Understanding disability requires understanding its social construction, and social construction can be read in cultural products. 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.
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. 1 In a situation where those with disabilities are segregated from the public, literally or practically, and there is a deficit of public images of persons with disabilities, existing images deserve careful critical analysis. 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. 2
Most believe horror fiction represents the worst of mainstream thinking regarding disability—in other words, it has become commonplace to consider horror fiction (perhaps inescapably) ableist. 3 In horror, the threats that disability is thought to pose to able-bodied people, communities, and the future are dramatized and able-bodied viewers are soothed by way of narrative resolution and the justification of one's prejudices. 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. Indeed, it can allow us to be horrified by ableism. 4 In this, other mediums (including philosophy, the academic field in which I work) have done worse than fall short.
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. 2009). 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.
Case Study: Horror's Ab/use of Disability
Disability studies teaches us that horror uses disability imagery because physical difference can signal moral decay or the lack of a moral sense, and because disability is a convenient plot device that can explain motivation for villainous or monstrous characters (Longmore 1987, 67-68; Snyder and Mitchell 2000). As Katie Ellis puts it, disability becomes "shorthand" (2007). 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.
Robert "Willie" Pickton received silver-screen treatment in a two-episode season finale of Criminal Minds, entitled "To Hell…and Back" (Davis et al. 2009). 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. 5 In the fictionalized version, key aspects of the original Pickton case are maintained, including the Canadian location and the connection of murders to a family pig farm (the victims are picked up in Detroit, but are then brought to a Canadian farm in Ontario). Although there 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.
Reid, a recurring cast member who is a member of the fictional FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), notices the childlike drawings of "Lucas Turner" at the Turner brothers' farm as the team pursues an unknown killer. Based on these drawings, Reid speculates that Lucas, the fictionalized Willie Pickton, is perhaps autistic or mildly "mentally disabled." As the story continues, we also discover that Lucas Turner's brother, "Mason," is paralyzed as a result of an accident. 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 will 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. 6 The horror in these episodes ultimately derives from disability wielded as threat by a dangerous duo, one brother with a spinal-cord injury and one brother who is allegedly autistic or perhaps intellectually disabled.
Kristeva's influential work on abjection can explain the deployment of disability in this case. 7 The abject is that which transgresses categories, which "disturbs identity, system, order"; it is "the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite" (Kristeva 1982, 4). Abjection is a demonstration that the border between the familiar and unfamiliar can be crossed (ibid. 9). 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 separating 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. 1996) the call is coming from inside the house. In another example, your own family is haunting the haunted house, as in The Others (Bovaira et al. 2001). 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. 4). 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 her 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., 12-13). 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. 2010, 29). 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? Kristeva writes: "disability confronts the able-bodied persons with the limits of life, with the fear of deficiency…disability therefore awakens a catastrophic anxiety that in turn leads to defensive reactions of rejection, indifference, or arrogance, when not the will to eradicate by euthanasia" (2010, 36). 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. Kristeva writes: "what is abject[…]is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses" (1982, 2). 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 1990), or King's representation of the inner workings of an adult mind in The Shining (Kubrick 1980). 8
Unlike typical horror fiction, then, in Burton and King the bonds of social life are not reinforced by way of a visual or dramatic working-through of an outside threat. 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: culture and its exclusions. 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). 9
The exceptional way both Burton and King have treated difference and the terrors of the everyday social world provides alternative and unexpected visions of disability in the horror genre that hold liberating potential. In the remainder of this essay, I will consider specific examples within their oeuvres to demonstrate my claims. I turn first to Burton to consider the film Edward Scissorhands (di Novi and Burton 1990) and his poetry and short story collection The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories (Burton 1997). 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. 1986), Carrie (Monash and De Palma 1976), and Silver Bullet (De Laurentiis et al. 1985). In each of these cases, King's original stories, The Body (1982), Carrie (1974), and The Cycle of the Werewolf (1983), were subsequently translated into film.
