by Ashley How Kai Xin
Sensory deprivation in horror films is far from a novel concept and has been effectively utilised to evoke visceral fear in audiences across time, notable examples being Wait Until Dark (1967) and Don’t Breathe (2016). As the characters are never able to fully perceive the horror that threatens their mortality in its entirety, the fear of the unknown and sense of complete isolation is only further amplified. Recently, the horror film genre in popular culture has adopted a trend of coercing its characters into situations where obscurity and the voluntary loss of one of the 5 general senses becomes instrumental to their survival. Deviating from the aforementioned films that have visually impaired characters as members of the cast, the characters of this new type of film are able-bodied for the most part and have to use external means to emulate disability. Films The Quiet Place (2018) and Bird Box (2018), wherein characters are forbidden to make sounds and see respectively, have pervaded popular culture to inspire internet trends like the “Bird Box Challenge”. Needless to say, this post-apocalyptic thriller resonates deeply with the modern audience, perhaps even beyond its scare factor and horror elements.
The film follows the story of survival for Malorie Hayes and her two young wards in a world ravaged by unknowable beings that overwhelm the mind to the point of insanity, causing them to act out on violent, suicidal impulses upon a single glance. The only way to escape this horrific fate is to avoid seeing these beings, and the only way to avoid seeing them is to avoid seeing entirely. In their meagre attempt to survive this hell on earth, windows are plastered with newspapers and makeshift blindfolds from worn fabrics stay affixed over eyes. Though audiences get to witness the events from a third person perspective, at crucial moments where Malorie encounters the creatures, the film switches to a first person perspective behind a blindfold and only auditory cues of the horrors are provided. In a more superficial sense, blindness as a motif and as the premise of the story telling in Bird Box serves to inculcate fear in its viewers, contributing to the success of the horror film for its intended purpose. Taken literally, the loss of sight conjures feelings of anxiety and despair usually associated with the dark, the unknown, being lost and isolation. As Radcliffe aptly details the able-bodied, ocular normative experience when confronted with such circumstance: “It’s your idea of what they look like, and details are added to a body and a shape that you have no concept of. To a face that might have no face at all.” (Radcliffe, 2006). The sighted insist on conjuring visual representations of the world, and when none exists, fear persists.
Blindfold from a first person perspective when Malorie encounters the creatures
Yet, voluntary blindness when contextualised within the whole film, may prove itself to be a form of social introspection and commentary beyond merely a motif in a horror flick. By all means, the characters still interact with the creatures, be it by hearing the urgent whispers of their regrets or feeling the biting cold of a sudden gust blowing past, these forms of encounters do not end up being fatal. Instead, only a full visual confrontation with the threat actualises it in a cruel interpretation of the adage “Seeing is believing” and consequences are then dealt out, though not in the way one would expect. Seeing does not immediately kill the characters; It induces psychosis, which then very quickly spirals into suicide. Therefore, the loss of sight in Bird Box (2018) proves itself to be significant and poignant in intellectual discussions surrounding disability and mental health.
Notably, the film reaches its resolution as Malorie arrives at a facility previously a school for the Blind, now converted into a safe house. The head of the house, Rick, is visually impaired himself and makes incredible effort to contact other survivors who still live vulnerable in the ruins through radio, and guides them to the sanctuary that he has established. This detail has captured the attention of many disability studies scholars as the film subverts the stereotypical portrayal of blindness, reversing Gothic depictions of disability as monstrous or metaphor for ignorance or weakness. On the contrary, it portrays disability as protection, challenging the assumption of helplessness imposed onto the Blind. At the same time, a clear distinction is made between the main cast and the characters described as “criminally insane”. Aside from the visually impaired, another group that remains unaffected are patients suffering from mental illness. Upon first sight of the creatures, they are spared the compulsion to hurt themselves, but are then compelled to idolise and advocate for this unseen horror; they roam the streets littered with corpses and pull down the blindfolds of any unfortunate to cross their paths. In this regard, it would be facetious to claim that the portrayal of blindness in Bird Box (2018) is skin-deep.
