Horror is about fear.
That’s true, right? Horror, more than almost any other genre, is associated with one single emotion, and that emotion is fear. If you read or watch horror, it’s because you want to experience fear. Everything else is a background to fear, and fear alone.
But is it really as singular as all that? Take a work like Hellraiser (1987). It’s a classic of horror, and fear is certainly important to it: Frank the Monster is a dangerous man, frightening because he’s capable of anything. The Cenobites are fearful; their power is beyond knowing and they threaten a fate that may well be worse than death.
But there is another emotion that looms throughout Hellraiser, and, I would argue, all of the horror canon. Frank The Monster isn’t just dangerous: he’s skinless. He leaves blood on everything he touches. The Cenobites aren’t just powerful: they’re mutilated, their flesh torn open and twisted by metal. They don’t only offer pain, but also pleasure — a forbidden pleasure. None of this evokes fear, at least not primarily.
It evokes disgust.
Transphobia is also about fear.
That’s true, right? The Ancient Greek root of the word “transphobia” is phobos — fear. And transphobic rhetoric is certainly full of fear: the fear of trans people in bathrooms, the fear of being attracted to us, the fear of loved ones coming out as trans, and more.
But again, it isn’t so singular, is it? The obsession with genitals, which are always either flopping about or squished away, the vivid descriptions of surgeries as mutilations, and the revulsion at the basic details of our bodies all point to something else, another emotion that is at least as deeply felt as fear.
Transphobia, like horror — like Hellraiser — is about disgust.
Disgust has a way of slipping into the background of discussions, even discussions where it should be important. There’s a reason that disgust gets forgotten, both in the way we talk about bigotry and in the way we talk about horror. There is a resistance to talking or even thinking about disgust seriously, a resistance that even a movie as full of disgust as Hellraiser struggles to break through. I think that Hellraiser, as a work of art about disgust, can help us understand that resistance, and maybe even help us see why it’s so important to push through and do it anyway.
The Hellraiser series itself has also made this very same connection between horror and queerness. Clive Barker is a gay man, and the Cenobites’ black leather and shiny metal have an undeniable subtext of BDSM, which, in the ‘80s, was unavoidably queer. The 2022 Hellraiser reboot brings in transness specifically. When trans actress Jamie Clayton was announced as Pinhead, it provoked the exact tiresome Internet half-reaction you’d probably expect. Most people thought nothing of it, some performed thinking nothing of it, a few were angry for reasons they couldn’t quite explain, and some were slightly more defensive than they probably needed to be. These are all unmistakably political reactions, the same political reactions that arise basically any time a trans person takes up public space.
But the politics run slightly deeper than Clayton merely being hired. In the reboot, she will be on screen as a Cenobite, a powerful demon who stands entirely outside humans’ fear and, just as importantly, disgust. There’s obviously something there that viewers will have to sit with about how trans people are seen by cisgender society and how we navigate living within it. This version of Hellraiser cannot avoid saying that trans people are, or at least can be, related to what the Cenobites embody.
But because this political discussion is so inseparable from disgust, most people would rather avoid it than engage honestly. This is hardly new to the reboot; people have always preferred to take the film’s frank engagement with disgust as evidence that it is genre schlock rather than as a sincere and valuable statement. Roger Ebert gave the movie half a star on its release, asking “Who goes to see movies like this? What do they get out of them?” The New York Times’ reviewer hated the film. Seemingly, their central complaint was damp: they called it “a gooey horror movie in which the main monster, gelatinous anyway, seems to have been dunked in simple syrup.”
This is, frankly, a blank refusal to deal with disgust as an emotion. These reviewers are hostile to the idea that disgust and objects of disgust deserve attention. And it’s clearly not a well-examined position: they point out the fact that the movie is gross and wet, and they don’t feel they owe it any other consideration. They’ve assumed this is a criticism of the movie, not a success.
This attitude towards disgust is a deep-seated one. We are not simply looking at a personal preference, but at something people cannot imagine others disagreeing with. In other words, this attitude doesn’t arise from inside particular individuals — there is a social element to it.