According to horror theorist Noël Carroll, horror plays with the line between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Anyone familiar with the work of Tim Burton will recognize this as particularly true of his creations. Yet, Carroll's description of the usual tension between the two does not quite capture the uniqueness of Burton's vision. Carroll writes: "in examples of horror, it would appear that the monster is an extraordinary character in an ordinary world" (1987, 52). But for Burton, there are extraordinary monsters with ordinary feelings in extraordinary worlds, wherein the behavior of the "normal" members of society appears by turn inscrutable, cruel, and unjustified. Thinking this through a Kristevean lens, we are urged in Burton's stories to attend to the typically submerged work of responding to abjection, in which the permeability of individual and social borders is covered over and the borders themselves receive support and justification. Here, I am thinking specifically of Edward Scissorhands, one of Burton's most well-known films. Edward, an extraordinary boy, faces an extraordinary world of exaggerated sameness and the underlying violence of cruelly enforced conformity. 10
Edward Scissorhands contrasts a gothic setting, inherited from Frankenstein, with a candy-colored suburban setting. It plays with the border between the two when Edward uses his prosthetic hands to cut the hair of housewives around town. The neighborhood women attempt to put his hands to their own uses and draw him into their fold, thereby resolving his problematic difference. But the sharp hands that trim hair, create ice sculptures and shape shrubbery soon threaten when Edward is used by one of the young men in town to pick a lock; as a result of this incident, Edward is demonized and eventually startled into a fight with the same young man who used him. Edward kills him by stabbing him in the stomach to defend a young woman he befriended. Edward is not human; he is a machine hybrid, half human, half something else, created by a scientist who left his project unfinished. Edward may even be immortal, as is suggested in the film, due to his artificial origin. In the end we see him excluded again from the social, alone and howling in his gothic castle far beyond town, where not only the weather but also the saturation of color is markedly different. The story, however, does not make the suburban world sympathetic; instead, the audience identifies with Edward and becomes disgusted with suburban exclusion (di Novi and Burton 1990).
Less well-known are Burton's unusual poetic portraits in The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories (1997). These poems are brief, poignant, and bring difference forward as horror only to accept it as unremarkable. The simple nursery-rhyme language in which the stories are told and the mundane activities of the characters enhance this function of acceptance.
For example, a portrait of "The Boy with Nails in His Eyes":
The Boy with Nails in His Eyes
put up his aluminum tree.
It looked pretty strange
because he couldn't really see (Burton 1997).
In the illustration, this tree appears to be a Christmas tree, and while it does look strange, the poem's mundane treatment of its difference and the boy's eyes encourages, on my view, the acceptance of both. And another portrait, "The Girl with Many Eyes":
One day in the park
I had quite a surprise.
I met a girl
who had many eyes.
She was really quite pretty
(and also quite shocking!)
and I noticed she had a mouth,
so we ended up talking.
We talked about flowers,
and her poetry classes,
and the problems she'd have
if she ever wore glasses.
It's great to know a girl
who has so many eyes,
but you really get wet
when she breaks down and cries. (Burton 1997)
The Girl with Many Eyes has many qualities of note, including her love of poetry, and the boy getting to know her takes casual inventory of her "shocking" appearance and the consequences of her many eyes alongside her other features, including her prettiness. Also, the allusion to crying may be a nod to problematic treatment by the social.
Perhaps most important for our discussion is the figure of Stain Boy, the hero of a series of short films incorporating many of the Melancholy characters. Here is Stain Boy's poem:
Of all the super heroes,
the strangest one by far,
doesn't have a special power,
or drive a fancy car.
next to Superman and Batman, I guess he must seem tame.
But to me he is quite special,
and Stain Boy is his name.
He can't fly around tall buildings,
or outrun a speeding train,
the only talent he seems to have
is to leave a nasty stain.
Sometimes I know it bothers him,
that he can't run or swim or fly,
and because of this one ability,
his dry cleaning bill is sky-high. (Burton 1997)
Note, again, the mundane thought at the end of the poem regarding his dry cleaning. In the series of shorts eventually created for these characters, Stain Boy is made to do the bidding of the chief of police in the town of Burbank; he is required, in his capacity as hero, to track down and bring in (or even kill) his strange brethren. The looming, angry, spitting boss who gives him his assignments is meant, I argue, to disgust us with his callous and violent treatment of Stain Boy. His murderous intent with regard to the strange Melancholy characters seems cruel and unnecessary (Burton 2000). In these shorts, Burton would like us to identify with the supposed "monster" on the screen, ironically posed as a murderous hero. He thereby subverts the traditional move of horror fiction and leads us to identify a new monster: the social. There is something revolutionary about this move, which appears in many of his films and fiction. It is a challenge to the supposedly "natural" order and an unveiling of its constructed nature. According to Helena Bassil-Morozow,
Burton tends to create heroes who do not want to abide by any rules but their own. They feel that rules do not exist a priori but are always laid out by a person, or people, who currently have the power to create spoken or written legislation in a particular community or group. Burton's protagonists refuse to accept the "official" version of the world; they constantly "defamiliarise" the official picture, make it different, strange, "uglily creative." (2010, 28)
These figures pull apart the official picture of social relationships even while the narratives in which they appear accept their presence. Burton's visual narratives are strange and familiar at the same time, and they instigate a critical eye toward the exclusions and hierarchies of the social world. Ultimately, Burton brings forward portraits of difference in order to accept, not reject, them, thus subverting the basic thrust of horror fiction.
