Any horror movie worth its celluloid needs to produce a visceral response in the viewer. And, because these films are thus so concerned with the relationship between the seat-filler and the image, horror movies, more than any other genre, regularly explore issues of spectatorship.
This has been especially true lately: as I wrote in my review of A Perfect Getaway, “each in their own way, to varying degrees of success, Vacancy, Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead and Quarantine have [grappled with] the relationship between the camera and the viewer, between screen and spectator.” (Add to that Paranormal Activity and the superlative French thriller Them.) But it’s also been the case for decades, though perhaps in a less conspicuous manner.
One motif that runs, historically, through the horror genre is the wheelchair-bound character, who appears in films from at least the 1950s through The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), The Changeling (1980) and Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), as well as many others, some of which are discussed after the jump; more often than not, this person serves as an audience surrogate. After all, who is more like the movie watcher, stuck in their seat, than the paraplegic? Or the broken-legged?
We might be able to attribute the origins of the trend to Hitchcock, whose films frequently tackled matters of The Gaze. (“See”: Vertigo!) A wheelchair appears, of course, in The Master of Suspense’s Rear Window (1954), and the character-in-it’s relationship to the theatergoer is particularly apparent in one scene: Jimmy Stewart, playing an immobile photographer, watches from across a courtyard as his inamorata is discovered trespassing in the house of the man they suspect of foul play. Unable to move, unable to help, unable to affect the action—a mere observer—he is a conspicuous, um, stand-in (sit-down?) for those watching along in the dark.
As I noted in a recent essay, “Yesterday’s Monsters Are Tomorrow’s Punchlines,” when it comes to horror movies, “Some of us thrive off feeling afraid; others, off of conquering their fears.” The films themselves, too, can be divided into these two camps: those that aim to exploit our vulnerability and haunt us after we’ve left the theater, and those that create a phobic object only in order to defeat it, so that the audience can leave feeling triumphant and relieved.
The subgenre of horror movies involving protagonists in a wheelchair can be similarly split: there are those that make the physically challenged—us, remember—into victims, and those that ultimately empower them. Of the titles that my colleagues and I brainstormed for this piece (thanks to Benjamin Strong, Mark Asch and Matt Zoller Seitz), there’s a roughly even distribution of films between these two categories—enough, ostensibly, to satisfy disability advocates and a certain kind of horror fan alike.
Lots of spoilers follow!
The earliest example of wheelchair-protagonist as victim (that I could come up with) is What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), in which a psychotic Bette Davis (Jane) takes care of—or, totally doesn’t!—her older sister, a paralyzed Joan Crawford (Blanche). Though Ms. Crawford ultimately makes some sort of peace with her contemptuous sister and, in the end, lives to tell about it, mere survival is hardly a form of empowerment. And the drubbing she takes throughout the film makes her a victim; consider this edited plot summary from Wikipedia: “Jane holds [Blanche] prisoner and increases her sadistic verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. She…kills Blanche’s pet parakeet and serves it to her sister on her dinner plate. She later performs the same gruesome prank with a dead rat…When Blanche manages to climb down the stairs and telephone her doctor for help, Jane comes home, finds her on the phone, and violently beats her. She then gags and ties Blanche up in her bedroom.”
This kind of brutality is in marked contrast to Scream of Fear, from the year before. (It’s now playing as one-half of a double feature at Film Forum.) True, our wheelchair-bound heroine is harassed by cruel adulterers throughout the film—who leave her father’s corpse lying around, making her doubt her own sanity (a la 1944’s Gaslight) as well as bear the awful experience of seeing one’s father’s waterlogged corpse—but there’s a neat twist at the end: she survives an assassination attempt because she doesn’t need to be in a wheelchair at all. Our heroine isn’t the woman she says she is, and has been deceiving our villains all along. At the end, she stands up out of her chair and, with head held high in triumph, walks away.
Come to think of it, maybe disability advocates wouldn’t be pleased with the empowering wheelchair horror films after all, as so many seem to end with the protagonist being able to walk again—characters prove their strength in the confining chair, but that gives them the strength to escape it; those who can’t are those who die—just as the audience will be able to stand up and leave the theater once the lights come back on.
Misery (1990) is the epitome of such a film. James Caan, injured in a car accident, doesn’t begin the film in a wheelchair. But, after protracted dealings with the increasingly insane Kathy Bates, she breaks both his legs. Despite the handicap, he outsmarts and defeats his oppressor, and the film ends with his power to walk restored. George Romero’s Monkey Shines (1988) follows a similar arc. John Pankow plays an athlete who gets hit by a truck, putting him in a wheelchair. A friend gives him a helper monkey, which, natch, turns homicidal; but Pankow kills it in the end, using his wheelchair no less to deliver the death blow (loaded!), before the film ends with him undergoing surgery and learning to use his legs again.
In contrast, one of the young victims-to-be of Friday the 13th Part II (1981) swears he’s gonna get out of his chair one day—but he only does so when he falls out, after Jason sends it, and his corpse, down a flight of stone stairs. The Friday the 13th series is nothing if not blatantly derivative, and the second entry’s inclusion of a marked-for-death character in a wheelchair seems a conspicuous nod to, if not blatant rip-off of, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974); that benchmark of modern horror features an obnoxious, wheelchair-bound whiner who not only dies, but is also the first character injured when the scraggly hitchhiker cuts the paralyzed kid’s hand. It’s a warning to the audience that a new sort of horror movie has arrived—one that won’t simply jolt you, the audience member, from your seat with glimpses of ghosts and monsters, but which will draw blood.