Women with Disabilities: The Undiscussed Horror Staple of Female Characters

"God closed my eyes so I could see only the real Gwynplaine"

This guest post by BJ Colangelo previously appeared at her blog Day of the Woman and is cross-posted with permission.

The slut, the virgin, the bitch, the girl next door, the mother, the creepy old lady, the evil little girl, and the final/survivor girl.  Female archetypes and stock characters within the horror genre are rampant and well known.  From a movie poster alone, we can often times figure out exactly what a woman’s place and purpose is in a horror film.  However, there’s another “type” of woman that we frequently see in horror films that no one seems to want to talk about.

Physically, sensory, or mentally disabled women have been popping up in horror films from the very beginning. The Man Who Laughs is often regarded as the first horror film, and the female lead was a beautiful, blind woman.  From the very beginning of the horror genre, the damsel in distress character was the quickest way to write a story.  “Girl needs saving from someone or something, man saves girl from someone or something, girl is indebted to man and thanks him by kisses or marriage, the end.”  Whether it was because male writers needed to make their female characters SUPER vulnerable or whether they needed an excuse to make a woman “weaker,” adding a physical/mental/sensory disability to a woman became a quick way to differentiate female characters from the usual damsel in distress.  The beginnings showcased disabilities as a major reason for the demise of female characters.  1959’s The Tingler had a creature that could only be killed by screaming.  The death in the film that acts as the catalyst for the entire movie was centered around a woman who was a deaf/mute, and therefore, could not “scream for her life.”  We can’t have a woman be brave enough not to scream when frightened, so we must make her mute.

Fiona Dourif as "Nica" in Curse of Chucky

Physical disabilities appear in many films as a way to hinder otherwise “strong” female leads.  The 1979 midnight movie The Visitor showcases a woman forced into a wheelchair by her evil daughter in order to prevent her ability to escape her child, and to make her a weaker target for her boyfriend to impregnate her.  More recently, we’ve been exposed to a protagonist who uses a wheelchair in Curse of Chucky, who also plays the only character with any sort of intellect and moral compass.  Putting a character in a wheelchair completely raises the stakes.  Stairs are out of the question, speed is a major concern, the ability to hide is greatly reduced, and the fact someone could easily come behind and control the movement and direction of a character is horrifying.  However, throwing a wheelchair on a character immediately develops a sympathetic relationship between the character and the audience.  We immediately understand the difficulties that can be present for being in a wheelchair, and before anything happens, we immediately feel for her.  This concept presents itself regardless of the age of the woman in the wheelchair.  Would You Rather contains an elderly woman in a wheelchair and from the very beginning of the film; she is immediately the character the victims of the game of “Would You Rather?” want to protect.

Jennifer Lynch's Boxing Helena

 

This then brings us to the characterizations of amputees.  In horror films, amputated women seem to fall into two categories.  We have women who have been amputated as some sort of a punishment, and women who have turned their amputations into something of empowerment.  In Jennifer Lynch’s controversial directorial debut, Boxing Helena, we see a woman who is amputated solely so she cannot run away.  In Saw VI, Tanedra Howard’s character must amputate her own arm to survive one of Jigsaw’s traps, and is later shown in Saw 3D as a painfully angry victim who, although survived death, has been forever punished as a one-armed woman, only gaining a positivity in the form of better parking at the mall.  To counteract these women punished with amputation, we have characters like Cherry Darling in Planet Terror who have taken a very Ash J. Williams approach to amputation by replacing the missing limb with a weapon.  Her machine gun leg has made her character an iconic figure and one of the most recognizable women with a disability in horror.

The mute protagonist of Ms. 45

 

Sensory disabilities (blindness, deafness, muteness) are often used as a catalyst to further along story lines. Ms. 45, The Eye, The Beyond, Julia’s Eyes, and even Orphan included either sensory disabled protagonists or supporting characters. The loss of sight, sound, or speech is something that many people fear to begin with, so much like having a character with a physical disability, presenting a major character unable to see, hear, or speak immediately raises their stakes.  Female characters are often blind or deaf, giving the freedom for story tellers to write circumstances they would normally be unable to construct.  Why can’t Ms. 45 call the cops and find justice for her attack?  She cannot speak.  Why can’t little Max tell when her adopted sister Esther is plotting her demise?  She cannot hear.  Characters in horror films vitally depend on their senses for survival.  Taking one of their senses away change the way the protagonist must play the game to be alive at the end of the film.

Fairuza Balk after going "crazy" in The Craft

 

However, the most problematic portrayal of women in horror lies in the representation of mental illness and mental disabilities.  Unfortunately, society already has a stigma in place for mental illnesses, and artforms reflect this poor mentality.  In 2012, Bitch Flicks ran an AMAZING piece by Megan Kearns titled “That ‘Crazy Bitch’: Women and Mental Illness Tropes in Horror” that encompasses everything that I could possibly write about this topic.  My favorite quote from the piece states:

“And the Crazy Bitch trope helps perpetuate mental illness stereotypes. It has many sister tropes infesting horror too. Like the Hysterical Woman, where female characters are depicted as overly emotional and irrational, The Madwoman in the Attic, a trope where a character with mental illness is locked away, isolated from society, and the Nervous Housewife, where men doubt women’s paranormal experiences and patronize them. Jen Doll at The Atlantic Wire gives us “10 tropes about women that women should stop laughing about,” including “the crazy.” As Doll astutely observes, calling someone “crazy” is a way to put people (often women) down and for the accuser to feel better about themselves, all while being insulting to those who who struggle with mental illness.”

Ultimately, it appears that the growing awareness of ableist behavior is changing the way we treat people with disabilities in cinema, especially with female characters in horror films.  Female tropes and archetypes will always exist, but gaining a stronger educational grasp on why characters are written the way they are is the most sure-fire way to learn how to provide better portrayals and influence less offensive media.  I must thank comic artist and Day of the Woman reader Shannon LeClerc for suggesting that I tackle this topic.  Of course I in no way scratched the surface of disabled women in horror films (is there a book on this subject?), but the best way to make a change and gain a better understanding is to open a dialogue and actually discuss the situation.  Women with disabilities are a prominent character type, and we will only gain a solid understanding if we talk about it.

 


BJ Colangelo is the woman behind the keyboard for Day of the Woman: A blog for the feminine side of fear and a contributing writer for Icons of Fright. She’s been published in books, magazines, numerous online publications, all while frantically applying for day jobs. She’s a recovering former child beauty queen and a die-hard horror fanatic. You can follow her on Twitter at @BJColangelo.