The first time we meet the killer in Mike Flanagan’s 2016 film Hush, he arrives with two misunderstandings. The first misunderstanding is when Sarah (played by Samantha Sloyan) bangs desperately on French doors as our protagonist, Maddie (Kate Siegel), cleans up from cooking dinner. She uses sound—from her hands, from her mouth—to try to get Maddie’s attention. She uses what she knows. She becomes the bloodied, terrified portrait of desperation until the killer catches up with her; then, she becomes a martyr.
Despite learning American Sign Language and even possessing an ease with it, Sarah doesn’t remember or understand, in the throes of her desperation, that Maddie is deaf. The film shows us in its opening sequences—via Siegel’s physicality and a cutting out of sound—that Maddie doesn’t wear hearing aids or a cochlear implant. She also chooses not to speak out loud.
Maddie’s deafness is further emphasized by a FaceTimed, signed conversation between Maddie and her sister, Max (Emma Graves). “I worry about you,” Max says. “It’s not good for anyone to be all alone…isolating yourself the way that you do—”
Maddie cuts her off, “Isolation happened to me. I didn’t pick it.”
Maddie has chosen to embrace the solitude of her deafness—wherever that might lead her.
The second misunderstanding comes from the killer himself (John Gallagher Jr.). After he kills Sarah, he thumps against the glass, and Maddie doesn’t respond. He thumps again. No response. Thumping again, louder, more violent. Flanagan pushes in on Gallagher’s eyes, the rest of his face behind a mask, as Gallagher’s character comes to the same conclusion that Flanagan is, slowly and surely, leading the audience to at that moment.
Maddie is deaf, and therefore, her deafness means she’s easy prey.
As a deaf person, I’d seen that same sly glimmer in Gallagher’s gaze appear in other people’s eyes before. People have taken advantage of the fact that I can’t hear well; they see my deafness as a weakness.
The film makes this mistake, too. It tries to manufacture a tension that doesn’t go very far, because despite Siegel’s competent signing, it refuses to see Maddie’s deafness as anything substantial. At the beginning, we get the cutting out of sound. We get the awkward attempts at signing, and the ensuing flickers of connection between Sarah and Maddie. We’re guided into Maddie’s headspace, and then, as the kills start, we quickly pull out of that headspace as the movie moves on.
We never enter that interesting space again. We lose access to Maddie’s experience. The killer murmurs his lines to Maddie in a monotone. There are moments when Maddie signs—but it’s out of frame. Flanagan’s growing negligence around giving Maddie’s deafness space shows his clumsiness with that subject. And, further, it shows us how shallowly he’s considered the role of a deaf character in this film. To him, deafness is quirky—something that spices up the movie, but not something that requires understanding.
That superficial, predatory gaze, by the killer and by the film, is all too common. At first glance, people often see my deafness as only a disadvantage—in reality, my deafness is why I have my life.
Even as Maddie comes out as an uncompromisingly deaf person from the start, the film seems to treat her deafness on its most basic level—she can’t hear or talk because she suffered from a case of meningitis when she was young. The film goes as far as having Sarah ask Maddie about how she became deaf. Beyond that, the film shies away from the topic. Flanagan doesn’t seem interested in the opportunity for the film to explore deafness in any way other than as a medical problem. Maddie’s eye-roll at a website geared towards Deaf dates made me cock my head in excitement—was it possible that she’d been put off by the Deaf community, as I once had been?—but the lack of follow-up made me deflate.
Despite her argument that isolation chose her, Maddie craves it to the extreme—even as she fosters a friendship with Sarah. She accepts friendships, but not community with those like her. She’s alone, but not lonely.
In setting up the film, Maddie’s deafness, as told by Flanagan and Siegel, is a study in contrasts and contradictions, both an inquiry and an embarrassed glossing. We’re introduced to Maddie as a deaf person, even a culturally Deaf person, someone who uses ASL. We understand very little about her deafness and her life as a deaf person, beyond what she does to fill in the gaps and understand hearing society around her. As the film goes on, Maddie’s deafness starts to feel less and less necessary to the story. And Flanagan understands that a cursory explanation of Maddie’s deafness is valid, even necessary, in this context. But, much like the killer, the film doesn’t seem interested in deafness beyond how it impairs her, how it sets her apart from other victims.
The film is much more sympathetic to Gallagher’s role of predator than to Siegel’s role of prey. From the moment the killer steps onscreen, we largely split the screen time between him and Maddie. We watch the killer stalk her. We watch the killer receive information about Maddie’s deafness from an unsuspecting neighbor who also ends up dead. Instead of spending time fleshing out Maddie even deeper, we enter a new movie entirely: a cat-and-mouse chase.
That’s a fundamental betrayal. The film spends so much time with Maddie, making her sympathetic—even complex—that I can’t help but ache for more. To have the film spend its opening on how Maddie became deaf and the choices she’s made as a Deaf individual is at odds with how it sidesteps her deafness later in the film. Signs are shown offscreen. There are moments where the killer moves without being felt or seen by a character who relies on sight and touch. As the movie progresses, the film’s flaws become more and more glaring. Above all, the film doesn’t know what to do with a deaf character, its lead character.
The film’s clumsiness towards Maddie is one that undermines the entirety of the film itself. It’s a clumsiness that I know all too well.
Part of my fascination with science fiction, fantasy, and horror is the prospect that the scenarios that come about could happen to anyone. The characters are real people, with their own plans and ambitions and dreams—until a plot twist happens. Anyone could stumble upon a portal that leads to an entire other kingdom, get stalked by a crazed murderer, or communicate with aliens.
I saw myself in the everyman character, and I loved it.
But as much as I loved watching fantastical and surreal situations happen to horny teenagers and inquisitive scientists alike, there was a part of me that wondered if my deaf self could join them. I wondered if there were spaces for someone like me.
