Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

"You Can Point a Finger at a Zombie. Sometimes They Fall Off.": Contemporary Zombie Films, Embedded Ableism, and Disability as Metaphor

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

"You Can Point a Finger at a Zombie. Sometimes They Fall Off.": Contemporary Zombie Films, Embedded Ableism, and Disability as Metaphor

Article excerpt

Disability and/as Horror

At first glance, contemporary zombie culture appears to participate regularly in the horror genre's tradition of reinforcing a cultural association between disability and deviance. Indeed, these types of images are flourishing, as we are experiencing a zombie renaissance of sorts in literature and comics, in film and television, and in other aspects of society, such as politics. Many characters in these zombie and other horror films--from Franklin, the character in a wheelchair in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), to Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)--seem to fall within what David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have called "narrative prosthesis." The concept of narrative prosthesis suggests that literature and film have historically and frequently depended on disability for two purposes: as a routine characterization tool or as "an opportunistic metaphorical device" (47). Mitchell and Snyder argue that authors and filmmakers have proliferated disabled characters in literature and film due to this reliance, which contrasts with the racial, ethnic, and gender identities that literary' and cinematic hi story have traditionally marginalized through absence. In other words, disability demands a narrative. If a body does not conform to established definitions of "normal" or "average," we want to know how and why.

This abundance of disabled characters and our need for narrative fulfillment or closure consequently has produced a number of common tropes. One common to the horror genre is that of the physically mutilated monster. The revelation of A Nightmare on Elm Street's burned and scarred child killer Freddy Krueger forces the audience to associate his deformity with dangerous and deviant behavior. In this example, Freddy's scars conveniently characterize him as evil, serve as plot device to propel the narrative forward toward an explanation for those scars, and act as a metaphor for the "scarring" effects of childhood fears or, as in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985), closet homosexuality. As Brandy Schillace argues, literature and film often depict characters with a disability as morally superior to abled characters, as well as ethically purified--a second common trope in horror (588). The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's Franklin, who uses a wheelchair and acts as a Cassandra-like guide, conforms to this second trope; his friends disregard Franklin's doubts about their actions, ultimately to their doom. In each of these instances, the use of narrative prosthesis shows how these two disabled characters, as Michael Davidson explains, serve "as a crutch to shore up normalcy" (176). After the audience comes to agree with Franklin's accurate misgivings, Leatherface kills him, which allows Franklin's sister Sally to escape. The film leads viewers to mourn the death of a man whose disability', the film suggests, leaves him defenseless. Similarly, in the film's final act, viewers applaud when Sally escapes, an act that restores order--the "normal" state of things--to the world. In other words, both Freddy and Franklin fulfill their tropes' traditional roles in horror films.

Within this context, zombies have become another trope that links disability' and deviance together in the popular imagination. If we take zombies as metaphors of people with disabilities, then the zombie figure complicates the tropes that provide a narrative prosthesis to horror films. Although a cinematic zombie's physical attributes would seem to indicate a stock characterization tool equating them with evil, films physically connect zombies to their families and loved ones, despite changes in appearance. They often display recognizably human characteristics such as memory and train ability and provide the main narrative momentum for the films in which they appear. Unlike the stories of Franklin and Freddy, though, zombie stories often lack narrative closure; characters and viewers rarely discover the how and the why of the undead transformation. …

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