From Lon Chaney to Marvel’s Thanos, disfigurement has long been a source of big-screen horror. But new drama Dirty God is finally redressing monstrous stereotypes, says Alex Godfrey.

“As a kid I was called Freddy Krueger,” says Vicky Knight. “I didn’t know who he was, so I asked my mum and she said he was a monster with burns. That hurt me. I was being labelled as this monster.”

She was eight years old when a fire took hold of her grandparents’ London pub in July 2003. She’d been staying there with her aunt and uncle, who ran the pub at the time, and her cousins – and woke up at 5:30am, engulfed in flames. Local resident and 45-year-old pub regular Ronnie Springer arrived, ran upstairs, smashed a window and lowered her and one of her cousins down, before he collapsed from inhalation and fell through the window. He later died in hospital; two of Knight’s other young cousins also died in the fire. She suffered 33 per cent third and fourth degree burns on her upper body, including her face, and has since had numerous operations and skin grafts.

More like this:

- Why the rave era still resonates

- Once Upon a Time in Hollywood review

- The horrors of the near-near-future

“I was bullied a lot at school,” she says of what came next. “I was beaten up every day. My mum had to pick me up every day because some girl would just batter me. Because she didn’t like the way I looked. And I couldn’t defend myself because my hands don’t really work properly, I can’t make a fist. I thought when I went to college it was going to stop. And it carried on.” In 2014, someone suggested she make a YouTube video about how she was burnt, which she did, hoping to inspire other burn survivors suffering in similar ways.

Overwhelmingly scarring has been used by filmmakers to perpetuate damaging stereotypes

Her video went viral and a couple of years ago was seen by a casting director, leading to the now 23-year-old Knight, despite having had no acting experience or aspirations, winning the lead role in a powerful and affecting new feature film, Dirty God. In the London-set drama, she gives a raw but nuanced performance as young mother Jade, fresh out of hospital after having suffered an acid attack, struggling as a young mother and navigating life with facial scarring. The character is a fully-rounded human being, completely free of archetypal baggage. This is significant.

Overwhelmingly, scarring has been used by filmmakers to perpetuate damaging stereotypes. We’re not talking about Harrison Ford or Bradley Cooper’s subtle furnishings – minor real-life scarring that tells of minor accidents or surgeries – but fabricated disfigurations, applied to non-scarred actors and used as obvious, mostly negative signifiers. 

Monstrous stigmatisation

It’s a phenomenon which sullies film history – but it wasn’t always the case. In the wake of World War One, notes Joe Kember, an Associate Professor in Film Studies at the University of Exeter who has researched issues concerning the representation of the human face, there was a brief period when Hollywood offered three-dimensional characterisations of facial scarring – films about men returning home to their loved ones, learning to live with their injuries. Arthur Guy Empey, a US soldier who was shot in the face in 1916, joined the propaganda effort, writing and starring in 1918’s Over The Top, loosely inspired by his experiences. 1927’s Face Value, directed by Robert Florey, featuring a war veteran with irreparable facial scarring, began with the soldier and his similarly damaged friends laughing and drinking at dinner.

However, respectful treatment of the disfigured soon dissipated. Lon Chaney, the horror star who had made his name playing heavily scarred monsters, was responsible for early screen stigma, and as the horror genre gained popularity things got worse. “When you get up to slasher and gore and horror and exploitation cinema,” says Kember, “from the 1970s through the '80s, there’s this rather simplistic equation between facial scarring and moral monstrosity.” A Nightmare On Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger was a chief offender, as was Friday The 13th’s Jason Voorhees. “It’s a very lazy, straightforward shorthand,” continues Kember. “We use shorthands all the time – we mark gender, race, everything in that kind of way – but disability is a particularly egregious example.”

