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Tokenizing Disability In Horror

disability in horror

[Mis]representations of disability in horror cinema ... How horror cinema gets disability right (and wrong).


Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) remains a constant reminder that disability representation in horror has been in contention since the creation of film. In fact, many disabled critics and disability theorists, including indiewire’s Kristen Lopez, argue pre-Hays Code Hollywood’s Freaks is a more accurate portrayal of disability than what we see today. Lopez writes

‘What looks unconventional to an able-bodied person is basic and unspectacular. In these scenes Browning tries to de-stigmatize the disabled and remind them, in 1932, that they’re people. It’s one of the few films where we can see our disabled ancestors before they were excised from the movies,” Carrie Sandhal, Associate Professor in the Department of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago said. “We got to see them as actors, as well as people.”’

…And the ‘basic and unspectacular’ seems to all but disappear in post-Code Hollywood… 

To pivot slightly, in “Buried in the Footnotes: The Absence of Disabled People in the Collective Imagery of Our Past,” Museum and Disability Studies scholar Annie Delin outlines an oft-sanitized perception of persons with disabilities in the scope of Britain’s cultural collective narrative: “Any casual visitor to museums in Britain would assume that disabled people occupy a specific range of roles in the nation’s history.” Delin asserts that “the absence of disabled people as creators of arts, in images and in artifacts, and their presence in selected works reinforcing cultural stereotypes, conspire to present a narrow perspective of the existence of disability in history.” When Delin points out the continued omission of disabled people in art, what she means is that it perpetuates a hegemonic exclusion of the Other and leaves able-bodied individuals unprepared for the existence of persons with disabilities. 

Further, the absence or misinterpretations of disability within art also means that “disabled people may feel dissociated from the culture of their country because of the absence of their historical peers in what is shown [in museums].” The othering effect may generate “low expectations of their possible status and achievement, through absence of clear role models in history showing what is possible.” The effect also enforces a passive-dominant role between disabled persons and able-bodies because of gaps in the cultural narrative. Delin argues for a departure from the limited tropes of disability in art— disabled freaks, heroes who stop being disabled, invisible disabled creators, and ordinary people. As a way to counter the constricted perceptions of disability in public perception, Delin compels museums to encourage the attendance of those with disabilities and to de-sanitize art collectives. That is, we need to incorporate positive and jarring and real portrayals of disabled folks and uncover the hidden histories of the disabled in public space. Delin presents a compelling argument for inclusivity and offers a framework for the ways in which we ought to launch future museums, exhibitions, and other public spaces. Delin asserts how society can legitimize disabled people’s opportunities for sensory experiences, de-centering (or centering) by the phantasmagoric materials and constructions presented in public space. 

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disability in horror image

One lesson we should take from Delin’s critique of inclusivity in art is that public space includes cinema. We absolutely need more representation of disability in horror cinema. But as it stands, what we see in post-Code Hollywood horror is, more often than not, erasure and inaccurate depictions of disabilities. To be fair, it is true that some characterizations of disability in 21st century horror can be intentional as a means to counter existing tropes but we have a long way to go. What we typically see from horror filmmakers, instead, is a list of misrepresentations, erasure, and classic tropes in horror cinema. The following are a couple examples of 21st century depictions of disability in horror. 

Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan’s film Split (Part 2 of his iconic ‘Eastrail 177’ trilogy), demonstrates how disability is misinterpreted for the sake of horror. The main antagonist, played by James McAvoy, is diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder. While McAvoy’s character portrays the villain and victimizes young women, the reality is that “people with mental illness are more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the perpetrator.”

The 21st century cult classic by Ari Aster, Midsommar (2019), portrays a Swedish community’s isolated existence and their murderously selective process for finding new members. The community, due to being closed off from outside members, finds solace and prophecy by intentionally inbreeding their prophets. When our protagonist enters the community of Hårga, we learn its current Oracle, Ruben, was chosen because he has an unclouded mind. Click on the link to read more on the “Inspirationally Disadvantaged” trope.  

A quick closing note to say a couple of things 

  1. Disability is not a monolith. 
  2. Along with the criticism I briefly mention above, there are also positive and hidden elements to 21st century disability representation in horror that I do not discuss here. Many critics like Kristen Lopez are optimistic, too, and see a “small crack of the glass ceiling happening.” 


Drop me a line. I’d love to hear your questions or comments! 

Watch the 1932 trailer for “Freaks!”

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