Far too often popular media, particularly horror movies, paint people with disabilities as monsters. Scary movies are notorious for taking completely real health conditions and distorting them into what appears inevitably dangerous. In some cases, they create villainous characters with physical appearances that are seen as abnormal based on real conditions that have physically visible symptoms, like acromegaly. In others, they create characters based on real mental health conditions, like dissociative identity disorder, and depict them as if they have the powers and the thirst for evil of a comic book super-villain. These dangerously inaccurate depictions of disabilities dehumanize entire groups of people in one fell swoop, often without any clear recognition from the creators of the damage they have done.
Acromegaly in Gerald’s Game
In Stephen King’s novel and film Gerald’s Game, Raymond Andrew Joubert is a grave robber, necrophiliac, and serial killer. He is also a character with acromegaly, a disorder that occurs when too much growth hormone is produced due to benign tumors (adenomas) on the pituitary gland. Acromegaly is associated with many serious health problems, such as type II diabetes, high blood pressure, an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and, if not treated, even death. The most visible and easily recognized symptoms of the condition are unusual growth of hands and feet, a protruding brow bone and lower jaw, an enlarged nose, and teeth that have spaced out. The condition does not make a person any more dangerous than any other. It seems that King only chose to create this character with this condition because of the physical appearance that is associated with it. This is a problem, because it perpetuates the common, preexisting belief that people who look different from what is deemed “normal” are dangerous and should be feared.
With the right lighting and camera angles, anyone could look terrifying. There is no reason to use people with real health conditions in a way that only makes life and society’s understanding of them more difficult.
Dissociative Identity Disorder
Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is one of many mental health conditions that has experienced significant harm due to failed representation in the media. It is far too common to find that fictional media depictions of DID lack any presentation of the true facts of the disorder. The Entropy System is a DID system who posts educational videos about DID on YouTube. Their series on DID in the Media does a thorough job at analyzing the quality of different examples of representation of DID in films. They use four main criteria in assessing each work.
First, does it “communicate proper diagnosis and treatment”? Many attempted depictions of DID fail to even name the disorder accurately and call it “Multiple Personality Disorder”, its name prior to 1994. These works also often suggest that all systems (the collective term for one’s alters/identities) with DID are working towards the same goal with their treatment: to integrate all the identities into one. Some systems are not interested in integrating. The Entropy System points out in many of their videos that an important part of treatment, regardless of the system’s level of interest in integration, is establishing strong communication between the different alters.
Second, does the work address the cause of DID? The disorder is a result of repetitive, severe trauma that occurs during childhood. According to the theory of Structural Dissociation, no person is born with a fully integrated personality. This means that, when we are children, we are made up of multiple individual personalities or “ego-states,” which integrate and become a single personality between the ages of six and nine. Each of these ego-states is responsible for performing a different role. DID occurs when trauma prevents these ego-states from integrating. The ego-states develop into individual identities known as alters.
Third, are the alters shown as part of a unit, or as extra bits for a central/main identity? It is important to recognize that no single alter is more real or significant that any of the others. They are all parts of the same whole.
Fourth, is the character relatable? Are all the alters well-rounded and realistic?
DID in the Media
One of the most common and most serious misconceptions that the horror genre frequently perpetuates about DID is the idea that there is such a thing as a “bad alter.” Within a DID system, each alter has a role that it performs to help protect the person with DID. One alter is responsible for day-to-day living, while another might be responsible for holding on to certain trauma memories that would make day to day living extremely difficult. One alter, called a persecutor, may mimic abusers or other people who have caused trauma to the system in an attempt to keep the system from re-experiencing the abuse. When horror movies depict a person with DID as being dangerous to others, they typically do so with a severe misrepresentation of what persecutor-alters are and what they do. The vast-majority of the time, if persecutors cause harm, it is towards the person with DID themselves and not other people. DissociaDID, another system that posts education videos about DID on YouTube, has a video that is helpful in understanding alter roles, persecutors, and how they function within a DID system.
Films like Split and Glass are extremely harmful to the DID community, because they glamorize the idea of a “bad alter” and depict people with DID as being villains or monsters, which is far from the truth. These two movies involve a character with DID named Kevin Wendell Crumb, who has a bad alter named “The Beast” that has super-human abilities and wants to get rid of the “impure” people of the world. In Split, the other alters in the system kidnap girls and watch over them until The Beast comes out. To say that DID is depicted in an unrealistic way is quite an understatement.
For many people in the general population, their only exposure to disorders such as DID is through the media. When so much of the representation is riddled with harmful, fear-inducing inaccuracies, people who see that representation start to view people with those disorders in real life as being inherently dangerous or violent. This is why quality and accurate representation is so important.
The Connection to Human Rights
As we continue to push for more representation in popular media for marginalized communities, we must also make sure that that representation is accurate and not harmful to those communities. When horror movies use people with disabilities in their attempts to scare their audience, they create/reinforce a belief that people with these disabilities in the real world are dangerous and scary. This is a human rights issue, because prejudice, discrimination, and violence are fueled by fear. Fear impacts who parents will let their children play with, and how children treat their classmates. This can interfere with one’s access to their right to an education, which is established in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Fear affects how we interact with people we pass by on the street and people’s willingness to help find ways to improve people’s life experiences. This can impede one’s access to their right to be an active part of their community (Article 27) and their right to seek employment and have favorable working conditions (Article 23).
Non-disabled people need to use the privilege they have to advocate for those without it, and a person is less likely to want to advocate for someone who they are afraid of. In order to have the basic human rights of all people fulfilled, we need to all be able to look at each other as members of humanity, and fear, especially unjustified fear, inhibits that.
I’m not going to lie or try to pretend that I have never let these kinds of portrayals of people with disabilities change the way I look at them. Thankfully, I know better now, but there are still moments where I catch myself briefly slipping back into old ways of thinking. It is important that we as consumers of media recognize the harm that these failed representations of an already marginalized group have caused and that we do our best to avoid supporting them monetarily. We need to increase awareness of this harm, in hopes that, one day, the horror genre will no longer be made up of so many destructive stereotypes.
Rather than the same stereotypically use of people with disabilities as the antagonists in film, why not increase their representations as protagonists? Imagine, a horror movie where the protagonist is a person with DID, whose alters all work together to survive while also dealing with the memory loss that often comes with the switching of identities. The film A Quiet Place is a brilliant example of positive and constructive disability representation. One of the main characters is a young deaf girl, and her disability ends up saving her family. In a world where making noise is a deadly act, their knowledge of sign language allowed them to communicate without risking their lives. This is in complete opposition of the stereotypical idea that people with disabilities are burdensome for their loved one. The makers of the film clearly did their research and were able to help spark important conversations about disability representation.