I argue that the significance of blindfolds and the intentional loss of sight in Bird Box is not merely to promote its horror elements, but instead carry greater and more profound messages of empowerment but also criticism of the condition of current society. By the end of the film, the mystery of the real nature of the horror is intentionally kept unresolved, and this ambiguous definition leaves room for different readings for what it could mean to not see the creatures. This article shall expound on voluntary blindness in the film’s contribution to the perception of disabilities and as a reflection of the stigma surrounding mental health rampant in the real world.
Rewriting the Disability Narrative
Following the incredible rate at which the film had situated itself in the public eye upon its release, many disability scholars have come to question its value or cost with regards to the modern disability narrative. In “Bird Box and the Imperative of Sight”, Lipenga argues: “In disability studies, the ableist gaze is detected in the able-bodied individual’s fascination with the disabled body, and the desire to view it from a position of comfort. In so far as it makes viewers imagine the experience of blindness, Bird Box promotes this ableist gaze. However, […] we have moments when the ableist gaze is reversed, especially since the whole narrative is about how what is assumed to be “normal” is essentially a position of endangerment and vulnerability, words normally associated with the disabled body.” (Lipenga, 2021) This particular trope of voluntary disability lends itself to the contradictory nature of such films that place the disabled in positions of power yet subconsciously deny their existence by making this disability reversible, providing an otherwise disturbed abled audience with reassurance. However, it can still be considered a successful step in the right direction towards an accurate and empowering portrayal of disability in popular media.
The film encodes messages of empowerment in two distinct ways: firstly, with the caveat that disability rather than ability ensures survival, and secondly, with the degeneration of connection between the sighted characters. The film opens with a scene of Malorie delivering an impassioned lecture to the two children, warning them that “if [they] look, [they] will die”, and this chilling message continues to hang over the characters and watchers heads as we see characters who do not heed this advice end their lives in gruesome ways. Finally, at the film’s end, Rick and Janet Tucker School for the Blind provide Malorie and her children a sanctuary of lush greenery after their harrowing fight for survival. In juxtaposition, when Malorie congregates with a group of survivors in Greg’s house after the initial outbreak of the creatures in America, animosity and distrust run deep amongst the sighted and able-bodied characters. Notably, Douglas threatens the group with his shotgun upon their first meeting, and refuses to let anyone else into the house. Later on, Felix and Lucy secretly leave the house with Greg’s car, the only avenue for the group to safely move outside the house. In direct challenge to the notion that blindness is isolating, Malorie was not able to find a community with the able-bodied but rather with the Blind. Hence, the preference for blindness over able-bodied-ness is evident, denouncing our current society that is structured to prioritise the able-bodied anatomy. The film portrays disability as protection, challenging the assumption of helplessness imposed onto the Blind. The film’s explicit empowerment of people with disabilities is successful in subverting our preconceived ableist notions of survival, offering criticism about our current society that is physically but also psychologically structured to prioritise the able-bodied anatomy. As observed by Lennard Davis, “Film is a medium whose main goal, one might say, is the construction and reconstruction of the body”, hence the portrayal of the body on screen, with its diversity to include disabled as equally as abled, has the potential to rewrite culturally acceptable anatomical forms (Davis, 1995). Therefore, Bird Box establishes itself in the body of films that contribute to the acceptance of such bodies as part of the human variety.
However, the film’s fixation on and even exaggeration of the struggles that people with visual impairment regularly face over the portrayal of adaptation seriously compromises its inclusive message. As observed by Coleman in “Apocalyptic Disability: Mass Disability and Fear in Apocalyptic Narratives”, the film seems to suggest that the blindfolding limits quality of life as they cannot live fulfilling lives without sight (Coleman, 2020). With the distinction between indoors and outdoors, since the creatures faithfully follow the film’s rules of not being able to enter houses, blindness is only depicted in grave situations that take place outdoors, such as the navigation of unfamiliar spaces and the direct interaction with the creatures with the other senses. When indoors, characters can take off their blindfolds and these moments are associated with safety. Thus, blindness is subconsciously associated with doom and loss, and the repeated emphasis of the characters’ vulnerability while blindfolded only further contributes to the fear of disability in audiences. Moreover, Coleman and other disability scholars have noted the lack of adaptive methods that are commonplace in the Blind community, such as white canes, which would have assisted Malorie immensely. Nonetheless, as blindness is utilised to emphasise the dire situation, Malorie is left helpless. Even the film’s resolution leaves ambiguity regarding its true message; Malorie finds asylum with the Blind community, however she retains her sightedness at the end of it all as if the previous traumatic events had never transpired. Through emphasising the hardships of blindness, and the sense of loss that is associated with it, the film reinforces the harmful feelings of fear that are associated with disability. The Bird Box Challenge that soon followed the film’s release is but a manifestation of the misconceptions that were perpetuated in the film. Many participants had put themselves in extremely dangerous situations, like driving a car blindfolded, and the main takeaway was fear and helplessness.
