Sam in HBO’s The Last Of Us isn’t the only example of a great Deaf or disabled character in the post-apocalyptic or horror genre! Here are 5 examples of authentic disability representation in horror films and TV shows you should check out.
It’s rare for the horror genre to represent disability with care, if at all. Finding an authentically portrayed disabled character as a disabled horror fan is always a treat. I was especially excited to see that Sam’s on-screen adaptation for HBO’s The Last Of Us was cast as Keivonn Woodward, a young Black Deaf actor. His performance, how his character was written, and the welcoming environment Keivonn experienced on set should serve as a model for future filmmakers and showrunners. Here are 5 other Deaf and disabled characters in horror that also deserve their flowers!
Connie in AMC’s The Walking Dead
Connie was introduced in Season 9 of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Played by Lauren Ridloff, Connie is a brave and investigative Deaf woman. She uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with her sister Kelly and the rest of their small group of survivors. Although Kelly initially serves as Connie’s translator when they join the show’s larger community, the rest of the show sees each character learn ASL, deeply caring for Connie’s needs and language.
Lauren Ridloff on the impact of #TheWalkingDead and its final season. #SDCC #TWD pic.twitter.com/c2BoH3OWOA
— Variety (@Variety) July 22, 2022
The show also plays with Connie’s perspective as a Deaf person, often switching to her perspective during scenes of danger (like running from walkers or terrifying unknown beings in the show’s mini horror movie episode, “On The Inside” (Season 11 Episode 6)). Seeing the world through her eyes shows us the terror of her experience in the apocalypse but also her incredible resilience and resourcefulness. Deaf people are not helpless victims!
Lauren Ridloff is Deaf and reports that the set of The Walking Dead was just as welcoming as the characters. During the series finale episode of The Talking Dead, she described when she felt welcome in the cast, sharing that the first time she walked onto the set, there were three ASL interpreters waiting for her. She also taught the cast some ASL, just as she did in the show.
More than 95% of disabled characters on television are played by nondisabled actors, so seeing a member of the Deaf community taking on a prominent character in one of the biggest horror shows of all time proves we’re going in the right direction.
The episode of TWD with Connie in that house is honestly one of the whole shows most exceptionally crafted moments of true horror.
— alex thornber (@nucosi) February 16, 2023
Special shoutout to Kelly, Connie’s sister in the show, played by Angel Theory (who is Hard-of-Hearing and uses a guide dog in real life). Kelly goes through her own subplot with hearing loss in the show, ultimately finding comfort in her sister and community. The two sisters have smaller roles in the final season, but they are still some of my favorites from the entire show!
Regan in A Quiet Place (2018)
Regan, played by Millicent Simmonds, is the oldest daughter of the Abbott family in A Quiet Place (2018). She is Deaf and communicates using ASL, as does her entire hearing family.
A Quiet Place follows a family who must live in silence in a post-apocalyptic world. The family mainly relies on ASL to communicate with each other, and with their d/Deaf daughter, Regan. Regan is played by Millicent Simmonds, a d/Deaf actress!
— 1in4coalition (@1in4coalition) July 29, 2022
The film sees her navigate her wounded relationship with her father, played by John Krasinski. He tries to DIY repair her cochlear implant, a device some Deaf people have surgically implanted to simulate hearing.
The film sees Regan’s deafness as a strength. Her language allows her family to survive without alerting the terrifying alien monsters lurking around them. The feedback from her broken cochlear implant exposes the monster’s weakness. Her storyline revolves around her relationships rather than her disability; her Deaf identity is just one part of her character instead of her sole characteristic. She also reprises her role in the film’s sequel, A Quiet Place Part II (2020).
Deaf stories are finally getting recognition with critical acclaim for films like CODA (2021) and Sound of Metal (2019), and I’m glad horror is embracing that, too.
Simmonds is Deaf herself and shares the sentiment that Deaf roles should go to Deaf actors. When asked about hearing actors playing Deaf parts, she told Variety, “It’s not realistic, and it’s not fair to the talent out there who aren’t chosen because of their disability.”
lauren ridfloff (the walking dead) millicent simmonds (a quiet place) and now keivonn woodward (the last of us)
are the very few deaf actors who play deaf characters in apocalyptic media, AND THEY DO AN EXCELLENT JOB AT IT https://t.co/WzMi1SxP9N
— ⤷ his (✿◠‿◠) (@redirewolf) February 11, 2023
Franklin in Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Franklin, played by the late Paul A. Pertain, is the younger brother of our leading woman, Sally Hardesty, in the horror classic Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). He is also a full-time wheelchair user! His friends set up a janky ramp for him to get in and out of their hippie van and help him navigate rough terrain.
