“If you had to choose, would you rather be deaf or blind?” This question has trickled its way into the glossary of everyday conversation, leading the questionee to then hierarchise deafness and blindness according to their own personal fears of sensory impairment. On the one hand, it interrogates the privilege of those who are not sensory impaired – in this case, those who are neither deaf nor blind. On the other, however, it makes complicit the entrenched ableism (the systematic favouring of able-bodied people) within contemporary society.
Narratives which centralise the actualisation of disabled power are claiming their place within the recent cinematic renaissance of horror, with films such as Hush (2016, dir. Mike Flanagan) and Don’t Breathe (2016, dir. Fede Alvarez) being emblematic of this recent trend. Disability in horror is not a novel concept, ranging from the representation of disability-as-monstrous à la The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), wherein disability is physicalised as monstrous or grotesque, to the more progressive such as Silver Bullet (1985), which depicts disability-as-heroic, although the disabled hero does not vanquish the monster, but is instead rescued from its clutches.
While disability-as-monstrous and disability-as-victim are the obvious bailiwick of disability horror narratives, there are those that heroise disability, such as Hush, or those that present disabled villains as, in some way, sympathetic, as with Don’t Breathe. The disabled characters from these films are not weak or devoid of agency; instead, they position their disabilities as abilities against their foes, using their heightened senses against them and actualising their disabled power.
In Hush, the disabled hero is Madison “Maddie” Young, a deaf author who lost her hearing at age thirteen after a bout of bacterial meningitis. Maddie lives alone in an isolated country house with her cat, with occasional visits from her neighbours in the adjacent property. Maddie’s quiet life suddenly takes a tumultuous turn, however, when a masked intruder initiates a deadly game of cat and mouse, forcing Maddie to use her deadness as an advantage over her assailant.
Early on, the viewer is shown how Maddie lives her day-to-day life as a deaf person. For instance, Maddie’s fire alarm flashes and is loud enough to make the house’s walls vibrate, so as to wake Maddie up in the event of a fire. This is just one way in which the film’s narrative plays with diegetic sound in order to heighten the viewer’s sensory experience. Much of the film is sparse on dialogue, which serves to amplify the connection between the non-deaf spectator and the film’s deaf hero, Maddie.
When we are first introduced to the film’s villain, he is murdering one of Maddie’s neighbours, Sarah. Sarah bangs on Maddie’s porch door but, because she is not within Maddie’s field of vision, her attempts to alarm Maddie go unnoticed. The sound switches frenetically between the outside of the house and the inside, from Sarah’s manic cries for help to Maddie’s obliviousness to the horrors unfolding around her.
Once the killer realises that Maddie is deaf, he proceeds to taunt her, presuming that she will be an easy target due to her disability. Maddie proves this to be untrue, actualising her disability as a kind of power against her attacker during the film’s dénouement by setting off her fire alarm, causing her attacker to be deafened and disorientated. This momentarily equalises the playing field and allows Maddie to then stab her attacker with a corkscrew, killing him. Not only has she reversed the prescribed roles of victim/victimiser, but also she has used her sensory impairment in order to do so. Although she is initially positioned as a victim, she evolves into a disabled hero by the film’s close.
In Don’t Breathe, the disabled villain is Norman “The Blind Man” Nordstrom, a retired Army veteran who is visually impaired. The story concerns three professional thieves who break into Norman’s home and attempt to steal $300,000 cash, given to Norman as a settlement after a woman from a rich family killed his daughter in a car accident.
Similar to Maddie’s attacker in Hush, the trio of thieves presume that robbing Norman will be an easy task due to his sensory impairment. They soon realise, however, that this is not the case, after Norman kills one of his burglars and proceeds to hunt down the others. Don’t Breathe subverts both the disability-as-monstrous and disability-as-victim tropes, instead positioning the disabled character as a (partially sympathetic) villain. He is not monstrous per se (his disability never being synonymised with monstrosity), and nor is he a victim (his disability never being equated with victimhood).
While the two remaining thieves, Rocky and Alex, attempt to escape Norman’s fortress-like home, they find themselves in the labyrinthine basement. Here, they find the woman who killed Norman’s daughter being held prisoner, and it is later revealed that Norman has impregnated her. His reasoning for this is that she took his child from him, so he thought it was only fair that she gives him a new one. This is where Norman’s villainy is exposed – having lost his only family in a tragic turn of events, leaving him all alone.
His blindness and his villainy are separate traits; however, as in Hush, he actualises his disabled power in order to play to his strengths during times of crisis. When Rocky and Alex are in the basement, Norman shuts off the lights, thereby shifting the dynamic of power between Rocky, Alex, and himself. In the trailer for the film, this moment is accompanied by the line, “Now you see what I see.” After a lengthy struggle, Rocky manages to escape with her life, forever haunted by the fact that Norman is still alive.
Both Hush and Don’t Breathe are indicative of disability horror narratives that do not simply victimise, villainise, or heroise disability, but instead position disability as a form of ability, which may manifest as either victimhood, villainy, or heroism – sometimes more than one. Both films are a sensory bacchanalia, with the viewer’s senses being attacked by either the narrative’s sound or visuals, or both, in order to foster a cinematic experience that is befitting of horror driven by sensory impaired characters.