Anyone who’s ever worked with children knows how social disgust is. When one child decides something is gross, it spreads through all of them at lightning speed. More than that, the kids often compete to display their disgust. They’ll make bigger and bigger faces or drop and then hurl the item away from them. Many a teacher has had to struggle to regain control of a classroom when one student decides something is disgusting.
That’s a cute peculiarity, except when the object of the children’s disgust is another child. Then, it can turn into the most dangerous kinds of bullying, because the problem isn’t just in one student — a bully — anymore. It spreads, the way disgust always does. It even spreads into the victim.
It’s not hard to make an evolutionary account for this. There are plenty of things in the world it’s important for us to be disgusted by. A mushroom that’s poisonous, a mosquito that carries diseases, or a rotting body are all genuinely dangerous, and we should find them gross. Even shunning someone can be lifesaving if that someone has a contagious disease. Disgust spreading through a community might save it.
But there’s another very important kind of disgust we haven’t mentioned, and it’s one that, while subtler, is just as important to Hellraiser as goo and slime. We’ve mentioned physical disgust — the disgust for gross things — but what about moral disgust? There are some actions we feel are wrong because they hurt someone, but there are others we know are wrong because they’re disgusting. Let yourself feel, for instance, the difference between how you react to violence as opposed to incest. Feel the difference between thinking about a murderer and thinking about a rapist.
When Frank the Monster kills the random men Julia brings him in order to build his body back, that’s certainly immoral, and it’s also disgusting, in a physical way. But there isn’t much moral disgust — not yet. It’s too easy to sympathize with a character killing a stranger when their only other choice is death or an agonizing half-life as a smear of liquid.
But then Frank kills and skins his own brother. And then he makes extremely gross sexual advances on Kirsty and, when he’s rejected, immediately tries to kill her. He kills Julia, the character who loved him enough to abandon everything for him. Frank wallows in both physical and moral disgust in the way only a Clive Barker antagonist ever can.
In classical slasher films, female protagonists are, above all else, pure. This has become its own trope: the virgin always survives. (It’s such a cliché that movies like Scream and Cabin in the Woods make subverting it fundamental to their plots.) This is the simplest way to engage with the theme of disgust: the pure will ultimately destroy the disgusting. The audience is expected to see themselves in purity and the monster in impurity. The impure may threaten us, the audience, but we will always destroy them in time.
In Hellraiser, Kirsty may be pure enough at the beginning — especially compared to a figure like Frank the Monster — but she isn’t saved by her purity, like the heroines of the Universal Monsters era, or her strength, like a slasher movie final girl. Instead, it’s by her willingness to do something disgusting: to return Frank to the infinite tortures of the Cenobites. Kirsty survives not because she fears the disgusting, but because she is willing to understand and make a deal with it. When the Cenobites take Frank back, we are forced to confront a new moral disgust: disgust for the main character.
This move is bolder than it looks. One of the big differences between fear and disgust is that being insensitive to fear makes you brave, but being insensitive to disgust makes you disgusting, too. This aspect of disgust is important in bigotry. The primary target of a transphobe’s disgust is trans people, but that disgust spreads quickly to those who support trans people. It is extremely purposeful that current right-wing usage of the term “groomer” targets both trans people and trans allies, for example. To say it is heroic to overcome disgust is a rejection of the basic social urges around disgust.
This fact about disgust is, I would argue, the biggest reason people are so hesitant to engage with disgust. To question disgust is to admit you don’t feel it as passionately as someone who doesn’t. You risk making yourself an object of disgust yourself, and that is dangerous. This is a basic social fear. And to justify this, people decide that disgust isn’t worth questioning — that it’s uninteresting. The puzzles and contradictions of disgust are hidden away underneath the fear of being the only one to say anything about it.
But sometimes, disgust can be dangerous. Sometimes, disgust turns us against vulnerable people, the ones who most need our help and sympathy. Sometimes, it makes us hateful. And the safer we play it, the more unfamiliar we allow ourselves to be with thinking about disgust, the more defensive we’ll be when someone else calls out our disgust, and the crueler we’ll be to protect our own thoughtlessness.
