Two of 2018’s high-profile horror films explore what happens when deaf characters are treated by their loved ones as a liability instead of strength.
With a string of high-profile hits over the past few years – not to mention countless essays offering a revisionist history of the importance of the genre – one hopes it’s safe to say that mainstream audiences now recognize the cultural importance of horror films. Horror movies are both wildly profitable and entertaining as hell; more importantly, the horror genre might finally be getting its due as a hotspot for intelligence political and cultural discourse. Take 2018’s crossover hit A Quiet Place. While that film was a breakout hit with critics and audiences alike, the film also possessed a searing look at the dangers of ableism; this message has found its way into theaters again this year in the form of Unfriended: Dark Web. These two films, different as they may be, should form the cornerstone of any curriculum on disability in horror cinema in the 21st Century.
Anyone who follows the genre closely knows that horror is evolving. Despite a long tradition of equating disability with inhumanity, the horror genre has also featured some of the most insightful commentaries on disability and ableism. In a 2016 essay in the Disabilities Study Quarterly, for example, scholar Melinda Hall explored the potential for the horror to subvert audience expectations regarding ableism. “Exclusion, cruelty, and normalization are posed as threat and elicit audience dis-identification,” Hall writes, noting that mainstream creatives like Stephen King and Tim Burton often position “society and its rigid cruelty” at the center of their horror stories. Ultimately, Hall believes that the horror genre, “which typically support ableist assumptions, can be used to subvert ableism and open space for alternative social and political thinking about disability.”
More recent films like Mike Flanagan’s Hush have also pointed to the genre’s potential for subverting ableism. In her essay for Film School Rejects, Kristen Lopez praised Flanagan’s film for doing what it can to “insert the disabled into the horror vein without pandering to stereotypes.” That film, which centers on a deaf character who has removed herself from society, offers a fresh take on the tropes often contained in the home invasion genre. Lopez notes that the film’s killer “incorrectly assumes Maddie is weaker or deficient, tapping on the glass and standing behind her as a means of testing her disability,” only to be brought down when the heroine recognizes his breath on her neck. Meanwhile, the film also shows that “able-bodiedness doesn’t equal invincibility” through the death of several of the character’s friends at the hands of the killer.
The horror genre has evolved even further in just a few short years. Whereas Lopez expresses her disappointment that Hush stars a non-deaf actress, the female leads in both A Quiet Place and Unfriended: Dark Web are deaf, bringing an important perspective to their roles. Millicent Simmonds has spoken openly about the importance of the character to the deaf community; in an essay published in Teen Vogue this past April, Simmonds wrote about how important it was to portray her character’s deafness as “an advantage for this family.” Similarly, Unfriended: Dark Web star Stephanie Nogueras has spoken candidly about the opportunity she has as both an actress and an advocate for the deaf community, noting that her previous work in shows like Switched at Birth has “helped to dispel misconceptions about Deaf actors and our capabilities.” In an era when Hollywood still treats disability as an obstacle on the way to Oscar glory, the presence of actresses like Simmonds and Nogueras in these roles adds an important degree of authority to their performances.
But the impact of these films can be felt even beyond the empowering performances of their leads. Both A Quiet Place and Unfriended: Dark Web are ableist horror stories, movies whose entire premise hinges on a male character’s treatment of their deafness as making them less than whole. In A Quiet Place, John Krasinski’s character refuses to share his research about the extraplanetary monsters with his daughter under the misunderstanding that her deafness makes her weak; he would rather push his younger son to take on the role of defender, despite his son’s paralyzing fear of the creatures and obvious reluctance to make his own stand. In the end, when it is revealed that her character’s broken hearing aid holds the key to saving the family, Simmonds’s wish for the film is realized: the character’s deafness becomes her strongest asset, leading audiences to wonder if her father would still be alive if he’d been willing to see things from her perspective.
Similarly, Unfriended: Dark Web hinges on a deaf character being treated as someone to fix. In this film, Colin Woodell’s Mathias unwittingly condemns himself and his friends through the theft of a laptop. As he later explains, Mathias feels he needs the laptop to finish work on his American Sign Language translation software; this software adapts spoken words into their equivalent signs in real time, allowing Mathias to have Skype conversations with his girlfriend Amaya (Nogueras). Amaya, for her part, is dismayed that Mathias would rather spend hours working on this software than follow through on his promise to take introductory ASL classes at the local college. She feels, and rightly so, that the software only allows her to understand, not to be emphasized as someone worth understanding. Had Mathias simply attended the ASL classes as he promised – instead of stealing a new laptop and kicking off a series of violence attacks on himself and friends – his loved ones would still be alive.
Two films, two different approaches to the horror genre, one remarkably consistent message about the way ableism negatively shapes the lives of people with disabilities. Both A Quiet Place and Unfriended: Dark Web subvert traditional genre tropes by putting the blame on their able-bodied protagonists, and both films dramatize – often in great bloody detail – what happens when people with disabilities are ostracized by those around them. By putting disabled actors in leading roles, and subverting the tropes we’ve seen in countless of their predecessors, these films represent a change in how Hollywood portrays disability. Once again, horror is leading the way.