His finished products are often "rough" and, for Bassil-Morozow, this is a bow to "crudity", which "seems to be the necessary prerequisite for freedom of expression and perception, projection and introjection" in Burton's creative work (2010, 32). She notes that for Burton, "the seams, like the literal seams and scars on the bodies of Edward Scissorhands, Sally, Emily and the Joker, have to be visible" (ibid. 31). Burton affirms these seams and points metaphorically to their construction.
Burton's work plays with terror and horror, engaging in horror while at the same time reversing it. The characters in his stories accept the monsters around them without blinking an eye, warts and all, because horror reactions are given the opportunity to be exercised but then are re-directed. In order for the poems to work, difference is shown first in its fullness and entirety; these poems are accompanied by (often gruesome) illustrations, and the poems themselves showcase the shock of the encounter with the Melancholy children. Perhaps the eventual acceptance of the children hinges upon initial shock, which is carefully pushed toward the social. We are shocked by the images of disability we encounter, but we are only horrified by the treatment of outsiders by an intolerant social context.
While most horror fiction is identified by the representation of the unknown, that which cannot be categorized, or of threats to the cultural order, the hallmark of Stephen King's horror fiction novels and films is to transpose this pattern. His work emphasizes threats related to the cultural order itself, with its everyday malice, selfishness, and callous lack of foresight. In this way, King's work is similar to Burton's.
In Stand by Me (Evans et al. 1986, based on Stephen King's novella The Body, 1982), the story's setting in the town of Castle Rock is the threat against which the youthful protagonists are meant to rebel and escape. This rebellion is not a let-loose reaction against straight-laced forebears who don't want to have any fun; instead, it involves transcending and walking away from the "easy violence and madness" of a town ruled by alcoholism and uncaring adults. The titular dead body of a 12-year old isn't the horror here; in the climax, the leader of a gang full of older kids brandishes a knife at the protagonists nearby the body, and it is this horror instead which must be forestalled by the young hero Gordie. According to Tony Magistrale, in that moment of conflict, "Gordie declares his independence from the tyrannical premise that weak must always remain subordinate to the strong" (2003, 39). He is challenging the inequality and cruelty of the hierarchical social order.
In Carrie, King's themes are further established (Monash and De Palma 1976, based on King 1974). Carrie is the story of a maligned young teenaged outsider who is cruelly treated both at school and at home. Just like in Stand by Me, the real horror of this horror story is the embedded violence and cruelty in the social world itself. Carrie's mother is a religious fanatic who condemns the female body and society for sinfulness, and Carrie's schoolmates torture her mercilessly for her perceived difference. Carrie possesses supernatural powers that reveal themselves publicly for the first time at the prom—what Magistrale refers to as Carrie's "telekinetic prom" (2003, 24). She attends because some of her fellow students have attempted to reach out to her in a genuine display of repentance for past cruel actions. Her date, in fact, although a boyfriend of another student, bonds with Carrie during their night out.
But, two other classmates do not have the same intentions; they plot to dump pig's blood on Carrie. Carrie interprets this as a scheme undertaken by the entire school, including a teacher who showed kindness to her in the past. Carrie's mother's influence leads her to believe this — she hears her mother's cruel words in her head while she revenges herself upon the school in its entirety based on the mistaken assumption that they have all rejected her. She attempts to return home to her mother to be comforted but her mother explicitly rejects her and tries to kill her ("thou shalt not suffer a witch to live") — yet, in the end, Carrie kills her mother (Magistrale 2003, 24). Magistrale writes: "Rejected by the outside world presented by the school, Carrie is literally stabbed in the back by her inner world at home" (ibid.).
On first pass, it may seem that Carrie is the monster of this horror fiction. But I read Carrie as subverting the basic elements of the horror genre. King does not call forward and then excise or defeat what cannot be countenanced by social and cultural binaries or conceptual categories. Instead, King points to the cruelty and violence of the social world; in this case, a social framework that is both patriarchal and intensely religious. The end of the film does not neatly justify, preserve, or rebuild a social fabric torn by Carrie's monstrosity, as one might expect of a horror film. Rather, those who encounter her, like schoolmate Sue Snell (who was witness to her experiences in reality and supernaturally) are left with a deep sense of unease about their own participation and implication in the violence and cruelty of the every-day world, along with its exclusions.
