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.

Revisiting A Quiet Place: Disability Representation

A Quiet Place is my go-to film when quoting the success that captioned showings contribute to the film industry. I often argue that cinemas are missing a trick by failing to provide more captioned screenings, an issue that is adjacent to the overall dismissal of accessibility within cinema and the film industry. I discussed the topic of captioned cinema screenings in more depth in an earlier post I wrote.

A Quiet Place is a 2018 American post-apocalyptic horror film directed by and starring John Krasinki. The film also stars Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe. The plot centres a family struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by blind extra-terrestrial predators with an advanced sense of hearing. The majority of the film is subtitled as the characters communicate using American Sign Language; there are very few scenes with English dialogue. The film’s suspense and horror element is the direct effect of overwhelming silence.

John Krasinki's character is looking into the camera with his finger to his mouth, signaling to be quiet.
John Krasinki

A Quiet Place was released in the United States in April 2018 and was a significant box office success, grossing over $340 million worldwide. A sequel, A Quiet Place: Part II is set to be released in March 2020.

Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe respectively play the roles of Regan and Marcus, the daughter and son of the family. Regan is hard of hearing and wears a cochlear implant, suggesting that the family were already well versed in American Sign Language. The family’s survival and evolutionary advantage through alternative methods of communication are partly owed to Regan’s disability, a refreshing narrative of disability that is later developed in the film’s progression. The actress cast to play the role of Regan, Millicent Simmonds, is Deaf herself. The filmmakers hired an ASL interpreter so that spoken and signed language could take place on set. Simmonds helped her colleagues to learn sign language, encouraging the fluidity and authenticity of the cast’s use of sign language during the film.

Emily Blunt is telling Millicent Simmonds to be quiet.
A Quiet Place, from Paramount Pictures.

I was pleased that a Deaf actress had been hired to play Regan, disabled actors are usually ignored to such a degree that they are a rarity in film and television’s depiction of disabled characters. Disability is an identity much like race or gender, but the arts are lacking in disability representation. Instead, disabled individuals like myself regularly see non-disabled actors emulate the characteristics of a marginalised group without any outreach into the community they depict. It’s protocol now that non-disabled actors who are cast for disabled characters gain critical acclaim and take home Oscars. John Hurt in the Elephant Man, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Holly Hunter in The Piano, Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and many more have received applause for their performances. It seems that critics adore and advocate for sentimental and exploitative depictions of disabled characters.

Daniel Day-Lewis in the film My Left Foot. He is sitting in a wheelchair with a basket of food on his lap, a woman is behind him.
Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot

My opinion isn’t that non-disabled actors shouldn’t play those roles, but I do believe that the playing field has to be levelled out so that disabled actors are at least allowed the opportunity to audition for these roles. The exclusion of disabled actors is prevalent; it is a systemic problem that is industry-wide.

Millicent Simmonds‘ breakthrough performance brings a level of substance and authenticity to Regan, a role that was close to home for me. I had the opportunity to see this film at the beautifully furnished Birks Cinema in Aberfeldy. I rewatched A Quiet Place on DVD, and while I still enjoyed it, the atmosphere of the film is better suited to quieter cinema screenings with minimal popcorn munching.

Despite my enthusiasm for this movie, I had one major disappointment with the distribution of A Quiet Place. There are some crucial scenes with English dialogue that contribute to the plot, so I had to attend a SUBTITLED version of the film. Instead of subtitling the entire movie, for the benefit of both hearing and Deaf people as the film utilises both spoken and signed languages, some scenes didn’t have sign language or subtitles when English was being spoken. I was frustrated as this was a film that centred a Deaf character and the use of ASL, yet it was only hearing people that were accommodated for the entirety of the film.

Films that portray authentic depictions of disabled characters and prioritise involvement with the disabled community are valued as they help pave the path for disabled people to tell their own stories. If you haven’t seen A Quiet Place, then please watch and support this film, I promise you won’t regret it.