Exploring Otherness Through Horror Fiction

The Self Versus the Other

image: Gaceta UNAM

Otherness refers to the quality or fact of being different. Horror literature refers to fiction meant to provoke fear and disgust in the reader.

Horror fiction is not just for cheap thrills. Indeed, it can be highly allegorical. And more often than not, the monster in horror is an allegory for “the other.”

How do we define the other? As someone who is not like us.

We think of ourselves as “normal“, perfect, rational, and above the rest of the creatures of the animal kingdom. God’s creation.

And then, there are monsters.

image: The Babadook 3 film

Monsters are ugly, imperfect, deformed, powerful, and frightening. Monsters destroy and devour. Monsters are irrational. You cannot argue or negotiate with them.

Worse, for a monster, we are nothing but prey. No wonder we fear monsters.

We fear monsters because they are not human, hence they are the other. But, who is the other? Why does it have to do with horror?

A lot.

Who is the Other?

image: La Nación

The other is simply who we are not.

Fiction, particularly horror fiction, is good at giving voice and catharsis to our common fears. And are we neurotic? Granted, the bad economy and the pandemic did not help, but we are maligning others more than ever.

Immigrants, the poor, sexual minorities, those who do not share our ideas, the disabled, those who speak a different language…

The other is our favorite monster. Guilty of all our problems.

Coronavirus? The Chinese? Recession? Latino immigrants? Terror? Muslims. Nuclear war? The Russians and North Koreans.

image from the film Frankenstein

Again, it is easier to blame everyone but us for everything wrong with the world and society. And the other is not us. And that other is a metaphorical monster.

Horror fiction has had a tradition since the eighteenth century of giving shape to our collective social fears as represented by a monster or a curse.

Perhaps because we expanded and continue meeting other cultures, we feared this “other”, particularly because it was “primitive”.

Exotic. Different. Foreign. Alien. A deviation from what is normal.

Sex, race, gender, ethnicity… Horror monsters became a metaphor for all those. (Hey, why not social class too while we are at it?).

But those it has to be so racist?

Fear of the Exotic

Image from the film Us

Is there a horror fiction trope more problematic than the supernatural power from a primitive civilization?

Whether it is a cursed object or deity, an artifact, an ancient ritual, or forbidden knowledge… And don’t get me started on the overdone haunted Indian burial ground trope.

Do we have to fear the primitive? Is there more to horror fiction than perpetuating civilization versus savage/primitive stereotypes?

If horror fiction the monster is an allegory for the other, and the other is usually a member of a “primitive” society, is it unfair to vilify the exotic?

image: Pinterest.es

Whether is their religion (voodoo), their rituals, beliefs, relics… Whenever we attribute the supernatural to it with its inherent evilness, it is kind of racist.

Conversely, we could argue otherwise. We could say the primitive world fights back against the civilized world. Resistance against oppression and colonialism.

Except this argument is only valid if the monster wins in the end. It does not.

Therefore, we writers need to be mindful of how we portray other civilizations and cultures in our fiction. We should avoid perpetuating clichés and stereotypes.

image: Tumblr

Moreover, we should be mindful of how we represent the other.

By the way, I am not telling you to stop writing those stories. There is a place in fiction for those stories, especially if written as social commentary. And they better be entertaining.

After all, the other does not have to be our enemy.

In conclusion, it is valid to explore otherness through horror fiction. The trick is to do it respectfully and with care.

Reader, should horror fiction explore otherness? Or should it be apolitical?


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May 2023