Following Kristeva in tracing the abject in Carrie, we see King's overall reversal paralleled in the famous tampon scene and the use of pig's blood. 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. King highlights the absolute repulsion the social world has toward feminine body by heightening that response to the level of violent outburst. We normalize the management of menstruation and do not often consider how it relates to rejection of feminine embodiment (or, perhaps, the vulnerability of embodiment more generally). Carrie's schoolmates also express violent rejection of the different when they dump pig's blood on her at the prom. This exclusion is now related to the disgusting, while we sympathize with Carrie as the outsider.
Some of Stephen King's lesser-known works also involve reversed sympathies. For example, a disabled character is at the center of Silver Bullet (De Laurentiis et al. 1985), which is based on King's Cycle of the Werewolf (1983). The titular Silver Bullet is the name of both the wheelchair that the young protagonist Marty uses and the name for the weapon eventually used against the murderous evil creature—a werewolf/preacher—stalking the town where he lives. While Marty is shown as separated from the social world, the social world is again shown to be cruel and uncaring, and fanatically religious, in echoes of the worlds of Stand By Me and Carrie. Marty's separation from the social world is not rationalized or defended. Marty has few friends and his parents are hopelessly out of touch with his needs—in fact, his family is emotionally destructive. In the novel, his sister is also antagonistic toward him, but this relationship is transformed in the film to one of support (Magistrale 2003, 43). But, as a respite and alternative to this lack of insight from most around him, Marty has a special relationship with his alcoholic uncle, Red, who realizes that "there's more to Marty than him just not being able to walk" (ibid.). He builds Marty the Silver Bullet motorized wheelchair, which is exciting, dangerous, and objectionable, and is built almost like a motorcycle (ibid.). Marty (and, eventually, his sister) find out about the werewolf that is stalking the town, but it is obvious that no one would believe them if they attempted to warn others. It is clearly Marty's fight; it is Marty against the werewolf in their seemingly inevitable confrontation. But Red has just enough "faith in his niece and nephew" to assist them in the creation of a real silver bullet, a symbol, like the wheelchair, of their alternative social bonds and, like the wheelchair, a weapon against the werewolf (ibid., 44-45). Both are outsiders, and the outsider culture they create allows them to survive horror.
In the end, it is Marty, the hero of the story, who kills the werewolf/preacher with the silver bullet. Magistrale connects the alternative bond among Marty, Red, and sister Jane with the alternative bond built in Stand By Me by Chris and Gordie in the dysfunctional town of Castle Rock (2003, 43). In these stories, the horror of the horror tale is the social fabric, with its unyielding cruelty and tight binds; in order to succeed, these heroes and outsiders must develop alternative frameworks of care and support.
A horror audience ideally identifies with protagonists and is horrified by what those characters find horrifying. In the work of both Burton and King, the audience is drawn to identify with the traditional outsider, the person rejected by the social world or considered interstitial and unnatural. This outsider sees the decaying and deadening communities around them as the terror. For Burton's extraordinary heroes, "the prospect of integrating into community is perceived by them as truly horrifying" (Bassil-Morozow 2010, 31). And further: "the vital difference between the Burtonian character and 'them' is that he is in motion, he is searching, he wants to know'—quite in contrast to the stagnation and complacency of his environment" (ibid.). This search will lead characters far afield of the typical social bonds and will upend or reject their cruel workings. The audience, too, will engage in that distancing and rejection.
The clown/spider in IT, the ghosts in The Shining, or even the stuffed monkey in the short story The Monkey, are harbingers of the dark impulses of adults who have accepted the extant social order, and their violence is placed in stark contrast to King's young protagonists (Magistrale 2003, 22). 11 The resistance that King's protagonists must discover often consists of alternative social bonds, and these social bonds, like that between Marty and Red, involve relationships of care and acceptance and overlooking the "outsider" aspects that society has found important enough to use as a tool of rejection (ibid.).
King's narratives always have an underlying unease, or dis-ease, that goes beyond the visually striking. Unlike Burton, King's settings are not fantastic. He depicts working-class towns and desperate families. Importantly, King also plays a bait-and-switch with his monsters; monsters appear in the traditional sense, but like the ghosts in The Shining, these monsters always reference and pale in comparison to the banal and cruel horrors of the social world. King's fiction allows us to identify with the "unnatural" or fantastic spiritual realm of resistance, rather than the horrific "natural" social world.
Conclusion: A Politics of Vulnerability
I now want to make explicit how these alternatives visions of disability in horror can be carried into politics and inspire change. Horror is an imaginative exercise, and some instances of horror count as what Anita Silvers calls "innovative art", which exercises our imagination because it "broadens what we have previously imagined to be normal" (2002, 239). More importantly, however, it "calls into question the prescriptive authority of the historical contingencies that shape our expectations" (ibid.). For Tim Burton and Stephen King, the horror genre becomes a vehicle for encountering the normal as horrible in the very act of its exclusions. Silvers follows Rosemarie Garland-Thomson in her notion of "iconoclastic liminality," arguing that imaginative exercises can open up space for new forms of identity (239, cf. Thomson 1997, 247). Burton and King's horror fiction does just this; by presenting alternative conceptions of disability and difference new identifications and dis-identifications are inspired and multiplied.
