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How Deafness in Horror Evolved Beyond Damsels in Distress

The trope has changed since 1967's "Wait Until Dark," as movies like "Hush" and "A Quiet Place" pushed the narrative.

Kate Siegal

Kate Siegal in “Hush”

Netflix

To an able-bodied audience, removing a sense is inherently terrifying, and that’s why it’s been such a perfect playground for disability narratives in horror. If the character — someone like the viewer — is left missing something crucial, it portrays them at a disadvantage and it’s up to overcome the deficiency to survive.

As a result, deafness and blindness are common tropes in features. The genre’s most famous example is 1967’s “Wait Until Dark,” starring Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn plays a blind woman named Susy whose house is invaded by men looking for a doll containing a large amount of heroin.

The leader of the gang, Roat (Alan Arkin) terrorizes the woman, culminating in a third act finale where Susy smashes out all the lights in her apartment, leaving Roat as blind as Susy. In 1967, before disability issues were talked about extensively, “Wait Until Dark” was well-praised, particularly for putting the beloved Hepburn in a victim role where she persevered.

In 2016 I discovered Mike Flanagan’s horror feature, “Hush,” a film he said is inspired by “Wait Until Dark.” That features Kate Siegel as Maddie, a woman who, after a bout with meningitis, is made deaf. Stuck in self-imposed isolation, Maddie soon discovers she is being hunted by a masked man who sees her deafness as proof positive of easy prey.

“Hush” was something different to watch, especially as a disabled film lover who generally saw disabled women  — what few existed — left as damsels in distress. It’s this trope, in particular, that director Flanagan and co-screenwriter Siegel wanted to avoid. As Flanagan says, Siegel created the character of Maddie completely on her own, doing as much research as possible to create a figure that would be relatable in some way.

“What was most important was that she [Maddie] wasn’t defined by what made her different,” Siegel told IndieWire. Research was key, and both Flanagan and Siegel admit they knew they were limited by not being deaf themselves. “We both did as much research as we could online but [we] also enlisted a consultant who was deaf,” Flanagan said. The consultant not only trained Siegel on ASL (American Sign Language) but also vetted the script. One of the key changes, according to Flanagan, that was made on the consultant’s suggestion was to change Maddie from being born deaf to being latent deaf.

Katie Siegal

Kate Siegel in “Hush”

Netflix

Not only did it situate Maddie as being isolated and outside of the deaf community because she wasn’t born that way, it allowed for Siegel to play the role due to budget constraints. Siegel understands that her casting is problematic. “There’s definitely no way, no matter how much research I do, I cannot write the ins and outs of the deaf experience,” she said.

“What I could write about was being isolated or having your whole world changed based on one experience,” she said. Siegel said she wasn’t necessarily trying to play the character to mimic the deaf experience, but instead focus on telling the story of a woman who isolated herself by choice. “Something happened to her [Maddie] in the world [that] left her feeling like nobody could hear her, like she couldn’t speak, like she couldn’t be heard,” she said. Maddie, for Siegel, could be any person who feels alone and who, in this case, happens to be deaf. It’s the filmic equivalent of person-first and identity-second.

If anything, both Flanagan and Siegel have been heartened to hear how many people with disabilities responded to “Hush,” both upon release in 2016 and now — and that includes disabled people outside of the deaf community. When asking Siegel about how the masked villain, played by John Gallagher, Jr., in the feature preys on Maddie because of his own ableism, Siegel is surprised. “I don’t know if I’ve ever heard an interviewer ask me that question,” she said. “His ableism, his weaknesses, his belief that you have to be the same version of whole that he is in order to succeed; that is what kills him. He completely underestimates her.”

Both Flanagan and Siegel are open to criticisms against the movie, and they exist. Deaf blogger Rebecca-Anne Withey broke down many of the criticisms against the feature when it came out, most notably Siegel’s inconsistent use of ASL. Deaf actress Millicent Simmonds of “A Quiet Place” called the movie inauthentic. “I saw it with some of my deaf friends and we were pretty highly critical of it just because it didn’t feel real,” Simmonds told IndieWire. Flanagan and Siegel are open and apologetic about their decision to cast Siegel in the role and say it’s not a decision they’d make today.

“I listen and I apologize…We were given a strong education when the film came out,” Siegel said. She realizes anything she’d say about why they cast a non-deaf actress is an excuse; but factoring in how few disabled women are on-screen at all, Maddie remains a heroine many disabled and able-bodied fans. “There is a huge lack of representation,” she said. “I think it is a huge disservice to a vibrant community.” Flanagan said: “The conversation about inclusion and representation is a vital one” and he hopes that future projects of his can support in that effort.

The tide is definitely turning and where “Hush” failed in its casting, deafness is seeing more of a positive push in the horror field with Simmonds’ character of Regan in “A Quiet Place.” Upon reading the script for the John Krasinski-directed horror feature Simmonds said she was shocked. “That moment was really powerful for me because I’ve never seen anything that before,” she said. “It was so different that it used the deaf perspective [and] portrayed deafness as an advantage.”

A QUIET PLACE PART II, (aka A QUIET PLACE PART 2), Millicent Simmonds, 2020. ph: Jonny Cournoyer / © Paramount Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

Millicent Simmonds

©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

For Simmonds, playing Regan was a game-changer, especially considering she doesn’t remember seeing any deaf or disabled characters growing up. It’s a common refrain heard from many disabled actors, that the first time they saw someone who represented them was themselves. Simmonds explained she doesn’t represent all deaf people but in “A Quiet Place” she wanted to do her best to portray the deaf experience as she knew it. “I wanted everybody to be able to relate to it in someway,” she said and she hopes the likes of “A Quiet Place” can open doors towards hiring more disabled and deaf performers.

In response to features like “Hush” Simmonds said there’s only so much an able-bodied performer can do. “You can’t really do enough research if you’re not living it,” she said. “If you’re not in this situation, and you’re not living with it, and you don’t sign [then] it’s hard to express that and [have] it still feel real.”

In the case of “A Quiet Place,” according to Simmonds, the movie is more than just about monsters but what it feels like to be a deaf child in a hearing family. “What is the dynamic? How do you feel? Do you feel like a black sheep in the family,” she said. Simmonds says when hearing people saw “A Quiet Place” they commented on the scenes from Regan’s perspective. The absence of a sense, for the able-bodied, enhanced the terror.

And while Simmonds couldn’t comment on “A Quiet Place: Part 2,” delayed till next year due to the global pandemic, she said there will be further discussion on deafness. “How she [Regan] interacts with people who are outside her family, who don’t sign, that is a different experience,” she said. “In the second one we have to figure out how to communicate in that situation without an interpreter, without my family.”

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