Ableism in Horror

Content/trigger warning: discussion of ableism, injury mention 

When I was in graduate school, I visited my then-girlfriend, who had recently graduated from the college where we met, around Halloween. She and her friends were extremely into LARPing, to the degree that she prioritized LARPing over spending time with me (which is a big part of why the relationship ended). One of Then-Girlfriend’s housemates was running a Halloween one-shot LARP. It was set in the housemate’s old high school, which had–I swear this is actually true–been used as a psychiatric institution before it was a high school. I thought, “Okay, these are people I trust; they’ll probably make it scary due to the horrific human rights abuses that occurred there, not because mentally ill people are scary, right?”

Nope.

I was wrong.

So let’s talk about ableism in horror.

I don’t game much (except for the fact that I used to play DnD, I was a hardcore WoW player for a long time, and I’d be playing Guild Wars 2 if I could get it to install on my shitty Chromebook), but when I was doing research for this entry, I found an entire fuckening Wikipedia article on video games that are set in psychiatric institutions. I didn’t have time to research each one, but I would be willing to bet that all of them have some element of saneism in them.

I am more familiar with movies, though, so let’s talk about ableism in horror movies. I’ve mentioned that I used to be a huge Phantom of the Opera fan, right? (That may have been in my Rock, Roll, ‘n’ Stim blog, come to think of it.) Well, I used to be a TOWERING phan. And in one of the many cases of ableism overlapping with disfiguremisia, the Phantom is portrayed as becoming evil because he was the victim of violent ableism and disfiguremisia. Somewhat understandable, true, but the kidnapping and stalking? Not so much. Another classic, the Friday the 13th franchise, plays the “disabled villain” trope straight as well; Jason Voorhees is developmentally disabled and has hydrocephalus. Nightmare on Elm Street, overlapping with disfiguremisia again, also plays the “disabled villain” trope straight; Freddy Krueger has disfiguring burns all over his body.

A particularly strange (and, if you think about it, egregious) example of ableism–specifically saneism–in a horror franchise is the Halloween series. The villain, Michael Myers, is repeatedly institutionalized in a psychiatric facility despite never being given a psych diagnosis. His doctor instead chooses to describe him as “pure evil.” So the best place for someone who is “pure evil” to be is an institution for people with psychiatric disabilities?

Excuse me? 

What are you trying to say here, John Carpenter, that evil is a mental illness!? I know a lot of people think that!

Another example of ableism in horror is found in Jacob’s Ladder. While not a horror “classic” per se, it was popular enough to get a 2019 remake, and seems to be pretty accessible to non-horror fans. It was also directed by Adrian Lyne, who is a pretty big name; he also directed Fatal Attraction, Flashdance, and Indecent Proposal. Now, I haven’t seen all of Jacob’s Ladder, but I have seen the disgustingly ableist hospital scene. It’s a sequence that is meant to be terrifying that includes a person banging their head against a door, an amputee, and a person in a straight jacket. The disabled people in the scene are meant to scare the audience by being visibly disabled. Not cool, Adrian Lyne.

It’s not just classic horror films that pull this shit, either. As someone with OSDD-1, don’t get me the fuck started on Split, which came out in 2016. The dissociative community on Twitter was in an uproar when that shit came out. For those who aren’t familiar, Split is about a man with DID whose alters kidnap three young women. This is fucked up because people with alters aren’t your g-ddamn boogeyman of the week; alters are almost never violent, and certainly don’t go around kidnapping conventionally attractive teenage girls. Yeah, fine, my alter Em can be a passive-aggressive asshole and my alter Valkyrja is always ready to fight in the face of ableism, but in reality, Valkyrja has never so much as hit someone.

Jacob’s Ladder was brought to my attention by my amazing wife, who watches way more horror than I do (with the exception of me introducing her to Get Out). She also told me about May, a film about a shy veterinary assistant who becomes a serial killer, which I wanted to discuss because it involves unusually bad representation of children. In one scene, there is a doll behind a pane of glass, which breaks. There are blind children in the scene who, wanting to feel the doll behind the glass, start feeling around in the glass and end up getting cut. The scene is remarkable in that it’s quite inaccurate to how Blind children would actually act in such a situation; they continue touching the glass and worsening their injuries after initially getting cut. Did…did the director think that Blind people don’t know how to react to pain? Anyway, it was weird.

I think that’s all I have for now. Happy Halloween!

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