There are exceptions: Ralph Fiennes’ burns victim was treated with sensitivity in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, and Ron Howard’s Rush presented an inspiring account of Niki Lauda’s resilience and professional resurrection after his horrific crash. But positive portrayals are rare. It is still de rigueur in blockbuster genre films to make villains scarred. A litany of Star Wars reprobates are presented as such. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s big bad, Thanos, was given multiple facial scars – though given that he already had a peculiar purple alien head, it’s not as if he required further embellishment. In The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan grounded The Joker in reality by turning his permanent grin into a scar, and recent Bond villains Le Chiffre and Blofeld have both been given prominent scarring, despite no such affliction being mentioned in the books.

Ian Fleming described James Bond as having a scar down his cheek – but this has never made it to the screen

What’s more, it can work the other way too – with heroes having markings removed to make them more aesthetically appealing. In last year’s Mortal Engines, an adaptation of Philip Reeve’s popular fantasy books, heroine Hester Shaw had her disfigurement dramatically reduced for the screen from, as Reeve wrote, a mouth “wrenched sideways in a permanent sneer”, a “smashed stump” for a nose and just one eye staring “out of the wreckage” to a simple, albeit thick, scar. In James Bond’s first literary outing, Casino Royale, author Ian Fleming described him as having a scar down his cheek – but across the secret agent’s many incarnations, this has never made it to the screen.

Digging into trauma

Dirty God is a wholesale rebuff to such superficiality. It was inspired by an experience its Dutch writer/director Sacha Polak had at the Netherlands’ Lowlands music festival five years ago, when she saw a young burns survivor, looked away, and felt everyone around her doing the same, whispering behind her back. “I thought, ‘This woman deals with this every single day of her life.’ It stayed in the back of my head for years.” Later, when she was working in London, Polak read about the increase of acid attacks on women, often resulting from vengeful male lovers attempting to destroy their beauty. She and her co-writer, Susanne Farrell, then met some female burn survivors for research, and spoke to them about their everyday lives and how they felt about looking for future partners. The pair began work on a script together about a young woman having acid thrown in her face by her boyfriend, and struggling after leaving hospital.

Polak has experience of scarring herself – she had a mastectomy, an experience that she dealt with in her 2013 documentary Nieuwe Tieten (New Boobs). She’s not sure if that directly influenced Dirty God but, she says, “I know what it’s like to lose something that makes you feminine, so maybe that’s part of it.”

Previous to Dirty God, Vicky Knight had her own documentary experience, but one so awful that it embedded in her a deep mistrust of the industry. After her 2014 video went viral online, the producers of a reality show got in touch, telling her they wanted to film the daily life of a burns survivor; Knight cooperated in the hope that it would educate people. Two weeks before it aired, they told her it was a dating show called Too Ugly For Love?. She was devastated.

Trolls said: ‘The only good thing about her is her legs because they’re not burnt’ – Vicky Knight

Her non-romantic interactions with people during filming had been made to look like something else. “I’m gay, and they put me on dates with boys,” she says now, unaware that these scenes would be presented as such. “One of the boys was also gay. So it was a complete shambles. It was just horrendous.” Even more horrendous was the aftermath, she says: on a misogynistic website, people who had seen the show left abhorrent comments about her.

“There were trolls saying, ‘The wrong person died in the fire.’ ‘You look like Freddy Krueger.’ ‘The only good thing about her is her legs because they’re not burnt.’ People were insulting me so badly, and I had no support from the TV people at all. I emailed them and they emailed me back asking if I’d like to be part of The Undateables” – a television show made by the same production company, in which people with challenging conditions are sent on dates.

Understandably, Knight was not eager to go in front of cameras again. So when Polak’s casting director saw Knight’s YouTube video and contacted her about Dirty God, she wanted nothing to do with it, ignoring their advances for a year. “I was just like, ‘No, I’m not humiliating myself anymore,” she explains. When she did eventually talk to them, however, Polak convinced her of her good intentions.

Should actors ‘scar up’?

