The movie industry in general hasn’t been the best at accurately portraying disabled characters. While the reception for Disability in Horror Month has shown that the indie horror scene is making positive steps to becoming more inclusive, mainstream horror cinema has some catching up to do.
Studies have been identifying negative stereotypes of disabled people in the media for a long time now, yet there’s still some old-timey ideas that have stuck around in modern filmmaking. So we’ve picked out five prominent disability stereotypes in horror movies that need to stop.
5. Patients in Psychiatric Hospitals Constantly Try To Escape
Going back as far as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and it’s Universal adaptation, horror movies constantly present the idea that those receiving hospital treatments for mental illness are constantly trying to escape. Often they’re pursuing violent revenge, or an all out murder spree. Even though most of us know that these facilities are not run like prison camps, there is still an overbearing idea that those in psychiatric hospital care are being ‘contained’.
In reality, most people voluntarily admit themselves on a doctor’s recommendation – just like any hospital. When legal steps are taken to detain someone, it is usually because they have attempted to harm themselves. The risk of you being killed by a deranged patient who has escaped hospital is so astronomically tiny that it is virtually non existent.
4. Disabled People Are Magic
In film, the magical disabled character is a trope involving the character ‘making up’ for their disability by having some amazing skill that furthers the plot. In horror, this is usually in the form of being able to perform supernatural tasks, or connect with otherworldly spirits. A schizophrenic person who’s communication is dismissed as rambling…until their rambling resolves the plot. Blind characters who are the only people able to perceive ghosts. PTSD related nightmares hold the key to defeating the killer.
In these roles, the disabled characters are almost always relegated to supporting or minor role, only popping up when their superpower is required.
3. Stimming is Scary
Many depictions of crazed killers to be feared combine a few tropes of what it means to be ‘disturbed’ or ‘crazy. A ‘crazy person’, by many people’s description might rock, flap their hands, or repeat random phrases. To set the scene of a spooky old asylum, score of patients in filthy clothes wring their hands, rock back and forth, chew their arms and otherwise move in a way that is supposed to convey fear. Think the opening credits for American Horror Story: Asylum.
These behaviors are called stimming, and they’re most often seen in autistic people. Stimming is repetitive actions, which can be used to help with sensory and social integration, aid concentration and reduce anxiety. It’s a normal part of autistic people’s behavior, and doesn’t need to be a cause of fear or alarm.
2. Psychopathy = Murder
Beginning, of course, with Psycho, psychopathy has become a easy way of explaining the motivations of a violent killer. When the Hitchcock classic was released in 1960, far less was known about the mental health disorder. Psychopaths have become easy scapegoats for all manner of murder, torture and brutality.
While psychopathy is a complex personality disorder that some notorious killers have suffered from; the vast majority of psychopaths are completely non-violent. Many display the characteristics in different ways, such as thrill seeking and risk taking, Although it does cause reduced empathy, many psychopaths are also creative, focused, self-confident people, who put these skills to use in various fields.
1. People Who Look Different Are Going To Kill You
A staple of so many classic horror movies. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Phantom of the Opera, House of Wax, The Hills Have Eyes are all great movies in their own right – but they do share this common stereotype; that people with facial disfigurements are scary, and out to kill you.
Of course this is not the case, but according to charity Changing Faces, references to horror movies are often used to insult or threaten those with disfigurements.
While many of the films highlighted are undoubtedly great horror films, it’s time to start telling different stories instead of resorting to cliches. Seeing well developed disabled characters in non-traditional roles, as well as making the horror community a welcoming space for all, seems the best way forward.