By Bobby Kent
I was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. The more complete medical term is SMA Type 2, meaning since I’ve been able to speak, I’ve been using a wheelchair. The muscles in my legs wasted away long before I’d ever have a first memory, so for as long as I can remember I’ve been using wheelchairs. I’ve had electric power ones. I’ve had manual wheeling ones. As a young kid I had a flashy yellow one that you could see from a mile away. I’m very familiar with life as a wheelchair user and what it is like to be in one. I’m also a fan of horror. Despite the fact I scare so easily, you will find me enjoying a spooky game or a scary movie every now and then. A strange overlap of these two things made itself very clear to me from a young age – for some reason, wheelchairs are seen as scary. I can safely say never once have I been scared by the form of transport I’ve sat in for years, but to a lot of folks, a wheelchair, with or without someone in it, is an easily recognizable trope of horror.
The examples of wheelchairs being used in horror media, from video games to movies, are extensive. The way in which wheelchairs can be used is also varied. Sometimes wheelchairs are abandoned, and used to set a creepy atmosphere to set up greater, unrelated scares. Alternatively, sometimes the wheelchair is the intended scare, having a person, typically elderly, sit in one. One of the earliest examples I could find is from the 1980 movie by director Peter Medek called The Changeling. In it, a demonic, possessed wheelchair chases a woman around a house with nobody in it. Wheelchairs are often seen abandoned in asylum-based horror settings, such as in Batman: Arkham Asylum. An example of them being used in violent horror includes games such as Bloodborne, with its Wheelchair Huntsman enemies. These Huntsman enemies are wheelchair-bound old men that are quick to attack the player with ranged weapons, but bizarrely cannot move. The Silent Hill: Downpour boss Wheelman is a further example of a horrifying, violent creature. Wheelman is a corpse that is fused to their wheelchair and life-support system, with weak and thin atrophied legs hanging under him.
We see wheelchairs all over the place in horror, but what is it about them that makes them scary to a lot of people? I believe the answer to that can be found in the settings of which they are so often used. You find them abandoned in asylums or in the attic of an old house, sometimes occupied by an elderly person. The reason they are being seen as so creepy is therefore likely due to how they remind able-bodied people of their own fragility, or a loss of control over their own bodies. It’s no secret that able-bodied people often see disabled people as fragile and helpless, and a wheelchair is one of the biggest known symbols of disability. The use of this item as a prop in horror is scary because it is a very real and often unavoidable fact of life. We all age, and the older we get the more likely we are to end up with health conditions, potentially resulting in wheelchair use. The use of the wheelchair is seen so widely by society to represent vulnerability, the presence of one can unsettle able-bodied audiences. This could be them, this could be their own future.
This interpretation of a wheelchair being scary to able-bodied people due to its interpreted vulnerability is probably best reinforced with an example from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. The film features a disabled character named Will, who uses a wheelchair daily but can walk in his dreams. In his dream near the end of the film, Freddy Kruger invites him to sit in his wheelchair, now covered in blades, before it begins to chase him down in an attempt to kill him. The symbolism here could not be more clear. The able-bodied audience is invited to be terrified as a disabled person, who ‘escaped’ the trap of his wheelchair and is chased down by it in an attempt to kill him. The bespectacled character Will Stanton, to the audience, is seen as trying to escape the device which binds him to his perceived fragility and vulnerability.
The bizarre antics of wheelchairs in horror can seem very entertaining, but for disabled users, wheelchairs are part of our reality. The cliche ultimately feels harmful to our community, as the reason behind its inclusion is a false perception of us. The only reason it is scary is because of the way it evokes the idea of helplessness and sickness to able-bodied audiences.
But that is not what a wheelchair is for us at all. I and many other disabled people live and thrive in our wheelchairs. It does not represent my vulnerability, but instead symbolises my strength. This is the way I have to live, and this is the way I’m stuck navigating the outdoors, and I use my chair to the best of its ability to navigate the wheelchair-unfriendly world we live in. My wheelchair is a symbol of defiance against the able-bodied normativity the world was created around, and it represents the boldness I face these challenges with to live life to the fullest. I am not fragile, I am strong, and my wheelchair supports me with that strength.
To wrap it up, let me reassure you: it’s okay to still feel a bit creeped out by an abandoned wheelchair in a hallway of your favourite video game, or to enjoy those cheesy 80s horror movies where the wheelchairs wheel themselves around. What matters to me is that hopefully the able-bodied readers who took the time out to read this piece realise where that horror trope comes from, and accept that it doesn’t represent disabled people, old and young, in any way. Disabled wheelchair users are not vulnerable, we are not trapped by our chairs, and they’re certainly not scary.
Bobby Kent is a writer living in the U.K. who contributes to the New York Videogame Critics Circle.