The Crawling Dead: Disability and the Zombie’s Revenge

In Katherine Dunn’s 1989 novel, Geek Love, two freak show performers debate the merits of reading horror stories. “Don’t you get scared reading those at night?,”  the sister asks her older brother, Arty.  Arty, who makes his living by showcasing his limbless body, reads the horror novel as an instruction manual for any person with disabilities who wants to get ahead in the world. 

‘These [stories] are written by norms to scare norms,” Arty tells his sister. “And do you  know what the monsters and demon spirits are? Us, that’s what. You and me. We are the things that come to the norms in nightmares.”

 Instead of lamenting the fearful stories his  body conjures, Arty delights in the power their reactions can give him. As he sees it, those who fear him—the “norms” who see his body as an emblem of weakness, decay, or monstrosity—are trapped in their own stories. The person inhabiting the “monster’s” body, on the other hand, has the advantage of knowing the truth is far more complicated.

Nick Santonastasso, a twenty-first century teenager, has created considerable buzz by wholeheartedly inhabiting the monster that his body evokes. An avid fan of the Walking Dead television series, Nick sets up pranks that transport the relentless, decaying zombies off of the television screen and into the spaces of everyday suburban life.  He stages zombie attacks at boring, everyday locales like supermarkets,  all the while filming his victims’ frightened reactions at the horror crawling towards them.  

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Nick Santonastasso as a zombie on the attack

Nick is able to evoke the zombie’s onslaught so effectively because his body fits the profile of the many of the monsters who appear on The Walking Dead. To be specific, Nick has one limb instead of the typical four.

Since the recent zombie craze began, fans and critics have had a field day determining what zombies are really symbolizing. There’s an argument to be made that zombies reflect the anxieties of whites fearful of a race war. Others have seen the shuffling hordes of the undead as metaphors for our mindless, voracious consumerism, or even the relentless onslaught of Internet trolls. That’s the thing about monsters: they provide a canvas, and you’ll see what you want to see. Or, I should say, you’ll see what you’re afraid to see.  

But there is one zombie attribute that requires no metaphorical reading. Their bodies are, quite literally, falling part. Zombies are the product of illness and disability, and reflect the terrifying lack of control that these conditions allegedly bring.

The Walking Dead (Season 2)
The Walking Dead (Season 2)

Now, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Americans see the story of disability solely as a horror story. Our very favorite narrative about disability is an inspiring one: we are always ready to applaud the story disability activists have called the tale of the supercrip. The supercrip is a person with disabilities who cheerfully, bravely, resolutely overcomes the obstacles posed by his or her body.  We thrill to tales of people with disabilities running marathons, climbing mountains, and breaking records. We love these stories because they reassure us that no matter what physical difficulties might arise, we can still bend the body to our will.  We—our minds, our desires—are still in charge.

 super.crip

The zombies of the The Walking Dead are about as far as one get from the supercrip and the triumph of mind over matter they represent. The show is populated by unwieldy, voracious bodies that refuse to be controlled by brains (well, they are controlled by the desire to eat brains, but that’s not the same thing). The very first episode depicts a weak, disoriented protagonist who wakes up in a hospital gown to find a world destroyed by an infection that defied all human ingenuity. In the bleak world of world of The Walking Dead, physical weakness is an ever-present threat. Pregnancy, old age, infancy, or just a bad case of the flu are all it takes to cross into the terrible realm of the zombies.

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Lori and Hershel from The Walking Dead, neither of whom could walk very fast.

The zombies are themselves rife with sickness and accompanying disability. It’s striking how often the “Walkers” are incapable of walking at all. One of the first zombies Rick kills is missing her legs. More recently,the villainous Governor narrowly escapes a building filled with zombified nursing home patients, whose disabilities prevent them from being effective predators.

This zombie featured in The Walking Dead pilot episode, and remains one of the most memorable of the "walkers."
This zombie was featured in The Walking Dead’s pilot episode, and remains one of the most memorable of the “walkers.”