My favorite thing about Franklin is how annoying he is. He is openly frustrated when his friends leave him on the first floor of his childhood home while they play around upstairs. He blows raspberries and sarcastically yells after them. “If I have any more fun today, I ain’t gonna be able to take it!” As someone who has been left out of many activities because of my access needs, I 100% feel Franklin’s pain.
He has a right to be incredulous when his sister almost leaves him behind to go look for their missing friends. Are you kidding me, Sally?! They bring him to a place where he can’t move around on his own, then insist on leaving him out of convenience.
Franklin is a realistic portrayal of a disabled character forced into an inaccessible setting, a common experience among the community. It’s a welcome nuanced subplot in one of the best horror films of all time. We need more films where disabled people just exist and have realistic negative emotions when they’re mistreated!
The Freaks in Freaks (1932)
Freaks (1932) follows a traveling circus and its performers, most of whom have disabilities. The film was created by horror pioneer Tod Browning who sought to humanize and destigmatize the disabled community. Browning performed in the circus as a teenager and insisted the disabled characters in his film were actually played by actors with those same disabilities.
Director Tod Browning and his cast of Freaks (1932) pic.twitter.com/LCVzTCujNI
— Lamont A. Turner (@LamontATurner1) February 8, 2023
Despite their starring roles and good rapport with Browning, the disabled cast experienced immense ableism during production from the studio. MGM forced the performers to eat in a separate cafeteria so that nondisabled actors and crew didn’t have to look at or interact with them. Audiences had a similar attitude, calling Freaks grotesque and disgusting simply for the disabilities portrayed. The film was banned for 30 years in the UK for the same reason.
Despite the initial negative backlash, the film has since been reexamined and analyzed through the lens of oppression and marginalization within society. Society’s reaction to the film is exactly why many disabled people were pushed into freak shows during the early 20th century; rather than accepting disabled people as a natural part of the world, non-disabled people saw them as unsightly spectacles.
The struggle and humanity of these performers, on screen, and behind the scenes, resonates so deeply with me as a disabled viewer and aspiring filmmaker. We deserve to be seen in our entirety and to take part in projects that tell our stories with care!
Jimmy Darling in FX’s American Horror Story Freak Show
In a similar vein, American Horror Story Freak Show depicts a failing circus in the 1950s with several disabled performers played with varying levels of realism and tact. My personal favorite is Jimmy Darling, played by Evan Peters. Jimmy has ectrodactyly, a limb difference that fused his fingers together. His stage name is Lobster Boy.
Jimmy is a fierce protector of his fellow performers, deeply concerned with their safety and hellbent on revenge on those who hurt his found family. Throughout the season, he learns about his family history and that he comes from a long line of people with the same disability. He wears that fact as a badge of honor. After a terrible tragedy that takes his hands, he decides to replace them with prosthetics that completely replicate his “lobster claws” rather than mimicking a nondisabled person’s hands.
“The freaks shall inherit the earth”
— La Wednesday✨🔪 (@camila_vichot) February 9, 2023
Although Jimmy is played by a non-disabled actor, and despite the many problems with other portrayals of disability in the show, I appreciate his character deeply. Disability pride is a foreign concept to most of society and seeing a character fully embrace his identity and history warmed my heart within a tumultuous plot.
Although Jimmy’s story is my favorite, American Horror Story Freak Show also features a few notable disabled characters played by disabled actors! Paul (“The Illustrated Seal”) was played by Mat Fraser, an English actor and musician with the limb difference phocomelia; Ma Petite was played by Jyoti Kisange Amge, an actress with dwarfism who holds the world record for the smallest living woman; and Legless Suzy was played by the late Rose Siggins, a performer, and amputee born with sacral agenesis. Freak Show is a mixed bag when it comes to representation, but this casting and the family bond depicted among the circus performers within the show are definitely highlights.
The horror genre and the entertainment industry as a whole have a long way to go in terms of Deaf and disabled representation, but these films and shows are proof that a more authentic, welcoming world is possible for disabled characters and actors. I can’t wait to see what comes next!
More Deaf and Disabled artists in horror, please and thank you.
— Dr. Adam Pottle (@AddyPottle) February 7, 2023
You can watch The Walking Dead on Netflix and AMC+, A Quiet Place on Paramount+, Texas Chain Saw Massacre on Peacock, Freaks on HBO Max and Prime Video, and American Horror Story on Hulu.