undeserving character gets away with no new injuries

This will make it clear that although getting a disabling injury is bad, it doesn't only happen to bad people, and it doesn't make one a bad person.

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Prince Randian, as seen in Freaks, lights a cigarette with a match using only his mouth. If you cut my arms and legs off, it'd be quite some time before I was able to do that.

I'm not disabled and I don't know anyone who is but from what I understand, learning how to cope with a disability is the hard part. For those that have, life goes on as usual. For those that haven't yet, the horror has just begun.

You don't have to showcase them, but have at least one character that gets along just fine living with a disability, otherwise it will be dismemberment porn.

You can raise the stakes as high as you want, especially if they've had no time to cope. But if they've spent years in this condition, the only offensive thing to do IMO is to present any disability as not being able to be overcome (that isn't wasting, like a bacterial infection - ain't no coping with that stuff - you're confined to a bed).

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Body horrors that don't dehumanise disabled or sick people:

A disease makes people look very sick and, eventually, kills them. There is pus and blood and vomit. The hero does not shoot the infected in the face. She makes a makeshift biohazard suit out of garbage bags, duct tape and a CPAP machine, and tries to keep her sick mother hydrated. She knows that if she makes even a small mistake, she could get infected and die too.

The man is magically transformed into a disgusting creature that does not at all resemble a sick or disabled person. His skull splits in two, revealing his true face, with eight eyes and hairy mouth-parts. Look out! Here comes the spider man.

A passenger becomes pregnant against her will. She gives birth to a flesh-machine that will never love her; it isn't a person, it isn't even a vertebrate. For a few days, she tries to care for it as if it was a human child, until it crawls away to become part of the spaceship. She grieves the loss of her "baby". (This one was in The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley) (If I was going to write a story about a strange and inhuman baby, I would specifically want to make it not resemble a metaphor for an autistic child who whose neurotypical mother cannot relate to her child)

You wake up in hospital. You can see your own guts. The surgeon carries on, not realising you are awake.

The police arrive at a grisly scene. The mob decided to "make an example of him". There are pieces everywhere. It looks like they tried to play soccer with his head, until the brains started falling out of his fractured skull.

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While it may seem counter-intuitive, going almost-unrealistically overboard is less likely to strike a nerve. Touching the subject lightly risks the uncanny valley effect. In other words, the light touch can make the pain all-too-real. While an overly-exaggerated violence would make the pain of the victims unrelatable.

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    Isn't that counter-productive? The problem often is that victims are already "unrelatable", dehumanised because of the way they look. How would taking that even further help? I'm not sure I understand your answer. – Galastel Feb 20 at 22:57
  • If a disabled person can't relate to the victims, they won't be harmed by the depiction. The less reminiscent it is of their real life condition, the less likely it is to traumatize them. – grovkin Feb 20 at 23:03
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One useful example may be the Worm/Ward series (Especially Ward, though it's still in progress), by Wildbow/JC Macrae. In this world, people often get superpowers due to intense trauma. Superpowers of course means battles, so there's even more chaos.

https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/NightmareFuel/Ward

Our protagonist in Ward (Victoria) was seriously warped by a bio-tinker for several years, and resists using her powers for a long time at the start, but later she uses flight to compensate for a twisted ankle, or her strong force-field to compensate for a broken arm still recovering.

In Worm, that book's protagonist (Taylor) was seriously injured several times, and sometimes it was almost absurd how she could compensate with her powers, yet even she had a fear of lock-in syndrome that resurfaced in many battles.

There's a fan podcast called "We've Got Ward" that does a great job analyzing things, and it helped highlight some of the strategies that Wildbow used to have respectful body horror. (Alas, the podcast is 60 episodes, and Ward is over 1 million words by now, so I can't steer you to a specific pinpoint section as a model.)

In earlier chapters of Ward, Victoria gets to see a therapist after a long delay, and she just wants "coping" strategies, because she doesn't believe she can truly be healed. But there is a huge amount of internal growth, while still horrific things are happening. (She doesn't suffer the worst of it, but she is right there, trying to comfort & communicate with someone who has been dismembered and sections taken to a villain's lair, yet all parts are still alive. )

So while most of us aren't fighting supervillains in our daily lies, we could easily lose a limb, or have a degenerative disease that makes physical control grow more difficult with emotion (Sveta) or limit sensation (Weld). We may not be mind-controlled by the queen of another world, or shoot rays of emotion-power, but we may have depression or another mental illness. So even though this is a "dark fantasy" story, the traumas reflect normal human trauma.

I think the most important thing to stay respectful is to focus on your characters as distinct beings with their own backgrounds and reactions. So someone who is appearance-based may have a stronger reaction to what seems to be a lesser trauma, or perhaps the appearances are actually a shell, hiding a reserve of strength. Right now, only you know, and you have to make sure the story communicates that, so it's not like characters reacting like some textbook example. People are flawed and may have flawed responses. So don't feel a Strong Character has to react with Strength to things (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer), they can be just Strongly Written, so you understand why they are reacting in a non-ideal way.

I really like that you're contemplating this, and not just assuming your reaction is the right one, the universal one, etc.

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