Ableism is Horror

Content note: Discussion of ableism, mention of incest, mass shootings by white people, violence against disabled people, suicide (mass and individual), gun violence, death of a pet dog, religious abuse and cults

Spoiler alert for The Lodge.

Why are we afraid of what we are afraid of? Disability as a shortcut to “scary” is so prevalent in horror as to be a trope, and much has been said about ableism in horror.

From characters whose disfigurement represents the evil inside them (Freddy Krueger’s burnt face), to psychosis rendering a villain evil (Mike Myers, characters with split personality), I don’t need to go much into examples because the internet abounds with them.

            And this is not relegated to the 80s horror film – we see it in recent films too, where physical disability is an easy way to denote “be scared of this” –  think the Ruben character in Midsommar, an intellectually disabled and physically disfigured child of intentional incest, whose few moments in the film literally zoom into his non-normative face.[1]

            And disability still too often represents what we’re scared of more broadly. I listen to many, many true paranormal podcasts (too many?), having started with a classic, Monsters Among Us. I have such a love-hate relationship to this podcast – it has people call in with their real paranormal experiences, so the stories aren’t edited, and generally it doesn’t dive any deeper into the fucked up stereotypes it plays into. More than once someone has called in saying they have seen a cryptid or paranormal entity, when it sounds to me like they are just describing someone with physical disfigurement or antisocial behavior. In my own life, I remember a particular time in a haunted house – one of those paid Halloween haunted houses – and having someone apparently legless crawl after me, one hand dragging themselves, the other with a chainsaw. It was scary to be chased by someone with a chainsaw, but clearly part of the intended effect was that this person didn’t have legs.

            My point is “disability = scary” has been a lazy trope in Western horror since it began (Phantom of the Opera with his scarred, skull-like face?), and that this has an effect on real life. When we consider people with serious mental illness to be evil and irredeemable, it makes it much easier for prosecutors to convince jurors that an alleged murderer is a “psychopath” and therefore should be put to death. It means that when white people go on an actual murderous rampage, they are deemed “mentally ill”, ignoring the fact that mentally ill people are much more likely to be targets of violence.

            What feels more interesting to me than another reading of horror as ableist is observing how that history can be subverted. There are movies where the disabled person is the hero –  Hush and A Quiet Place have deaf protagonists whose disability gives them power and agency – but I want to discuss one that is a little more subtle – The Lodge (2019, directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala).

            The Lodge is a movie I kind of hated but also found really compelling. I hated it because it felt like the kind of psychological torture porn that feels more frequently used in modern horror (it was directed by the same people who did Goodnight Mommy, which literally was just children torturing their mother, so I should not have been surprised). It was painful to watch, more unsettling than scary – as I have said before, I love a good jump scare. On the other hand, I enjoyed the twists, and while I saw the end coming, I liked the subversion the ending created.

            The movie opens with shocking violence: after learning that her ex-husband, Richard, is about to marry a young woman he met while researching cults, Laura commits suicide onscreen. It is a graphic and jarring scene, setting the tone for the movie not pulling any punches.

            When Richard’s new wife, Grace, is first seen, she is blurry and creepy: familiar to those steeped in the genre, she is being presented as untrustworthy and potentially malevolent. We see her from a distance, behind fuzzy glass. Richard’s two children, Aiden and Mia, dislike Grace and blame her for their mother’s death. Aiden refers to Grace as a psychopath. We have already been tacitly encouraged by the film to support the kids, watching them grieve for their mother and support one another.

            Richard decides that an excellent bonding experience will be for Grace and the kids to spend some time in an isolated lodge for Christmas; to encourage the bonding, he plans to leave them alone for a few days. After being told this, the kids research Grace and find the grisly details of her father’s Christian cult: she is the lone survivor of a mass suicide. They watch a very eerie video reminiscent of found footage horror: the cameraperson walks slowly down basement steps to a bunker, where dead bodies positioned on beds are draped in purple silk, with duct tape on their mouths that say “sin.” The film ends with the cameraperson filming herself in the mirror – a young Grace, with the “sin” duct tape over her mouth. Again, the audience is led to believe that Grace is the creep factor in the movie.

            At the lodge, both Aiden and the audience learn that Grace takes some kind of psychiatric medicine and hides this from Richard. She is upset by the all Catholic iconography in the house, and turns over religious paintings, only to have them returned face-up later. Triggered by this iconography, she is beset by dreams of her father. Creepy things start happening in the lodge: Mia’s doll, who possibly represents her mother, goes missing and ends up in Grace’s luggage. Little things here and there, which almost suggest Grace is being haunted by the dead ex-wife.

            After tensions rise with Aiden, Aiden makes hot chocolate for Grace and they fall asleep watching movies with a gas space heater on. Grace wakes, groggy and disoriented, much later than expected, to find that the generator has gone out and her belongings, along with all of the Christmas decorations, food, her psych meds, and even her pet dog are all missing. Of course she suspects the kids – but their belongings are gone too. With the generator out, her cell phone is dead. Aiden tells Grace he dreamt that they suffocated from gas fumes and expresses his fear they are in the afterlife.

            Over the following days, Grace unravels. She is foggy, suffering from intense anxiety and medication withdrawal, cold and hungry. The clocks all say January 9th – weeks after she went to sleep. She begins sleepwalking and the children wake up to her standing over them. She hears her father’s sermons in her waking state. Desperate, she decides to try to walk to the nearest town in a snowstorm. She hallucinates seeing her father and ends up back at the lodge, frostbitten and panicking. In the snow, she finds a photo of the children in a memorial frame.

            Inside, the children are praying over a newspaper article from December 22nd that states the three died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Aiden says they are in purgatory, and to convince her this is no prank, hangs himself – but survives. This causes her fragile mental state to completely collapse – and then she finds her dog frozen to death outside (I know, it is so fucking horrible – you can always check out for this kind of and other trigger warnings).

            Grace goes into a catatonic state on the porch. Fearful now that she might actually die, the kids admit they were gaslighting her all along: they hid everything in a crawlspace, including her medication, and were playing her father’s sermons on a loudspeaker. Grace is unresponsive. They try to get in touch with their father on their cellphones but can’t get the generator on. They are in over their scheming little heads.

            Ultimately, the kids’ bullying backfires in the worst of ways: by the time Richard returns, Grace fully believes they are in purgatory and can’t die. To prove it to him, she plays Russian roulette with a gun (I believe Richard gave it to her earlier in the film): first pointing it at herself, then at him. Richard loses, and is shot to death in front of his children. They try to escape in the car, but get stuck in the snow, and Grace brings them back in. The final scene is Grace singing a hymn at the dinner table with Aiden and Mia’s mouths sin-duct-taped shut and Richard’s corpse propped up. She still has the gun.

            A surface reading of this film still recreates ableist tropes: a mentally ill person and survivor of religious abuse ends up killing at least one person, probably three. But to me, this movie illustrates misunderstandings our culture has about traumatized and mentally ill people – that they are monsters, scary, beyond redemption. This movie played with those assumptions: showcasing Grace in just dim enough light to suggest untrustworthiness, someone to fear. Really who we should have been fearing the whole time is the young boy, and to a certain extent his sister (who seemed a little dragged into the mess, but still should have known better). Without his gaslighting, lying, and intentional triggering – oh, and literally stealing her medication? – the violence in this movie does not exist (and the dog does not die). In this film, the disabled protagonist is the victim of ableism, and the reveal asks us as viewers to questions the ableist assumptions we might have had in the buildup to the climax.

[1] Don’t worry, I have a planned blog post for Midsommar – on whiteness as horror.

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