Shut In

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Leah Smith

Hollywood is notoriously bad at portraying disabled people in any way that even remotely resembles our actual lived experiences. Instead, they rely on worn out cultural clichés, especially “The Evil Cripple.” From Richard III to Dr. Strangelove to Captain Hook to Darth Vader, the disabled villain has been a reliable mainstay of screenwriters to the point that it has gotten predictably boring. So, it’s not terribly surprising that Shut In is one of the latest examples of this. The film’s trailer portrays a burned-out mother who is haunted by the ghost of a deaf boy as she grieves over the car crash that took her husband’s life and caused her son’s multiple disabilities.

The main protagonist, who is the caretaker of her son with physical and intellectual disabilities, declares, “It’s not my son. It’s just a body that I clean and wash and clothe” as the camera focuses on a scene in which she fantasizes about holding his head beneath the surface of his bath water. As punishment for the sin of having the bad luck of having a disabled son – who she characterizes as an “it” who she wishes were not a part of her life – the vengeful Gods of Disability send the ghost of a young deaf boy on a rampage of violence through her house in the woods. Of course, the viewer is supposed to sympathize with the pretty, blonde mother who is first burdened by disability and then terrorized by it. No, I’m not kidding. This is actually the plot of the movie, as far as one can tell from the trailer.

If this cultural cliché was limited to being just a Hollywood story, it would be annoying or perhaps insulting to disabled people. Unfortunately, disability is also understood as a terrifying, life crushing phenomenon in the real world too. It seems fairly common for the media to tell “horror stories” about people with disabilities who are so horrifying burdensome that their parent caregivers murder them in cold blood.

Most recently, on September 7, the Washington Post reported a story of a mother who brought her autistic, blind son out into a rural field on a scorching August day to die of dehydration and a lack of his life sustaining medication. To me, the real horror can be experienced by putting yourself in the perspective of the person being murdered. The Post reports that the 19 year old young man, Austin Anderson, may have been in the field with his mother for a number of days, “The summer sun beat unrelentingly down on the field, but the two had no water, no food, no medication. Nothing. All Anderson wanted was to curl into his mother’s arms and go home. But she wouldn’t let him. ‘My baby kept getting hot and kept coming back and wanting his mommy, but I knew it wasn’t good,’ Lightwine said. Each time, she would shove the blind, handicapped teenager away from her and say, ‘No, you don’t want to love me. Please let God take you.'” What must have begun as confusion ended in an unimaginable terror for Austin as he died in that field.

Disability is not the horrifying thing here. Ableism is. Ableism is what structures our society in such a way that a disabled teenager can die laying in a sun baked field next to his mother a few weeks before a film is released that refers to a similarly aged young man as an “it” and uses murder via caregiver as a plot device.

Hollywood, people are dying, shame on you.

Contact: Leah Smith