#ThesisThursday: “Massive Paws, Killer Claws, and Deformities: Horror and Otherness within the Role of Disney’s Monsters”

With Disney’s live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast soon approaching, I would like to share my thesis regarding the Gothic themes within the roles of the monstrous and feminine Other represented in some of Disney’s “renaissance” animations.


Despite Disney’s traditional “happily ever-after” resolution for their animated feature films, Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) both allude to classic horror themes, particularly pertaining to the role of the monster as the ‘Other’ in the hegemonic culture.  Amy M. Davis briefly discusses in her analytical book, Good Girls and Wicked Witches, how Beauty and the Beast and The Phantom of the Opera (1925) both depict the monstrous Other’s love and obsession for a beautiful woman (24-25). This analysis can expand to include the deformed Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). Considered a monster from his physical abnormalities, the bell-ringer of Notre Dame becomes entranced by the angelic kindness shown to him by the gypsy, Esmeralda. The Beast and Quasimodo each have parallel characteristics to classic monsters, such as King Kong and the Phantom of the Opera. These qualities are exemplified by the monster’s emotional connection to their female counterpart for they are both defined as ‘freaks’ by the masculine power within the narrative. The monsters and their beauties do not conform to cultural expectations and are thus condemned by the masculine hegemony.

From Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to the more recent Frozen (2013), Disney films clearly convey what the company perceives as Otherness through its definition of gender roles. Disney’s conformist and conservative ideals expect men to have absolute authority over women who need to be domestic, beautiful, innocent, and obedient. This ideology proposes that women are happiest in traditional roles where they are only to serve and care for their husband’s home (Davis, Good Girls 6, 20). Anyone who does not conform to this cultural normalcy is rejected by the masculine supremacy. Belle and Esmeralda are intelligent, brave, and strong-willed women. Due to their unnatural and deviant independence from the hegemonic culture, they become outcasts (Sumera 44). Gaston and Judge Claude Frollo, the patriarchal authorities within Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, condemn these women for their Otherness although they sexually crave their beauty. The Beast and Quasimodo, on the other hand, are only punished by these figures because of their monstrous exteriors. The dominant culture stresses the importance of physical beauty, and their animalistic appearance defies this assigned normalcy. The power of the masculine hierarchy and their enforcement of conformity is also a very significant factor that drives the narrative of gothic films. The Phantom of the Opera and King Kong mirror these two Disney films due to their focus on how the beauty and the monster share the burden of Otherness.

The monsters within a gothic narrative are classified as an Other by their physical difference, which translates as a sexual malformation from that of the normal male. This disfigurement castrates the monster and makes him like a woman in the eyes of the patriarchal hegemony. Within the gothic genre, women are feared because the vagina’s function is associated with castration as well as blood and pus, the results of menstruation and childbirth. The beauty and the monster are both biological freaks that the patriarchal power must demean for defying their definition of normalcy (Williams 20). Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame illustrate this concept further within the film by having the governing culture view the monsters as an abomination that must be destroyed.

The Beast and Quasi’s monstrous exteriors, although made cuddlier by Disney’s animation, is dominated by exaggerated animalistic qualities. The Beast is a chimera of several different species, which includes a wolf, a bison, a wild boar, and a lion. His towering appearance, along with his animalistic rages, is very similar to the construction of King Kong, who intimidates anyone who crosses his path. Quasimodo, whose name in itself means ‘half-formed’, has a monstrous composition that is much more complex. He has many physical qualities similar to those of an ape with his large forearms and hands, which he uses to brachiate throughout the bell-tower. Like the mighty Kong, Quasimodo utilizes his animalistic ability to scale Notre Dame to save Esmeralda. A parallel scene between these films is clearly shown as the monster carries his beauty atop a massive iconic building (refer to Figures 1 and 2). During this sequence, Esmeralda wears a simple white gown, similar to Kong’s beauty, Ann Darrow. As Esmeralda is about to be burnt at the stake Quasimodo breaks his chains to save her. In a similar fashion to Kong climbing the Empire State building, Quasimodo secures his beauty’s safety as he scales up Notre Dame. Both monsters then hold up their feminine counterpart in a victorious manner until the masculine power viscously attacks. Aside from King Kong, Quasi’s facial deformities are almost identical to those of Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera (see Figure 3). Quasimodo has his large upturned, pig-like nose and jagged teeth that are constantly exposed. The dehumanization caused by their animalistic physicality further defines the two as an abject figure.

