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Screening disability essays on cinema and disability

In this essay, I look to one major locus for images of persons with disabilities—horror. Horror films and fiction use disability imagery to create and augment horror. I first situate my understanding of disability imagery in the horror genre using a case study read through the work of Julia Kristeva.

But, I go on to argue that trademark moves in the horror genre, which typically support ableist assumptions, can be used to subvert ableism and open space for alternative social and political thinking about disability. I point to the work of Tim Burton and Stephen King to demonstrate these possibilities in horror.

Screening Disability

Introduction Even while mainstream and pop-cultural discussions regarding race, class, and gender become increasingly sophisticated, disability is still not treated as a political, social, or structural issue. The meanings of disability are not understood to be contingent or discursive, but are instead assumed to be exhausted by medical diagnosis.

As a result, disability—in all its complexity and manifestations—is treated as a merely biological matter.

This de-politicization of disability is repeated in philosophical literature and commentary on disability. Philosophical work on disability more often serves to affirm the status quo than to question ableist assumptions. Discussions of the social construction of disability are, by and large, rendered nonsense by mainstream media and scholarship. Understanding disability requires understanding its social construction, and social construction can be read in cultural products. In this essay, I investigate the social construction of disability through an analysis of pop-cultural imagery.

Specifically, I look to one major locus for images of persons with disabilities—horror. Unlike most fiction, horror fiction is rife with disability imagery. My analysis reveals that horror fiction can, paradoxically, win space for new and liberating political and social thinking about disability, thereby subverting ableism. I demonstrate liberating possibilities in horror fiction by examining the work of Tim Burton and Stephen King.

Yet, I claim that horror fiction presents the opportunity to dis-identify with ableist culture. Horror, when it distances the audience from what is taken as the natural order, may also allow us to encounter disability differently.

Screening Disability

Indeed, it can allow us to be horrified by ableism. In this article, I read horror through a psychoanalytic framework drawn from Julia Kristeva 1982. To demonstrate the benefits of this framework, I begin by briefly analyzing a case study drawn from the FBI procedural drama Criminal Minds Davis et al.

Kristevean analysis, unlike previous analyses of horror's treatment of disability, shows how, exactly, disability imagery is so useful in achieving the aims of the genre. Using Kristeva as a starting point allows me to reveal the significance of the reversed empathy in Burton and King, which can help us build bridges toward political inclusion by aligning us with the vulnerable and excluded.

As Katie Ellis puts it, disability becomes "shorthand" 2007.

  • The social world with its cultural categories, through various visual devices and strategies, is shown as contrived or problematic, as in Burton's vision of suburbia in Edward Scissorhands di Novi and Burton 1990 , or King's representation of the inner workings of an adult mind in The Shining Kubrick 1980;
  • Discourses of Disability pp;
  • Ohio State University Press, c2010;
  • Carrie's schoolmates throw tampons at her when she realizes, to her surprise and fear, that she has begun her period while in the shower after gym class.

Further analysis, however, is needed to explain why disability imagery works so well and is used so often in horror fiction. After all, many monsters can terrify. I move to answer this and lay the foundation for my later argument by using Kristeva to analyze a horror narrative which, although based on a true story, was fictionalized to such a way as to amplify and centralize disability.

  • Understanding disability requires understanding its social construction, and social construction can be read in cultural products;
  • So, representations of disability challenge what we mean when we refer to the human—a rational being?
  • Of all the super heroes, the strangest one by far, doesn't have a special power, or drive a fancy car;
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  • In a pivotal subsequent scene, Lucas Turner knocks a victim unconscious with a hammer and the mystery deepens as we watch him extract fluid with a syringe from the spinal region of his victim, at the nape of the neck, presumably using the same missing medical supplies;
  • One recurrent theme is that described by Davidson wherein "a person with a disability plays a supporting role, serving as a marker for larger narratives about normalcy and legitimacy" 2003:

Pickton is a convicted serial killer sentenced to life in prison in 2007 for the murder of six women Culbert and Hall 2007. He confessed to killing almost fifty women and, according to a witness, once admitted to feeding victims to pigs on his farm. Although screening disability essays on cinema and disability is some evidence that Pickton is intellectually disabled, Pickton's status as disabled remains unresolved.