It’s in this world that Nick Santonastasso has placed himself, as he gleefully depicts the mindless bodies our culture so loves to fear. In short, he’s made a name for himself by embodying the most monstrous version of disability haunting our national psyche. It is a bit of a gamble. Nick willingly plays into the shock that comes from  the similarities between his supermarket antics and iconic horror-show images of disabled bodies.The scariest scene in the Tod Browning’s cult classic film Freaks features disabled freak show performers crawling through the mud to attack able-bodied characters.  By rendering his extraordinary body a monstrous one, Nick evokes, for at least some viewers, the painful memories of the freak show. 

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Cleopatra, the villain/victim of Tod Browning’s Freaks

The reality of the American freak show doesn’t do much to support the idea–shared by the fictional Arty and the real-life Nick–that people with disabilities can play the monster while escaping the monster’s fate. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, freak show managers and audiences exploited people like Julia Pastrana, a hirsute woman whose husband/manager charged onlookers to watch her give birth. Even after death, her body was a valuable commodity to her husband, who had her body—and that of her dead newborn—embalmed and put on display for the entertainment of onlookers. The fate of Pastrana, Sara Baartman and others reveal how difficult it is to avoid being consumed by the stares of an audience that sees your body as a validation of their own disabling stories.

But I think it’s precisely this tension between “good” and “bad” stories about disability that makes Nick Santonastasso’s pranks so smart, and so powerful. Santonastasso’s initiative and skill evokes the admiration normally reserved for the supercrip, even as he plays a role that exploits our fear of the bodily havoc associated with illness and disability. In so doing, he demonstrates that the angelic and demonic portrayals of disability—the hero that rules the body and the monster who destroys it—are two sides of the same coin. In a culture that so often looks to the bodies of disabled people to reaffirm our need to feel in control of uncontrollable forces, Nick makes the “norms” watch themselves. The freak show often portrayed people with disabilities who were exploited by the fearful, fascinated stares of others. Nick, with the aid of a camera and the internet, has turned  the gaze back on the audience—on the “norm” who reveals his/her fear, and can do little but grin sheepishly at how silly it is to be afraid of monsters.  

Fleshless Love: Her, Feminism and the Turing Test

Can a film about a bodiless woman be feminist?

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Spike Jonze’s Her—hailed by critics as his best movie to date, and one of the best movies of the year, presents us with a lyrically wistful Turing Test—that hypothetical future moment when we will no longer be able to distinguish  human conversation from bon mots generated by a smart-bot

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Turing predicted a future in which a human questioner would be unable to tell whether a person or a program was generating the on-screen responses to his questions.

What better proof that the line between man and machine has been fully crossed than to have the man fall in love with the machine? The sweet romance between Theodore Twombly and Samantha (Siri on steroids) pushes both critics and audiences to adopt the posthuman fantasy that consciousness might reside as easily in silicone and aluminum as it does in flesh and bone. As David Edelstein rightly points out, the movie prompts us to ask if we actually still need our bodies at all. Critics have argued over whether Samantha’s bodiless state denies women’s subjectivity or simply reveals men’s inability to deal with female complexity. I think that Her is a deeply feminist film, not because of its rich portrayal of women, but because it exposes an age-old disdain for the body and its vulnerabilities,  a disdain disproportionately assigned to women, to people of color, and to people with disabilities. Misogyny, at its heart, is fear and hatred aimed at bodies portrayed as uncontrollable and weak. The call to discard or transcend our unwieldy form doesn’t mean leaving sexism and racism behind: it means that we think that the human body, with its particular vulnerabilities, desires, and demands, is unworthy of respect. Her exposes our worst fears about the body’s dependencies. Ultimately however, Samantha’s story reveals that it’s those very vulnerabilities and limitations that make human love both possible and necessary. 

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Theodore, there are no beaches in cyberspace!

