It’s Halloween; the perfect time for snuggling up to watch some scary movies while enjoying an array of snacks! Disabled people enjoy Halloween as much as everyone else, with some talented individuals even incorporating mobility aids into costumes, but unfortunately Halloween can also be a time of rampant ableism. Why? Because disability and villainy are often portrayed as going hand-in-hand.
Having a villain who is also disabled is a practice that goes back for well over a century, a prime example being Captain Hook from Peter Pan. In 1932 the film Freaks used disabled characters to shock audiences, but at least had the decency to hire disabled actors, ironically something which is often overlooked in more modern settings. Unfortunately, the practice of associating disability with villainy remains common today.
Elijah Price, played by Samuel L. Jackson in the 2000 film Unbreakable, is a prime example of how disability can even be used as a direct motive for villainy. The Phantom of the Opera, one of my favourite musicals of all time, also features a disabled antagonist. Star Wars has its fair share of villains lacking limbs such as Darth Vader, but then again, limb loss is worryingly common even among protagonists. The Marvel Cinematic Universe also seems to like a villain with less than the average number of limbs, like Ulysses Klaue. While the latest Bond movie, No Time to Die, is receiving excellent reviews from critics and audiences, it has also drawn criticism for portraying yet another villain with a facial deformity – nor is this the only Daniel Craig movie to feature this trope.
The horror-genre is particularly guilty of having disabled and disfigured villains including (but by no means limited to); Freddy Kreuger from A Nightmare on Elm Street, the family from The Hills Have Eyes, Leatherface (and family) from A Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jason Vorhees from Friday 13th sequels, and Candyman from err… Candyman. It could even be argued that Michael Myers, one of the most infamous horror movie villains of all time, is disabled. The trope is more tired than I am, and I have M.E.
Unfortunately, portraying disability as freakish and to be feared has caused immense damage to disabled people over the years. Many able-bodied people remain uncomfortable when faced with disability, even going so far as to report social media content as “distressing” for featuring essential devices such as breathing tubes. Horror movies are far from the only factor responsible for this aversion, but to see the trope time and time again is not helping matters, and is frankly lazy writing at this point.
There are many things a good villain should be; charismatic, powerful, an impeccable dresser, and British. A villain should have an interesting motive but commit terrible actions to achieve their goal. A villain does not have to be disabled. A villain does not have to be motivated by a loved one becoming disabled. A villain does not have to hate all disabled people. In short, villainy and disability are as closely related as I am to an endangered sub-species of algae.
For the record, I’m not saying that disabled people should always be the hero, and in it’s way having a disabled villain is more inclusive than not having any disabled characters at all; I simply wish to see disability portrayed as the everyday fact-of-life it really is. Regardless, I’ll be practicing my evil laugh just in case.