The best and most affecting stories are usually told through the eyes of outsiders – rebels, vagabonds, and misfits living on the margins of society. Horror, being the most subversive of genres, has always paid close attention to those living precariously on the edge, deemed ill-fit by the dominant social order.
Be they monsters or miserably shy outcasts vocally blurring the lines between good and evil in their actions, outsiders have a special place in many a horror fan’s heart. Here is a list of some of the most memorable underdogs in popular culture, and their terrifying stories.
1. Frankenstein’s Monster in Frankenstein
In her 1818 novel, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley created one of the most enduring symbols of outsider-dom in horror fiction. Unnamed in the original novel and referred to as the “creature,” or sometimes “demon” by Victor Frankenstein – the mad doctor who created him – Frankenstein’s monster was initially a kind, gentle soul. While his creator brought him to life for his own nefarious purposes, the monster himself dreamt of a rather peaceful life once he came into being.
However, Frankenstein, the monster’s keen emotional sensitivity was not appreciated in the slightest, as people took one glimpse of his grotesque physique and either wanted to run for the hills or kill him. Shunned by society at large, he willfully declares, “If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!” And thus begins his violent rampage; pushed to the ugliness of which those around him deem him capable. Instead of his dream to find a likeminded soul mate, he decides to take revenge upon those who refused to love him in return.
Frankenstein’s monster has since been seen as a much broader metaphor for other oppressed or marginalized peoples, such as the long-suffering working class. The emotional intimacy with which Shelley granted her most famous creation has made him an infinitely relatable figure for many outcasts, forever securing the novel’s importance and cultural significance.
2. Oly and Her Family from Geek Love
Katherine Dunn’s cult novel is perhaps the weirdest document of familial love and carnage ever put on paper. The story concerns a family unit working as part of a freak show. And its titular character, Oly, is an outsider amongst outsiders.
The travelling carnival is run by Aloysius Binewski, his wife Crystal Lil, and their children. When the business begins to fail, the couple devises an idea to breed their own freak show, using various drugs and radioactive material to alter the genes of their children. The results are Arturo, a boy with flippers for hands and feet; Electra and Iphigenia, Siamese twins, and Oly, a hunchbacked albino dwarf. The latter is writing the family history for her daughter, Miranda, who is not sure who her real mother is – the girl is fairly normal, except for a tiny, barely perceptible abnormality: a pig’s tail on her backside.
The band of rogue entertainers eerily embrace their oddities, looking down on “normals,” with their boringly predictable physiques. Normality is seen as such a deformity that any child born without abnormalities is actually considered a failure.
This freakish obsession with the peculiar – while scary – is also somehow touching, in a way that is totally bizarre and sick. But it makes sense in the context of a family that sees itself living as total outliers. Oly is a particularly memorable character, with her adoration for Arturo – and their relationship’s incestuous subtext – and her love for her daughter, whom she is reluctant to approach.
Other scenes in the book are incredibly eerie and evoke the grand romance of a truly American horror story: Lil singing to the jars full of failed “experiments,” or fetuses housed in the family’s secret shed; the one normal-looking son who possesses terrifying telekinetic powers, the loneliness of the deserted landscapes where the family ends up performing their freak shows, and so on.
Through the way in which Oly recounts her family’s history, readers are granted a kind of perverted and horrifying metaphor for a broken family determined to stay together, no matter what.
3. Ambrosio from The Monk: A Romance
The Monk, written by Matthew Lewis in 1796, shocked and outraged the general public so much that parliament attempted to ban it several times. However, the gothic horror novel was a massive success, and it has been tremendously influential on many future writers in the genre, including Stephen King.
The novel tells the story of Ambrosio, a young and soft-spoken monk, renowned for his piety. But when he finds himself faced with temptation in the figure of beautiful Matilda, a woman who enters the monastery disguised as a boy, Ambrosio very quickly finds a temptation for the flesh that he is unable to quell.
Once he succumbs to Matilda’s charms, Ambrosio discovers he possesses a lust for sensual gratification that becomes all-consuming. And the further he is cast away from the ranks of pious monks, the deeper his descent into depravity becomes, as he indulges in satanic rituals, rape, murder, incest, with hints of necrophilia – the list of disgusting and horrific acts continue.
While many now probably look to Ambrosio as a sort of precursor to the punk spirit of many outcasts and rock and roll rebels, he also serves as a cautionary tale regarding the evils of temptation, and the spurning of community.
4. Carrie in Carrie
Probably no other figure in modern society is more of an outsider than a teenage girl: a fact Stephen King deeply understood when he embarked upon writing his first novel, Carrie.
The heroine of the story suffers through the bizarre, fundamentalist upbringing of her crazed mother, and the bullying of fellow teenagers at school. However, shy and awkward Carrie soon discovers that she has telekinetic superpowers, and life in the small town would never be the same.
A social outcast who fascinatingly serves as both the book’s protagonist and antagonist, Carrie represents every girl who has ever survived the high school trenches. Until, of course, her humiliation by a particularly cruel prank turns her into a mad murdering machine, leading to a vicious massacre at the high school prom.
The brief and blissful moment of social acceptance she is granted at the prom is turned into a living hell when the evil girls in her class throw pig’s blood on Carrie onstage. From there, the quietly gentle young woman decides to embrace her freakish outcast status and obliterates all who have ever hurt her.
Nevertheless, Carrie remains a deeply relatable and vulnerable character throughout, ensuring that despite the scale of her horrifying revenge, readers find a well of empathy in their hearts for the damaged girl.
Some of the best protagonists – or, in this case, antagonists – in horror are a reflection of the deep feelings of alienation and loneliness many of us experience throughout life. The stories of these marginal figures are oddly visceral, for they communicate a quiet unease most people feel. These characters will continue to live on in popular memory, serving as the mirror-image for all that we fear in ourselves.