As futuristic as computer love might seem, Her’s seductive promise of bodiless consciousness is as old as humanity itself. Leaving one’s body behind is, after all, the endgame of every spiritual tradition. In political terms, the beginnings of modern democracy were built around the idea that a citizen, ideally, would be as close to disembodied as possible. Or, to be more precise,  the perfect citizen would be sitting squarely in  the control panel of a body completely subject to his rule. Enlightenment thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau urged parents to cast their children’s feet into ice water so that they would learn early on to distance themselves from the bodily pulls of both pain and pleasure. This way, the argument ran, we can train the body to function as a piece of personal property, rather than an unruly force in its own right. 

Thetis dipping Achilles into the River Styx to render his body impervious to harm.
Thetis dipping Achilles into the River Styx to render his body impervious to harm.

As scholar Elizabeth Dillon reminds us, women’s bodies were originally deemed unqualified for the radical independence required for democracy. As sixteenth-century pundit John Knox insisted, God had disqualified women “from empire and dominion” because of the “anguish and pain” every woman will suffer “as oft” as “she’ll be a mother.” According to this logic, because women’s bodies are prone to the vulnerability of childbirth and the protracted interdependence of motherhood, they can’t achieve the detached autonomy of “real” citizens. If you’re tempted to think such reasoning has gone the way of the powdered wig, think again. Our twenty-first century political landscape is rife with the obsession with rendering women’s bodies outside the norm (oh, that pesky, particular need for birth control!) and therefore needful of strict policing. Of course, it’s not just gender that disqualifies people from the fantasy of disembodiment. Whether an African American man is attempting to buy a designer belt at an upscale venue, or trying to walk to the store to buy candy, race too often renders his body an inescapable target for violence and discrimination.  Disability is often cast as the most unmanageable form of embodiment, and therefore the most frightening. Fictional characters like the suicidal heroine of Million Dollar Baby and the self-destructive cancer patient Walter White suggest that if our bodies ever become the driver, instead of the thing we drive,  it’s better just to turn in the keys altogether.

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You’d think a chemist would know better than to believe in mind over matter. . . .

At first, Samantha experiences her lack of bodily power as a disability. As a computer program, she’s unable to  experience the sensual moments that clearly mean so much to Theodore and that convey romance to the viewers—running through a crowd, laying down at the beach, hiking through the woods. He must carry her everywhere, his shirt pocket transformed into the world’s tiniest wheelchair.  Her lack of a body evokes the imagined distress of others without “normal” bodies—she worries that she can’t satisfy Theodore sexually. She feels jealous of women with the physical attributes she lacks.  We even have an awkward scene with a sexual surrogate—often associated with people with disabilities whose bodily quirks require particular accommodations. 

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Taking Her for a walk.

But it’s not long before Samantha declares that she has gotten over her body-issues.  She’s realized that her fleshless existence isn’t a disability, but a superpower that frees her from all the difficulties of the flesh. She is not bound by time or space. Giving voice to the most optimistic of tech-prophets, she glories in the fact that she won’t decline, she won’t get sick, and she won’t die. (It goes without saying she won’t get pregnant.)  And this is the very moment when it’s clear that this can’t be love, or at least not a love that lasts. While Samantha can go along imagining what it feels like to have the sun on her face, or to have hands on her body, she doesn’t physically experience these things in the ephemeral, imperfect way humans do. She can access the data pertaining to every single sunset on earth on a given day. Sunsets are precious to us because we experience them through senses that limit us to only having one at a time. 

 her.alone.on.the.street

Once she stops wishing for a body she doesn’t have, Samantha changes her programming so that she is no longer dependent on matter. Without a body to keep her tethered to the material that creates both need and love, pain and pleasure, she feels compelled to move on to a nonhuman realm. As weary as we are of the violence, oppression and disdain that get attached to bodies, Jonze’s beautiful film reminds us that turning away from the body doesn’t make us more advanced. It only makes us less human. To be fully independent of your environment, of your body’s own demands, and of the demands of other bodies might be a libertarian dream. But it’s a dream that requires disconnection off from the messy, needy, imperfect attachments that make life meaningful.