In an essay entitled "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity…Vulnerability," Kristeva advocates adding vulnerability to the political pact (2010b). She insists we recognize the abject, including dependence and vulnerability, within ourselves and thereby reject the fundamental exclusion of persons with disabilities from the political. She argues that, "the acceptance and support of vulnerability expresses the desire of men and women to overcome the most insurmountable of fears — one that confronts us with our limitations as living beings" (ibid.).
If we fail to accept vulnerability and incorporate it into our understanding of political communities, disability will always be the monster under the bed. Ironically, the horror genre, by posing new monsters in the social and its exclusions, can provide a ladder to grander inclusion. Empathizing with "monsters" for whom exclusion is typical, draws the vulnerable forward and prepares us to challenge ableism politically.
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- Browning, J. E. (2015). "Disability and Slasher Cinema's Unsung 'Children'." In M. P. J. Bohlmann & S. Moreland (Ed.), Monstrous Children and Childish Monsters: Essays on Cinema's Holy Terrors (pp. 177-187). McFarland.
- Browning, T. (1932). Freaks. USA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
- Burton, T. (1997). The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories. Rob Weisbach Books.
- _____. (2000). The World of Stainboy. USA: Flinch Studio.
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I do not attempt to define horror or delimit the genre in this piece. Several helpful definitions of horror already exist. Noël Carroll's definition is frequently cited; he articulates a three-pronged definition of horror that involves the features of the narrative, the reaction of the audience, and the beliefs held by the audience (1987, 1999). According to Carroll, horror fiction is: "A narrative or image in which at least one monster appears, such that the monster in question is designed to elicit an emotional response from us that is a complex compound of fear and disgust in virtue of the potential danger or threat the monster evinces and in virtue of its impurity" (1999, 151). According to Paul Santilli, another theorist of horror, horror is one way to represent that which cannot or has not been represented in culture (2007, 174). For him, "art-horror is a cultural product through which the culture imagines the other that menaces its central norms and categories" (176). Curtis Bowman treats Jacques Tourneur's horror from the perspective of Heidegger's uncanny (2003). Others, like Philip Nickel, pick up on the epistemological side of horror, claiming that horror fiction reminds us of the limits of our knowledge (2010). This is, of course, not an exhaustive list. For more perspectives and frameworks, see Fahy (2010).
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I do not claim that only Burton and King's work have liberating features. Examinations of other works may reveal other moments of dis-identification with ableist culture in horror fiction. For example, Clive Barker, known for both fantasy and horror, is also of high interest from a disability perspective. I focus on Burton and King here as an initial exploration and argue that their work presents significant reversals in horror fiction. I thank an anonymous reviewer for pointing me to Barker's work.
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For a canonical example, see Longmore (1987). There are some exceptions, including Olney (2006).
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Horror can occur through multiple mediums; an audience may be an audience who reads or an audience who watches.
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Political action was initiated in Canada on behalf of the many "Missing Women" from Vancouver believed murdered by Pickton (Sky News 2007, Cameron 2011, 210).
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As a reviewer pointed out, this configuration is reminiscent of the character "Master Blaster" in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).
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Carroll's definition of horror (see note 1) resonates with Kristeva's analysis insofar as he highlights audience disgust.
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Of course, Burton and King do not always escape the degrading tropes or stereotyping of disability embedded in horror fiction. For example, King relies on tropes for his supernaturally-talented protagonist in Duma Key, whose physical pain following disablement brings on and unleashes masterful artistic creativity (2008). And, Burton directed a version of Batman (1989) in which the villainous Joker suffers an accident that augments and provides motivation for his malevolent nature and acts of violence.
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My thanks to another anonymous reviewer for pointing me to this interesting work.
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For another reading of disability and the play between the ordinary and the extraordinary in Edward Scissorhands, see Clarke 2008.
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One may counter, to follow Robin Wood (1992), that King's rendering of the dark impulses and violence of adults most often reflects entrenched homophobia and sexism. But, my analyses of Cycle of the Werewolf and Carrie does not support with these conclusions. Though I will not pursue this further here, King's later work—for example, Hearts in Atlantis (2001)—increasingly treats multi-dimensional women characters and presents sympathetic narratives regarding homosexuality.
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