The Grotesque

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"On the eighth day, God created Mankind... Why was He having such a bad day? Why did He create all of you normal, and forget so many important parts of me?"
WWF: The Music, Vol. 2, "Ode to Freud (Mankind's Theme)"
"You are deformed. And you are ugly. And these are crimes for which the world shows little pity."

A character that induces both fear and pity in viewers because his deformities belie a perfectly normal, if not noble, personality. The pathos associated with The Grotesque is the implication that he could easily have become a well-adjusted member of society if not for the hideousness that he is powerless to remedy.

He is very rarely presented as the villain and frequently overlaps with the Reluctant Monster and Tragic Hero. The defining trait of The Grotesque is that his hideous appearance belies a gentle personality that is doomed to mistreatment because of society's shallowness. We, the viewers, are left feeling like the only ones who can see him for who he truly is, and want to comfort him with the knowledge that he's not alone in his quiet suffering.

The Grotesque does not necessarily have to be physically deformed; he can be mentally or socially deformed, so long as we continue to see the good within and wish that it can somehow overcome the badness masking it.

Don't expect any of that to allow someone this ugly to get a happy ending, especially if they're female. Grotesques are universally tragic characters.

Contrast Red Right Hand, where the outer deformity is symbolic of an inner corruption. Not to be confused with the kind of "grotesque" that adorns old gothic rooftops—see Our Gargoyles Rock. Compare Gentle Giant, Gonk.

Not to be confused with mindless violence film Grotesque.

Examples of The Grotesque include:

Anime and Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Jinenji from the Inuyasha episode "Jinenji, Kind yet Sad" is a huge monster with bulging eyes, but all he wants to do is farm medicinal herbs. The episode even had a mob of villagers with Torches and Pitchforks as a Shout-Out.
  • Oniwakamaru from the third episode of Samurai Champloo. And really, he wasn't all that ugly, just had a swollen eye, liver lips, and a paunch.
    • And weird rough brown skin, and he was three times the size of a normal person....
  • Rurouni Kenshin has a number of examples. Pretty much all of the Oniwabanshuu are this, shunned by society but taken in by Aoshi and therefore totally loyal to him. Hannya is a particularly good example, since he was partly modeled on Joseph Merrick, the "Elephant Man". There's also Fuji, one of Shishio's minions, who is about twenty-feet tall and has been treated his entire life like a monster or a living weapon. Yatsume, who works for Enishi also likely qualifies since for poorly justified reasons, his family turned him into Venom, which entailed stretching his limbs so they were freakishly long and doing something that gave him fangs and a long, lolling tongue.
  • Two cases pop up in Berserk. First, there is the Child of Guts and Casca, who was conceived as a normal baby when the two made love, but then everything took a tragic turn for the worse when his mother was viciously raped by Griffith when he turned into Femto, thus tainting her womb with his demonic essence and turning the developing child into misshapen and deformed fetus, compelling him to take up a nature of evil and giving him supernatural powers at the same time. However, while instinctively "evil", the Child loves his parents to much to actually be evil. Sadly, his father does not feel much sympathy for what happened to him, seeing him as nothing more than a byproduct of a horrible event that he failed to prevent, and Guts would have even killed him had Casca not interfered. Nevertheless, the Child strives to help his parents whenever possible, up until the point of the mock Eclipse where the Child expends the last of his energy and powers to save his mother...
    • ... Where we enter the second example: The Egg of the Perfect World (or the Behelit Apostle). During his life as a human, he was a nameless outcast of society who collected dead bodies at the base of the Tower of Conviction. When he came across a Behelit and sacrificed the world so that it may become perfected, he became the Behelit-shaped apostle that was in the present, though no one knew of his existence. The Egg of the Perfect World, though an Apostle, is one of the first to be introduced that wasn't a Complete Monster or just batshit crazy. In the final events at the Tower of Conviction, he comes across the weakened Child, whom he saw as kindred for being deformed, forgotten, and unloved. As an act of pity, he consumes the Child so that he could have one moment of tenderness in his life before he and the Egg of the Perfect World were killed during the mock eclipse, when Griffith reincarnates himself into the human world.


