AMENDMENT Jan. 20, 2017: I have rewritten parts of this article in an attempt to eradicate as much ableism on my part as possible from my writing. While I have written here about portrayals of sensory disability (which can be ableist in and of themselves to a varying but almost universally non-zero degree) with regards to the home invasion genre, the language I originally used to discuss them was problematic. It is not my intention to dehumanize or be reductionist with regards to real people with disabilities. If anyone has any concerns about the way such things are discussed in this article (or anywhere on my site), please contact me or leave a comment below. I highly recommend Angela Marie Smith’s essay “Impaired Visions: The Cultural and Cinematic Politics of Blindness in the Horror Film” (found in Horror Zone, ed. Ian Conrich) as further reading.
Adjacent Analysis: How do Don’t Breathe and Hush differ in their portrayal of sensory disability with regards to the traditional power dynamics of home invasion films?
As you may have seen in my last review, I was not a fan of Fede Alvarez’s recently released Don’t Breathe. The premise is that a blind man (Stephen Lang) stalks a group of burglars who have broken into his home in search of loot. I expected some agonizingly suspenseful applications of sightlessness to what’s already a great inverse of the home invasion genre (in that the invaders are the victims), but I was ultimately disappointed. However, it did spur me to watch several other suspense films about characters deprived of one particular sense. It would be very easy to compare Don’t Breathe to Wait Until Dark (1971) or See No Evil (aka Blind Terror) (1971), which both focus on blindness, but a third film I saw, Hush (2016), had a much bigger impact.
Hush, directed by Mike Flanagan (Oculus), is about a deaf author named Maddie (Kate Siegel) defending herself from a crossbow-carrying killer trying to break into her house. Where Don’t Breathe has a blind stalker, Hush has a deaf and mute victim, but these traits are not throwaway gimmicks. Instead, the blind man and Maddie’s respective sensory (dis)advantages are dovetailed into their roles as a stalker and a victim, accentuating the power dynamics integral to the home invasion genre.
There will be spoilers below!
The first step in comparing the blind man’s blindness and Maddie’s deafness is to contextualize their strengths and weaknesses against their sighted and hearing foes. The most obvious advantage of the blind man is that he’s, naturally, unaffected by absolute darkness. His blindness is conflated with acute hearing; he is extremely perceptive of sounds and can pinpoint who or what is making them with impressive speed and accuracy. The blind man uses this ability to turn the tables on his victims after following them into the cellar. Knowing that they’re cornered somewhere nearby, he opens the fuse box and cuts the power, plunging his cellar into darkness. His victims, unaccustomed to total darkness, are suddenly at a disadvantage to the blind man, who is ostensibly unaffected. However, he can’t do anything about what he can’t hear or feel, so the blind man can be avoided by being silent. Conversely, blaring cacophony can overwhelm and disorient him. He also can’t easily identify exactly who or what is making noise. This makes him prone to friendly fire or underestimation of what he’s up against. Furthermore, when one of the burglars finally escapes the blind man’s home, she taunts him for being powerless outside, where he can no longer rely on environmental familiarity. This, of course, happens moments before the blind man’s dog rockets after her in hot pursuit. He is then able to follow his dog to the burglar and easily recapture her.
Unlike the blind man in Don’t Breathe, in Hush, Maddie’s deafness gives her very few immediate advantages over her stalker. Since Maddie can’t hear, she must maintain a line of sight with him as much as possible in order to track his movements. Otherwise, she must rely on physical sensations, like vibrations or drafts, to be aware of what she can’t see. If she’s focusing intently on one thing, like reaching for a phone or opening a door, she’s vulnerable. She is also a mute, which means that she can’t scream for help, or even call 9-1-1 (in the traditional sense), which complicates any conceivable escape plan. She also can’t hear when others come to help her: Maddie’s best friend’s husband appears halfway through her standoff, but she doesn’t hear him arrive. When she finally does notice him, it distracts him just enough for the stalker to cut in and kill her only hope of intervention. There is one immediate advantage that Maddie shares with the blind man, though, and that is that the film takes place on her turf. From the relative safety of her own home, she can keep an eye on her stalker by running from window to window as he circles the house outside. It’s not until the stalker finally breaks in that Maddie is able to counter with an ear-splitting fire alarm, which has no effect on her but disorients and dazes her assailant. Then, in the ultimate moment, Maddie detects the killer behind her by feeling his breath on the back of her neck, a very subtle sensation that a (panicked) non-deaf person may have easily overlooked.
As just stated above, the biggest similarity between these two characters is that both of them are operating within their own home. The difference is that they occupy opposite positions: in Don’t Breathe, the blind man is on the offensive, stalking and attacking his victims, while the deaf Maddie in Hush is squarely on the defensive, sheltering herself from the stalker while plotting and attempting escapes (before finally fighting back). This dependence on the home is emphasized in both films by the fact that both characters are less capable outside of their home. Without the blind man’s dog intervening, the burglar in Don’t Breathe would have been home free the second she made it outside, where there’s too much open space and ambient noise for the blind man to effectively chase her. In Hush, when Maddie does go outside, line of sight becomes even more important. Her home is a solid vantage point with plenty of windows, but outside of that shelter, her stalker could come from any direction at any moment and she may never notice. While thinking through different plans of action, Maddie even realizes it herself: if she runs, she dies.
