A Celebration of Empowerment for Disabled People in Horror

This article was originally published by Film Daze.

Historically, disabled people have been demonized and used as visual cues for villainization in films, specifically within the genre of horror. They are often categorized into two polar opposites: either being written as a monster, or as a vulnerable victim, distinguished as a risk to their non-disabled peers. Horror tends to capitalize and emphasize the visible differences between the antagonist and the protagonists, with burns, scars, and disfigurements being frequently used as visual warnings to the audience that a monster is lurking beneath. Disability is a spectrum that manifests itself in a variety of forms, all which impact individuals in different ways, such as sensory, physical, and neurodevelopmental disabilities. Depending on the disability, characters can also be typecast (if they’re not killed off or cured…) if their characteristics fit a certain stereotype.

Mental illness is an all too common trope within horror films, with many associating psychosis with supernatural evil or demonic possession. Modern films such as The Babadook and Hereditary take thematic approaches that embody grief and depression as an all-consuming monster. This demonstrates the shift in societal conversation surrounding mental health, and horror films made within the last few years illustrate growth towards empowerment from the traditionally degrading characterizations of disabled people.

Blind characters usually persist as noble survivors (The Book of Eli) or acquire a sixth sense (The Eye) as a replacement for their loss of vision. Despite many acclaimed blind characters, these roles are never occupied by blind or visually impaired actors, which usually makes for an inauthentic and cringe-worthy performance to those within the know. Not many films have illuminated the spectrum of blindness, as most characters are completely blind, rather than just visually impaired. This constant one-dimensional display of sight loss has perhaps made it easier to justify sighted actors taking roles of completely blind people. 

Don’t Breathe (2016) is a tense horror film that centers a blind man who has his home broken into by three young burglars. Stephen Lang (a sighted actor) plays “The Blind Man,” a Gulf War veteran who has received a settlement of $300,000 after his daughter was killed in a car accident. There is often the assumption that disabled people, especially those who are blind, are vulnerable and helpless which is a narrative that has been perpetuated throughout the media, such as the reporting of infantilizing “inspiration porn.” Don’t Breathe travels a different route, with Lang’s ferocious performance as a terrifying man who is more than capable of defending himself. The Blind Man harbors some pretty twisted secrets that embellish his monstrosity, as opposed to his blindness being the prop of his terror. 

Wheelchair users and those with mobility difficulties are usually left for dead in horror movies (Friday the 13th Part II), leaving very few choice roles for wheelchair users to see themselves reflected. However, after having been largely ignored within the genre, deaf characters have entered the spotlight after the releases of A Quiet Place and The Silence, which shows promise for future representation.

Hush (2016) is a slasher film following Maddie (Kate Siegel, another non-disabled actor), a deaf woman who permanently lost the ability to hear and speak after her corrective surgery went wrong. Maddie lives in forested solitude and must fight for her life when a masked stalker appears at her window. It can be jarring for films and television shows to point out the vulnerabilities that disability can pose, which makes for a rather tedious and recycled take. Hush at least vocalizes Maddie’s ability and independence, using her story as a vehicle to paint a fresh picture of disability in a domestic setting. 

Opening to critical and commercial success, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (2018) lights a flame of hope in the fight for disability representation. It tells the story of a family living in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by blind extra-terrestrial creatures with heightened hearing. Millicent Simmons is a young deaf actress who plays Regan, the daughter of the family who communicates through American Sign Language (ASL). A Quiet Place is an atmospheric masterpiece, symbolizing the empowerment of Deaf people through the evolutionary means of visual communication, which has driven the family’s survival. The film’s harnessing of elemental fears and tension has raised the bar for horror as a genre. The authentic representation and empowerment of deafness cement the execution of the critically acclaimed film, with deafness, Deaf culture and deaf adaptations seen as a solution rather than a problem. 

Bird Box (2018) has been cited as an accompanying piece to A Quiet Place, playing on the premise of ‘If I can’t see you, then you can’t see me.’ This Netflix-distributed, post-apocalyptic horror film follows a woman, Malorie (Sandra Bullock), as she attempts to protect her two children from sinister supernatural creatures that drive people to the brink of sanity if they catch a glimpse of them. The thin screenplay never quite reaches its full potential, but succeeds in its deliverance of a chilly and nerve-racking climate. As seen in A Quiet Place, post-apocalyptic worlds are the perfect playgrounds to explore the evolutionary advantages that disabled people may have over their non-disabled peers, given the circumstance. Appropriately, in the closing scene of Bird Box, refuge is found in a former school for the blind, where Malorie is welcomed by a community of blind children and adults who are safe from the monsters lurking outside their doors. 