At his criminal trial, his defense lawyer claimed that Pickton was at times unable to understand police questioning because he is "mentally challenged" Sky News 2007. It was also reported that Pickton's brother Dave, who lived with him, considered Pickton "gullible," and acquaintances thought him "shy" and "not very sociable" Cameron 2011, 46. Expert witnesses called in during Pickton's trial found IQ testing inconclusive. But, in Criminal Minds, Pickton and his real-life brother, Dave, are imagined as persons with disabilities, and the crime is assigned to them both, effectively doubling disability in the retelling of the narrative.

Based on these drawings, Reid speculates that Lucas, the fictionalized Willie Pickton, is perhaps autistic or mildly "mentally disabled. In fact, disability is eventually pinpointed as the actual motivation for the crimes. The investigative team is quick to notice the theft of medical supplies in the area of the murders.

In a pivotal subsequent scene, Lucas Turner knocks a victim unconscious with a hammer and the mystery deepens as we watch him extract fluid with a syringe from the spinal region of his victim, at the nape of the neck, presumably using the same missing medical supplies. He marks the spot first with a pen before inserting the syringe. The pigs on Lucas' farm are shown squealing in an allusion to the possibility that Lucas screening disability essays on cinema and disability feed his victim to the pigs.

When the team later discovers Mason Turner lying in bed inside the family farmhouse, information on Mason's computer explains the meaning of the extracted fluid and the medical supplies. Mason, who was a medical student, is pursuing a stem-cell project to mitigate or cure his spinal injury. Mason's injury was caused by Lucas when he discovered Mason planned to sell their family farm. The audience is led to interpret Lucas's intense connection to the farm and his violent response as symptoms of his disability.

After this accident, Mason teaches Lucas to execute the medical experiments and watched Lucas kill his victims by way of a series of mirrors set up near his bedside. Mason Turner directs his brother's activity while lying immobile and Lucas Turner acts out the crime his brother orchestrates. Kristeva's influential work on abjection can explain the deployment of disability in this case. Abjection is a demonstration that the border between the familiar and unfamiliar can be crossed ibid.

  • Healy, trying to impress Mary, says "My passion is my hobby—I work with retards;
  • If we fail to accept vulnerability and incorporate it into our understanding of political communities, disability will always be the monster under the bed;
  • In another example, your own family is haunting the haunted house, as in The Others Bovaira et al.

The framework of society, in which communities set boundaries to define and articulate themselves, establishes abjection as a fundamental political experience. Abject experiences remind us that boundaries we use for identity, both personal and communal, are permeable and constructed rather than impermeable and permanent. Concepts and images which call up abjection include encroachments upon categorical borders, including hybridity.

Hybrids cross lines screening disability essays on cinema and disability natural and artificial, nature and culture, and self and other. An apt monster to drive horror fiction is the abject, a thing which challenges science, culture, or categorical thinking.

Boundaries are crossed as the familiar is mixed with the strange. For example, as in Scream Konrad et al. In another example, your own family is haunting the haunted house, as in The Others Bovaira et al. In the case of "To Hell…and Back", a mass-murderer is immobile and the gentle farmer feeds humans to his pigs. It is comforting to believe that the boundaries we construct are real and natural, especially when it comes to our own subjectivity ibid.

According to Kristeva, we long to be utterly independent and distance ourselves from reminders of dependence, including anything representing the maternal reminding us that we are not only one, or autonomous and our embodied vulnerability especially our mortality. Abjection points toward fundamental, inescapable ambiguity and the disturbance of identity, and it can structure reactions to persons with disabilities, who recall vulnerability and mortality to mind.

In fact, Kristeva is quite concerned with disability in screening disability essays on cinema and disability work, which she calls the most "formidable of exclusions" among human beings Kristeva and Vanier 2011, 12. While other political exclusions, including those made upon religious and racial grounds, have been slowly incorporated within the context of the "social contract" of democracy, it is clear to Kristeva that disability presents a unique set of difficulties for social life in today's context ibid.

She argues that encountering aspects or representations of disability triggers narcissistic fear of injury and confrontation with potential "physical and mental death" in the subject Kristeva and Vanier 2011, 13, Kristeva 2010, 27. So disability is tied to Kristeva's notion of abjection, which she also frames within a kind of "narcissistic crisis" 1982, 14. Moreover, Kristeva situates the many differences which disability represents as complications for the very "meaning" that is assigned to the identity of the "species" 2011, 140, cf.

