Disability in Horror Movies

Hollywood struggles to show five minutes of a positive disabled storyline, but is quick to show disabled characters being murdered or to write them as a monster. | How horror films stigmatize disabled people and why representation matters.

I’m a big fan of horror movies. Not the gory stuff like Saw, mostly just the spooky jump scares and haunted house kinda films. I like the suspense, I like the cheesy predictability, and I love a good ghost story.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a little picky when it comes to movies. TV shows are my true love, and I can binge the same show for 10 hours straight and not get bored. But if a movie doesn’t hook me in the first 10 minutes? I’m over it.

I’m also always yelling about disability representation, and there’s a lot to yell about when it comes to horror movies.

Let’s start with mental illness. I think we’ve all watched scary movies where the big bad killer is a psychopath. I think we’ve all watched numerous, right? It’s almost expected. He’s usually incredibly violent and brutal, almost too ‘evil’ to be human. It’s so common that the words ‘psychopath’ and ‘killer’ have become synonymous.

So, stop and imagine how difficult it must be for all the people who have been diagnosed with psychological disorders who are completely non-violent and just trying to live their lives?

Then there’s the case of facial differences. Characters who have some sort of facial anomaly, skin condition, or rare disease are referred to as ‘grotesque’ or ‘disgusting.’ They’re supposed to immediately creep you out and make you uncomfortable.

I think it’s pretty clear why this works so well in a horror movie. Humans are so bothered by someone who looks different, and they play off that. Society reacts the same way in the real world, so why wouldn’t it have the same effect on the big screen? Make people uncomfortable because of how a guy looks, then show him being violent and make them afraid.

Sometimes it’s just the behavior of a character. Maybe they’re flapping their hands or rocking back and forth without speaking. In the movies, this is supposed to be super creepy. In reality, it’s something called self-stimulation or stimming for short.

Autistic people use stimming, which are repetitive actions, as a way to relieve anxiety or some overwhelming emotion, minimize distraction, and more. It’s basically just a way to self-regulate. It’s not scary, harmful, or anything that should make you uncomfortable.

Hollywood struggles to show five minutes of a positive disabled storyline, but is quick to show disabled characters being murdered or to write them as a monster. | How horror films stigmatize disabled people and why representation matters.

Honestly, it’s a toss up for characters in wheelchairs. Physically disabled people are sometimes used to up the sob story because apparently, we’re all defenseless and sad. Other times they’re comic relief and thrown down a flight of stairs.

And sometimes they’re not even in the movie. It’s just a spooky shot of an empty wheelchair and for whatever reason, people get creeped out by this. Don’t ask me, I don’t get it.

I could go on and on, but the point is that the way that disability is often portrayed in horror films only adds to the stigma of those disabilities.

Before you rush to tell me that horror films aren’t educational and I’m being too PC, I get it. My problem doesn’t necessarily lie with the fact that disabled people are portrayed as villains or monsters.

I take issue with the fact that 1. they’re always played by abled actors and 2. they’re almost always exclusively portrayed in a negative light in both tv and films.

There’s no denying that horror films have repeatedly shown disabled people in a negative manner, but people often forget that there’s basically no media to counteract what you see in those films.

We have countless characters with facial differences, mental illnesses, and other disabilities written as killers, but where are they in romcoms? Dramas? Comedies where they’re shown in a positive light rather than something to laugh at? Or hey, what about having them be the hero in those horror movies?

Maybe these movies wouldn’t be so damaging if audiences ever saw the other side of disability and mental illness.

I’m not saying that horror films are terrible and you should feel guilty for watching them. All media is flawed in some way, and I think it’s fine to enjoy problematic movies. I also think we have to acknowledge when things get iffy and understand where the criticisms are coming from.

Considering how much the disability community struggles to have a place/voice in society, not to mention how much we are already discriminated against and harmed by misconceptions and stigmas, we need to strongly consider the effects of what limited representation is available.

For me, what it boils down to is this:

Hollywood struggles to show five minutes of a happy, well adjusted, successful disabled adult in a healthy relationship.

So, why is it so easy to show them being murdered or to write them as a monster in horror movies?

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