Film has the power to change collective perceptions by dismantling harmful stereotypes for marginalized communities — and being notoriously known for their superficial and less than realistic depictions of disability, the horror genre flashes a sliver of potential for the representation of disabled people. Don’t Breathe, Hush, A Quiet Place, and Bird Box exemplify the changing narrative surrounding disability, and embrace creative portrayals of human diversity — they have proven that disabilities can be perceived as tools for survival, rather than as a societal burden.

‘Circus of Books’ is an Unusual Tale of a Straight Jewish Couple, Gay Porn and Unconditional Love

This article was originally published by Screen Queens.

Hidden within the hustle and bustle of West Hollywood, there lived a curious little bookstore. In 1976, Karen and Barry Mason were looking to make ends meet for their young family when they came across an ad in ‘Hustlers’. It wasn’t long after that that Circus of Books was born. This modest bookstore went on to become the largest distributor of gay pornography in the United States. Stocked with gay porn, adult sex toys, LGBTQ novels, science fiction books and Bibles, Circus of Books is a beloved and dog-eared page out of Los Angeles’ gay history.

Documentary filmmaker Rachel Mason turns the camera on her parents, guiding a familial warmth to the screen as they recount their tale with comedic rhythm. The documentary is made up of cosy home-movie footage switched between recent interviews of family members. The film explores the family’s conflicting relationship between their Jewish faith and their livelihood, with a focus on the parent’s prerogative to protect their children during a time where LGBTQ people were not accepted by wider society. They endured FBI raids, faced jail time for a federal obscenity charge, and opened their store up as a place of refuge during the AIDs epidemic. As the film steps into the 21st century, the couple reflects upon gay hook-up culture and the digital era’s detrimental impact on the bookstore. 

This image shows the inside of the bookstore, viewing a stand with an array of porn magazines. There is a sign with red writing that says 'YOU MUST BE 18 TO ENTER'
Netflix

Both Circus of Books establishments have since closed their doors, evoking a retrospective and nostalgic atmosphere throughout the film. Rachel interviews a spectrum of supporters, from former employees to porn stars and LGBT activists. RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Star, Alaska, appears with first-hand testimony as an ex-employee. The audience is introduced to adult film star Jeff Stryker during a particularly memorable interview. Stryker recalls how the Masons first branched out into hardcore film distribution while demonstrating an action figure of himself (the figurine comes with an erectable penis). Although Karen maintains that they never viewed the movies, she and her husband are, without a doubt, notable figures within pornographic history.

Karen and Barry both play down their generosity, which may speak to their internalised struggles as well as their humbleness. Rachel doesn’t airbrush her parents as saints, nor does she paint over Karen’s strained reaction when her youngest son Josh came out as gay. Over time, the bond between Karen and Barry with their three children strengthened. Karen went on to become an active member of PFLAG, the largest organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) people, their parents and families, and allies.

However, the film did fail to raise questions about the arguably exploitative nature of gay pornography− an opinion that is often heard in relation to the straight porn industry. What the documentary may lose in objectivity, it makes up for in openness. This is a story brimming with tenderness and humour and is an unlikely tale that should be smiled upon. Rachel Mason manages to capture her family’s presence using her own lens. Circus of Books is an intimate glimpse into a unique business venture and an untold chapter of gay history.

The Elephant Man: 40 Years Later

This article was originally published by Scratch Cinema.

Forty years after the release of David Lynch’s groundbreaking The Elephant Man, StudioCanal is marking the anniversary with a 4K restoration of the film playing in cinemas from March 13th. There will also be a DVD, Blu-ray and 4K UHD release available from April 6th.

The Elephant Man tells the story of John Merrick (John Hurt), a man with severe deformities living in 19th century London. Shunned by Victorian society, Merrick is exploited as a disfigured circus freak and treated cruelly by almost everyone he meets. Anthony Hopkins plays Doctor Treves, a kindly surgeon who rescues Merrick from a life of prejudice and shelters him at the Royal London Hospital, which becomes his new home. Merrick soon becomes a celebrated curiosity, gaining celebrity status among London’s upper class. Shot in black and white, Lynch’s historical drama explores themes of compassion, the human condition and man’s inhumanity to man. Boasting an outstanding lead performance from John Hurt, this influential film went on to be a commercial and critical sensation with eight Academy Award nominations.

Black and white photo of John Hurt as the elephant man cornered by a crowed of Victorian era men
Image courtesy of Brooksfilms

In Frederick Treves’ memoirs, he mistakenly gave Merrick the first name of John when his name was, in fact, Joseph Merrick. In 1977 this name was used by playwright Bernard Pomerance when he wrote ”The Elephant Man”, a play that premiered to critical acclaim in London. Many often assume that Lynch’s film is based on the play. As a result of a legal case, the film’s introduction carried a statement declaring itself separate from the Pomerance script. 

