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Some horror movies take a new approach to disability: Fetishizing deafness

I grew up loving a genre that saw me only as a villain. This ‘corrective’ trend isn’t much better.

“A Quiet Place Part II,” released in 2021, is one of several recent horror movies featuring a deaf character. (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images/Paramount Pictures)

When I was a child in the 1980s, on weekends my dad would rent a VCR — we didn’t own one for years — and bring home rentals from the video store. I’m not sure which was the first scary movie I saw on fuzzy VHS — “Jaws,” maybe, or Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” My parents hoped to introduce us to the classics. Soon, I became hooked on the entire horror genre.

When I couldn’t sleep, I would sneak downstairs and crouch by the TV. I caught the original “Dawn of the Dead” that way, in the middle of the night, my face inches from the screen as zombies overran the mall. I liked the surprise of horror, how the story lines transported me out of my life on a farm in small-town Ohio. But I noticed a pattern in the movies I loved so much: Often, I was the villain.

I’m disabled, partially deaf since birth because of a condition called congenital microtia aural atresia, which also meant my body didn’t develop fully. Like many disabled people born into abled families, I learned as a child to hide my difference. I could half-hear and read lips, so I passed. Kind of. But I believed that there was something wrong with me, something to be ashamed of, and that part was to be shielded from others at all costs. I had a dark secret, and it was my body.

Horror films only confirmed that. Time and time again, I saw myself in scary movies: a body mangled or deformed like mine, one that doesn’t look or work “right.” Freddy Krueger has severe burn scars. Jason of “Friday the 13th” begins the franchise with a burlap sack over his head to hide a malformed skull and only looks more and more physically distorted as the sequels roll on.

The trope is not confined to older films, either. The plot twist of “Malignant, released this year, involves a grotesque parasitic twin (an ableist device already overused in films such as 1982’s “Basket Case”). The severely disabled prophet in 2019’s “Midsommar” is named only “The Disabled” — and, like disabled characters from Leatherface to Jigsaw, he kills. Having a body that abled people consider somehow “wrong” is enough of a reason for villains to commit murder — often their only reason.

Recently, a trend has emerged perhaps in response to this trope — and, unfortunately, overcorrects for it. Some horror films from the past several years veer away from portraying characters with disabilities — and specifically deaf people — as monstrous. Instead, they paint them as magical. Falling into the “inspiration porn” trap, the disabled people in these movies are mystical, supernaturally “other.”

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Early in “The Unholy” (2021), the main character finds a deaf teenage girl named Alice standing in the road in the middle of the night. Synopses for the movie identified the character as Hard of Hearing or “hearing impaired” (an antiquated term many in the Deaf community do not use). In the film, though, Alice explains that she was born unable to hear or speak at all, until, through prayer, the Virgin Mary “blessed” her. She starts to speak — and, what’s more, to sing like an angel. As with the prophet in “Midsommar,” her disability makes her specially attuned to supernatural forces — “chosen” by the demonic force she has actually been praying to all along. A flat, one-note character with few qualities beyond her deafness, Alice soon begins to “heal” other people of ailments and disabilities. The film takes it for granted that disability is a curse to pray away — a cliche that also shows up in the Netflix series “Midnight Mass” (2021), in which a wheelchair user is miraculously healed.

Meanwhile, in “A Quiet Place” (2018) and “The Silence” (2019) — both about families navigating a world plagued by creatures who hunt using sound — it’s deaf girls who instinctively know how the monsters function. Regan (played by Millicent Simmonds) in “A Quiet Place” is somehow able to manipulate and modulate the sounds she makes by moving around, even without hearing them. In “The Silence,” Ally (played by Kiernan Shipka) has to lead her hearing family to safety; her later-in-life deafness has apparently heightened all of her other senses, and given her stealth. Anyone who believes deaf characters would be especially quiet must not know many deaf people: We’re loud. My elementary school classmates laughed at me whenever I was picked to read aloud in class, unable to regulate the booming volume of my voice.

The slasher film “Hush” (2016) follows a deaf writer, Maddie, “persevering” against a vicious killer who invades her isolated home in the woods. Because disability provides the movie’s sole tension, it’s outlandishly portrayed, in line with whatever the plot requires in a given scene. From 20 feet away, through a glass door at night, Maddie can lip-read — in real life, a difficult feat even when someone is right next to you. Yet she somehow doesn’t sense the vibrations of the killer thudding against the door, or see him murder another woman in broad daylight inches from her face? With superhuman skills, the previously timid Maddie shoots a crossbow, kills with a screwdriver and writes in her own blood. In horror movies like “Hush,” it’s not enough for a character to be only disabled: Characters must “overcome” their disability and use the special powers granted to them because of it.

Halfhearted sign language drops in and out of “Hush” and “The Unholy,” as the captions do in “A Quiet Place,” preventing the films from being fully accessible to the people they’re about. These movies’ unbelievable depictions can be traced at least partly to the fact that they’re written and directed by those who do not share the disabilities they are so keen on dramatizing. In most cases, the actors in deaf roles are hearing, lavished with praise for learning some American Sign Language (often incorrectly) for their parts.

At the same time, such films exploit a real danger that actual disabled people like me live with every day: that people will take advantage of our disabilities to harm us. Deaf and Hard of Hearing women are more likely to be the victims of sexual assault, abuse and domestic violence. We’re more socially isolated and may have difficulty with situational awareness; I can’t tell where sound is coming from, for example, or hear if someone approaches me from the back. Being disabled makes you twice as likely to be the victim of a violent crime.

As a physically disabled person, I’m not here to terrify — or to inspire. I don’t want to be villainized for the way I was born and the body I am now proud to live in. I just want to enjoy horror that doesn’t feature deformity as the jump scare, or disability as a mystical power. Scary films that don’t rely on such tired tropes, such as Mandy, have my fandom forever. What’s scarier than a so-called “monster?” Just people who do terrible things for no reason.

My love for horror has lasted my whole life, and I’ve passed that love on to my son, a budding film director. I enjoy these films for the way they mark my favorite time of year, Halloween and the darkness of winter, even as it’s hard to love a genre that doesn’t want me — or that wants me only a certain way: as the villain, the monster or, now, the saint. As soon as a new horror flick comes out, I’ll watch it, hoping — always hoping — that this time it will be different.

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