The Beast and Quasimodo’s appearances become a curse and a burden that they must hide from the rest of society. Knowing how the patriarchal authority fears their malformations, they begin to think of themselves as monsters and believe that they deserve their punishment (Davis, Handsome Heroes 136, 159). The Beast displays his disgust with his monstrosity when Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts urge him to pursue Belle. He becomes frustrated and argues, “Oh, it’s no use. She’s so beautiful, and I’m…Well, look at me!” (Beauty and the Beast). Quasimodo also shows his acceptance of his monstrous title when Hugo, Laverne, and Victor try to congratulate him on his ‘new romance’ with Esmeralda. He quickly denounces their comments by retorting, “Look, I appreciate what you all are trying to do, but let’s not fool ourselves. Ugliest face in all of Paris, remember? I don’t think I’m her type” (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). The Beast and Quasi both illustrate frustration with their grotesque appearance and accept the masculine hegemonic view of external beauty. This acceptance is evident when both of the monsters lurk within the shadows and observe their beauties from a distance during their early encounters, similarly to the Phantom of the Opera. The Beast, during his first encounter with Belle, appears to stay within the boundaries of the shadows as though he were afraid of her reaction to his monstrous appearance. Later on, he still seems hesitant to confront Belle in person and uses his magic mirror to watch her from afar. The Beast wishes to use the enchanted mirror to determine her true opinion of him and his abnormal physicality. Quasimodo, on the other hand, sneaks down from the bell tower of Notre Dame to observe Esmeralda during her song, “God Help the Outcasts,” but he remains hidden within the shadows. One of the churchgoers shoos him away and Quasimodo, ashamed of being seen, cowers away back to the bell tower to hide his ugly deformities. Both grotesque characters are convinced that their Otherness deprives them the chance of acceptance into society’s normalcy.

Rejection from the authoritative culture is an issue Belle and Esmeralda also struggle with as the Other. Disney’s heroines, unlike the usual Gothic women who are only defined by purity and innocence, cherish their uncommon independence. Belle is first introduced to the audience through the song “Belle,” in which the townspeople describe their opinion of her by singing,

But behind that fair façade

I’m afraid she’s rather odd

Very different from the rest of us is Belle

(Beauty and the Beast)

During the course of this song, the villagers, especially Gaston, clearly indicate their belief that Belle’s beauty is her greatest attribute. They do not understand how a beautiful woman can also be attractive through her intelligence, independence, and self-assurance. Belle decides to ignore these criticisms for not conforming to her society’s expectancies and embraces her Otherness (Davis, Handsome Heroes 161).  Her ability to assert her individuality is best shown by her rejection of Gaston. Through this rejection, Belle is also repudiating the notions of the masculine hegemony. The “Bimbettes”, the girls who swoon over Gaston, abide by the feminine role culturally assigned to pretty women and ridicule Belle’s independence throughout the film. They question ‘what is wrong with her’ because they cannot conceptualize why she does not drool over Gaston as they do (Sumera 44). Esmeralda shares Belle’s strong sense of independence, but is further classified as an Other by identifying with gypsies, whom Judge Claude Frollo condemns for their nonconformity. The gypsies, from Frollo’s definition, are thieves and tricksters who defy the cultural normalcy. While acquainting himself with his new captain, Phoebus, he announces this belief when stating, “The Gypsies live outside the normal order. Their heathen ways inflame the people’s lowest instinct. And they must be stopped” (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Frollo believes that the nonconformists will ultimately destroy the traditional order of Paris. Esmeralda directly addresses her Otherness at the Feast of Fools as she releases Quasi from his bonds after his inhumane public punishment for his deformities. Frollo, infuriated by her actions, growls, “How dare you defy me?” Enraged by the mistreatment of Quasimodo, Esmeralda argues, “You mistreat this poor boy the same way you mistreat my people. You speak of justice, yet you are cruel to those most in need of your help!” (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) She accepts her nonconformity and wishes that her fellow gypsies as well as Quasimodo would not be chastised for their Otherness. Her sexual appeal and beauty make her the prime target for Frollo to assert his supreme power. He attempts to make her conform by offering her to be his mistress in exchange for her salvation. Esmeralda proudly rejects this offer, like Belle rejects Gaston, because she cherishes her individuality and freedom from the male power. The beauties within these two Disney animated features highly value their Otherness, creating a strong emotional understanding with the monsters.