The Stigma Surrounding Mental Health/Illness
At odds with the supposedly inclusive narrative surrounding the issue of physical disabilities like blindness, the othering of the characters identified as “criminally insane” seems hypocritical. In which the Blind have been associated with salvation, the “psychos” who can move freely without blinding themselves are associated with certain death. Many have found this to be very offensive as these patients have been villianised, portraying them as the harbingers of doom to the “normal” characters. The newest addition to the survivor group Gary eventually kills everyone except Malorie and Tom after it was revealed that he was an escaped patient from a mental asylum. Similarly, Malorie encounters another such person while on the river who grabs and attempts to pull her blindfold off. He exclaims that “[The creatures] shall cleanse the world. Everyone must look.” To resist succumbing to psychosis induced by the creatures, survivors refuse to look at the “psychos”.
Albeit in a roundabout manner, the film acts as a mirror of current society that has progressed much further in the awareness and acceptance of physical disabilities than that of invisible mental disabilities. In other words, wherein sight enables the deterioration of mental wellbeing, voluntary blindness in the film is metaphor for the wilful ignorance and negligence that society administers onto the mentally ill. A key element that sets Bird Box (2018)apart from other thriller films is that death is not brought upon directly by a monster, but a deep depression induced in the people compelling them to commit suicide. This particular detail situates the film firmly in the discussion of mental health as the self-inflicted nature of evil is reminiscent of the experience of mental illness. Only the “criminally insane” can look at the creatures and remain unaffected, which can be interpreted as people who have suffered from severe mental health issues are accustomed to the sights, feelings and impulses that would otherwise compel neurotypicals to self-destruct. When characters put on blindfolds to avoid seeing the creatures, they also avoid seeing all the corpses of people who had taken their lives on the street, mirroring society’s wont to sweep suicide attempts, successful or otherwise, under the rug as it is universally viewed as taboo. The film also conveys the idea that the mentally ill want to spread their illness as they become servants for the creatures trying to “convert” other people via forcing “normals” to see. This antagonistic portrayal may be a symptom of people’s ignorance towards mental disability and the inherent fear of contracting it themselves. In the face of increased visibility and awareness of mental illness due to social media, many have sought and received diagnoses, which may seem like the spread of disability like a contagion. However, this latency of disability among abled bodies does not necessarily evoke fear, but rather provide them a reason to consider issues of inclusion and accessibility. Once people realise that disability is a possible reality for themselves, societal structures and laws may change accordingly.
Bird Box (2018) with its novel concept of voluntary blindness for survival is rich with meaning both indexical and metaphorical beyond its horror genre. Whether beneficial or detrimental, the film has made its mark in the realm of disability studies by subverting stereotypes, wherein the disabled are now the saviours and not the saved. Beyond physical manifestations of blindness, actively choosing not to perceive the reality around oneself has its own implications about the way modern society views and internalises things. As we curate our individual newsfeeds with echo chambers of information, do we not also choose to be ignorant where convenient in the same way Malorie blindfolds herself from the apocalypse?
Coleman, Annah. (2020). Apocalyptic Disability: Mass Disability and Fear in Apocalyptic Narratives. Manitoba, The University of Manitoba.
Davis, Lennard. (1995). Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. New York, Verso.
Lipenga, Ken. J. (2021). Bird Box and the Imperative of Sight. In B.R. Grafius & G. Stevenson (Eds.), Seeing the apocalypse: Essays on Bird Box (pp. 15-29). Pennsylvania, Lehigh University Press.
Norton, R., & Radclilffe, A. (2006). On the Supernatural in Poetry. In Gothic readings: The first Wave, 1764-1840. Leicester, Leicester Univ. Press.