Horror can be a lot of things a lot of people don’t expect. Tell someone you’re a horror fan and they’re more likely to back away slowly with a nervous laugh in their throats than they are to ask what you like about it. On the other hand, it’s also the only genre I know of in film whose audience constantly has to go to bat to prove its merits. No one asks “why action?” or “why rom-coms?” Only ever “why horror?”
For me, the answer is pretty simple. I’m a terribly anxious person. If anyone were to sit me down and ask me to go through my list fears — rational or otherwise — it could take me a solid week. Consuming horror, I have control I don’t get in the everyday world. I can be frightened and comforted at the same time. It’s a safe space where I can both feel and conquer anxieties. The only drawback for someone like me — a disabled woman — is that I don’t really get to see someone like me doing the conquering.
Enter 2016’s Netflix original Hush.
While the character in question is still not exactly like me (go find a horror film—or any film—where a woman with cerebral palsy gets to kick ass. I’ll wait.), Hush tells the story of a Maddie, a deaf-mute author living a fulfilling and independent life of her own, able to engage in the world around her thanks to some accommodations in her house and some very understanding friends. When a home invader comes to the neighborhood and discovers her disability, he figures she’s an easy target. But oh, how wrong he is.
I have a great many favorite things about Hush: The fact that her disability origin story is brought up only in passing over the span of one shot; the fact that the protagonist is a successful disabled author; The crossbow. But I think the best part about the film is that Maddie is shown as a strong woman even when she’s full of fear—because here’s the thing. The villain taunts her for a good portion of the movie. He tells her he won’t enter the house until she wants to die, even though he could come in whenever he wants to. She wouldn’t be able to hear him until he was already in, after all. So he toys with her.
And for a while she knows if he comes inside she is finished. Maddie is fully aware of the danger her disability puts her in—she knows her limits. But she also uses her strengths.
She tells a friend early on in the film that she has “writer’s brain”—the ability to see a bunch of different strings of how something will play out all at once. Due to some serious pressure from the day job, I have somewhat lost this skill, but I know it, have had and used it, and am working on getting it back. It is particularly useful for solving plot holes and providing a Twist No One Saw Coming. It makes sense, then, that she would think this way in both career and actual life, and it becomes an invaluable survival skill. Again, she knows the odds are not in her favor. The only way to survive is to do the unexpected and, especially when you’re disabled, the most unexpected thing you can do is fight.
So she does. And she kicks ass. And she fights like a woman. That is, she uses what’s around her rather than relying exclusively on her physical strength. The absolute best instance of this for me is when her fire alarm goes off. Why the fire alarm? That’s weird, you say. Ah, but because she is deaf-mute, her alarm is modified. Not only is it the loudest, shrillest thing within miles of her Maine “neighborhood” - because she needs to be able to feel its vibrations - it also flashes an insanely bright light. Her cell phone does the same thing, on a much smaller scale.
We see early on in the film what the alarm is like for her hearing friends to experience. Maddie, cooking dinner, leaves it unattended to go outside, and it burns to a crisp. But she doesn’t notice until the alarm goes off, and her neighbor, visiting to gush about her latest novel, cringes at the sound and turns to look. Even as she cleans the charred remnants of her would-have-been extravagant meal, the alarm continues for a few minutes and she is entirely unfazed. This is a totally normal occurrence for her.
Flash forward to the middle of the fight between her and the intruder. It’s been absolutely knock-down-drag-out. He’s gotten more of a fight from her than he expected, but they’re both injured and she is in the process of bleeding out. His weapon of choice for this endeavor was, after all, a crossbow. But something sets off her fire alarm. She is completely focused on survival, doesn’t really think about what the alarm is doing. But he’s debilitated. The sound is too sharp and the light is too bright. He crumples from the force of them both. Only for a minute, but a minute is long enough to get away.
Now, look, I know this may not seem like anything to get too excited about. So what, right? No. This accommodation in her house, this thing she wouldn’t have had if she were not disabled has helped prolong her life. Helped her to survive. And she knew it would, because she’s seen able-bodied people around her weakened by it. It’s one thing, as a disabled horror fan, to see yourself in a movie. It’s another to see yourself make it all the way to the end and live. But I can’t quite articulate the level of joy I felt watching this man lose his entire sense of reality for a minute at the hands of something that makes her life easier.
There have been a lot of things I’ve had to develop and/or ask for that able-bodied people never even consider, just so I’m able to navigate the world in as independent and sensible a way as possible. They became my normal, things I didn’t have to think about until someone asked me something about them. And sometimes, I don’t have an answer. Because it doesn’t make sense to me to do things any other way than the way I’ve trained my body to do them. I don’t know quite if any of my methods or accommodations would save my life, but I do spend an inordinate amount of mental energy on thinking my way out of hypothetical danger situations like the one in this film. As a disabled woman, such fears never really quite abate.
The one best thing about this film, other than its being a horror film with a disabled woman at its center, is that Maddie lives! She’s not killed off in favor of a more normative survivor. She doesn’t almost make it to the end with 20 minutes left in the movie (looking at you Texas Chainsaw and Friday the 13th), but wins the battle and lives. Even her cat lives!
I was listening to a podcast recently that covered this movie for an episode and, over the course of it, had some great ideas about what could have made it better and how it could have worked with an actual deaf actress (Kate Siegal is a lot of great things, but disabled she is not). It was an excellent conversation with a lot of great ideas. Then there was a moment where they mentioned things they thought would have been great twists. And on some level they may even be right. One of the ideas was to have her do all this fighting and surviving right until the very end—and then die. Now I love this podcast. They’re the only ones to have brought up disability in horror and the need for more representation of it at all. But I found myself unable to let that bit go. We, as disabled people in a dangerous setting, make it so far only to die all the time. The truly innovative power move, the twist with the only real payoff, is to let us live. We’re more capable than anyone expects. Even when we know the odds are stacked against us.
We deserve to live, too. And damn it, we deserve to be cast in our own roles.