  1. Each film's content is examined, with emphasis on how each may potentially influence viewer understanding of disability.
  2. Both Lucas and Mason Turner were killed in confrontations. The uneasy home of disability in literature and film.
  3. University Press of America.
  4. It can be taken as a sign of progress not only that disabled people are cast to play disabled characters, but also that disabled people are cast to play characters whose level of ability or disability is not an issue. Download and read screening disability essays on cinema and disability screening disability essays on cinema and disability dear readers, when you are hunting the new.

So, representations of disability challenge what we mean when we refer to the human—a rational being? A being that walks on two legs, one with a particular speech pattern, or one who controls their body? The horror genre is thus a significant opportunity to pump up and exercise that anxiety and give play to its defensive reactions. Horror can play at overcoming disability at the same time as it plays with abjection and our responses to it.

This recalls but also deepens Paul Longmore's argument that horror can soothe because it acts out the exclusion of the disabled body, an exclusion audiences seek to justify 1987. The concept of abjection enhances our understanding of horror's peculiar affinity for disability imagery.

With a robust concept of the abject, a Kristevean reading of horror, which reveals its psycho-social function, becomes possible. Calling forward the abject on the screen or on the page in horror can create fascination and draw in one's audience. The ambiguity of endings in many horror films plays with this tension.

At the end of "To Hell…and Back" the agents fly back home in a sobered group, leaving behind the farm and the body count. Both Lucas and Mason Turner were killed in confrontations.

The agents are left with confusion, horror and sadness; the horror they uncovered is destroyed. This monster represents threat but also releases one's imagination to consider and then reject the thing that crosses the border or comes from over the border.

Alternative Visions of Disability in Horror I claim that horror, despite its frequent abuse of disability, has significant potential to structure alternative encounters with and visions of disability. These alternative encounters can build inroads to political inclusion by fostering the acceptance of vulnerability and pushing for the rejection of exclusive social norms and ableism by highlighting them as horrific.

This potential is evident in the work of two influential horror authors, Tim Burton and Stephen King. I am particularly interested in those instances in which Burton and King's terrifying and uncanny fictional worlds are populated by young or childlike protagonists.

According to one critic, "The abandoned child-monster" is "the symbolic core" of Burton's work Bassil-Morozow 2010, 23. According to another, "the cinemagraphic children of Stephen King are simultaneously blessed and cursed, but mostly they are lost" Magistrale, 2003, 21.

These young heroes deal with the everyday horror of the social world and the noxious costs of both forced compliance and forced isolation. They attempt to build alternative bonds that allow them to interact with others while at the same time rejecting the violent or degrading dominant culture. A significant reversal is therefore embedded in these texts. Often, horror in Burton and King is not the monstrous or disabled bodies that our heroes at times inhabit; instead, what is horrifying is society and its rigid cruelty.

Exclusion, cruelty, and normalization are posed as threat and elicit audience dis-identification. The social world with its cultural categories, through various visual devices and strategies, is shown as contrived or problematic, as in Burton's vision of suburbia in Edward Scissorhands di Novi and Burton 1990or King's representation of the inner workings of an adult mind in The Shining Kubrick 1980. Instead, the viewer sees the tragedy and horror involved in corrupt or decaying societies who eliminate those who do not fit the mold.

As an audience, we still feel horror and disgust; but, instead of identifying with the "normal" characters on screen, we side with the horrible hero against the terror of a monster too familiar for comfort: Other scholars have made similar claims, including Sarah Smith Rainey, who analyzes the role of the zombies in the 2004 film They Came Back 2014 and Jacinda Read, who analyzes the rape-revenge narrative structure and re-reads the "final girl" as a hero who challenges the social world, albeit violently, in The New Avengers 2000.

In the remainder of this essay, I will consider specific examples within their oeuvres to demonstrate my claims. Oyster Boy received short-film treatment in a small series after the release of the original stories Burton 2000. I then go on to consider King's work with analyses of Stand by Me Evans et al. In each of these cases, King's original stories, The Body 1982Carrie 1974and The Cycle of the Werewolf 1983were subsequently translated into film.

Anyone familiar with the work of Tim Burton will recognize this as particularly true of his creations.