29th September 2019
What do we think of when we think of disability? The person in the wheelchair? The child on crutches? Or a person rocking back and forth uncontrollably, screaming for what seems to be no reason, slapping their hand against their head? More often than not, these are wildly exaggerated ideas.
Yet to the ordinary person, who may rarely interact with a disabled person, these images may be the first things that come to mind. We have film and television to thank for this. Popular culture is littered with depictions of disability that fall into one of two categories. They may be villains bent on destroying the world around them, like the titular Doctor No, or they may be helpless waifs with hearts of gold, like Will in Me Before You. In both cases, disabled characters are patronised and often discarded by the end of a narrative, serving only as a plot point in the able-bodied character’s inspiring story.
Autism is no different. While a number of popular films and TV shows have featured characters on the spectrum since the 1980s, they have faced significant backlash from autistic individuals. Recent furore over the first season of Atypical and the presence of Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory has demonstrated a desire in the community for nuanced depictions of the disability. Yet one amongst many reasons why these characters have been found lacking is the fact that they appear in comedies and dramas filled with uplift and good intentions. The cloying tone of seriousness it produces may assuage the egos of the neurotypical people watching and creating this media, but to an autistic audience seeking some form of connection with someone like themselves will be sorely disappointed. The Australian animated film Mary and Max is perhaps the most astonishingly accurate depiction of male autism I have ever seen, but such depiction are few and far between.
Yet as an autistic person myself, I have found that some of the most insightful and emotional depictions of my condition come from the horror genre. Such a statement may sound perverse, even to a hardcore horror fan, of which I’m sure many of you are. We associate horror cinema with challenging taboos or violating notions of good taste, from our love of antiheroes like Freddy and Jason to the bad taste splatter humour of early Peter Jackson. Part of the fun of a horror film is how it transgresses what we’ve been told are sacred issues, and the disabled are the perfect example of such a subject. When the horror film is interested in depicting deep-seated social anxieties, like the fear of the outsider, said fear often can take the form of a disabled individual. Think of The Hills have Eyes, or even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. All in all, then, the horror genre doesn’t seem to be a fertile ground for sensitive depictions of my disability. But through my MA research, leading up to the PhD I’ll be undertaking for the next three years, I’ve come to realise that horror cinema may just do exactly that. To explain why, I first need to define autism.
Autism is classified as a developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to process the world around them.The sights, sounds and smells that we all come in to contact with on a daily basis are easy for people to understand. You know the smell of bacon compared to the smell of broccoli, and can tell them apart when you’re faced with both of them in the same place. Yet to an autistic person, this may not be so easy. The brain may not be able to distinguish between the differing smells, resulting in them being overwhelmed by the assault on their senses. Bright light or loud noises may cause physical pain to some autistic people, causing them to actively avoid situations where they may encounter them, like a nightclub. For an autistic person, then, the world itself is a horror film. Thematically, too, horror cinema touches on a number of subjects close to the autistic heart. The fear of madness, or the idea that you might not be in control of your own body, is one experienced by many autistic people, along with the creeping suspicion that one day that everything will take a turn for the worse and you will find yourself in a nightmare of shuddering horror you cannot escape from.
True, many autistic people I know do not like horror films, to the point of refusing to see them. I was like that for a long time. But as Becky Darke wrote in her excellent post about Happy Face, horror has a remarkable ability to present us with a manifestation of our worst nightmares in a contained environment. We can pause, rewind or fast forward the experience at our will. We know, consciously, that we are watching a fiction. For me, what started as a dare to myself to actually get over my morbid fear of horror films became a coping mechanism for the overwhelming sense of isolation and anxiety I felt during my teenage years. Unlike many autistic people my age, I was diagnosed relatively late in life. In fact, I was given an official diagnosis just over two months ago, after I’d discovered it at the start of 2018. Now, I realise that my love of horror films stems from the fact that I found a form of unexpected kinship with the monsters I saw onscreen. They, like me, were outcasts in a world that didn’t know how to deal with them.
Take Cat People, for example. Lewton and Tourneur’s iconic horror film about a woman terrified about her potential ability to turn into a panther when sexually aroused contains perhaps the most complete depiction of autism in horror cinema. Irena is morbidly afraid of being touched- she refuses to let her husband ever kiss her. The film suggests that this is due to her fear of sexual arousal, but it may equally come from a hypersensitivity to touch. The sensory overload that she may face, and the tidal-wave of emotions that come from physical contact, could force her into a situation where she chooses to avoid any form of touch. Compounding that is Irena’s deep-seated sense of her own difference when compared to the all-American charms of Oliver and Alice, not only because she is an immigrant, but also because of her folk beliefs, which are scoffed at by the characters. Her only real solace from her sense of isolation is her love of cats, a fascination that permeates every part of her life in a similar way to an autistic person’s fascination with a special subject, such as horror films.
Reading all this, you may well suggest that I’m reading far too much into Cat People, and if it is meant to have any subtext, it’s about sexual repression. Certainly, autism as we know it was only defined in the late 40s, so claiming that the film is actually about the subject would be silly. But we should consider the fact that our knowledge of medicine and psychiatry has evolved dramatically over the past hundred years. In the medieval times, people we now understand to be disabled or mentally ill were seen as suffering from a supernatural affliction. For them, the disabled person may have been cursed by a witch, or may have been a witch themselves, and the only way to cure them would be through burning them at the stake or through an exorcism. Today, we understand that certain symptoms relate to certain conditions, such as the ones that Irena displays having a strong affinity to autism. While the film may not even be implicitly about the subject, Cat People nevertheless can be read as the story of a woman with autism and her struggle to integrate into a society that won’t have her.
Me mentioning medieval attitudes towards disability is especially relevant considering the upcoming series on The Evolution of Horror. One of the first films that will be discussed is Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan, which in its final section discusses how mental illness and witchcraft were once lumped together as a single idea. Autism itself was treated as tantamount to a mental illness for many years, caused by poor parenting that made the child desperate for love and attention. Metaphors associated with the supernatural have often been used to denigrate autistic individuals, such as the ‘changeling child’ label used by some mothers to describe how their autistic child will suddenly transform from a happy baby to a shrieking infant. There is a great deal still to be discovered about the condition, and a great deal of misinformation is still spread about it. One only has to glance at numerous anti-vaxx conspiracists claiming that the measles shot causes autism to realise that the subject is still very much a dark art.
So, what can horror films contribute to an understanding of autism? Well, in my opinion, the atmosphere of dread, confusion and panic that good horror cinema evokes provides the closest working model to the lived experience of autism. Certainly, autism is a spectrum. Not everyone will feel the same way about certain stimuli or have the same emotional response to issues. Not everyone will appreciate the idea of having their lives compared to a horror film or the patronising assumptions some could bring to this. But it’s my belief, based on my own personal experience of autism and my love of horror cinema, that relating these films to autism can improve people’s empathetic understanding of the condition. A person with autism may seem strange or aloof to someone who’s only ever seen it on TV before. They may think that an autistic person feels less than they do. But horror films give ordinary people a chance to empathetically imagine what it must be like to experience the world as a constant state of emotional hyper-intensity, governed by rules you cannot quite understand but know that are stacked against you.
By Ethan Lyon