Comic Books[edit | hide]


Film[edit | hide]

  • Dr. Peyton Westlake, aka Darkman, is a Superhero version of this trope. At least, in his natural form.
  • Freaks mostly subverts this. We do not pity them, because they're all so damned cheerful, except for those tied up in the romantic plot (because Love Hurts everyone), but even they get a happy ending.
  • The title character in Edward Scissorhands. A bit of a twist, though, in that - being played by Johnny Depp - he's quite handsome. He simply has No Social Skills, and has the unfortunate tendency to cut things up by accident.
  • Subverted in Batman Returns with The Penguin, who wants revenge on Gotham City for his parents abandoning him at birth due to his deformity. He blackmails Max Shreck, a Villain with Good Publicity, into making him appear to be kind and gentle so the citizens will elect him Mayor. When Batman reveals that the Penguin holds them in contempt, they immediately turn upon him, so he decides to forgo any pretense of humanity ("I am not a human being! I am an animal! Cold-blooded!", a sort of dark spoof of the above Elephant Man) as he proceeds with his master plan to kill all of the first-born sons in the city - a plan he had used the city's sympathy to further without their knowing it ("researching" his parents' identities, he picked up the information about all the other parents who had sons from birth records). When Batman foils this plan, Penguin goes over the edge, instructing his penguins to kill everyone in the city, which Batman foils with the same electronic technique that he used to reveal the Penguin's villainy to the public.
  • Jaws, from the James Bond movies, becomes this after his Heel Face Turn in Moonraker. The actor who played him, Richard Kiel, has acromegaly like Rondo Hatton, below. In a twist, not only does Redemption NOT Equal Death, but he manages to get himself a girlfriend out of the deal (and a Meganekko who's almost as strong as he is, to boot. Lucky bastard.).
    • Especially when said girl saves Jaws while he was pinned by debris after chasing Bond in a car that went over a cliff!
  • Sloth in The Goonies is deformed, dimwitted, very strong, and kept as a Bertha in The Attic by his family. Once he makes friends with Chunk, however, it's clear he's a good guy.
  • Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow. The sole survivor of Dr. Totenkopf's uranium mining and experiments, presumably because of radiation poisoning and Totenkopf's genetics experiments.
  • Rocky Dennis from Mask, whose entire life is a Shaggy Dog Story (with a few good yanks for good measure).

Literature[edit | hide]

