Horror is a weird friend. At age fourteen I underwent a battery of tests for a diagnostic nightmare of health problems. When I returned to school, I was harassed and physically abused by other kids for walking funny and making weird breathing sounds. For me, there was a solace in Stephen King’s unromanticized bullies, and in Jason Voorhees, the disabled boy who’d been left to drown by camp counselors, only to rise from the dead for revenge. I couldn’t count all the nights when my pain was too great to sleep, and scary stories kept me company. I loved the macabre and earnest nature of this genre.
As I grew up, I recognized that this genre did not always love me back. In just one movie, a psychotic villain was a novelty. After dozens of such movies, it was vilifying a vulnerable minority. These attitudes are hardly exclusive to horror; often horror is the most blatant about a problem that our culture refuses to confront. That’s why we’re going to focus on three problematic horrors from last year: 10 Cloverfield Lane, Donald Trump, and Don’t Breathe.
I’m still not sure I saw the same 10 Cloverfield Lane as everyone else. The movie was about Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a woman who was in a car accident, blacked out, and woke up in a fallout shelter. Two other people lived in the shelter. One, named Howard (John Goodman), brought her there, set her broken leg, and tied her to a bed. It was a harrowing start, even for horror.
From the first minute Howard spoke, he showed signs of being neuroatypical. He avoided eye contact when it was offered and frequently grew withdrawn and agitated when he was received poorly. Even his tone in trying to “straight talk” with Michelle suggested someone who couldn’t read moods. He explained that there had been “an attack” on America, leaving the surface uninhabitable, and the shelter was keeping them alive. He’d “rescued” Michelle. As for who had attacked, he couldn’t tell if it was the Russians or the Martians.
This all meant Howard was “crazy” in the Hollywood sense, and everyone in the audience immediately knew he’d hit Michelle’s car. The only question was why. Was this a sci-fi movie and he was helping her, or was it a thriller where Howard was the next in Hollywood’s long line of Evil Crazy Guys?
Talking with the other survivor in the bunker, Michelle learned Howard was a retired naval officer who might have been traumatized by his service. But Howard was also grossly possessive of her in a way that overstepped being protective. For her part, Michelle was a fantastic heroine, unwilling to submit. She whittled her crutch into a spear. If she needed the keys to a door, she’d trick Howard into losing them. When she saw her opportunity, she clocked Howard and escaped.
Except people really were dying nightmarishly on the surface. Michelle had to return to the bunker to stay alive.
Howard took Michelle back in. As she stitched his injuries, he awkwardly confessed to hitting her car. “The attack” had so disturbed him that he’d driven erratically while rushing to the safety of his bunker. Whatever the apocalypse was, it’d triggered him badly.
I got a huge grin as the three survivors bonded together over bad movies and jigsaw puzzles. Maybe it wasn’t going to be a movie about an Evil Crazy Guy and the Helpless Captive Heroine after all. Howard could be part of an underdog group, eventually facing whatever happened on the surface and conquering his anxiety. He was probably doomed to die helping his non-disabled friends escape alive. If I got lucky, he’d get a more optimistic ending.
I was not lucky.
As though the movie got bored with its own character development, as soon as Michelle healed and explored the bunker, she discovered that though the surface was dangerous, Howard was still an Evil Crazy Guy! He was probably a serial killer, and murdered their other sheltermate just so no one would stop him from raping Michelle. He had secret stores of acid just to dissolve corpses. Michelle fought like mad, doused him in his own acid, set fire to his shelter, and left him to burn in his Temple of Crazy.
Later Megan McKellar Phillips, a writer who has openly struggled with mental illness and terrible mental healthcare professionals, wrote to me. She said: “The other really betraying aspect of 10 Cloverfield Lane for me was the fact that, in the beginning, the female character was disabled by her injuries. Her recovery from them is what allowed her to discover Howard’s “evil” history. The writers couldn’t have been more overt about the correlation between disability and weakness/ignorance if they’d tried.”
When I talked to disabled women who had watched the film, their opinions were divided. They live in the uncomfortable intersection of misogyny and ableism, and from person-to-person they varied on being more bothered by the gaslighting or the anti-mental illness message. For those who had more exposure to mental illness, the film was a betrayal. They’d seen a rare opportunity to be the good guy in film and seen it burned.
But non-disabled people universally acted surprised when I asked if Howard was neuroatypical. To them, he was just another Hollywood villain. They perpetuated the early buzz of the film, as one about resisting gaslighting. Watching them, I realized why no one had mentioned ableism. They didn’t see it.
So I shut up. I was not willing to take away someone’s encouragement to fight gaslighting – it was, and remains, too vital.
I kept shutting up until Donald Trump and Don’t Breathe happened.
Let me tell you two things about the current President of the United States.
First: the shitty thing wasn’t Trump mocking a disabled reporter by wiggling his arms. That’s one asshole gesture. What sucked was that it validated every bigot who mocks disabled people around this country, and that is something that happens daily. Hourly. As you’re reading this, some kid who’s done nothing wrong is getting beaten for having a genetic condition. When a serious candidate for the presidency exhibits that same disdain for disability, he signs invisible laws into our culture.
That is similarly what happens when film after film, from Peeping Tom to Silence of the Lambs to Split, posits that your fears about the mentally ill are valid.
But Trump is worse than a film, and that brings us to our second thing: quit fucking calling him crazy.
