Against the Odds: Women, Disability and Horror

Contains spoilers for Hush (2016).

Definitions and estimates of disability vary depending on the source. A recent survey reported that 8% of people in England and 12% in Wales are significantly affected by a health problem or disability (ONS, 2013). The DWP (who have their own agenda for defining disability in a certain way) report that there are 11.6 million disabled people living in the UK and notably more women (6.3 million) than men (5.4 million). Whichever statistic you favour, it appears that a significant proportion of the population are living with conditions which have a long-term impairment on their lives.

The interaction between disability and gender is interesting. Throughout the world, women are more likely than men to become disabled during their lifetime, as a result of various gender inequalities: less access to adequate food and healthcare; unsafe living/working conditions; higher rates of violence and abuse; pregnancy and birth complications. Disabled women are less likely to be employed than disabled men and they receive poorer levels of healthcare and social support, yet carry out significantly higher levels of unpaid and emotional labour (Leonard Cheshire, 2014; Eve, 2018). This intersection of gender and disability may be further complicated by other demographic factors, such as sexuality, age, ethnicity, culture and social class, with regards to the impact on the individual and their treatment by society.

Disability in Film

A casual glance at the top-grossing films of 2017-18 show one major character with a disability: Elisa in The Shape of Water, who does not speak. Aside from that, we have characters whose disabilities are overcome by technology or superhuman abilities, such as Luke Skywalker (robotic hand), The Winter Soldier (robotic arm), Thor (loses an eye, is also a god). Such depictions are hardly representative of one in ten audience members’ experiences when it comes to living with a disability.


Elisa in The Shape of Water
When disability is seen on film, it is rarely positive. Activist Paul Hunt identified ten negative ways that the media tends to depict people with disabilities: as pathetic or pitiful; as evil or deviant; as a curiosity or spectacle; as a “super-cripple” overcoming adversity; to provide sinister atmosphere; as a burden; as asexual; as a source of amusement; as their own worst enemy and as unable to live a normal life (1991). In these ways, disability is often used as a plot device or lazy shorthand to show a character as weak and vulnerable or in some way deviant. As well as offensive and inaccurate - and suggesting that people with disabilities are a homogenous group - these one-dimensional markers are often the only defining features of disabled characters, who are rarely given background, personality or agency. There are some notable exceptions – such as fierce and autonomous Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, whose “body is never a plot point” according to director George Miller - yet in general the media overlooks characters with disability entirely or reduces them to harmful stereotypes.

Another important issue which requires more exploration is the ongoing debate about non-disabled actors playing characters with a disability. Tom Hanks, Eddie Redmayne, Dustin Hoffman and Daniel Day-Lewis have all won accolades for taking on disabled roles, whereas disabled actors are still a rare sight in mainstream film and TV.

Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Disability in Horror

Considering these media stereotypes, we might expect to find more representations of disability in the horror genre. Disability is often used as a source of pity, to amplify the vulnerability of characters and make them ‘worthy’ victims, as with Eddie with his asthma and ‘Stuttering Bill’ in It, wheelchair-users Franklin in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Will in Nightmare on Elm Street III, Mark in Friday 13th Part II, the title character in Jessabelle, Carmen in The Devil’s Backbone, Blanche in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Quinn in Insidious III.  Police hunt a killer who targets visually-impaired victims in Jennifer 8. Hush and Cassadega feature deaf[1] protagonists and in Clive Barker’s Dread, deafness is inflicted on a character as an exploration of terror.


Blanche in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Although these examples may add to the emotional impact of these films, there is a danger that they also reinforce societal assumptions that people with disabilities are weak, passive and more vulnerable to harm.

Even more problematically, disability is often shown as a source of horror or evil. Physical deformity is a common way to depict monstrousness, as with Jason Voorhees, the families in The Hills Have Eyes and Wrong Turn, Tiny in House of 1000 Corpses or badly-burned Freddy Krueger and Cropsy in The Burning. Antagonists in The Funhouse and The Orphanage wear masks to hide their deformed faces, and Pet Sematary’s Zelda is bedbound through spinal meningitis.

Zelda, Pet Sematary
Sometimes, these stereotypes overlap to show disability as a plight to be simultaneously sympathetic to and horrified by: Trick ‘r’ Treat features a school-bus of children with disabilities who are murdered and return as vengeful spirits; in The Eye, Mun is haunted by ghosts after receiving a corneal transplant to cure her blindness; the children in Fragile are hospitalised for various disabilities and haunted by a ghost with brittle-bone disease. Tod Browning’s Freaks features a cast of people with disabilities who are both portrayed as spectacles of horror and sympathetic victims of able-bodied Cleopatra’s scheming.

Whereas the disabilities mentioned are mostly visible (or at least, easier to portray visibly on film), less visible disabilities are also explored in horror. Intruders and Copycat feature protagonists with agoraphobia. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, The Ward, Jacob’s Ladder, Session 9, A Nightmare on Elm Street III, Gothika and Repulsion all explore the overlap between trauma, sanity and the supernatural. Psychiatric diagnoses such as Dissociative Identity Disorder are often shown as synonymous with evil (see It’s Happening Again) and many horror antagonists have trauma or abuse in their backgrounds (see Breaking the Cycle) or spend time in psychiatric facilities; again, mental health is used to enhance vulnerability in victims and highlight deviance in monsters.