  • Frankenstein's Monster (not Frankenstein the Mad Scientist!); however, it is worth noting that in the original novel, rejection by his creator and society truly turns him into the monster he outwardly resembles, as sorrow turns to hatred and lust for vengeance.
  • Quasimodo of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an archetypal example, so this is Older Than Radio.
  • Gwynplaine, of The Man Who Laughs, was, due to a bizarre torture inflicted upon him, not so much ugly as unbelievably disturbing-looking. This being another Victor Hugo novel, he didn't end too well.
  • The Phantom of the Opera; while he's supposed to be the villain, the book humanizes him after his act of mercy; the increasingly sympathetic view of the motives behind his actions in later film adaptations has largely overridden his villainous role. It doesn't help that the transfer from book to play and movie has the level of his deformity lowered from "Skeletor" to "Gerry Butler fell asleep while sunbathing, so his face is a little red".
  • Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, although differing in being a morally flawed character, has the pity-inducing aspect and is presented with the potential to better himself. In the end, the good in him doesn't triumph, making him a Tragic Hero of sorts.
  • Tyrion Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire definitely fits the bill. He's a dwarf with a number of deformities, and his nickname is "the Imp." Tyrion was lucky to be born into a wealthy and influential family; although his father is a cold-hearted bastard, he recognizes his life would have been much harder if he was a peasant (if he even survived beyond childhood, that is). Still, he is hated by the "smallfolk" just for being ugly (even though he tried to be kind to them) and he is mistreated by everyone else except perhaps Jon Snow and his brother Jaime. You can't help feel sorry for him in one scene where he tells his henchman Bronn to find him a prostitute but to make sure to tell her beforehand what he is and how he looks, so she isn't repulsed by his appearance.
    • I think the smallfolk hate Tyrion for more than just being a dwarf. Remember him ordering their homes burned in preparation for the battle with Stannis? Or the mentions of his mountain clansmen raping and killing people in the city?
    • Even so, even the more reasonable and good protagonists have mentioned how they have heard he is he is supposedly the worst of the Lannisters, something that is so very untrue, and Tyrion has been told how he is blamed for the shortcomings of Joffrey among others (which he ascribes to this trope), and it is hard to escape the conclusion that his horrific appearance has nothing whatsoever to do with people's perceptions of him even if he has earned some ill will by his actions in serving his family.
    • Later, it gets worse; he takes a sword slash across his face in the battle of King's Landing, losing a large chunk of his nose, twisting his lips, and very nearly costing him an eye. The combination of the trauma of his further disfiguration and the fact that he can't take anything to help with the pain because Cersei's trying to keep him out of commission leaves him severely depressed, to the point where he barely even tries to defend himself when charged with Joffrey's murder.
    • The Hound suffers a milder version of this trope due to his horribly scarred face; he's certainly not gentle, but he's increasingly been shown to be a better person than most suppose, and he's certainly pitiable (I defy your heart not to twinge any time he cries). It's implied, however, that one of the reasons he's grown up so hard (his brother's horrible presence aside) is that people would immediately be repulsed due to his burns, assuming that such a frightening appearance must be indicative of a bad person. He once remarks, "Why believe them and not me? Couldn't be my face, could it?"
    • Brienne of Tarth is a female example. You won't read a chapter she's featured in without someone mentioning what an ugly freak she is. They mockingly call her Brienne the Beauty.
  • Precious in the novel Push (and The Movie, which was titled Precious) could be said to be this, although she is the main character. Precious is an overweight girl who was sexually abused by her father and had two kids by him. Her mother also physically abused her. She also is functionally illiterate, and is still in the 8th grade at the age of 16. But, she does show empathy for others and has a knack for poetry. Unfortunately, she also has the sad ending part. Near the end of the book, Precious' father dies and she finds out that he had HIV and passed it on to her.
  • Beldin from the Belgariad is a self-aware form of this. He's a hideously ugly hunchback, but he's also one of the most powerful sorcerers in the world. Nobody outside of his allies and enemies knows what he's capable of, though, because as he puts it, "They can't see past the hump on my back." He isn't nice by any means, being a horrifically crude and tactless jerk, but a certain percentage of that is a front, as he's firmly on the side of the heroes.
    • Although in the Malloreon he breaks out of this trope by getting a happy ending. Vella falls in love with him because of the whole "turns into a hawk" thing, and they are last seen, as hawks, disappearing into the sky.
  • The Pilo Family Circus has its own freakshow, which is led by the human-shark hybrid Fishboy, a textbook example of The Grotesque. Being the only performer who is consistently polite and welcoming, he is probably the only member of the Circus that doesn't have any rivalries with his fellow performers, and even Gonko, head of the Clown Division refers to Fishboy as "the nicest bastard in this place." However, like all the Freaks, Fishboy wasn't born deformed: he was mutated by the Matter Manipulator (a flesh-sculpting sorcerer who lives in the Circus Funhouse) and forced to live out his life with the others as an object of disgust and mockery. In fact, this is why he starts an underground resistance movement against the Circus and it's managers, and why he and the other Freaks are the first to die when Kurt Pilo starts hunting for traitors.
  • Grim's Grotesques from Keys to the Kingdom ultimately end up being this, although they play villain for most of Grim Tuesday.
  • Ellie May in Tobacco Road, who would be easily marriageable if not for her harelip.
  • The Book of the Grotesque was the original title of, and the title of the preface to, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Basically, everyone in the town takes ownership of a truth, turning them grotesque and the truths themselves into falsehoods.
  • Quite a bit of this in the Harlan Ellison story The Abnormals, (titled in its television version as 'The Discards'). A group of people is living aboard a spacecraft after a virus causes them all to mutate and afterward be exiled to try and contain the virus. The leader, Sanswope, has an extra head. Another guy has a deformed chest and oversized arm. Many were described in the story and more were added for television.

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • The shapeshifters from Supernatural. Three episodes have focused on them as the Monster of the Week ("Skin," "Nightshifter," and "Monster Movie") and in two of them, each shapeshifter gets a speech about why he is what he is. Most of what we know about them are implied and hinted at in these two speeches: they are born to human parents, but they are supernaturally mutated and very hideous in appearance; they face physical abuse and then run away, but of course, no one will take them in, and they're driven out of every community they go to; they then learn to harness their power of shapeshifting and take revenge upon the world, usually embodying some extreme form of a human flaw (such as aggression or greed). While they are probably the most tragic monsters on the show, the shapeshifters still break the one rule, so the handsome and heroic Winchester brothers must put a silver bullet through their hearts every time.
  • Several examples in The Outer Limits TOS episodes, such as Andro the mutant in "The Man Who Was Never Born" and the scientist changed into an alien in "The Architects of Fear".
  • Sharaz Jek in Doctor Who turns out to be horribly deformed by the mud bursts that nearly killed him, but covers it for almost the entirety of the one serial he's in by wearing a black mask (and kinky leather) and living amongst androids "because androids do not see as we see!". Evidently the mud didn't manage to destroy his vanity.
  • In the New Series episode 'Silence in the Library', Miss Evangelista fills this role...eventually.
  • The X-Files episode "The Post-Modern Prometheus" is about a man with two (more or less fully functional) faces, who gets treated a monster and almost lynched by the local populace. In the culmination of the episode, Mutato suddenly delivers a heartfelt monologue to the angry mob, revealing how he lived, suffered, and longed to be with other people, prompting one of the townspeople to exclaim "He is not a monster, he is alright!"

