On Autism In Horror

The genre has long provided a powerful voice for marginalized communities – when, then, will it do the same for those who are neurodivergent?

By Douglas Laman · @DouglasLaman · June 16, 2021, 10:18 AM PDT
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Azhy Robertson in COME PLAY (2020)

When I was a kid, my primary exposure to horror movies was merely through their DVD covers. The films in this genre always seemed too daunting and too likely to cause nightmares to be worth actually watching. But peeking at the covers of horror films at the local Blockbuster or Half-Price Books, that was manageable. As I clutched the various copies of classic horror films like The Blair Witch Project or Scream, I imagined what kind of movies could be contained with those videotapes. What chilling cinematic secrets awaited underneath those enticing covers?

Whatever horror films I imagined in my adolescent brain, it’s doubtful any of them involved characters who were like me – because few if any of the characters in these horror films were on the autism spectrum. After all, mainstream films largely ignore autistic individuals, unless it’s a narrative where somebody autistic helps guide a neurotypical protagonist through life lessons. The erasure of autism in cinema extends to horror, as well, a trend scarier than anything Freddy Kruger could come up with.

This doesn’t mean horror cinema has entirely been devoid of characters on the autism spectrum. Two separate films from the last five years have both featured autistic characters in prominent roles. Despite coming from entirely different filmmakers, both movies end up indulging in similar problems that plague most media depictions of autism.

First: the 2020 film Come Play. The feature-length directorial debut of writer/director Jacob Chase, Come Play concerns adolescent Oliver (Azhy Robinson), who has a non-verbal form of autism. This child uses his iPad to communicate with others and, among his passionate interests, enjoys watching SpongeBob SquarePants (thankfully, it’s just episodes from the first three seasons). Eventually, Oliver discovers that a monster named Larry is hiding within his tablet. Though Larry claims that he just wants to be Oliver’s friend, the possessive attitude Larry exhibits towards Oliver makes it clear that this invisible figure has sinister plans for the child.

In certain ways, Oliver is an improvement on past autistic film characters, horror or otherwise. For starters, the film isn’t afraid to explicitly label Oliver as autistic. So many films opt to have characters exhibit behaviors associated with autism but never go so far as to utilize that term. Come Play wants viewers to be scared of many things that go bump in the night, but it doesn’t want to instill fear over someone being autistic.

In another welcome departure from the norm, Oliver is shown to be an active participant of the plot in several scenes, as well as harboring a desire to be social, and is even the only character aware of Larry’s nefariousness from the get-go. What a welcome contrast to the more passive roles autistic people are usually reduced to in cinema. Plus, it’s cool that Oliver has a love for SpongeBob SquarePants, a nice touch that reflects how the cartoon is a staple of many real-world individuals in the autistic community.

On a personal note, it was also surreal to see a mainstream film nonchalantly depict an in-classroom helper for Oliver. I’ve never seen an autistic character in movies have the kind of academic assistant I had in my public education experience. So weird to see a tiny aspect of your life reflected in cinema for the first time. Imagine if more autistic film characters evoked reality in such a striking manner.

Unfortunately, for every step forward in handling autistic characters, there are also steps backward in Come Play. For starters, the film hinges on how there’s a strain on Oliver’s parents, Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) and Marty (John Gallagher Jr.), caused by their son’s autism. It’s a pity there couldn’t be a more creative way to reflect a wedge being drawn between these characters, given how many movies depict autism as a “burden” on parental figures.

Sarah’s relationship with Oliver, meanwhile, is defined by her desire to get him to finally talk and make eye contact with her, two aspects made impossible by Oliver’s autism. For a moment in the third act, it looks like Come Play will eschew the easy pay-off to these desires by having Sarah accept Oliver’s autistic traits, by saying, “I know you’re still listening to me... probably more than I listen to you."

Unfortunately, Chase’s script has a bad habit of leaning heavily on distractingly convenient outcomes. As a result, Come Play doesn’t just have Sarah work with unique aspects of her son. Instead, several key climactic moments in Come Play entail things like Oliver finally speaking as well as making eye contact with his mother. Here, Come Play tries to convey a sense of “triumph” through Oliver’s “overcoming” aspects of himself tied into his autism, all in the name of tying a tidy bow on his character.