Kirsty isn’t the only figure Hellraiser explores disgust through. The movie doesn’t simply claim that disgust is sometimes worth ignoring — through the Cenobites, it has something much more powerful to say about disgust.
Frank the Monster is a simple villain. The Cenobites are not. There is something alluring to the Cenobites, and this is a profound challenge to the very nature of disgust. I’ve been calling the Cenobites demons up until now, but anyone who’s invested in the franchise will know that’s not true. They are, in their own words, “explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others.” There is a profound relativism to the Cenobites. They reject being named either evil or good; they reject that there is such a thing as evil or good. In fact, they go further than this: they make pleasure and pain — the sure measure on which people base their instincts of good and bad — relative, too. Pleasure isn’t good and pain isn’t bad; only the intensity of the experience, whatever that experience is, matters. It is “an experience beyond limits. Pain and pleasure, indivisible.”
And that’s not an easy challenge to answer, is it?
When we decide not to explore disgust, we can’t see it as something relative. To be simple and beyond discussion, disgust has to be absolute; we have to pretend that we’re seeing something essential to the thing or the act, some inherent quality of disgustingness inside it. But, at the end of the day, we aren’t. Nothing about the various things we feel disgust for is similar except for us having the same reaction to them. To admit that, however, would mean admitting that there are conversations to be had. It’s easier to fit in by dismissing any call to do so as “damp” and moving on. That’s the safe thing to do.
The conservative right has long been frightened of relativism in any form. Jordan Peterson dubs it “post-modern neo-Marxism” but it’s had its fair share of other names over the years. The fear is always the same: if we question too much, we’ll lose our grounding. We’ll start by asking why we should do one thing, then realize we don’t know why we should do anything. We start by wondering if pleasure is always good and pain always bad, and we end up unable to decide between demonic and angelic.
This fear is particularly intense when it comes to disgust. If we question our physical disgust, do we have to question our moral disgust? If we question our disgust for trans people, can we keep our disgust for Frank the Monster? Can we question anything that disgusts us without becoming Cenobites?
One answer might be that we should abandon our disgust, even our moral disgust. There’s a real case to be made that moral disgust is a bad reason to be amoral. It leads us to be performative in our morality and to care more about rejecting people who do something wrong than about being kind and caring to people who need it. Inaction can be deadly, but it’s never disgusting, and disgust can’t stir us from inaction. Maybe instead of trying to feel disgust for immoral actions, we should understand what makes them harmful and why we prefer not to harm people. Maybe we should spend more time thinking about being helpful to others and how we can do that sustainably.
But I think there’s a simpler answer and it’s this: the reason we won’t become Cenobites is that we’re human. The kind of fearful relativism they spout could only truthfully come from a creature entirely different from us. We are humans, and to us, pleasure is better than pain. No amount of endurance or questioning will change that. And that’s good. It means that we won’t slip as far as we fear we might when we ask questions. We can wonder about our disgust and we won’t become a monster because there are no monsters. We’ll still be humans, and at the end of the day, we’ll still feel pleasure and pain and disgust just like everyone else.
Every trans person I know has gone through this process of questioning. We were brought up in the same world, and we learned just as cis people did that transness is disgusting. We learned we were supposed to feel both a physical disgust for trans bodies and a moral disgust for wanting to transition. In order to come out as trans and to be happy, we had to explore and sometimes rewrite our disgust. We’ve walked the path that people fear leads to being Cenobites, but we are humans. Meanwhile, people who never questioned their disgust tumbled into being reactionaries and fascists.
Disgust has a way of slipping into the background of discussions, but we need to bring it to the foreground. Disgust is a social emotion, and so we must deal with it socially. We must openly and knowingly create a politics of disgust, because otherwise, we create them unknowingly. These unknowing political disgusts are behind many of the worst and cruelest behaviors in the US: there’s disgust in racism, anti-immigration, anti-poverty measures, and more. We can’t avoid thinking about and sometimes challenging our disgust, and so we have to do it proudly. Facing disgust, questioning it, and understanding it doesn’t lead to being a monster — it leads to being a fuller and freer human being.