Disability and Gender in Horror

Traditionally, women have had a rough ride in horror and are often reduced to vulnerable, disposable victims with little personality or autonomy (Clover, 1991). Some films follow the trope of the ‘final girl’ - a strong, female character who defeats the monster yet is also virtuous (compared to the girls who indulge in sex, drugs and fun and are then slaughtered) and returns to a state of vulnerable femininity once the threat has passed. Although modern horror has allowed final girls more autonomy (think Ripley in Alien, Sidney in Scream, Jay in It Follows, Erin in You’re Next), a key element in this trope is their vulnerability as a result of their gender.


Erin, You're Next

Considering the intersection of gender and disability that occurs in society and the problematic depictions that often feature in film, it is important to consider a recent – and rare – ‘final girl’ protagonist who is portrayed as having a disability: Maddie in Hush.

Hush (2016)
Hush (directed by Mike Flanagan, who also helmed Gerald’s Game) tells the story of Maddie, a deaf  writer living alone in the woods who is attacked by a crossbow-wielding masked man who kills her neighbours and breaks into her house. The actor – Katie Siegel – is not deaf and her casting garnered mixed responses from the Deaf community (Withey, 2016).

Maddie in Hush
Initially, Hush shows Maddie’s deafness as a vulnerability. She does not notice her fire alarm at first or her neighbour banging on the door for help. She is already a vulnerable character as a woman living alone in an isolated area and when the killer notices her deafness, he exploits her obliviousness to his presence through taunts and stalking.

However, her actions quickly eschew typical victim behaviour in horror film: she does not freeze, she instantly locks the door, finds weapons and barricades herself inside. Her resourcefulness is quickly established – from her ability to picture the outcomes of potential avenues of action, to trying to communicate with the killer and conceal her vulnerability (saying her boyfriend is on his way). She is not passive, hysterical or indecisive. Yet she also isn’t superhuman; she cannot overcome his physical strength and when she gets the crossbow from him, she struggles to draw it. She resists his violence in many different ways – not just through fighting – and even leaves a note with his description so that he can be caught after her death.

The Man
In some ways, her deafness is portrayed as part of her resourcefulness.  She tracks his movements through vibrations and feels him breathing on her neck, suggesting that her other senses may compensate for her lack of hearing (a bit of a cliché but perhaps not quite the exaggerated ‘super-cripple’ defined by Hunt). She is skilled at keeping out of his eyeline, thus robbing him of one of his senses and uses her environmental adaptations – such as her visual alarm – to disorient and fight him.

Her deafness is also explored from the perspective of a predator. He exploits it by coming into her home, taking photos of her and disabling her lifelines to the outside world (her phone, the internet, her car). He is shown as cowardly: he uses a weapon that relies on stealth and distance, he tricks rather than fights her stronger, male neighbour and when she is injured he waits for her to lose enough blood to be weakened before attacking her again. Ultimately, his cowardice and sadism are his weakness; she injures him when he is preoccupied with harming her cat and trying to make her scream. Despite his strength, she eventually kills him.


In terms of media stereotypes, Maddie’s disability is not shown as a source of horror or as a weakness. Her vulnerability is primarily located within her gender (as the killer’s victim of choice) and her choice to live alone, yet she is a strong and capable character, a successful writer with meaningful relationships. It is the killer who perceives her deafness as vulnerability and chooses to exploit it; this could be a more empowering way to view disability, as an attribute that is not an obstacle inherently but because other people and society treat it that way. It is also a more positive way to see victims – rather than focusing on ‘vulnerabilities’ (such as gender or actions), perhaps we should focus on how and why predators choose to exploit their victims. This would help society put responsibility where it belongs, on the enactors of violence, rather than focusing on perceived vulnerabilities of certain groups of people.

Returning to Miller’s statement, is Maddie’s deafness a plot point? Yes and no. The title alone highlights it, yet Hush demonstrates how predators choose to exploit perceived vulnerabilities and how women adapt to and resist the threat of violence. It could be argued that Maddie’s defining characteristic is her resourcefulness, which may or may not be related to her disability, for that is the characteristic which dictates her actions (and leads to her survival), not her deafness. She transcends both the stereotypes applied to women in horror and those used to restrict disabled characters. As an aside, the film also challenges the notion that male predators are impulsive, uncontrolled monsters: the killer is shown as cowardly, calculating and ultimately beatable.

The Man, unmasked
A final note: while praising strong female characters in horror, it might be asked why we would want to see women victimised at all. The stalking, terrorism and violence shown in films such as Hush is not just abhorrent fantasy, as women and people with disabilities are victimised and murdered all too frequently in real life. Perhaps we just like the opportunity to see them win - for once - despite the odds often stacked against them.

References

Eve (2018) emotional labour is a significant part of the unpaid work that unemployed disabled women do. Available at https://blueprintzine.com/2018/02/19/emotional-labour-is-a-significant-part-of-the-unpaid-work-unemployed-disabled-women-do/

Leonard Cheshire (2014) Realising the rights of women and girls with disabilities. Available at http://www.leonardcheshire.org/sites/default/files/Women_and_girls_with_disabilities_0.pdf

Withey, R-A (2016) What I thought of the Netflix movie ‘Hush’, with a Deaf character (but not a Deaf actress). Available at http://limpingchicken.com/2016/05/16/rebecca-anne-withey-what-i-thought-of-the-netflix-movie-hush-with-a-deaf-character-but-not-a-deaf-actress/


[1] It is debateable whether deafness is a disability or “membership to a linguistic or cultural minority” (Atkinson, 2008). As it is covered by the Disability Discrimination Act, it will be considered here as a disability.

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