It is relatively common knowledge today that horror has been a genre with problematic depictions of many marginalized communities. From depictions of those with physical disabilities being monsters, like in Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera in 1910, to mental illnesses leading to psychotic violence in Robert Bloch’s Psycho in 1959, disability is regularly painted as the cause of violence or terror. Similarly, queer characters are characterized as turning to violent, villainous tendencies after rejection, from trans coded Bill in Thomas Harris’s 1988 book, Silence of the Lambs, to the minor antagonist Snakebite Andi in Stephen King’s 2013 novel, Doctor Sleep.
This happens with many other marginalized identities too, including things like using voodoo predominantly practiced by Black women as the means of carrying out violence against white communities in fiction, seen in Dean Koontz’s 1984 title, Darkfall. Antagonists like this can also be seen in horror adjacent thrillers, such as the politically extreme Muslim in the 2000 title, The Lion’s Game by Nelson DeMille.
Across a variety of time periods and subgenres of horror, marginalized communities have regularly been seen as violent or monstrous creatures to be feared.
Despite many common horror tropes steeped in prejudice, the horror genre has recently seen a rise in popularity of tales that do the opposite. Instead of painting marginalized identities as the villains, these communities are the protagonists battling the (literal or figurative) horrors of their oppression. One of the most well-known examples in recent years — my first experience with this social commentary style of horror — was actually not a book, but the 2017 award-winning film, Get Out. In this movie, the Black main character visits his new girlfriend’s seemingly awkward but accepting white family, only to find out they are luring him in to steal his body for their own gain. Their desire to literally steal his body from him is fueled by racist obsessions with Black bodies and works as a metaphor for the way that a predominantly white society holds control over Black lives. Get Out shows how racism can be one of the most horrifying villains of all.
But this horror that shows oppression as the villain isn’t just happening in films – it’s surging in popularity in fiction novels, too. One great example in recent years is that of Frankenstein in Baghdad, published in 2013 by Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi. A spin on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the main character is a civilian living in US-occupied Iraq, who begins recovering and stitching together body parts of war victims, trying to force the government to see these fragmented corpses as real people deserving of a proper burial. As you can guess based on the namesake, the stitched together corpse comes to life, wreaking havoc on both those responsible for the war and on innocent bystanders. The “monster” in this story is not the stereotypical Iraqi terrorist, but instead a physical manifestation of the consequences of war and indifference to the victims that war creates.
A more recent title, Manhunt, published in 2022 and written by Gretchen Felker-Martin, serves a similar purpose to turn the transgender villain trope on its head, making transphobia the real threat. In this post-apocalyptic gender-plague novel where anyone with too much testosterone turns into a feral monster, including some cisgender women with PCOS and other health concerns, the trans main characters are on the run from monsters, murderous TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists), and the threat of the plague that will strike if they lose their access to estrogen. While some of the horrors in this novel are the monsters that people can turn into, an arguably far more important monster is the one that people become when they let their fear of the trans community overrule their empathy for fellow humans.
One more that I haven’t read but am greatly looking forward to, Stephen Graham Jones’s 2020 novel The Only Good Indians follows a group of Blackfeet men and their families as they navigate the consequences of turning their backs on their tribe’s traditions. Decades after a disturbing event from their childhoods, these men are now struggling against a cursed spirit seeking revenge for their acts that defied tribal values and brought them great shame in their adult lives. While the curse and its consequences are the instigators of violence, if there is any true villain in the story, it is the loss of heritage and ignorance towards the important traditions and values of one’s community. A loss of community identity and values is not just a tragedy, but a terror in itself.
Just like there are many ways horror can instigate prejudice against marginalized communities, these communities can also use the horror genre to explore what identity means and how discrimination infiltrates their lives. They can depict their own communities as the protagonists fighting against representations of their own oppression. This spooky season, consider checking out one of these great titles, or one of the many from this list of horror fiction with social commentary themes.