Spoilers ahead for Cube, The Predator, and Come Play. Proceed at your own risk.
When describing the feeling of being considered “the other”, it has occurred to me how often this feeling is used to accurately process the horror genre. Horror has never truly felt like a “niche” aspect of cinema in terms of general appeal to mainstream audiences. Even people who claim to not stand horror movies are at least familiar with some of the genre’s most iconic titles like The Exorcist, Halloween, Scream, and more.
But horror has always felt like “the other” in terms of its place in the hierarchy of cinema. Despite its immense profitability, horror will always be closely tied to the label of B-movie status; the genre is the red-headed stepchild of cinema of which only a select few “elevated” ones are allowed a seat at the table. The rest are left to flounder in their own clique, separate from the nuances that audiences see in non-horror movies.
Maybe that’s why somebody on the autism spectrum like me has always found horror to be fascinating. I speak purely from my own experiences, but despite the lengths I went to in order to not scare myself from a horror movie when I was a kid, I still came back to the genre. I never understood why it just started clicking for me the older I got. Was it puberty? A large part of it, for sure. But there was something bigger in play.
When I watched them, I felt as though they were my companions, even the shitty ones that our family would sometimes rent from our local video store. They felt like creations that were forced away when in the presence of company or strangers. No matter how much we loved them, there was always a hint of shame when other people and family came by and realized that we were much more partial to films that depicted things like disembowelment, murder, demons, an undead Snoop Dogg, etc. We loved them, yet they existed in our home as “those” movies that sat beside serious movies that we were more likely to be open with our admiration about.
It’s the kind of feeling that has long been associated with the stigma surrounding people on the autism spectrum. Despite existing on the same plane as the rest of humanity, there is something about their disorder that inspires curiosity from people not familiar with them. The reaction isn’t universal nor would I say that it leans towards negative (at least in the US), but they are often singled out regardless for their behavior and how out of the norm it appears. No matter how well we aim to treat someone on the spectrum, a subconscious part of ourselves will associate them as part of “the other.”
It’s a lonely feeling even when millions of people are reported to be on the spectrum because the deficiencies in our social skills often get in the way of us branching out and making new friends. It can be difficult even for someone with mild symptoms like myself, but severely autistic people are likely to have one of the hardest experiences in socializing with people that aren’t their immediate family. They’re on the inside, but looking in from the outside.
Horror movies serving as the middle-man between loneliness and companionship for autistic people may seem odd on the surface. Autistic people are often raised with this perspective early on while movies have the opportunities to change themselves up long before release. But a genre that has thrived as a part of “the other” almost feels like a match made in heaven for autistic people to not only enjoy, but potentially even see themselves in.
It’s a nice concept to center a horror movie around an autistic character to learn about a new perspective, but representation of just this has been limited in the world of cinema in general, even more in horror. A person on the spectrum becomes open to filmmakers taking the most base-form idea of what the disorder entails and twisting it into a distorted adaptation that veers into shameless exploitation.
The excuse of it being “movie magic” only works for so long before the traits being forced onto autistic people that were once quirky and unique become their defining features in future films. Autistic characters with personalities become a living checklist for filmmakers who, good intentions or bad, add to this attitude of extremism that mainstream audiences may associate with autism.
A common trope for autistic characters is the savant, meaning that they are written as highly intelligent people whose skills seem borderline superhuman despite their social limitations. Savants exist in real life and are heavily associated with people on the spectrum, yet you’d think that most autistic people are some kind of savants based on their common portrayal as these fascinating beings on another plane from “normal humans.” On its own, exploring the life of a savant is fascinating, but under the horror genre, it has given way for filmmakers and studios to borderline weaponize it by consistently implying that extraordinary abilities are just expected for someone on the spectrum.
Even when an autistic character in a horror film isn’t considered a savant, their disorder is still singled out as something potentially “extraordinary” in the film’s universe. Examples of these include films like Rose Red, The Predator, Cube, Dark Floors, and Bless the Child. Their stories may differ, but the idea behind them is strikingly similar: a person (normally a child or in the case of Kazan in Cube, an adult man with a childlike attitude) possesses either immaculate talent in a certain field, such as vocabulary or mathematics, or their disorder makes them “special” and a target of interest, often existing as the key towards overcoming the main conflict of the stories.
It may sound complimentary to regard these characters as special in a positive manner to imply that their disorder is some sort of blessing in disguise, but at best, it’s a well-intentioned, yet misinformed portrayal of a real disorder. At worst, it’s a tired stereotype of both autistic people and savants, the latter in which only crosses over with roughly 10% of the amount of people officially diagnosed as being on the spectrum. Around 50% of savants have some form of autism, but the latter is considered more common, yet that hasn’t stopped filmmakers and studios from teaching audiences that autistic people are special beings different from normal people.
The portrayal of Rory in The Predator comes to mind as one of the most prominent examples of this “special” phenomenon. The boy is shown to be autistic and while that itself seems like a nice chance for genuine representation, the true purpose of his character written to be autistic becomes clear when the Predator believes that his disorder is actually the next step of human evolution, prompting Rory to be kidnapped to be saved by the actual main characters of the film.
Representing autism as a necessary next step towards human evolution speaks volumes towards the filmmakers having next to no clue how to portray this type of disorder for the screen. Fetishizing autism as some sort of brilliant biological coincidence ignores the general factors of autism, such as repetitive behavior, lack of social communication, restrictive ways to maintain organization, etc. I may be harping too hard on a movie about alien warriors slaughtering hapless humans, but if the filmmakers are going to bring a very real disorder to the forefront, a little research can go a long way into making sure that they don’t look silly and misinformed in the end.
