The Woman With The Wasted Face: Poets, Tread Carefully This Halloween

Please don’t call the police, but I was thirteen when I first watched the fifteen-rated, 2002 version of The Ring. I was at a sleepover with a girl who had once announced: ‘If you’re not wearing a bra by year nine, there’s something wrong with you’, and I was as desperate for her friendship as I was to fit snugly into an A-cup from the M&S Angel range. I had turned to God in search of tits, desperately promising, with my hands clasped together: ‘I’ll start going to church if you make them grow over-night.’ The Lord never blessed me with midnight bosom, and it wasn’t long before I dove head-first into my atheism phase, declaring in Topshop that ‘heaven is falsehood’ to friends who just wanted to buy their 3-for-2 underwear in peace.

There were other things about my appearance that were starting to bother me, too. By that age I was wearing a spinal brace, a sort of hospital corset made of white plastic that covered my torso, designed to try and steady my ever curving spine. Scoliosis is a condition where the spine curves and in some cases, like mine, twists, rotating the ribcage around so that a ‘hunched back’ appearance can develop. I also have a nerve condition that slowly progresses, primarily affecting my feet, lower legs and hands. This can cause, amongst other things, legs that look, as the NHS website describes, like ‘upside down champagne bottles’ as the muscles become weak and waste, being particularly thin in the lower legs. With all of that going on, thirteen-year-old me just really thought she deserved a cracking pair of knockers.

I look down at my skinny hands […] and think: someone, somewhere, could be describing these hands as the start of their horror story

There are lots of things I didn’t like about The Ring, but what stayed with me long after the fear of television static was a scene that flashed back to Samara (the evil TV ghost girl) when she was still alive. She sits in a hospital gown, in a clinical, cold, white room, her arms and legs are thin, her long hair is loose, her eyes are planted firmly at the floor. And all I could think was: she looks like me. She looks like me when I sit in hospital appointments, hiding behind my hair, and all I can do is stare at the floor. Her arms and legs look like my arms and legs. Her skin is pale like my skin. Later, zoomed sections focus on her hands that look angular in their form. Just like mine. And it’s all designed to scare you. That really hits home when you’re thirteen. Never mind not finding my body type in magazines, I only recognised myself in horror films. Even as I type this now, I look down at my skinny hands, with all their beautiful, slowly forming weakness and think: someone, somewhere, could be describing these hands as the start of their horror story.

why do we so easily, so lazily, use signs of some sort of illness or disability as a metaphor for evil?

It was sometime later I went to see The Woman in Black at the theatre. I tried watching the film, years afterwards, but couldn’t get past the first five minutes. My thirteen-year-old self still can’t quite get to sleep sometimes, and she scrambles for the light in a way that wakes me. Reading the book by Susan Hill, we find that the woman has, ‘a wasted face’ and sunken-in eyes, pale skin and an ‘extreme look of illness’. All of this is meant to give us the creeps, but what, actually, is so frightening about looking ill? The metaphor, as a device, is key for writers. So why do we so easily, so lazily, use signs of some sort of illness or disability as a metaphor for evil? If you are doing any sort of spooky writing this Halloween, I reckon it’s a good idea to check your descriptors. I love the bloke, but Edgar Allen Poe was always adding a scar or taking an eye away from someone to denote a sense of foreboding. It’s not an exhaustive list by any stretch, but if the “scary” thing in your work is: emaciated, wasted, pale, scrawny, angular, twisted, bony, gaunt, sickly, tired, scarred, drawn, frail or afflicted, I would encourage you to think about why you have used that word to describe something frightening.

If you are doing any sort of spooky writing this Halloween, I reckon it’s a good idea to check your descriptors.

It’s a niche segue, but bear with. Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton write and star in the BBC horror/comedy Inside Number Nine. In the audio commentary to the episode ‘The 12 days of Christine,’ they talk about the moment when a man in a rain soaked anorak suddenly appears in the flat of a terrified woman. The director, Guillem Morales, said of the character, ‘He needs to look out of place, something that doesn’t quite belong in that environment.’ There are two important things to note here: firstly, the very effective result of this incongruity-makes-great-horror theory (the moment is genuinely very scary) shows there’s far more scope to the description of frightening characters than people with ‘wasted faces,’ – a man in a anorak does the job nicely. And secondly, it unearths something even more problematic about using illness or disability as a vehicle for a jump-scare. A man, soaked through from rain, with steamed glasses is incongruous to the setting of an interior, dry flat. Someone with a disability isn’t incongruous to anything. I am not separate from society. It should not be ‘out of place’ to see my body anywhere. If that accounts for part of the reason that the horror genre so often uses the metaphors I’ve described, then that, too, needs to change, along with a much bigger shift in representation and perceptions of disability.

I might still be struggling with whether there really is a heaven or not, but one thing’s for sure: I’m not a ghost, I’m not less, not a “nearly person”, not a surprise, not scary. So poets, tread carefully this Halloween, because the words you use can do a lot more than just provide a passing fright.

by Helen Seymour


Helen Seymour is a spoken-poet-word-artist-human-performance-person. She is known for mixing off-beat comedy with dark subject matters. She has been awarded three Arts Council England Grants, been shortlisted for the Jerwood Poetry Fellowship, and performed her play, Helen Highwater, at the Southbank Centre as part of London Literature Festival. She has recently been commissioned to create a short poetry film looking at the doctor-patient relationship on the theme of ‘Translations’ for DadaFest 2020, supported by Apples and Snakes. For more info see helenseymour.com and follow @whathelens on Instagram.

Photo credit: Jake Cunningham

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