The Gothic fantasy is not driven by a strict sexual desire, but by the strange and sympathetic affinity between the feminine character and the monster (Williams 21). This connection begins when the female is introduced to the monster’s abnormal physicality, a vital factor necessary in a horror film. At first, the woman’s look exhibits the same fear the masculine power has of the monster. As shown in Figures 4 and 5, Belle and Esmeralda both gasp at the initial sight of the Beast and Quasimodo. In a dramatic appearance, the Beast slowly reveals himself to Belle by stepping away from the shadows in which he hides (see Figure 6). With a style reminiscent of German Expressionism, a common cinematic approach utilized in horror films, the Beast’s grotesque exterior becomes more distorted and intimidating by the harsh lighting created by the low angle shot (refer to Figure 7). Belle gasps and quivers in fear of his appearance. In a less dramatized scene, Esmeralda acts similarly shocked when she discovers Quasimodo’s ‘mask’ is in fact his face at the Feast of Fools. This scene perfectly mirrors the woman’s look from The Phantom of the Opera. Christine, the beauty, curious of what her musical suitor is hiding beneath his mask, removes the Phantom’s disguise. She shrieks in horror, like Esmeralda, at the sight of his monstrous facial deformities. Further into this scene, Quasimodo, like the Beast, is shown on-screen in a very German Expressionistic manner. As the men in the crowd attempt to tie him down for a public display, the sky grows dark providing harsh lighting for the scene. As Quasi tries to break free from the ropes, he is shown with a low angle shot. Accompanied with deep shadows, this low angle shot warps Quasimodo’s physical deformities, especially his hunched back, to create a more monstrous image (see Figures 8 and 9). Despite the Beast and Quasi’s repulsive physicality, Belle and Esmeralda will later recognize that this freakishness is similar to their own Otherness.

The beauty sees the mutilation of her own body, her castration, within the monster’s horrifying exterior (Williams 22). Her virtue allows her to understand their commonality as an Other. After this revelation, Belle and Esmeralda both help the monsters understand that they are not so different. Belle and the Beast, during the song sequence of “Something There,” discover the personal commonalities they share, especially their love for literature as they read by the fire. Likewise, Esmeralda helps Quasimodo accept that he is not the monster that he believes he is and shares her feelings of Otherness. As Quasi shows her around the bell tower, Esmeralda attempts to comfort him with a palm reading atop Notre Dame:

ESMERALDA: I don’t see any…

QUASIMODO: Any what?

ESMERALDA: Monster lines. Not a single one. [she hold her hand out] Now, you look at me. Do you think I’m evil?

QUASIMODO: No! No-no, y-you are kind, and good, and.. and…

ESMERALDA: And a Gypsy. And maybe Frollo’s wrong about the both of us.

(The Hunchback of Notre Dame)

They discover that they are both victims of the masculine rage, which drives them to separate from society’s normalcy (Day 103). Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, and King Kong are all tales of beautiful women who essentially become imprisoned with a deformed monster whether or not by choice. The woman and the monster share feelings of loneliness, fear, and societal rejection. The Beast, for example, is as much of a prisoner in his castle as Belle (Jeffords 168). The idea of a ‘sanctuary’ applies to all of the monsters within these films. The Beast has his castle, Quasi has Notre Dame, King Kong has Skull Island while the Phantom of the Opera hides in his lair deep within the opera house. Their imprisoning isolation, in a way, acts as a sanctuary for the Others to protect themselves from the masculine hegemony. Unlike the Beast’s castle, Notre Dame acts as a literal sanctuary through the protection of the church. Quasimodo and Esmeralda, although prisoners within the cathedral’s stone walls, need Notre Dame’s religious affiliation to save them from Frollo’s damning wrath. The sanctuary only protects the monster and his beauty until the antagonistic male, driven mad by his obsessive lust, decides to invade and punish the nonconformists.

Gaston and Judge Claude Frollo represent the masculine authority within the Gothic narrative and are defined by their selfishness, narcissism, and cruelty. Gaston not only adheres to the ideals of the hyper-masculine, but also fulfills its stereotypical image with his burly physicality and manly pastimes, such as drinking, hunting, and expectorating (Jeffords 170). Lacking the ideal male beauty, Frollo exhibits his masculine authority through his personal belief of having moral superiority (Davis, Handsome Heroes 224). Gaston and Judge Claude Frollo both have a sense of self-entitlement. To assert their superiority and identity, they each utilize violence and terror, the purest form of masculinity, to obtain whatever they wish (Day 80). It is clear that these two male authorities wish to possess the women, Belle and Esmeralda, only for their sexual value. The women consistently reject their advances, thereby belittling their power. This rejection acts as a catalyst for Gaston and Frollo’s obsessive desire, and they become insanely consumed by their sexual appetite. Their growing lust slowly sends their societies into a state of chaos, lawlessness, and disorder (Davis, Handsome Heroes 231-235). The humiliation Gaston and Frollo endure from the feminine Other fuels their need for vengeance against the beauty and the monster. These male figures wish to force the beauties into the traditional role of domesticity assigned by the authoritative culture and to destroy the monstrous Other in order to maintain normalcy within their society.

