The Problem Body Politic, or "These Hands Have a Mind All Their Own!": Figuring Disability in the Horror Film Adaptations of Renard's Les Mains d'Orlac

By Olney, Ian | Literature/Film Quarterly, October 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Problem Body Politic, or "These Hands Have a Mind All Their Own!": Figuring Disability in the Horror Film Adaptations of Renard's Les Mains d'Orlac


Olney, Ian, Literature/Film Quarterly


In this essay, I seek to develop a better understanding of and appreciation for the complexity of the relationship between physical disability and horror literature and cinema by considering some of the ways in which the genre might work to subvert the "ableist" ideology that sustains what Lennard J. Davis calls the prevailing "hegemony of normalcy" (23). To date, much of the writing done on the topic of horror in the field of disability studies has been driven by the assumption that works of horror fiction and film dealing with corporeal difference almost inevitably reflect and reinforce such an ideology. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that the genre has initiated and perpetuated many of the most insidious and enduring stereotypes about physical disability-chief among them the notion that it poses a threat not just to the body, but to the body politic as well. As Paul K. Longmore observes in his groundbreaking and influential essay on images of disability in film and television, horror movies routinely depict physically disabled characters as misshapen monsters who, "raging against their 'fate' and hating those who have escaped such 'affliction,' often seek to retaliate against 'normals'" (3). In this way, horror links corporeal difference both with "disfigurement of the face and head and gross deformity of the body" (Longmore 4) and with "violent propensities that 'normally' would be kept in check by internal mechanisms of self-control" (Longmore 5), reinforcing the familiar "ableist" assumption that physical disability not only "involves the loss of an essential part of one's humanity" (Longmore 5), but also "endangers the rest of society" (Longmore 5). Moreover, by demonstrating-via the mechanics of narrative conflict and resolution-that "the final and only possible solution [to the threat posed by monstrous disabled characters] is often [their] death" (Longmore 5), horror also reflects the once-prevalent attitude that "death [is] the only logical and humane solution" (Longmore 6) for the physically disabled. Indeed, the genre stands as one of the few remaining sanctioned outlets for the expression of this view, which was promulgated by nineteenth- and twentieth-century eugenicists in Europe and the United States and-most notoriously-by the Nazi Party in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s in the belief that: "If individual citizens are not fit, if they do not fit into the nation, then the national body will not be fit" (Davis 18). It is therefore not only unsurprising, but also fitting that horror literature and cinema have drawn a great deal of fire from critics and theorists concerned about how negative representations of corporeal difference impact people living with physical disabilities.

Nevertheless, I join Christopher R. Smit and Anthony Enns in suggesting that disability studies has, as a discipline, remained so focused on exposing and challenging stereotypical portrayals of disability in works of mainstream fiction and film that it has not sufficiently considered the ways in which a popular genre like horror might serve as a site of resistance to the ideological status quo (x). On the one hand, we need to be more attentive to the fact that a horror novel or film represents a network of competing and conflicting discourses that is not reducible to a single ideological imperative. The tendency within the discipline has been to read these books and movies monolithically, according to a relentlessly binary logic: if a work of fiction or film in any way reflects or propagates the values of the dominant social order, then it cannot also embody a critique of those values. Such readings do not take into account the fact that works of horror literature and cinema are complex, dialogical texts in which, to quote Mikhail Bakhtin, "alongside verbal-ideological centralization and unification, the uninterrupted processes of decentralization and disunification go forward" (272). On the other hand, we need to remember that the experience of reading a horror novel or watching a horror movie involves an active and lively dialogue between subject and text, an intense form of negotiation that is not reducible to a simple process of normalization. …

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