Disabled children are not scary so please stop using able-bodied actors to portray them in horror films

The director of new film ‘Midsommar’, Ari Aster, feels the need to indulge in this tired trope rather than confront us with a disturbing truth: really scary people are mostly very ordinary. That’s what’s really scary about them

James Moore
Saturday 13 July 2019 09:40
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Midsommar - Trailer

I went to see Midsommar, Ari Aster’s latest horror flick, on the back of a glowing review by Mark Kermode, whose podcast with Simon Mayo I often listen to while out wheeling.

A break-up movie set against the backdrop of a scary cult festival during the summer solstice in the north of Sweden? It sounded weird, inventive and interesting enough to make the effort to endure two and a half hours of psychologically troubling material.

And well done Mr Kermode, I thought, as the film gradually unfolded and my heart rate started to increase. Then Ruben appeared.

Supposedly intentionally bred to be disabled through incest, and played (as ever) by an able-bodied child actor in heavy make-up, he serves, the audience is told, as the twisted commune’s oracle.

He doesn’t get much screen time, but he got quite enough to spoil the experience for me. Let’s ram home the point that this place is “wrong” by showing the scary disabled other. It’s horror, innit?

Please. Aster is a smart filmmaker. I’ve regularly seen critics use the word “auteur” in connection with him. This makes it all the more maddening that he feels the need to indulge in this tired trope rather than confront us with a disturbing truth: really scary people are mostly very ordinary. That’s what’s really scary about them.

Remember writer Hannah Arendt’s famous quote about “the banality of evil” in relation to Adolf Eichmann, the bland Nazi bureaucrat who was “neither perverted nor sadistic” but “terrifyingly normal”.

That point was reinforced for me by a lecture I attended some years ago. It was given by an author whose subject was serial killers. He’d interviewed many of them and showed some of the results on screen. By contrast to Arendt’s view of Eichmann, many of them were genuinely perverted and sadistic, but they still seemed “terrifying normal” as they matter-of-factly discussed horrors.

They didn’t have the almost supernatural powers fictional baddies have. They weren’t super geniuses like Hannibal Lecter, or unstoppable supermen like the murderous character played by Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher. Their personas were quite banal. They were ordinary, often rather inadequate. The sort of people you’d bump into at the supermarket or in the car park.

Then there are the politicians and bankers: smiling, smart-suited, normal-looking people who lie and cheat and steal, and wreck people’s lives at the stroke of a pen without a hint of a conscience. Sometimes their decisions kill, but they never let it bother them.

Ever been in the midst of an irritable crowd of normal people chasing bargains at Lidl on a Saturday? I have. It scares the crap out of me. It’s worse than any horror movie. Hell, recall the scenes from those Black Friday openings when ordinary people forget all the rules of civilisation and turn into ravening beasts.

I have a large collection of pop culture T-shirts. One of them is from American Horror Story, the TV show. It bears the legend “Normal People Scare Me” and they do. They really do.

Aster starts out showing that. The protagonists, Dani, her hopeless boyfriend Christian, and his posse of friends, arrive to a scene that seems normal enough. Youthful members of the commune they are visiting are out in field enjoying the warm weather and taking magic mushrooms. Some are wearing traditional costume. Some are dancing. But, hey, it’s northern Sweden.

Obviously that changes as the film goes on and we are given more and more clues about something being off. Aster has described Ruben’s presence in this as important. A metaphor. Maybe I’m just not bright enough, but I completely failed to see what that was or how the movie was enhanced by his presence.

It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Its fuse burns slowly. People walked out of the cinema I was in because at points it gets quite upsetting.

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But it has stuff to say; it clearly aims to exercise people’s brains. So why it has to rely on a cheap cliché and in so doing, exploit and demonise a group who are already exploited and demonised enough, was and is beyond me.

And no I’m not just being “PC” in saying that. We regularly see reports of people with Ruben’s type of disability getting bullied and beaten up.

Films like Aster’s feed into the perception of disabled people as abnormal, subhuman and scary, and sadly people lash out at those which they find scary, even when they’ve no need to. Even when the scariest person is probably the bloke down the road who works in an office, wears a nice suit and drives a nice car. He’s the one who has a disturbing interest in throttling cats.

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