The horror film Hush (2016) has attracted attention since its release due to the uniqueness of its central character—a deaf–mute author who lives in a world of silence. Maddie Young (Kate Siegel) moves into a remote cabin in the woods to recover from a breakup and finish her new novel. Aside from a cat, she is alone in the house, only engaging with loved ones via online messaging or video chats during which she uses American Sign Language (ASL). Maddie cannot hear nor speak, so writing is her primary mode of creative expression, and a key source of information for the audience. This article explores both the presence and absence of text in Hush, examining how textual “captions” of various kinds are both provided and withheld at key moments. As an author, Maddie battles the limits of written language as she struggles with writer’s block. As a person, she fights the limits of silence and isolation as a brutal killer invades her retreat. Accordingly, this article examines how the interplay between silence, text, and sound invites viewers to identify with the heroine’s experience and ultimate triumph.
Hush is best described as a slasher—a horror film in which a single (usually male) killer stalks and kills a series of victims with relentless determination (Clover, Men, Women). Slashers are about close, visceral killing—blood and the hard stab of the knife. With her big brown eyes and gentle presence, quiet, deaf Maddie is clearly framed as a lamb to slaughter in the opening scenes. Indeed, throughout Hush, Maddie’s lack of hearing is leveraged to increase suspense and horror. The classic pantomime cry of “He’s behind you!” is taken to dark extremes as the audience watches a nameless man (John Gallagher Jr.) stalk the writer in her isolated house. She is unable to hear him enter the building, unable to sense him looming behind her. Neither does she hear him killing her friend outside on the porch, banging her body loudly against the French doors.
And yet, despite her vulnerability, she rises to the challenge. Fighting back against her attacker using a variety of multisensory strategies, Maddie assumes the role of the “Final Girl” in this narrative. As Carol Clover has explained, the Final Girl is a key trope of slasher films, forming part of their essential structure. While others in the film are killed, “she alone looks death in the face; but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B)” (Clover, Her Body, Himself). However, reviews and discussions of Hush typically frame Maddie as a Final Girl with a difference. Adding disability into the equation is seen as “revolutionising” the trope (Sheppard) and “updating the Final Girl theory” for a new age (Laird). Indeed, the film presents its Final Girl as simultaneously deaf and powerful—a twist that potentially challenges the dynamics of the slasher and representations of disability more generally.
My Weakness, My Strength
The opening sequence of Hush introduces Maddie’s deafness through the use of sound, silence, and text. Following an establishing shot sweeping over the dark forest and down to her solitary cottage, the film opens to warm domesticity. Close-ups of onion, eggs, and garlic being prepared are accompanied by clear, crisp sounds of crackling, bubbling, slicing, and frying. The camera zooms out to focus on Maddie, busy at her culinary tasks. All noises begin to fade. The camera focuses on Maddie’s ear as audio is eliminated, replaced by silence. As she continues to cook, the audience experiences her world—a world devoid of sound. These initial moments also highlight the importance of digital communication technologies. Maddie moves smoothly between devices, switching from laptop computer to iPhone while sharing instant messages with a friend. Close-ups of these on-screen conversations provide viewers with additional narrative information, operating as an alternate form of captioning from within the diegesis. Snippets of text from other sources are likewise shown in passing, such as the author’s blurb on the jacket of her previous novel. The camera lingers on this book, allowing viewers to read that Maddie suffered hearing loss and vocal paralysis after contracting bacterial meningitis at 13 years old. Traditional closed captioning or subtitles are thus avoided in favour of less intrusive forms of expositional text that are integrated within the plot.
While hearing characters, such as her neighbour and sister, use SimCom (simultaneous communication or sign supported speech) to communicate with her, Maddie signs in silence. Because the filmmakers have elected not to provide captions for her signs in these moments, a—typically non-ASL speaking—hearing audience will inevitably experience disruptions in comprehension and Maddie’s conversations can therefore only be partially understood. This allows for an interesting role reversal for viewers. As Katherine A. Jankowski (32) points out, deaf and hard of hearing audiences have long expressed dissatisfaction with accessing the spoken word on television and film due to a lack of closed captioning. Despite the increasing technological ease of captioning digital media in the 21st century, this barrier to accessibility continues to be an ongoing issue (Ellis and Kent). The hearing community do not share this frustrating background—television programs that include ASL are captioned to ensure hearing viewers can follow the story (see for example Beth Haller’s article on Switched at Birth in this special issue). Hush therefore inverts this dynamic by presenting ASL without captions. Whereas silence is used to draw hearing viewers into Maddie’s experience, her periodic use of ASL pushes them out again. This creates a push–pull dynamic, whereby the hearing audience identify with Maddie and empathise with the losses associated with being deaf and mute, but also realise that, as a result, she has developed additional skills that are beyond their ken.
