The Horror of Toxic Masculinity

How horror films reflect society’s evolving understanding of what it means to be a man.

Image from “Midsommar” 2019

Picture a terrifying monster from a horror movie.

What are you thinking of? A serial killer, wearing someone else’s face as a mask? A killer clown? A demon? An evil witch? Aliens that hunt by sound? Jeff Goldblum in fly makeup?

Whatever you’re picturing, you’re probably not thinking of an everyday man, dressed in civilian clothes, going about his day like nothing is amiss.

What’s so scary about that?

For many, the horror genre is nothing more than a collection of jump scares, shallow protagonists, and grotesque special effects. Just a cheap way to generate a visceral adrenaline rush. And yes, part of the enjoyment of a good horror movie is the way it gets your blood pumping, but if you dig past the monster makeup, horror cinema becomes vividly unique. Horror has an innate ability to reflect larger cultural anxieties — anthropomorphized through demons, clowns, or flesh-eating zombies.

Social commentary and horror go hand in blood-soaked hand.

Take Godzilla. Throughout its various incarnations, the terrifying Japanese creation is often viewed as a metaphor for the Atomic bombs dropped during WWII. Zombies from The Night of the Living Dead (1968) are a critique of American consumerism. Slasher movies are often seen as an attack on white American suburbia. Terror is more visceral when it reflects a deep-seated fear within a society.

And as society changes, so too do our fears. The recent horror Renaissance has begun to skewer different evils, like racism in Get Out or depression in The Babadook. Or, in the case of this essay, toxic masculinity.

This is a recent societal fear, as famous men with these traits have recently been exposed for the dangers they pose to society. In horror cinema, this fear is less abstract, manifested as a physical menace.

These horror monsters appear like nothing more than an average man, with traits of toxic masculinity.

This article will spoil the following films: The Invisible Man, Midsommar, & They Look Like People.

What is Toxic Masculinity?

Toxic masculinity is a modern buzzword; like with every buzzword, it is often misunderstood. It does not mean that masculinity is inherently toxic, or that men should be seen as the enemy. Writing for the New York Times, Maya Salam writes:

Toxic masculinity is what can come of teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be “tough all the time”; that anything other than that makes them “feminine” or weak.

Toxic masculinity is the moment of choosing violence over emotional expression, the moment of choosing hardness over softness, in a way that’s unhelpful or negative for yourself and others.

Traits of Toxic Masculinity:

  • Suppressing or denying emotions or vulnerability
  • Normalizing violence (often in children)
  • A desire to dominate others
  • Misogyny, Homophobia, Racism

Toxic masculinity is not a criticism of men or manhood. It’s not an attack of good men who care for their families and enjoy traditionally masculine activities like football and beers.

Toxic masculinity is what happens when men cannot express their own emotions, belittle effeminate traits in gay men and women, treat women like objects, and are unreasonably quick to violence.

Horror Villains With Toxic Masculine Traits

When toxic masculinity rears its ugly head in popular media, it’s rarely subtle. Movie monsters with toxic masculinity don’t hide behind scary prosthetic makeup or special effects, but rather, look like any other person.

There are two perfect examples of this villain trope from the last few years: Midsommar (2018) and The Invisible Man (2020).

In Ari Aster’s beautiful horror masterpiece Midsommar, four friends — Dani, her boyfriend Christian, and his two friends — travel to a Swedish commune named Harga for a rare ceremony that takes place in midsummer every 90 years. Little do they know, the commune has a cult-like ideology and the titular ceremony includes ritualized sacrifice of the innocent. First up to the sacrificial plate? Dani and co.

But before the sacrifices can commence, Midsommar spends a significant chunk of its runtime dissecting the failing relationship of Dani and Christian. They never kiss, not once in the entire film — they barely even touch. Dani is grief-stricken, see, recovering from the fallout of her entire family’s death several months prior. But when Christian tries to comfort her throughout the film, he barely registers any emotion. He cannot, or will not, be empathetic.

To a man with traits of toxic masculinity, a woman’s grief becomes his chore.

Dani and Christian argue | “Midsommar” 2019

Christian’s friends also represent unhealthy forms of masculinity. Mark suggests he break up with Dani so he can find “a chick who actually likes sex, and doesn’t drag you through a million hoops every day.” Mark also implies that Dani’s grief is a form of emotional abuse on Christian, who doesn’t deserve to be dragged into her baggage. The two men are incapable of understanding emotional vulnerability. Christian always believes he is above Dani’s problems.

By contrast, Dani’s new family, the commune members, are visibly emotive. Their emotional range is wide, varied, and empathetic. When one person suffers, they all suffer. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, the villagers visibly express Dani’s pain and grief. As the film wears on, it becomes more and more clear to both the audience and Dani that this relationship is strained — and Dani isn’t the one doing the straining.

The Harga explore Dani’s grief with empathetic emotions | “Midsommar” 2019

The relationship drama appears in the background of traditional horror tropes: side characters disappearing, horrific violence, screams occurring off-screen. Dani feels trapped as her friends begin to die. But, in a subversion of similar cult films like Hereditary (2017) or The Wicker Man (1973), Dani is spared from a sacrificial fate.

In fact, she does more than survive. She is crowned May Queen, joining the commune. In a final twist, Dani gets to choose the ninth and final sacrifice. Wordlessly, she selects Christian, who is then sewn inside a bear carcass and burned alive. As the nine bodies burn, Dani begins to smile for the first time in the entire movie.