In the forty years since its release, what impact has The Elephant Man had within cinema and its portrayal of disabled people? More importantly, have social attitudes towards visible differences changed?

From a young age, we often associate visible differences with a negative connotation, with scars and disfigurements making for menacing undertones. The film industry has fed audiences this narrative for decades, showcasing sinister and reclusive villains such as Scar in Disney’s The Lion King, Joker within the Batman franchise, to the titular antagonist in The Phantom of the Opera.

On the other end of the spectrum, modern stories resembling characters with visible differences are often overly sentimental and patronising. Based on The New York Times bestselling book, Wonder is a film about ‘Auggie’ Pullman, a fifth-grader with a craniofacial condition resulting in distinct facial differences. Jacob Tremblay played Auggie, wearing prosthetics and heavy layers of makeup to portray the character’s facial disfigurement. Craniofacial conditions affect 600,000 people in the United States alone, which only strengthens the need for authentic and reflective representation. In Wonder, Auggie is used as a prop to educate those around him about kindness and acceptance, with his mere existence labelled as inspirational. The stories that are told on screen ought to be reflective, powered by authentic storytelling rather than used as an accessory to make non-disfigured people feel better about themselves.

a close up of Auggie's face, he's wearing a spaceman helmet
Image courtesy of Lionsgate, Mandeville Films, Participant Media, Walden Media and TIK Films

Adam Pearson was born with a condition that causes tumours to grow on his face. He has been bullied, harassed and described as Elephant Man for as long as he remembers. Pearson starred in the critically revered science fiction film Under the Skin along with Scarlett Johansson, enabling Pearson to challenge the stigma surrounding disfigurement on the screen.

In 2018, the casting of a non-disabled actor in the BBC drama adaptation of The Elephant Man sparked criticism, reminding the public that inauthentic disability representation is still a prominent issue within television and film. Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things) had been cast as Joseph Merrick, who is arguably the most recognisable disabled character portrayed within film. Some called this casting a missed opportunity, highlighting the barriers that disabled actors have to overcome to progress within the industry, with inaccessibility being a significant factor. 

In recent news, Jo Vigor-Mungovinm, who traced Joseph Merrick’s grave, has been fundraising the estimated £100,000 for a monument of Merrick in his native Leicester. However, prejudice has hindered any such attempt to commemorate Joseph Merrick, with critics declaring that the city is already “ugly enough”.  The city’s reaction is a stark reminder that there are still vocally hostile attitudes towards disability and visible differences. 

a black and white portrait of joseph merrick
Joseph Merrick

Changing Faces is a UK based organisation who campaign for positive and accurate representation, a society free from discrimination and a society that respects difference. The charity launched their latest campaign, ‘#VisibleHate: Together We Can Stop It’, with a video featuring British presenter Adam Pearson and other individuals with a visible difference repeating remarks such as “If I were you, I’d kill myself” and “a face only a mother could love”. Every comment uttered within the video is familiar to many with a visible difference, having encountered such verbal abuse themselves. 

Changing Faces recently published independent research revealing that seven in ten people with visible differences experience adverse reactions such as staring and bullying simply because of the way they look. The study also found that 28% of people with a visible difference have experienced a hate crime and 35% of those people now feel nervous when leaving their homes. Almost half of those who have encountered negative behaviour say they’ve lost confidence and 27% claim it has negatively impacted their mental wellbeing.  

Media platforms are encountering a turning point within our society, as we start to realise the importance of accurate representation of marginalised communities. Media portrayals influence the shaping of social attitudes, distributing a trickle-down effect upon impressionable audiences. It’s time for a shift within the infrastructure to change perceptions towards ‘different’ people. For change to happen, mainstream television and film companies need to reach into underrepresented communities and consult the experiences of marginalised individuals, both positive and negative. Netflix shows such as Special and Atypical are paving the path for mainstream disability representation, but overarching progress within the industry is slow with no momentum or driving force behind it.

It can be said that the release of The Elephant Man was a necessary and critical display of social attitudes towards disfigurement, challenging the social standard for compassion. Lynch’s exploration of hypocrisy still rings true, with his depiction of exploitation under the guise of kindness as a barrier of total liberation and independence for disabled people. Despite the film’s flawed theme exploration, which has only become glaring due to societal progression, Lynch’s The Elephant Man paints a devastating portrait of a man with so much to offer and a heart that never stopped loving.