Polak didn’t want to use a recognisable actress, wearing obvious scar make-up. “I really want the audience to feel for Jade, and to feel in all your bones that the girl you’re watching really deals with these things,” she says. However that decision was more about believability than it was representation, and she doesn’t inherently disapprove of actors ‘scarring up’. “I feel like the people that make films need to have the freedom to make them the way they envision them,” she says. “The main issue was that I was looking for something pure.” Much of Knight’s real-life experience, right down to her contacting doctors around the world “to see if they could take away the scars”, is reflected in Dirty God.

I forgot about the scars after five minutes and I wanted to show that in the film – Sacha Polak

Early on in filming, Knight had second thoughts about going through with the role as, out on location, the production process drew even more stares to her than usual. “The filming was very, very emotional for her,” says Polak. “She had covered her body for so long, wearing long sleeves in the summer… Being naked in front of the camera was very hard for her, but even harder was when we filmed the close-ups of her scars, because she always felt that they were so ugly.” The film’s opening sequence is an extreme close-up tour of Knight’s scars; it looks incredible. “When we were filming that,” says Knight, “I was breaking down on set because I thought, ‘I’ve hidden my scars for 15 years, and now the whole world’s gonna see it.” But when I watched the film, I was like, wow. It actually looks like an artwork. I think it looks amazing on screen.”

The result of Polak frontloading the film like this, and going tight on Knight’s face, is that it quickly becomes normalised. Within minutes you’re lost in her performance, and the story. This was Polak’s intention, having experienced the same effect when she met burn survivors for research: “I forgot about the scars after five minutes, and I wanted to show that in the film, that you sort of forget, and you can go beyond it.”

When it comes to representation of scarring on screen, Dirty God certainly feels pioneering. “Now is the time that we can show people that are different, and show that they are beautiful,” says Polak. “I think it will be possible after this film that there will be an opportunity for Vicky to act, to maybe be part of a TV series. Things are changing a bit.” As if proof of that, Dirty God is partly financed by the British Film Institute, which last year announced that it is now refusing to fund films in which people with facial scarring are portrayed as villains. “Film is a catalyst for change and that is why we are committing to not having negative representations depicted through scars or facial difference in the films we fund,” said the BFI’s deputy CEO Ben Roberts.

To ban or not to ban?

Polak doesn’t fully sign up to a blanket creative ban like this, but “it’s a good signal for people to think about”, she says. “I don’t like people with scars being portrayed as villains. I see how important that is for Vicky – it’s hurting her. So I do think it’s good to make people aware of it.” Knight thinks the initiative is “amazing”, as a lot of younger people she encounters “relate to what they see on the screen. I’ve been on a bus and had a group of schoolgirls going, ‘Oh my God, look at her, that’s disgusting.’ If they stop funding things like that, I hope people with scars won’t be classed as bad people.”

Filming Dirty God has made me love myself more. I feel more human, rather than a creature - Vicky Knight

Dirty God has changed her life, she says, emboldening her “100 per cent. I probably wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t in that film. Before I started filming, I was suicidal. I was self-harming, I was self-neglecting. I was doing everything to take these thoughts and this pain away from my head. I was crumbling, basically. I’d just got to the point where I was thinking, ‘Do you know what, this really isn’t worth it anymore.’ And then all of a sudden Sacha came along, and it’s given me a new window to look out of. Now, I go out in shorts and a T-shirt. I don’t care what people think. Before, if someone was staring at me, I would give them a dirty look and I’d go home and cry. Now, I’ll happily say to them, ‘Do you want to know what’s happened?’ It’s made me love myself more. I’m proud of my scars now. I feel more human, rather than a creature.”

She hopes the film will help others too. In her day-to-day life, she is a nurse, and recently visited the burns unit in the hospital she works in – the same hospital that “saved” her, she says, after the fire. “There were quite a few badly burned patients there. I told them about this film, and you should have seen their eyes light up. They realised, ‘There is life after having burns.’ I want to be able to show people that life isn’t just about scars and operations. I walked away from my shift knowing that I’d at least made them smile.”

Such is the power of cinema. And of people.

Dirty God is released in the UK on 7 June and France on 19 June

Love film? Join BBC Culture Film Club on Facebook, a community for film fanatics all over the world.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.