Christian, moments before his sacrifice | “Midsommar” 2019

The final obstacle in need of conquering was not the Harga, who are vulnerable with Dani and understand her pain. It was Christian, the man who would not allow himself to be emasculated by empathizing with Dani’s grief.

Then you realize [the villain] was Christian, all along. . . Dani’s dilemma is that she is alone in the world. And he’s the thing preventing that from being resolved, right? Because he is not allowing her in. — director Ari Aster

Christian’s aloofness is the source of his villainy. It’s also his hamartia, his fatal flaw, his undoing. He cannot be a supportive partner to Dani. He thus becomes the villain.

I’m sure we all know a Christian. I’m sure we all have met a man who is incapable of opening up emotionally to allow others in. And while this in of itself is not wrong, it does become wrong when it hurts his partner. Christian’s emotional failings fall squarely onto Dani’s shoulders.

A more overt example of a horror film’s villain being toxically masculine comes in the form of The Invisible Man, an unexpectedly delightful film from pre-lockdown 2020. It reframes the classic Invisible Man narrative (first published in 1952) through the lens of his primary victim: his battered wife Cecelia. Suddenly, the protagonist antihero becomes a fully-fledged movie monster.

The Invisible Man (real name: Adrian Griffin) is a domestic abuser who values women as objects. He physically and emotionally torments his wife Cecelia until she eventually leaves him in the middle of the night; even then, he stalks her through seemingly supernatural means. He wants Cecelia’s unborn child

Adrian has many traits of toxic masculinity: an inability to suppress rage and violence, a belief that women are inferior, and a desire to control everything in his life.

The movie never answers the question of why Cecelia? Why is he obsessed with her? The movie keeps this ambiguous because that question is irrelevant. The reason for a man’s dominance is less important than the pain he inflicts on his subjects.

“The Invisible Man” 2020

There are mountains of other villainous men with traits of toxic masculinity: Henry Bowers and his father from It (representing stigmatized bullying in children); Chad from Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (representing violence as short-hand for manhood); and the Blind Man from Don’t Breath (representing a desire for domination).

Most of these characters are defined by heterosexual relationships in which they display extremely unhealthy actions towards their women and children. Toxic masculinity takes some natures of manhood — protection, provision — and extenuates them to extremes in order to prove their manliness. In some cases, like the Bowers from It, we can see this passed down paternally.

Real-life Monsters

Every single movie I mention in this essay portrays horror with the use of supernatural spirits, goblins, ghouls, zombies, Satan, or witches. Nothing appears in them that couldn’t also happen in the real world (give or take a hi-tech invisibility set-up). These films explore masculinity in ways more analogous to the average person’s lived experience. A scary killer clown doesn’t quite capture the everyday issues with toxic masculinity in the way a normal-looking villain does.

By portraying these villains as visibly normal men, we can more easily see their real-life counterparts.

These villains likely don’t see themselves as the villain. They probably just see themselves as going to great lengths to get what they desire. Christian wants to have sex and a normal relationship with Dani despite her emotional hardships. Adrian wants a child and a happy. But because they are incapable or unwilling to be vulnerable or cede control, they become the villains of their respective narratives.

And of course, that’s not to say that men who exhibit traits of toxic masculinity are inherently evil. Or that they’re horror monsters. Rather, the men’s repression and domination has negative impacts on the people around them.

Vulnerability Saving Lives

Horror cinema also offers an antidote: how men can emote in order to survive the perils of the movie. One horror film in particular makes an argument for an ideal type of masculinity: the excellent yet under-seen indie flick They Look Like People (2015).

Wyatt hears a mysterious voice on the phone | “They Look Like People” 2015

Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) is hearing voices. They repeatedly warn him of an upcoming apocalyptic invasion from monsters that disguise themselves as humans, a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Wyatt is driven to intense paranoia, arming himself to protect himself and his best friend Christian (Evan Dumouchel) from the creatures. After a while, he begins having visions of people in his life being turned into evil beings.

The movie cleverly plays it both ways — are the voices a supernatural force or schizophrenia? — to keep the audience guessing until the climactic final scene.

Christian is also tortured by his own demons, but more of the metaphorical kind. He is obsessed with his appearance, constantly looking at his muscles in the gym’s wall-to-ceiling mirrors, hoping that barbells will fix his insecurity. Am I manly enough? You can almost see him wrestling with his tortured thoughts.

Christian stares at his reflection | “They Look Like People” 2015

In the film’s third act, Wyatt no longer trusts Christian, believing him to have been taken by one of the monsters. In a fit of anxiety, he tells Christian everything: the voices, the conspiracy, the monsters. Christian, unsure of how to help his friend, allows himself to be bound by Wyatt, who is now hallucinating voices and sounds constantly. Wyatt holds a bucket of acid to Christian’s head, waiting to see if his friend would shapeshift, ready to give him a horrific death is he does. After several tense minutes, Wyatt realizes the terror is imagined, and releases Christian. The two men embrace.

Think about this for a second. A horror film’s climactic decision, the moment in which the entire narrative hinges, is a man choosing to be vulnerable to his male friend. And subsequently, they both survive.

Christian’s saving grace in this film, the reason he doesn’t end up as a bucket of goop, is his acceptance of weakness. He understands that vulnerability does not equate to emasculation.

Horror cinema can elongate cultural woes into our greatest fears. Nowadays, when men are afraid to emasculate themselves, are quick to belittle effeminate or homosexual men, or funnel their need for domination into physical or verbal abuse, these films are more important than ever.

A queer, herbivorous, leftist Viking. I write about society, justice, and popular media. UChicago grad. Based in Iceland.

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