Oliver's needing to shed behaviors associated with autism to finally connect with or be helpful to his mom has an unshakably uncomfortable undercurrent. Reducing autistic traits to a series of Chekhov’s Guns that Chase can fire off in the third act ends up undercutting Oliver as a person. There’s a way to do this kind of development right, as seen by a moment in Maya Angelou’s Down in the Delta, where a non-speaking autistic two-year-old finally speaks for the first time. There, Angelou incorporates a sense of randomness into this moment. This not only makes the scene more realistic to life, but it ensures that focus remains on the autistic character in question rather than just using this development to hurriedly move the plot along.

That kind of thoughtfulness eludes the abrupt changes in Oliver during the finale of Come Play. It’s one of several ways that the whole home stretch of Come Play does Oliver dirty. Just as disappointing is how Oliver is reduced to a background player lugged around by his mom as they try to evade Larry. Sarah even gets the big moment of self-sacrifice that finally wards off Larry, despite the undoubtedly more organic resolution to the story being for Oliver, himself, to “defeat” Larry. After all, Larry has been pursuing Oliver the entire film; shouldn’t Oliver, then, be the one to ward off this beast?

Imagine if Scream had ended with Sidney Prescott suddenly being saved by Dewey Riley, or if another character showed up at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to rescue Sally Hardesty from Leatherface. It’s so thrilling in horror movies when our lead characters are able to evade or even outright defeat the scary villains of their own accord. That kind of satisfaction, an ingredient missing from so many cinematic narratives about autistic people, is also missing from Come Play. By its conclusion, Oliver is reduced to a spectator, not an active participant.

Instead, the finale of Come Play is played through the eyes of Sarah. After so much of Come Play has been played through the perspective of Oliver, these closing scenes of Come Play shift the focus onto his mom. In the process, the film becomes, like most of pop culture, something for the eyeballs of neurotypical viewers, rather than something that can entertain and resonate as relatable for autistic moviegoers.

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One of the few other horror films like Come Play to feature a notable autistic character is the 2016 Kevin Bacon vehicle The Darkness. Here, autism appears in young Michael (David Mazouz). In the story proper, Mikey begins to connect with an imaginary friend named Jenny that turns out to be a demon. Their bond spurs a whole slew of strange events for the various members of his family, which include parents Peter (Kevin Bacon) and Bronny (Radha Mitchell). As the family crumbles, Mikey’s new friend devises a plot to use this child as the centerpiece of a ritual that will result in Mikey’s demise.

Compared to Oliver, Mikey is far less of an active player in The Darkness, with much of the focus of the movie being centered on his family and the various strange ways they react to the presence of a demonic entity (vomiting, turning to heavy drinking, etc). Mikey’s autism is mostly incidental to the plot, with the realities of being someone with autism only coming up once when Peter comments on all of the effort he’s put into trying to understand his son.

The Darkness offers little insight into who Mikey is, his interests, or what things are like from his perspective. Honestly, his autism just comes across as a slapped-on garnish meant to make this film somehow inherently different from the countless other films about adolescents encountering demons. Once Mikey is kidnapped by the demons, things get even worse. A character with already minimal amounts of agency has his autonomy reduced further. The focus largely shifts to the neurotypical family as they finally unite to save Mikey in the climax of The Darkness.

Much like in Come Play, autism gets minimized entirely in favor of letting non-autistic characters get to stand center stage. This kind of emphasis results in both films featuring a neurotypical parent imploring an otherworldly entity not to take their autistic son away. While these parallel sequences could inspire a fun Letterboxd list header, it does emphasize the lack of imagination in tackling stories about autistic individuals in horror movies.

These aren’t the only places troubling similarities emerge between Come Play and The Darkness. For starters, both depict autism manifesting in children, which contributes to how both pop culture and society, in general, perceive autistic people as inherently child-like. Also shared across Come Play and The Darkness: autism manifests in cis-het white males, a demographic that dominates pop culture’s approach to autism.

Unfortunately, neither of these two films nor the general portrayal of autism reflects the reality of the autism community, which is a lot more diverse. Autistic people vary greatly in terms of ethnicity, sexuality and gender identity. Those complexities are erased in projects like Come Play and The Darkness in favor of adhering to the gender and racial norms established by early autistic film characters like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. No single movie is expected to encompass all of the diversity in this population, but it’s disappointing that neither of these horror movies tries to switch up what kind of autistic people get to star in movies.

Worst of all, both movies reduce their autistic characters to passive observers in their respective climaxes. The Darkness makes a half-hearted attempt at giving Mikey something to do by letting him use his newfound bravery to shut down a portal that demons can walk through, but it’s a case of too little, too late. Both autistic characters end up as props in the finales of their stories, which is unspeakably aggravating to watch unfold.