It is worth noting at this point that Maddie is not the first Final Girl with a disability. In the 1967 thriller Wait until Dark, for instance, Audrey Hepburn plays Susy Hendrix, a blind woman trapped in her home by three crooks. Martin F. Norden suggests that this film represented a “step forward” in cinematic representations of disability because its heroine is not simply an innocent victim, but “tough, resilient, and resourceful in her fight against the criminals who have misrepresented themselves to her and have broken into her apartment” (228). Susy’s blindness, at first presented as a source of vulnerability and frustration, becomes her strength in the film’s climax. Bashing out all the lights in the apartment, she forces the men to fight on her terms, in darkness, where she holds the upper hand. In a classic example of Final Girl tenacity, Susy stabs the last of them to death before help arrives. Maddie likewise uses her disability as a tactical advantage. An enhanced sense of touch allows her to detect the killer when he sneaks up behind her as she feels the lightest flutter upon the hairs of her neck. She also wields a blaring fire alarm as a weapon, deafening and disorienting her attacker, causing him to drop his knife.
The similarities between these films are not coincidental. During an interview, director Mike Flanagan (who co-wrote Hush with wife Siegel) stated that they were directly informed by Wait until Dark. When asked about the choice to make Maddie’s character deaf, he explained that “it kind of happened because Kate and I were out to dinner and we were talking about movies we liked. One of the ones that we stumbled on that we both really liked was Wait Until Dark” (cited in Thurman). In the earlier film, director Terence Young used darkness to blind the audience—at times the screen is completely black and viewers must listen carefully to work out what is happening. Likewise, Flanagan and Siegel use silence to effectively deafen the audience at crucial moments. The viewers are therefore forced to experience the action as the heroines do.
You’re Gonna Die Screaming But You Won’t Be Heard
Horror films often depend upon sound design for impact—the most mundane visuals can be made frightening by the addition of a particular noise, effect, or tune. Therefore, in the context of the slasher genre, one of the most unique aspects of Hush is the absence of the Final Girl’s vocalisation. A mute heroine is deprived of the most basic expressive tool in the horror handbook—a good scream. “What really won me over,” comments one reviewer, “was the fact that this particular ‘final girl’ isn’t physically able to whinge or scream when in pain–something that really isn’t the norm in slasher/home invasion movies” (Gorman). Yet silence also plays an important part in this genre, “when the wind stops or the footfalls cease, death is near” (Whittington 183). Indeed, Hush’s tagline is “silence can be killer.”
The arrival of the killer triggers a deep kind of silence in this particular film, because alternative captions, text, and other communicative techniques (including ASL) cease to be used or useful when the man begins terrorising Maddie. This is not entirely surprising, as the abject failure of technology is a familiar trope in slasher films. As Clover explains, “the emotional terrain of the slasher film is pretechnological” (Her Body, Himself, 198). In Hush, however, the focus on text in this context is notable. There is a sense that written modes of communication are unreliable when it counts. The killer steals her phone, and cuts electricity and Internet access to the house. She attempts to use the neighbours’ Wi-Fi via her laptop, but does not know the password. Quick thinking Maddie even scrawls backwards messages on her windows, “WON’T TELL. DIDN’T SEE FACE,” she writes in lipstick, “BOYFRIEND COMING HOME.” In response, the killer simply removes his mask, “You’ve seen it now” he says. They both know there is no boyfriend. The written word has shifted from being central to Maddie’s life, to largely irrelevant. Text cannot save her. It is only by using other strategies (and senses) that Maddie empowers herself to survive.
Maddie’s struggles to communicate and take control are integral to the film’s unfolding narrative, and co-writer Siegel notes this was a conscious theme: “A lot of this movie is … a metaphor for feeling unheard. It’s a movie about asserting yourself and of course as a female writer I brought a lot to that.” In their reflection on the limits of both verbal and written communication, the writers of Hush owe a debt to another source of inspiration—Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series. Season four, episode ten, also called Hush, was first aired on 14 December 1999 and features a critically acclaimed storyline in which the characters all lose their ability to speak. Voices from all over Sunnydale are stolen by monstrous fairytale figures called The Gentlemen, who use the silence to cut fresh hearts from living victims. Their appearance is heralded by a morbid rhyme:
Can’t even shout, can’t even cry
The Gentlemen are coming by.
Looking in windows, knocking on doors,
They need to take seven and they might take yours.
Can’t call to mom, can’t say a word,
You’re gonna die screaming but you won’t be heard.
The theme of being “unheard” is clearly felt in this episode. Buffy and co attempt a variety of methods to compensate for their lost voices, such as hanging message boards around their necks, using basic text-to-voice computer software, and drawing on overhead projector slides. These tools essentially provide the captions for a story unfolding in silence, as no subtitles are provided. As it turns out, in many ways the friends’ non-verbal communication is more effective than their spoken words. Patrick Shade argues that the episode:
celebrates the limits and virtues of both the nonverbal and the verbal. … We tend to be most readily aware of verbal means … but “Hush” stresses that we are embodied creatures whose communication consists in more than the spoken word. It reminds us that we have multiple resources we regularly employ in communicating.
