It’s an almost fearful giggle that people get when they ask me if I can hear them, or see them. People are afraid of being disabled, and somehow that translates into being afraid of disabled people. As though it’s catching. It’s no wonder that the horror genre is obsessed with disability, then, since its use of the Other as a device (as seen in Don’t Breathe and the Scream television show) to evoke fear is known and oft criticized.
People are afraid of disability. Which is why when a horror movie chooses to make the horror about everything but being disabled, it speaks to my heart and soul.
There’s a satisfying microphone sound when you turn on your hearing aids. First, there’s a chime to let you know that the aids are turning on, and then there’s a click, or a thunk. It’s the same sound you hear when a microphone turns on at an event.
That sound is my lifeline. That sound assures me that throughout my day, I’ll be able to hear like most of the other people in my life. It’s not superhuman hearing; it won’t let me hear a person three floors down. But I can hear a person across a room. I can hear someone whisper to me. I can hear.
And whenever the hearing aid fails to turn on, I have a terrifying emotional reaction.
There’s a moment in the movie A Quiet Place where Reagan—the Deaf teenage daughter of the Allen family—tries on the hearing aid her father has repaired for her. You hear the satisfying thunk of the mic being turned on, but there’s no amplification. Reagan snaps her fingers next to her ears, and she hears nothing—and neither do we.
And she cries.
It was the first time in my life that I saw another Deaf person go through the same emotions that I go through every time my hearing aid doesn’t work. It’s rage at a machine that betrays us, frustration that we must choose to rely on a small computer to give us access to a world that relies on sound.
It reminded me of every time that I’ve ever turned my hearing aid on, and the world has still sounded distant, still been less accessible after the aid was supposed to do the work of hearing for me. Those are the days I sink into depression and isolation, and I feel as though I’m behind a wall of glass, and I cannot reach the other people I live around.
When I went and saw A Quiet Place back in April of 2018 I was struck by how unabashedly disability-focused the narrative was. I found myself delighted beyond measure that it was a story that used interdependence and DIY adaptive tech to worldbuild and create space. It was the first time I watched a horror movie with disability in it and I didn’t walk out of the theater in angry tears.
As I watched the credits roll, I realized that for the first time (possibly ever) I’d watched a movie made with me, and people like me, in mind. And I know that’s true because Millicent Simmonds (the actress who played Reagan) is Deaf. This is wildly important because for the most part, disabled people don’t get to see disabled actors in disabled roles. Hollywood has an aversion to casting us, citing all sorts of excuses save the truth—that they don’t want to.
If you haven’t seen the movie, and you really should just go watch it, aliens with superhearing arrived on Earth 89 (and then 472) days ago. If the alien monsters hear you, they will kill you. Stay quiet, don’t die.
In come our protagonists: the Abbott family. Parents Evelyn and Lee, children (from eldest to youngest) Reagan, Marcus, Beau, and their infant child who is born during the film’s climax. Everyone in this family (except the infant) knows ASL.
In the course of this film, we come to know this family and witness their incredible resourcefulness in the face of an apocalypse. When we meet the only two other survivors in the film, their home is not functional, they are filthy, and they are terrified out of their minds. This isn’t a mistake. This is a deliberate demonstration of the power of Deafness and the construction of disabled interdependence.
Disabled people like myself rely on what’s called interdependence. The ability to support one another though the act of building community. We survive hurricanes this way, we survive day to day life this way. Some of us have interdependence with guide and service animals, while others have family, support networks and community. And when our families participate in interdependence, they are helped by it too.
This film shows us a family—already used to ASL and living in a close unit with a Deaf person—can survive in the apocalypse, and even do better than the abled people surrounding them. This family is already familiar with the cost of sound—what is too loud, what is too quiet, how a hearing aid works, how sound works. This family is not unaccustomed to living in silence, either. They are able to accept communication without oral dialogue, something many abled people consider torture. A Quiet Place is one of the few films I can think of where disability is neither the target nor the scary monster at the end of the tunnel. Even though the setting and story are focused on disability and Deafness, not all of the obstacles relate to hearing (or not hearing)—in fact, most of them are about deploying sound in creative and interesting ways. This is a family that thinks hard about the sounds they make and how they use them, and it’s not just because of the circumstances they find themselves in.
In my experience, a hearing aid is more of a blunt tool than a finely tuned instrument. When I got my new hearing aids, the sensation of hearing was torture for me. The dog was too loud. I could hear the rain pounding on the windows, the sound of the cats claws scratching on the scratching post. I could hear every rustle, thunk, and splat of the world around me. And I hated it.
While abled people seem perfectly comfortable living in a world that is loud and abrupt, I’ve never inhabited that world until recently. For a family of abled people to understand and appreciate the absence of sound, the muted quality of the world that I live in felt revelatory.