The blind man’s plot-saving dog and Maddie’s inability to escape are symptoms of the same conclusion: these characters have to stay inside. After all, if a home invasion movie drifts too far from the home, then it’s not a home invasion movie. It becomes something else. So not only are these characters’ capabilities bound by their environmental familiarity, but their respective sensory deprivations – the blind man’s sight and Maddie’s hearing – are emblematic of their roles as an offensive stalker and a defensive victim. The advantages (or lack of) and disadvantages of their sensory (dis)abilities are exaggerations of typical stalker/victim power dynamics integral to home invasion and “room” horror like You’re Next (2013) and Panic Room (2002), and to an extent broader “room” films like Green Room (2016) and even slashers like Halloween (1978).
The blind man is, physically, a formidable foe, can’t “look for” the burglars in the traditional sense; he can’t just chase them around the house. There’s a much more methodical nature to the way that he prowls through the house that demands the utmost participation from both him and his victims. Without sight, he has to actively search for and ambush his victims, and his victims must carefully (and constantly) evade him while being as quiet as possible. His mental process of listening for and detecting the burglars is a very explicit part of Don’t Breathe, and that cunning is what guides him in his pursuit with his hands on the walls and in front of him, outstretched, feeling for any trace of his panicked and exhausted victims.
And where blindness exaggerates the stalker, deafness makes the perfect victim. Unable to hear him approaching, but with her life depending on avoiding him, Maddie has to doggedly track her stalker’s whereabouts in order to avoid being ambushed. There’s great interplay in Hush between seeing and hiding: without a line of sight, he’s effectively invisible to her, but being caught by him means her death. Deafness places the utmost importance on simultaneous stealth and awareness, to see but not be seen, and the conflict between those two necessities is what drives so much of the movie’s tension.
This isn’t a two-way street, either, as far as genre significance goes. In Wait Until Dark and See No Evil, there is less emphasis on the stalking and immediate danger, and much more emphasis on the mystery element; the bulk of these two films consists of the blind protagonist piecing together what they’re up against. The blind victim in Wait Until Dark is very capable and intelligent, just like Maddie, but at the film’s end, her blindness is weaponized against her stalker in much bigger, climactic ways than Maddie could against hers with her deafness. Deafness is much more difficult to invert or make advantages out of, which establishes a much more rigid power dynamic between Maddie and her stalker right off the bat.
In addition to maintaining an imbalance of power, the other key difference between the two is that deafness strikes a more perfect medium between “disadvantaged” and “dead in the water” than blindness can. In Wait Until Dark, the villains aren’t trying to kill Audrey Hepburn’s character (at first) because they’re searching for smuggled drugs, not satiating a bloodlust. Mia Farrow’s blind victim in See No Evil actually does face a cold blooded killer, but is almost totally helpless to stop him on her own (though like any good horror heroine, she’s extraordinarily resourceful). Wait Until Dark would have been a much shorter film had Roat moved to kill Susy Hendrix from the start. When analyzing it as a trend, blind protagonists are more conducive for slow-burning, cerebral movies, but against a visceral slasher or stalker, the odds are just not there (but I’d love to be proved wrong! Am I missing a key film, or does the great blind slasher protagonist have yet to exist?).
One scene from another movie may further illustrate the use of blindness in stalker/victim dynamics. The final scene of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) depicts F.B.I. agent Clarice Starling thrown helplessly into darkness by the killer Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb. We see Starling stumble around the room, padding at walls and tripping over clutter, from Gumb’s point-of-view, which is illuminated by a pair of night-vision goggles. Starling is oblivious as he reaches out to her, almost touching her, almost caressing her, but not quite. Finally, Gumb pulls out a gun to kill her in the dark, but he moves slowly to savor the moment. That arrogant hesitation as he cocks his revolver is his downfall. The click of the hammer panics Starling. She turns around quickly and fires several shots into Gumb, sending him dead to the floor. This scene illustrates several concepts of both the blind victim and blind stalker dynamic. As a victim, the blinded Starling is unable to immediately notice her sighted stalker, and the sighted stalker gets cocky vis-à-vis his blinded victim. The tables turn, however, when an inadvertent sound (the cocking of the revolver) gives Gumb away, enabling Starling to kill him.
Inverting the other issue of hand (e.g. a deaf stalker and hearing victims) is less complex, but only because it’s so futile. Deafness may possibly impair a stalker, but not nearly at the game-changing level that blindness does. If they can see you, you’re dead. If they can hear you, you’re soon to be dead. If they can touch you, you’re definitely dead. Take away a stalker’s hearing, and they would probably be just as effective as any other killer. They may actually be worse off – deafness would make a stalker easier to ambush, and consequently, overpower, and the act of planning and executing an ambush would inherently invert the dynamic back to having a deaf victim again.
The blind man’s sightlessness in Don’t Breathe emphasizes all the most dramatic thing about stalker villains: the stalking. The emphasis placed on the searching for his victims is astronomical, and unlike with sighted stalkers, his victims can’t rely on one good hiding place or try to just outrun him. He needs just one touch or one sound to find and kill a victim. In response, the burglars must be absolutely silent in order to evade him, but his sightlessness can be taken advantage of by hiding in plain sight. Hush does the same thing with the roles reversed, using deafness to reasonably depower the stalker victim in a way that’s emblematic of the role and accentuates its inherent disadvantages. These sensory modifications make the cat-and-mouse game much more active for both the cat and the mouse, bringing out the best, conceptually, of everything that makes the genre work.