In a similar way, the film Hush emphasises alternative modes of expression through the device of the mute Final Girl, who must use all of her sensory and intellectual resources to survive. The evening begins with Maddie at leisure, unable to decide how to end her fictional novel. By the finale she is clarity incarnate. She assesses each real-life scene proactively and “writes” the end of the film on her own terms, showing that there is only one way to survive the night—she must fight.
In his discussion of disability and cinema, Norden explains that the majority of films position disabled people as outsiders and “others”because “filmmakers photograph and edit their work to reflect an able-bodied point of view” (1). The very apparatus of mainstream film, he argues, is designed to embody able-bodied experiences and encourage audience identification with able-bodied characters. He argues this bias results in disabled characters positioned as “objects of spectacle” to be pitied, feared or scorned by viewers. In Hush, however, the audience is consistently encouraged to identify with Maddie. As she fights for her life in the final scenes, sound fades away and the camera assumes a first-person perspective. The man is above, choking her on the floor, and we look up at him through her eyes. As Maddie’s groping hand finds a corkscrew and jabs the spike into his neck, we watch his death through her eyes too. The film thus assists viewers to apprehend Maddie’s strength intimately, rather than framing her as a spectacle or distanced “other” to be pitied.
Importantly, it is this very core of perceived vulnerability, yet ultimate strength, that gives Maddie the edge over her attacker in the end. In this way, Maddie’s disabilities are not solely represented as a space of limitation or difference, but a potential wellspring of power. Hence the film supports, to some degree, the move to seeing deafness as gain, rather than loss:
Deafness has long been viewed as a hearing loss—an absence, a void, a lack. It is virtually impossible to think of deafness without thinking of loss. And yet Deaf people do not often consider their lives to be defined by loss. Rather, there is something present in the lives of Deaf people, something full and complete. (Bauman and Murray, 3)
As Bauman and Murray explain, the shift from “hearing loss” to “deaf gain” involves focusing on what is advantageous and unique about the deaf experience. They use the example of the Swiss national snowboarding team, who hired a deaf coach to boost their performance. The coach noticed they were depending too much on sound and used earplugs to teach a multi-sensory approach, “the earplugs forced them to learn to depend on the feel of the snow beneath their boards [and] the snowboarder’s performance improved markedly” (6). This idea that removing sound strengthens other senses is a thread that runs throughout Hush. For example, it is the loss of hearing and speech that are credited with inspiring Maddie’s successful writing career and innovative literary “voice”.
Lennard J. Davis warns that framing people as heroic or empowered as a result of their disabilities can feed counterproductive stereotypes and perpetuate oppressive systems. “Privileging the inherent powers of the deaf or the blind is a form of patronizing,” he argues, because it traps such individuals within the concept of innate difference (106). Disparities between able and disabled people are easier to justify when disabled characters are presented as intrinsically “special” or “noble,” as this suggests inevitable divergence, rather than structural inequality. While this is something to keep in mind, Hush skirts the issue by presenting Maddie as a flawed, realistic character. She does not possess superpowers; she makes mistakes and gets injured. In short, she is a fallible human using what resources she has to the best of her abilities. As such, she represents a holistic vision of a disabled heroine rather than an overly glorified stereotype.
Hush is a film about the limits of text, the gaps where language is impossible or insufficient, and the struggle to be heard as a woman with disabilities. It is a film about the difficulties surrounding both verbal and written communication, and our dependence upon them. The absence of closed captions or subtitles, combined with the use of alternative “captioning”—in the form of instant messaging, for instance—grounds the narrative in lived space, rather than providing easy extra-textual solutions. It also poses a challenge to a hearing audience, to cross the border of “otherness” and identify with a deaf heroine.
Returning to the discussion of the Final Girl characterisation, Clover argues that this is a gendered device combining both traditionally feminine and masculine characteristics. The fluidity of the Final Girl is constant, “even during that final struggle she is now weak and now strong, now flees the killer and now charges him, now stabs and is stabbed, now cries out in fear and now shouts in anger” (Her Body, Himself, 221). Men viewing slasher films identify with the Final Girl’s “masculine” traits, and in the process find themselves looking through the eyes of a woman. In using a deaf character, Hush suggests that an evolution of this dynamic might also occur along the dis/abled boundary line. Maddie is a powerful survivor who shifts between weak and strong, frightened and fierce, but also between disabled and able. This portrayal encourages the audience to identify with her empowered traits and in the process look through the eyes of a disabled woman. Therefore, while slashers—and horror films in general—are not traditionally associated with progressive representations of disabilities, this evolution of the Final Girl may provide a fruitful topic of both research and filmmaking in the future.
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