Newspaper Comics[edit | hide]

  • Ziggy. He doesn't cause fear in the audience, but pity. He's also pretty deformed compared to everyone else he interacts with. He's also tragic as mishap after mishap befalls him, as the comic's punchline.

Professional Wrestling[edit | hide]

  • The original Mankind character in the WWF was a villainous version of The Grotesque, being what happens when the disfigured, tragic soul decides to take out his anguish and pain on his "normal" tormentors.

Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • The Nosferatu clan of both of The World of Darkness Vampire games have this as a defining trait.
    • In Vampire: The Masquerade Masquerade, the Nosferatu are all horribly disfigured; most of them look like their namesake, but a good number of them "just" have hideous growths and scar tissue that could stop a tank shell. It usually reaches the point that merely going in public uncloaked as a Nosferatu breaks the Masquerade.
    • In Vampire: The Requiem, they can still look butt ugly, but the "wrongness" about them is more of a floating quality not tied directly to appearance. One of them can be as pretty as a supermodel, but still disquiet people because they smell strongly of embalming fluid.
    • Requiem also features the Carnival, a bloodline founded by "the Andalusan Mermaid", a circus freak who was saved from her sadistic owner by a passing vampire. Every last one of the Carnival is deformed in some way or another. The book discussing them specifically warns that they tend not to be as nice as traditional freaks were. Their clan of origin, for irony's sake, are the Daeva.
  • The Slasher Sourcebook for New World of Darkness features Freaks and Mutants as Slasher archetypes. The Freaks draw from sources like The Hills Have Eyes—individuals who've turned reclusive and atavistic due to their deformities. The Mutants, their natural progression, draw more from sources like The Descent, as their mutations have caused them to become something other than human.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Klungo, Gruntilda's henchman in Banjo-Kazooie.
  • Dr. Jaming from Dark Cloud 2 is described as a "Tragic Figure". He starts out as a bad guy, but is later said to have a change in heart shortly after you beat him. His grandson, who is just as ugly as he was, develops Ixion at his request to do something good and just.

Webcomics[edit | hide]

  • Eight Bit Theater: Black Mage, apparently. But since he's The Faceless, the only person to see his true face has been The Onion Kid a.k.a. Sarda. It also drives you temporarily or not so temporary, whatever is wrong with Sarda, he needs some meds. batshit insane.

Web Original[edit | hide]

  • http://browse.deviantart.com/?qh=§ion=&q=bog+unicorn#/d8kpwt " Common unicorns are not what they're cracked up to be. Leaving aside that they're nasty, foul tempered scavengers, most commonly found lurking around dumps, even leaving aside the smell and the parasites (sure, they look all pretty and sleek, but so do pigeons) and the tendency of the horn to cause itchy rashes, they're nothing you want to pal around with. They're vermin. You can't even eat them. (Well, you can, but you won't do it twice.) But the bog unicorn is different. It really is pure of heart and noble of intent, altruistic, gentle, good-natured and kind to smaller animals, feeding only on the tenderest waterweeds and being careful not to step on anything. A bog unicorn that accidentally treads on an ant will be wracked with guilt, and if one should happen to munch a careless snail while dining, the poor creature will be disconsolate for days. They will trek miles through squelching and squolorching mud to finded fouled waters and cleanse them with their nifty horn. They will carry nestfuls of baby birds in their mouths during forest fires and reunite them with their parents afterwards, and never once mention any byproducts carelessly deposited on their tongues. They're nice. And yet, despite these sterling qualities, just try to find a virgin that wants a bog unicorn to lay its head in her in lap. People. I tell ya."


Real Life[edit | hide]

"I! AM NOT! AN ELEPHANT! I AM NOT! AN ANIMAL! I! AM A HUMAN! BEING! I! AM! ...a man.

  • Rondo Hatton (April 22, 1894 – February 2, 1946) was an American actor who had a brief, but prolific career playing thuggish bit parts in many Hollywood B-movies. He was known for his brutish facial features which were the result of acromegaly, a disorder of the pituitary gland. His primary role was 'The Creeper', a killer who crushed his victim's spines in a bearhug. However, the Creeper was played as a deformed, dim-witted character that acted as a foil to some other villain's ambitions. Some person would befriend this pathetic, angry hulk of a man, and then use him as a weapon. So partial subversion here.
  • One of the better examples of the "Horrid outside, beautiful inside" would be Grace McDaniel, the "Mule Woman", so-called due to facial tumors distorting the lower half of her face into a long "muzzle". She is remembered as being one of the kindest people to ever work the carnival circuit.