Throughout horror, wheelchair users and the physically disabled have been collateral damage and vulnerable cannon fodder for the director’s narrative. From Joan Crawford’s frail Blanche in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), a woman completely at the mercy of her twisted sister Jane (Bette Davis), to “the disabled one” Ruben (Levente Puczkó-Smith) in Midsommar (2019), an ableist symbol of monstrosity that was an unnecessary addition to the film. With the thrill-seeking genres ableist history and present, it comes as no surprise then that newly released Netflix hit Run (2020) is the first thriller to star a wheelchair user since the 1948 film The Sign of the Ram.
Kiera Allen plays Chloe, daughter to Diane (Sarah Paulson). At first glance, the mother-daughter duo seems like an unbreakable team. Diane pours out her pride of her daughter’s strength and achievement, while the home-schooled high school senior dutifully takes her medicine, does her schoolwork, and eagerly awaits her college acceptance letters. But as the letters never arrive, Chloe begins to snoop and uncovers much darker truths than she was expecting. Namely that Chloe is a victim of her mother’s Munchausen by proxy (MBP) and years of dosing which has given Chloe the wide range of physical disabilities she lives with.
Amid a rocky ableist history, despite recent blips like Midsommar, horror films featuring physically disabled characters seem for the most part to be righting themselves. In recent years horror and thrillers have centred on physically disabled bodies who are the intuitive heroes of their nightmare scenarios. Hush (2016) centres around a deaf writer, Maddie (Kate Siegel), who must fight for her life against a masked murder who stalks the house. This felt like the sensory impairment alternative to the deaf or blind monster that the many horrors rely on such as Don’t Breathe (2016) in which the blind war veteran (Stephen Lang) turns the delinquents who break into his house into his murder victims, reinforcing the trope that visual impairment lives in a category of the abject. The classic monsters of horror, like Alien (1979), often commit their acts without sight, and this physical trait, although it hints at a weakness, makes them all the more frightening. As if impairment from a physically able person’s point of view should make the monster an easier adversary.
Physical ability in both Run and Hush does not connote goodness but is instead a marked factor of the villain’s behaviour. Diane’s unimpaired movements around the house, allow her to haunt Chloe, slipping from room to room like a ghost, silently watching her daughter’s every move. As trust weakens Diane, she continues to use Chloe’s disability against her, cutting the wires of the stairlift and locking doors. It is at this point it becomes increasingly apparent to the viewer how inaccessible this house is. Demonstrating that for her entire upbringing, Diane’s plans for her daughter have not been to take care of her but to imprison her in a house of accessibility nightmares.
Run comes across as a capture thriller much like Misery (1990). It is a deeply claustrophobic film in which the victim realises their stay is actually a hostage situation and they must break out of the deserted house and risk their lives in the vast outdoors. However, there are important differences between Run and Misery. Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is rendered physically disabled by the hobbling scene in which Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) brings a mallet down on his ankles. He has lived his life up until now with complete physical ability. Whereas Chloe’s physical impairments are the result of her mother’s years of MBP and forced drug use, which has slowly debellated her daughter’s limb function.
Chloe’s lifelong disabled status puts her in a much better position than Paul. She is not coming to grips with newfound immobility — there will be no clumsy knocking of figurines that give her secretive movements away. Chloe’s peripheral vision already fully encompasses the chair she has grown up using.
During this pandemic, as in horror, the deaths of the disabled community have been treated as collateral. Many mainstream media sources separate those deemed at risk, classing them merely as numbers, while personalising people without pre-existing conditions as tragedies. Horror has a history of doing much the same. The disabled body is rarely shown in the high-risk, low rate of survival scenarios, such as post-apocalyptic or slasher films, and when it is shown, it’s rarely in a positive light.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) features Franklin (Paul A. Partain), a wheelchair user who is an annoyance to his peers, constantly mocked for his inability to partake in activities, and overall disliked due to his disability. Horror has a tendency to use disabled characters as a prop for the tension, their role solely used as a hindrance to the group. The able-bodied characters, in contrast, appear altruistic for enabling the disabled individual to go on surviving alongside them.
It is of marked importance that Chloe’s happy ending does not involve a fully able body. We see her enter a prison, to visit her now incarcerated mother, in a wheelchair where she then steps out of the chair and walks supported by a cane. Her mobility has improved from the last shot we saw of her, but she is not “recovered” and whether she ever will be is irrelevant. It’s not offered because it does not need to be. While the continuation of her physical ailments implies a long-lasting trauma left by Chloe’s mother, her full recovery could have been a narrative choice that alienated disabled audiences. For Run to end with a heroine still identifying as disabled is worthy of note since a full recovery would imply that happiness is tantamount to physical ability.
Aneesh Chaganty is the latest in a growing group of directors changing the genre for the better by offering fully realised physically disabled and neurodivergent characters. Films like Run, Hush, and The Quiet Place (2018), show that people are not only their physical capabilities and that often the differences in experiencing the world allow for ingenuity gone unnoticed by the neuro-typical and physically abled. These movies teach us that thrill-seeking genres do not have to hinge on able-body characters as heroes and the differently-abled as monstrous villains.
Billie Walker (@billierwalker) is a London-based writer and host of the horror film podcast No Humans Involved on Repeater Radio. She is often found chasing the sun around her garden with a Campari-based drink, a bucket of olives, and a bad book.
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