What I think most abled people don’t understand is that when I wear my hearing aids, I experience certain sounds more loudly, sometimes even painfully, compared to my hearing peers. When I was a child, bullies would use the presence of my aids to hurt me—whistling close to my head, and causing my indescribable pain in the process. Spoiler: Sound as a weapon will be relevant later in this essay.
Sound impacts survival in this setting. This family made a lot of choices to make sure that their daughter could survive. They built sand pathways so that Reagan could safely traverse her own home without making a sound. They created a soundless alarm system with lights strung over those pathways, lights which switched from white to red when danger was near. They chose to use Reagan’s language—a choice not all abled parents of Deaf children make—and used appropriate amounts of eye contact, as well as their faces, to display emotion.
The filmmakers framed faces and hands so that the audience could see signs and facial expressions and eye contact—all important to the Deaf linguistic experience. It was possible to follow the sign language, in addition to the subtitles. Unlike Hush and The Shape of Water, sign language is paramount to the film’s focus. Reagan’s family spoke her language, the film prioritized it, and neither the film nor the characters perceive her as a burden or a liability to their continued survival. There is no situation in which Reagan is spoken for, no place where the audience cannot follow Reagan in her own language. There is dialogue and communication between all parties. If there’s anything that I disliked about A Quiet Place, it is that they failed to subtitle the very few instances of oral dialogue which appear in the film.
There could be an entirely different essay about the differences between the ASL in A Quiet Place and Hush. I do not sign fluently, but I can tell the difference between someone who is signing and understanding that there is more to ASL than finger shapes, and someone who learned the language for a role. The sloppy, ineffective ASL in Hush is not what struck me in the first five minutes as bad representation. The film takes great care to establish protagonist Maddie’s Deafness as a vulnerability, as a weakness, as something which makes her a target. From her choice (according to the dust jacket of her book) to isolate herself and live alone in the woods, to showing us her visual smoke alarm and implying difficulty for Deaf people to know when there’s a fire, the narrative of the film says that Maddie is a vulnerable person. It wants us believe she is unsafe. In Hush, disability is not an asset.
But in A Quiet Place, disability is not going to kill you in. Disability will save your life. The only thing that’s out to kill you are the monsters waiting in the woods. There is such a massive contrast from this film that chooses to make Deafness a strength, to make ASL a lifesaving skill, to make a hearing aid a weapon, that after I thought about comparing these two films (and remembering Wait Until Dark and Jessabelle, two other films about a disabled women in peril) I found myself sitting with a difficult question.
Why are abled people so fascinated by the terror of disabled people? Especially disabled women? Why is it that there are so many films which hinge upon watching a disabled woman fight for her life? Why is it that disability is so rarely seen as a strength in horror and science fiction?
I think somewhere, in the thought process abled people experience while making and watching this kind of entertainment, they unconsciously find themselves reassured that this will not happen to them. That they would hear the killer on the roof. That they would see the murderer coming around the corner. That they could run away from the person trying to kill them.
The supremacy of ability is terrifying, because it presses forward the idea that a disabled person is an easy target, a good victim. Films like Hush and Wait Until Dark give the impression that even though a disabled person might survive, we’re easily targeted.
In 2011 I was living in Jersey City, walking home from a work event at 11pm, and someone approached me and grabbed my breast. I ran the two blocks home while sobbing hysterically, and woke my partner. We called the police, but the police ultimately told me that as a blind person I “shouldn’t be walking home alone”—that I should be at home before dark. That I should not lead a life like an abled woman would. I was a victim, but I was also to blame.
It isn’t just the impulse of society to blame the victims of sexual violence and assault, but the impulse that disabled people are vulnerable and must be protected, not just from themselves but from others.
Perhaps the makers of Hush and Jessabelle thought the same thing that the police thought about me – that a disabled woman cannot defend herself without abled assistance.
That’s what made A Quiet Place ultimately so satisfying to me—abled people can’t say to themselves “well, I’d just outrun them/hear them/see them” because abled people are noisy. Most abled people don’t know how to talk with their hands, or what frequency or amplification mean.
Films like Hush and Jessabelle imagine that to be disabled and alone is to be vulnerable, is to be helpless. They punish their heroines for going it alone. These films are missing a huge piece of the puzzle, a piece of the puzzle that A Quiet Place never failed to see: adaptation.
A disabled character can live on her own and survive. A disabled character can live with people and survive. We adapt, using the tools at our disposal, whether they are sandy pathways, guide dogs, sign language or hearing aids. It’s the skill of adaptation which ultimately saves the characters in A Quiet Place. When Reagan realizes that her hearing aid feedback—which hurts her—also hurts the monsters, and that she can kill them using her aids. In this way she’s participating in adaptation, in resourcefulness and in using her own adaptive aids to save and protect her and the rest of her family.
The reality of this story is that the supremacy of oral speech can kill you. That alone is worth its weight in gold to so many Deaf people who are asked why they choose to sign over speech, why they operate in what is perceived as silence and isolation. That oral language is not primary in a film made by abled people, and that interdependence and disabled survival is meant to be important, is revolutionary.