DiHM: Disability in Horror Films: Why it Matters and What You Can Do About it

Horror films have used disabilities as plot devices throughout the past century. Sometimes, the disabilities are challenges the character must overcome while facing against the horror. Most of the time, the disability is the reason for the horror. Here are some examples from both sides.

The Disfigured Person

This is a person who is a human, but is so disfigured to the point of looking like a monster. Sometimes, they were born that way, and other times, they’re the result of some type of injury. For example, let’s look at one of the most famous horror icons of all time, Jason Voorhees. He’s worn that hockey mask for so long, casual viewers may have forgotten what he looks like. Under that mask, he is deformed, and as fans will tell you, this plays an important part in his origin story.

Jason was once a friendly child who was bullied for his appearance. His tormentors ended up drowning him and he was presumed dead until he began his killing spree in Friday the 13th Part 2. If you look at the series through a certain lens, Jason is quite a sympathetic character and more than just a killing machine.

People are afraid of other people that don’t look like most of them, so a disfigured person has made for a classic horror movie trope. The disfigurement that horror portrays is usually so exaggerated that it’s removed from reality, but nonetheless, viewers should realize that someone with a disfigurement isn’t a monster. They just look different than you.

The Mental Illness Sufferer

Mental illness is another horror villain trope. This is used in movies that are supposed to be more grounded in reality. In real life, mentally ill people are different than us, and in some cases, may end up hurting or killing others, so they make for a popular trope. One classic example is Norman Bates from Psycho, who suffers from dissassociative identity disorder. He switches between his and his mother’s personality, making him a shocking character at the time.

The psych ward is a classic horror setting. If you’ve gone to a haunted house attraction, there’s probably been a scene inside a mental hospital. You probably didn’t think anything of it. Again, horror movies exaggerate mental illnesses, and this can be harmful to those who suffer from them. Most people who have a mental illness are peaceful, functioning, and misunderstood. They don’t need to be demonized, but instead people should realize that mentally ill people need more help in the US, be it medication or counseling.

The Disabled Protagonist

In some movies, the protagonist is disabled. For example, Hush is a movie about a deaf woman, and the movie uses little sound as a way to put yourself in her shoes. In Nightmare on Elm Street 3, the protagonists are all in a mental hospital with various illnesses such as PTSD. Then there is the Hunchback of Notre Dame, where Quasimodo is the protagonist and the sympathetic one. These can be a nice way to represent people with disabilities, but there may be tropes that some may not like. The disabled person is sometimes the only sane one, or they cure their disability in the end.

What Can I Do About It?

When watching these movies, realize that it’s pure fiction and not in any way a representation of disabilities. In real life, disability is highly nuanced and complex, and not a good vs. evil issue. Don’t be afraid to try to voice change if you’re not happy with how certain disabilities are treated, and educate those who may have misconceptions about mental illnesses because their DSM is a horror movie collection.


Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health- related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with BetterHelp.com. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.