Donald Trump is not a “nut job,” or “insane,” or “retarded,” even though my allegedly compassionate allies continue to spew labels like this daily. The ableist attacks on him have gotten so ridiculous that the guy who created the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder wrote an op-ed to diagnosers that Trump doesn’t have it and they’re doing psychiatry wrong.
Trump is a serial liar who demeans all challengers. He anticipates and undermines people he harms. He fits the profile of a cognizant abuser, not a mentally ill person. If any immigrant had as many accusations of sexual predation as he does, they would never get into the country.
Which is why we have to talk about 10 Cloverfield Lane and Donald Trump together. 10 Clovefield Lane’s Howard reads as evil to many, and if he’s crazy, then he’s an evil kind of crazy, which is what our culture always means when it says “crazy.” That is exactly how the word is used for our president. This kind of labeling gets us killed.
When you call Trump “crazy,” I think of Ronald Reagan tossing thousands of mentally ill people out on the street and dodging questions of why homelessness had suddenly exploded.
When you call Trump “stupid,” I think of pulling drunk jocks off my friend with Down Syndrome.
When you call Trump “orange,” I think of friends with skin conditions who use spray tans to try to blend in.
The contexts in which we joke are another topic. Joking is not always wrong. But attaching these things so frequently to people you despise aggregates dangerously. It builds and builds until people treat disability itself as evil.
If you think I’m oversensitive? OK. I’m not mad. Almost everyone starts there. It’s only shameful if you refuse to think further.
Historically, horror as a genre has refused to think further. There is no more pernicious trope in horror cinema than that mental illness means you are violent and dangerous, and that the best way to deal with you is climactic manslaughter. I love Alfred Hitchcock’s work, but Psycho stapled a new slur to an international lexicon.
Later in 2016, Lawrence O’Donnell said on his TV show, “It’s becoming more and more clear that the biggest disqualifying factor as Donald Trump as president is his mental health.”
At the break, there was a commercial for Don’t Breathe. It was a horror movie about a blind killer. I thought of all the times when blind characters were portrayed as particularly helpless victims, like Wait Until Dark (1967), Red Dragon (2002), and Julia’s Eyes (2011). Making the killer blind seemed novel and empowering, though it’s worth noting that blind writers have a different experience of this, and that when disabled critics approached the director, he ignored them.
That summer? I still went to see it. Frankly, I went to escape all the non-disabled people in my country. Don’t Breathe followed three robbers (Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy, and Daniel Zovato) hoping to escape their crappy lives by robbing a blind man (Stephen Lang). He had close to a million dollars from a settlement after a wealthy driver killed his daughter. When one robber questioned targeting a blind person, another shot him down saying it didn’t make him a saint.
In short order they drugged his dog, picked his locks, broke his alarm, sleep-gassed his room, and rummaged through his life. Their biggest internal conflict was how much of his house they should tear apart looking for the money.
So when The Blind Man (his only name in the credits) coldly overpowered and shot the first intruder, I wasn’t horrified. This was a very ‘70’s and ‘80’s notion of horror comeuppance. Characters who transgress against a cultural value often suffer and die. In Dawn of the Dead (1978), the survivors spent too much time enjoying the capitalist luxury of a mall when the living dead were outside; in Jaws (1975), the authorities kept the beaches open even after repeated warnings that a shark would attack again. You don’t build your house on a Native American burial ground. The genre that ensues in punishment.
Screwing with disabled people has not typically been on the list of things that gets horror to come after you. Don’t Breathe felt like the genre cared for once.
For a while, it was perversely cathartic. The Blind Man stalked the other two robbers through his house, and the movie achieved the best kind of paradoxical Slasher double-tension: holding your breath hoping the heroes make it out alive, while simultaneously rooting for the Villain to get ‘em. It was vicious and fun. Until they got into his basement.
Then we got the big twist: rape, again.
The Blind Man had kidnapped the girl who’d hit and killed his daughter and forcibly impregnated her. His reasoning? He wanted a replacement child. After this girl was killed in the robbers’ escape attempt, The Blind Man tried to rape the female robber as a replacement. Beyond annoying some people by changing the stakes mid-movie, this is exactly the sort of “surprise” that risks awakening psychological trauma in survivors. It was both cruel and didn’t fit. Don’t Breathe derailed from tense to uncomfortable, from life-or-death to rape-or-escape, and any possible attachment to The Blind Man evaporated.
In the theater, I felt a special movie slipping through my fingers. This abruptly ceased to be something I could recommend to disabled horror fans as a movie that cared about us. Now, if anything, I would have to give them content warnings, because many are sexual assault survivors.
As soon as I got home, a friend started ranting about Trump’s latest gaffe. When I didn’t seem enthused, she said the silver lining was, “Have you seen his gut? At least if he wins, he’ll probably die of a heart attack.”
As I finish this piece, the two biggest horror films of the year are Split and Get Out. Split once again depicts multiple personality disorder as an origin for Crazy Evil Guys. Get Out makes great criticisms about anti-blackness in white liberal culture, but also reduces its lone blind character into self-loathing ableist garbage.
As I finish this piece, Republicans are rushing a bill through Congress that will kill healthcare for millions of chronically ill and disabled Americans. They failed once and are already on to a sequel.
As I finish this piece, I can’t even enjoy being the villain.