In terms of horror, it’s also worth mentioning that Come Play and The Darkness also struggle to create scares specific to the experiences of autistic people. Many of their frights came off a conveyor belt of other movies involving young kids encountering monsters, with Come Play especially evoking The Babadook and Poltergeist. While their cinematic influences are apparent, their influences on the realities of being autistic are not. In the various scary set pieces, it’s hard to parse out any elements that are meant to evoke the psyche of an autistic person.

The generic nature of these productions doesn’t just let down the narratives, it also ignores the creative avenues in exploring autistic perspectives through horror storytelling. This wasted opportunity is, unfortunately, reinforced in the scant few other autistic characters that have emerged in other horror titles. Tiffany from Hellbound: Hellraiser II, for example, is coded as an autistic teenager, but doesn’t get fleshed out as a character beyond adhering to another autistic stereotype: the math savant. Meanwhile, the 2010 horror film Burning Bright features a protagonist whose younger brother is on the autism spectrum. This figure is another horror movie character who’s both a supporting player and a child.

Looking over the shallow pool of autistic characters in horror movies, it can be easy to get discouraged. The only valid way to be autistic onscreen is to be a small child whose story is in the service of an older neurotypical character. This feeling only gets exacerbated when looking over fan theories over characters who could be autistic. Rather than fun concepts over loveable horror movie protagonists evoking traits and experiences associated with autism, many of these theories build on the cruel stereotype of autistic people being “emotionless” to diagnose famous cinematic serial killers. One such theory centers on the idea that Michael Myers is autistic, while similar concepts have been drawn up for Leatherface.

It's unconscionable to believe that the only role for autistic characters in horror cinema is as gruesome slasher movie villains. It only gets more sickening when one accounts for how this perception isn’t limited to just horror cinema. Of course autistic people are seen as something as terrifying as masked killers wielding chainsaws, when the anti-vaccine movement is built upon the idea that kids getting a deadly disease is preferable to their being autistic. We create monsters out of autistic people in reality. Why shouldn’t our art do the same?

To make matters worse, many of the stereotypes related to autism found in movies like The Darkness are not exclusive to horror fare. All movies and art tend to view autism through a restrictive, childlike, and often dehumanizing lens. But a way of responding to these autism stereotypes could be exclusive to the horror genre.

Horror has often been used to vividly convey the experiences of marginalized groups, chipping away at toxic stereotypes in the process. Night of the Living Dead, Nightbreed, A Quiet Place, Jennifer’s Body, Get Out – the list goes on and on. Horror is full of movies that challenged norms about who gets stories told about them, while also delivering scares that keep you up into the thick of night. The experiences of the marginalized were barely subtext here and informed much of what was defined as “scary” in these pictures. The results were a mixture of entertainment and thought-provoking power that only horror can do so well.

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If horror could provide an outlet for these points of view to be humanized, surely the same can be done for autistic perspectives. Some of the better moments of films like Come Play have a specificity to them that shows what future horror films revolving around autism can build upon. At the same time, the weaker moments of Come Play and the entirety of The Darkness offer a blueprint for missteps to avoid.

One particular misstep to avoid in the future is the lack of participation from autistic individuals in these films. Though Chase consulted with specialists for Come Play, nobody involved in this or The Darkness is (openly) autistic, including the performers portraying the autistic characters. Involving autistic people on a prominent creative level, especially in portraying on-screen autistic individuals, will help mightily in making these characters feel more authentic.

Similarly, showing more imagination in the kinds of autistic characters who appear in horror films would be ideal. Not only would expanding the gender and racial norms of autistic horror characters be good for diversity, but it’ll help future scary films avoid feeling too derivative of the past. Let’s also embrace the idea that autistic people can be adults, too, dealing with problems of being a grown-up! That’s true to life, and also rich with possibilities for horror storytelling. For example, my own recurring insecurities over whether or not I’m as “capable” as neurotypical people my own age feels more terrifying than any of the classic Universal monsters. Tap into those kinds of specifically detailed experiences in storytelling!

These are just two of the many ways horror movies can improve on the meager amounts of autism representation seen in this domain to date. Horror films offer up so many unique and exciting ways of creating storytelling filtered specifically through an autistic lens. Hopefully, those possibilities can someday be realized, resulting in the kind of horror cinema I could never have imagined possible when I was a kid.