Film poster for 1932 film Freaks, with the tagline "Can a grown woman truly love a midget"?
Promotional poster for Freaks (1932). Whilst the film has been praised for its majority disabled cast, it has also been described as exploitative.[1]

Horror films have frequently featured disability, dating to the genre's earliest origins in the 1930s. Various disabilities have been used in the genre to create or augment horror in audiences,[2] which has attracted commentary from some critics and disability activists.

Monsters and villains depicted in many horror films have often had physical or mental disabilities. These evolved from being sympathetic depictions of disabled characters in early monster films such as Frankenstein, to presentations of disabled people as "bloodthirsty and terrifying" in slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s.[3] Horror films have sometimes attracted criticism for their depictions of disability[3][4][5] or have been described as ableist.[6] Some films have been accused of reflecting eugenicist views held by the society of their time.[7][1] Tropes of characters "overcoming" disability, or of disability granting special powers, have been described as harmful.[8]

Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) has been highlighted as a notable example of a horror film for prominently depicting disability, and has received diverse commentary for its depiction of the community, with some labelling it as portraying disability sympathetic and anti-eugenicist and others criticising it for being exploitative.[3][1][9] As of 2020, it remains one of few American films to feature a predominantly disabled cast.[1] Independent film Deafula (1975) is notable for being entirely in sign language.[9] Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th series and Leatherface from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are both violent killers with disabilities, that have been described as depicting disability as fearful or taboo.[3] In the 21st century, some commentators noted a trend of horror films depicted deafness, including A Quiet Place and The Unholy.[8] Lupita Nyong'o's performance in 2019 film Us was criticised by disability rights groups for being inspired by symptoms of spasmodic dysphonia.[10]

The 2016 American horror film Spring Break Zombie Massacre was created by Sam Suchman and Mattie Zufelt, best friends with down syndrome who also starred in the film.[11] The movie was widely praised as refreshing for having neurodivergent minds in charge of the creative process.[12] It was also celebrated for featuring protagonists with down syndrome whose disability was not the main focus of the film.[13]

See also

Further reading


  1. ^ a b c d Lopez, Kristen (2020-10-06). "'Freaks' Is the Granddaddy of Disabled Horror, for Better and Worse". IndieWire. Retrieved 2022-09-30.
  2. ^ Hall, Melinda (2016-03-08). "Horrible Heroes: Liberating Alternative Visions of Disability in Horror". Disability Studies Quarterly. 36 (1). doi:10.18061/dsq.v36i1.3258. ISSN 2159-8371.
  3. ^ a b c d "A Brief History Of Disability In Horror". FANGORIA. Retrieved 2022-09-30.
  4. ^ Alexiou, Gus. "Hollywood Must Stop Using Disability Imagery Purely For Horror And Cheap Thrills". Forbes. Retrieved 2022-09-30.
  5. ^ Buckley, Cara (2020-11-17). "Scary Is How You Act, Not Look, Disability Advocates Tell Filmmakers". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-09-30.
  6. ^ "Villainizing Bodies and Minds: Ableism in Horror Movies – FEM Newsmagazine". Retrieved 2022-09-30.
  7. ^ Madden, Emma (2019-07-10). "Midsommar's ableism resurrects the dark history of eugenics-inspired horror". the Guardian. Retrieved 2022-09-30.
  8. ^ a b "Perspective | Some horror movies take a new approach to disability: Fetishizing deafness". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2022-09-30.
  9. ^ a b Sutton, Travis (2014-09-09), Benshoff, Harry M. (ed.), "Avenging the Body: Disability in the Horror Film", A Companion to the Horror Film (1 ed.), Wiley, pp. 73–89, doi:10.1002/9781118883648.ch5, ISBN 978-0-470-67260-0, retrieved 2022-09-30
  10. ^ "Lupita Nyong'o under fire from disability groups for 'evil' voice in Us". the Guardian. 2019-03-29. Retrieved 2022-09-30.
  11. ^ "These 20-Year-Old Friends With Down Syndrome Made a Zombie Film". Time. 2016-07-14. Retrieved 2023-04-15.
  12. ^ Pratt, Mark (2021-04-08). "New film follows 2 zombie moviemakers with Down syndrome". WLUK. Associated Press. Retrieved 2023-04-15.
  13. ^ "The Sweet Story of How Two Unstoppable Teen Filmmakers Got an Oscar-Winning Director to Produce Their Movie". Parade. 26 June 2021.