The hegemonic culture within Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are both heavily influenced by the governing masculine figures, Gaston and Judge Claude Frollo. Gaston, embodying the dominant culture’s ideal masculinity, is an icon within the village which is clearly shown in the narcissistic ballad of “Gaston”. His values and authority are accepted without question. (Davis, Handsome Heroes 234-235). In “The Mob Song”, the villagers express their loyalty to Gaston’s values by singing:

            We don’t like

            What we don’t understand

            In fact it scares us

            And this monster is mysterious at least

            (Beauty and the Beast)

The townspeople indicate that they fear the Beast, like Gaston, due to their unfamiliarity with his differences, which can allude to the similar terror of female Otherness. The bodily “freakishness” assigned to women by the authoritative male power is due to the vagina’s foreign functions. The masculine hegemony is horrified by a woman’s physical difference because its functions, such as birth and menstruation, are associated with blood and pus. Without the presence of a penis, women are viewed as an alien-being that is no different than their deformed monsters. Gaston believes this freakishness makes women as inferior as her monster companion. The angry mob, which only consists of males, believes that they need to rid themselves of the Others to finally extinguish nonconformity. Frollo, on the other hand, gains influence over the public of Paris through his political title. His patriarchal influence is exemplified when Quasimodo is publicly humiliated after being crowned the ‘King of Fools’ during the Festival of Fools. Frollo’s male guards, who follow his masculine ideals, do not cheer for Quasi’s acceptance and decide to exploit his ugliness by throwing food at him. The remainder of the crowd quickly joins in without a second thought. This scene demonstrates how the culture, under the authority of Frollo, accepts his ideology that Otherness and dissent should be punished. During the narrative’s climax, Gaston and Frollo’s masculine power is destroyed by the feminine and monstrous Others’ nonconformity. With the masculine supremacy gone, the public now has the freedom to accept nonconformist values, such as individuality and intelligence. By the films’ conclusion, the acceptance of the Other in society is clearly illustrated when the villagers attend the Beast and Belle’s supposed wedding and when the public of Paris cheer for Quasi’s heroic rescue of Esmeralda. Unlike Gothic-driven films, which ultimately kill the monster in the end, Disney allows the abject figure to remain as a continuation of new-age dissenting ideology.

The masculine hegemony’s definition of Otherness is a vital element in the construction of a horror film because it is the catalyst for the Gothic narrative. Without it, the monster and the beauty would not share the burden of Otherness and biological ‘freakishness’ to develop an emotional connection. In addition to their female castration, the beauties, Belle and Esmeralda, are also classified as an Other because of their independent character. This independence does not follow the conforming ideology held by the patriarchal authority, which Disney defines throughout its animated features. Their unity in Otherness ultimately disrupts the societal normalcy Gaston and Frollo’s represent, leading them to chastise the outcasts. It is essential for Disney films, as well as horror classics, to depict the beauties’ sympathetic affinity with their monstrous companion because this emotional union and understanding helps the audience build a compassionate connection to the grotesque monster. The absence of this sympathy for the Gothic monster would cause viewers only to see the Beast and Quasimodo as nothing more than how the masculine hegemony classifies them, a freak.


How have Disney films continued to brake the barriers of ‘traditional’ ideology in the company’s brand?


Works Cited

Beauty and the Beast. Dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Screenplay by Linda Woolverton. Perf. Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, and Richard White. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc., 1991. DVD.

Davis, Amy M. Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Women in Disney’s Feature Animation. Eastleigh, U.K.: John Libbey Pub., 2006. Print.

Davis, Amy M. Handsome Heroes & Vile Villains: Men in Disney’s Feature Animation. New Barnet: John Libbey, 2013. Print.

Day, William Patrick. In the Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of Gothic Fantasy. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985. Print.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Screenplay by Tab Murphy. Perf. Tom Hulce, Tony Jay, Demi Moore, and Kevin Kline. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc., 1996. DVD.

Jeffords, Susan. “The Curse of Masculinity: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.” From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Ed. Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. 161-72. Print.

King Kong. Dir. Merian C. Cooper. Perf. Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot. RKO Radio Pictures, 1933. DVD.

The Phantom of the Opera. Dir. Rupert Julian. Perf. Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin. Universal Pictures Corp., 1925. DVD.

Sumera, Lara. “The Mask of Beauty: Masquerade Theory and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.”Quarterly Review of Film and Video 26.1 (2008): 1-8. Web.

Williams, Linda. “When the Woman Looks.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas, 1996. 15-34. Print.

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