Hush was an answer to that question. But I wondered if it was my answer.
When I was young, I was often the only deaf person in the hearing environment, on the hearing roster, in the hearing room. It was an isolating, lonely experience; I’d often leave parties and school events exhausted, my eyes aching. Lipreading and wishing for solitude were my constants growing up, and I often wondered if I was putting in too much work for the wrong person, the wrong room, the wrong goal. It was easier, sometimes, to choose solitude and let other people make their preconceptions when I didn’t show up.
With horny teenagers and inquisitive adults, I found that same relentless forward momentum that burned in me. I wanted to be a part of it. Never mind that I barely knew what it was. They were making their way towards something, towards survival, and on the other side was a world waiting for them.
Watching the screen, temporarily, I was one of them. I was someone who was hopeful, who fought towards the world I wanted and what I knew it could give me.
With Hush, the character was someone different. Her struggles were my struggles. Her communication was my communication. She fought back, but I couldn’t figure out what she was fighting for. There was a world for her waiting on the other side, but it was also a world that denied people like her, people like me.
The world was coming to her, I thought, and it was tearing her apart.
Overall, Hush is a strange movie. It champions its central character, a deaf woman, as someone strong, independent, and in control. But it’s a film that doesn’t know what to do with her, beyond medical ideals and an insistence upon isolation, and it weirdly reflects the world and its ableism. Horror has always been a medium where truths about the world are often shrouded in mystery, blood, and gore. Horror is a place where, most of the time, the brutality of the world can be seen and compounded upon.
On its surface, Hush is a clumsy gimmick. It’s an experiment with losing sound and dialogue in a way that only suits hearing people and their ideas of deafness and disability. Look past the elaborate uses of silence and signing, and Hush, even with all its fumbling and uncertainty and bloviating hearing gaze, lands somewhere beyond just gimmick—and it presents an idea about the state of disability and how disabled people live in our modern ableist society.
It presents an idea, but it never follows through. Even as there are people like Sarah who are well-meaning, who strive for connection and empathy with disabled folks as best as they know how, there are also people who seek to perpetuate and uphold destructive systems and ideas, because they benefit from other people’s destruction. Hush’s cat-and-mouse structure shows us how disabled people must be ingenious in avoiding destruction. Hush shows us the disabled experience, even if it never comments on it. Hush cares about its protagonist, but not the community to which she belongs. Beyond sign language, beyond sound cut-outs, we get nothing of Maddie as a deaf person. To me, the film’s bleak hollowness, its presentation without commentary, is what makes it hit too close to home. We’re worthy enough to be shown, but not worthy enough to be a genuine topic of conversation.
Often, disabled people avoid obliteration by the skin of their teeth.
As the movie progresses and Maddie becomes more and more wounded, the contrast in how Flanagan tenderly sets up her character as well as the brutal, uncompromising ways he wounds her makes for an unnerving experience. We spend time with a deaf person, alone and vulnerable, only to see her being taken advantage of. And while we can understand how Flanagan might want to experiment with the idea of presenting horror without sound, while we might see the aesthetic and artistic merits in centering deafness in a genre that often disables its protagonists and makes light of body horror, the question of why still remains. Should we be interested in how far Flanagan takes things with this entry into the slasher genre, even via a few speculative detours? Should we root for Maddie, the uncompromising Deaf person, even as her signing ceases to be shown onscreen?
Flanagan could have gone further.
That the film never really gives us an answer to why Maddie fights back or why the killer picks her, and neglects to tip the scales in one direction or another, is surprising given that we learn so much about Maddie and the reasons why she might choose isolation—despite her saying otherwise. After dodging and feinting attack after attack, after having her shoulder sliced and her hand mangled, Maddie comes close to death—so close, in fact, that Flanagan employs a heartbeat sound line and several flashes of faded photographs. But then, the final corkscrew in the plot lands, and the killer is dead.
Maddie came close to death, close enough that my fists clenched when the flashes of young Maddie started. The film’s twists and turns were certainly an effective way to keep the viewer guessing. But it’s hard to not wonder, with such brutality and blood, what the movie is supposed to offer up to the viewer beyond blood and scares and a sparsely dialogued story.
It was an experiment, Flanagan says, and we shouldn’t look at it any further. But I still leaned closer even as the credits rolled. I still want more. I ask for more from a movie that refuses to give it to me. What does Hush say about loneliness and isolation? What does it say about deafness, about disability, even as we isolate ourselves? Is it worth it to isolate ourselves? Is it worth it to find community?
From a hearing director, is there anything to say on deafness?
If so, then why didn’t the movie say it?
There isn’t a good metaphor to explain the flatness of the hearing gaze, the way it often dissects and delineates. The questions at every party are all too familiar. Can you read lips? How much can you hear? Can you drive? It’s not often that we find an image or a film that truly encapsulates the searching curiosity, the way the hearing person seeks something from deaf people that fits their needs and their goals.
Hush is the closest thing I’ve found. With the measured gaze of the killer as he watches Maddie cook, I shook my head as I saw it linger, as Flanagan took it in. It was all too familiar. I knew that flat, obsessive curiosity. In the context of this horror film, in the context of Hush, I was seeing it for what it really was.
Even as films progress and deaf characters become more and more commonplace, there’s something to be said for a film that merely observes deafness. Hush is by no means a perfect representation of deafness. Many would call it clumsy. Many would call it uneven and strange. It tries to use deafness in a deft and interesting manner, and, for the most part, ends up bungling it.
Still, film is meant to show us something of ourselves, even the fantasy and the horror. Even with its half-hearted attempts at building out a Deaf character, which I largely scoffed at myself, I still found myself shuddering by the movie’s end. I couldn’t shake the way the movie and its villain looked.