Worse yet is filmmakers using the “special” or “savant” card to supplement writing a genuine character with flaws, goals, and some semblance of realism. Even in a great horror film like Cube, Kazan exists less as his own character and more of a prop used by the others to solve the mystery of the cube when he is revealed to be able to decipher the numbers of each room. By no means is he a horrible character nor am I implying that filmmakers are maliciously writing their autistic characters this way. But when nuance is gone from a subject that requires loads of it to even understand, there comes a risk of exploiting a real disorder as an aesthetic choice.
It’s especially a shame when the horror genre, known for tackling our darkest fears in a straightforward manner, has not been taken advantage of to accurately illustrate the fears of autistic people. “The other” in horror films often have this stigmatic aura to them, making even characters (particularly lonesome villains) meant to garner sympathy for being so different feel more like cases of pandering. It doesn’t help that many horror villains intended on being tragic characters are still viewed as the antagonists for our heroes to overcome.
This trend bleeds over into writing horror movie protagonists as awkward social outcasts, which can only go so far when the characters have enough of a blank slate to never truly pinpoint a specific feeling of loneliness and otherness. That in and of itself may be a sign of some progress in the horror genre to try and include everyone, but the fears of otherness and loneliness exist in a different context for people on the spectrum. Our fears of being a burden may be shared with many different people who are not diagnosed, but generalizing it all under one roof can lead to widespread misunderstanding for a delicate subject.
Children are often considered sponges based on their ability to retain almost anything surrounding them in their youth, but I think this applies to adults as well. We gather information from what we view, hear, and are taught by the people around us. Therefore, when our exposure to autism includes limited and stereotypical portrayals such as these, this misunderstanding is liable to cause greater harm in establishing a true connection with someone on the spectrum.
With that being said, the complicated history of autistic portrayals in film is why I was cautiously excited for the new monster horror-thriller, Come Play. In it, a young autistic boy named Oliver (played by Azhy Robertson) is shocked to discover that a monster called “Larry” lives inside a mysterious story app on his phone and desperately wants to meet Ollie in the real world. However, this already unbelievable story doesn’t sound real coming from him since he’s non-verbal and requires a communication app to speak.
Right off the bat, Come Play messes around with the rules of horror movie structure by writing not only an autistic character as the main lead, but one that cannot even communicate through physical talking. Characters like him are often destined to be slotted as the child/driving force of the adult main character and while Ollie’s parents play a big role here, this is his show for a nice change of pace. We are exposed to Ollie’s way of life instead of it being insisted/explained by other characters.
The idea of this autistic boy being the one person that Larry needs in order to break free from his digital prison has small hints of “savant” stereotyping, considering that Ollie’s presence somehow motivates him to try and make friends with him. But it becomes clear that Ollie’s disorder in the film is not ultimately shown to be this unpredictable and dangerous force that exists as the unexplained kryptonite to the villain. He is simply a lonely boy whose autism has caused great pains to both his parents and his ability to easily make friends.
Come Play is honest in how autism could potentially affect a family’s home and social life without pinning the blame on the disorder itself. Ollie’s mother, Sarah (played by Gillian Jacobs) displays some of that shame I mentioned earlier, such as letting small incidents with Ollie embarrass her in public to forcing him into having a “normal” sleepover with kids from school despite knowing how withdrawn he is from others. The desperation for “normalcy” can often confuse and even scare an autistic person, driving them into a deeper state of isolation in order to feel safe from these fears.
Though I personally don’t find the film to be outstanding in how it tackles these themes, Come Play still stands as a step forward for autistic representation not just in horror, but film itself. A character’s autism is not used as vehicle to drive the plot forward nor is it implied to be this mysterious otherworldly presence. Rather, it is a part of Ollie’s life and the film navigates this tightrope by properly exploring Ollie and his interactions with others. Despite being a supernatural film, his autism isn’t on the dissection table to be torn and exploited; the effects of his disorder are kept grounded in reality.
Progress is being made, but it would be foolish to stop here. With the age of the internet allowing us to view content from around the globe, the opportunities to broaden our perspectives are practically banging on our doorsteps. The stigma surrounding autism and its need to be “fixed” can begin to change with something as seemingly innocuous as a horror film about a monster that lives inside a smartphone. The seeds regarding the more honest truths about life with autism can be planted and movies and shows in the future taking autism representation to the next level is the water needed.
This is not to say that I am advocating for all horror films to suddenly pivot to autism-heavy stories to make us feel included out of pity. It is not the responsibility of the filmmakers to force representation of autism into their films if the core of their stories does not call for it. A filmmaker and/or screenwriter putting it in solely as a ploy to get our hard-earned money is much more disrespectful than a film that simply doesn’t have any autistic character in it. But autism in horror movies has greatly suffered from inaccurate and stereotypical portrayals that either subtly demonize or fetishize it for mainstream audiences.
Life with autism is complicated, whether it is with a mild, moderate, or severe form of it. It is a disorder that can help families grow closer together or be torn apart from the stress. For future horror stories centered around an autistic character (or characters), they shouldn’t be exactly like Come Play. Filmmakers can tell different stories and approach the subject from other informative and engaging perspectives. Casting autistic actors in more common roles, gradually removing the fetishization of the disorder while still exploring savant characters in a different manner, etc.
Horror is unique in its versatility and filmmakers should feel empowered to go beyond the structure and tropes that audiences are used to. Autism is deeply connected to the heart of many real-life stories that are shocking, heartwarming, and terrifying in some cases. Seeing them and similar stories portrayed in such an accepting area of film can serve as steps towards transforming the topic of autism into something that can be discussed in a more open manner.
Autism representation may generate some eye-rolls on first glance, but it is imperative in helping us all understand, empathize, and even contribute support in our own manner. Film is a storytelling medium and it feels like it should be about time that the roughly 25 million people diagnosed to be on the spectrum worldwide can have their stories told in the crazy world of horror.