There is a rote mundaneness that is inherent to preparing food, even the most exotic dish, which renders our auditory senses dulled. The sizzling succulence of fats and juices, the grinding and gnashing of peppers and spices, the satisfying slice of a knife—even the purifying rinse of leafy greens and fruits is so routinized it’s unnoticed. Our sensory awareness to the methodologies we use to find and produce meals, too, is absorbed into the swirling sonic phenomenon of food preparation—we are oblivious to the clacking on a keyboard as we scour blogs for recipes, or the flipping of pages as we comb through a cookbook. These sounds are minutiae, part of a pastiche of a standard activity.
In the opening moments of 2016’s Hush, the hearing-abled viewer is beset with drastic auditory depravation: a woman prepares a meal, balancing her attentions among something frying in a pan, vegetables boiling, and her laptop with the recipe perched on the countertop. In an amniotic silence, she goes through the motions, the camera using intense precision cuts and close-ups to highlight visually what is absent sonically. Once mundane, the scene of preparing food is immersive yet distancing, acutely calling to attention all that the abled viewer takes for granted. We are left contemplating if things are dangerously overcooking, if timers are going off, what sort of stimuli we disregard as triggers we are completely missing. This disorientation is paramount to the viewer’s preliminary understanding of the nature of the film, establishing a brilliant discomfort and dislocation before the film’s tormenting terror ever unfolds.
The terror of Hush, though, is rampant and insatiable, and certainly more so for the sensory deprivation that predicates the film’s narrative. Directed by Mike Flanagan—a director who boasts a curiously kitsch aesthetic in his other films Absentia (2011) and the irritating yet intriguing Oculus (2013)—the film has a fairly conventional, if not compelling, premise: a young writer, Maddie (the illuminatingly expressive Kate Siegel, who co-wrote the film with her husband, Flanagan) was rendered deaf-mute after a bout with meningitis as a teenager and now lives in relative seclusion in a bucolic house, where she is mercilessly stalked by a demented killer after he murders her neighbors. Hush is replete with the archetypal horror tropes—isolation; a woman tortured by a psychotic, senseless male killer; disconnection from WiFi and other forms of contact; the dread and discombobulation of nightfall. What sets Hush apart, however, is the plot device of deafness and how it circumvents and undermines expectations surrounding the disability.
[spoilers follow] Maddie’s deafness calls to mind the motif of blindness masterfully used in the thriller classic Wait Until Dark (1967), in which Audrey Hepburn’s character is unwittingly held hostage in her own home by men seeking out stolen drugs who realize they can take advantage and prolong their manipulation of Hepburn. Maddie’s torturer functions in a similar manner. Upon savagely murdering her neighbor, purposefully and ruthlessly thrashing the body against Maddie’s glass door, the killer confirms Maddie’s deafness after breaking into her home, stealing her phone, and taking pictures of Maddie as she signs a skype call. When Maddie is finally made aware of the killer’s presence, in a moment of brilliant exploitation of technology (he texts her the pictures he has taken of her to the messenger on her computer), he informs her that he will be methodically tormenting her, with the sick pleasure of knowing she has an added element of presumed defenselessness.
Despite what is established about Maddie’s disability and her stalker’s presumed advantage over her, it is precisely Maddie’s deafness and the adaptions she has made for it that empower her. Auguries of this empowerment are hinted at subtly and cleverly in Maddie’s exchange with her neighbor mere moments before the neighbor’s violent murder. As the two women have a convivial exchange about Maddie’s book and mastering sing language—which, interestingly, also places Maddie in a position of power: as her friend fumbles in her sign language (Maddie clearly possessing the upper hand), a shrill alarm blares from inside the house while it fills with smoke. The two rush inside, and Maddie is able to scramble to the alarm to deactivate it, while her friend is rendered immobile with the outrageous loudness of it. “That’s one hell of an alarm,” her neighbor critiques after the din dies down, to which Maddie responds that it is a safeguard against potential danger. Unbearably loud alarms create vibrations through floorboards and walls and make utensils and objects ricochet, thus allowing Maddie to be alerted to danger she might otherwise be at a deficit to sense. Her home and routine are replete with a myriad of tricks to cue alertness, in addition to her hyper-attuned vision and depth perception. And so when the horror begins to unfold, the killer severing communication lines, pacing outside Maddie’s home in an attempt to outwit her, to taunt her with a vile game of cat and mouse, Maddie is able to rely on the facets of her life created as mechanisms to adapt to her deafness.
Disability in Hush not only upends stereotypes and caricatures trenchant in other portrayals in film, specifically horror, but also functions to enrich the uniquely and distinctly feminine brand of power that dominates and drives the film. By all prima facie examinations and assessments, Maddie is the quintessence of the stock horror heroine—she is beautiful; she is smart in the “fierce” way; she is isolated in the woods and “keeps to herself” (as her neighbor describes); she is unattached to a man (a trope that’s jokingly prodded at throughout the narrative); she is at the mercy of a demented man. And yet, Maddie, through the unfettered relentlessness channeled by Katie Siegel, transcends and defies all of these ghettoizing, stock characteristics. Much of this is through her innate intellect and resilience, but these qualities are further enhanced by the acuity Maddie possesses that is a machination of her deafness—her femininity and her deafness coexist, cooperate, and strengthen her. Maddie is able to deftly navigate her pitch-black home, readjust her arrow-mangled leg, and outwit her brutishly swift stalker because of her deafness. Moreover, just as, one can assume, she is targeted for her femininity and disability, she is able to champion the grisly situation because of those very characteristics.
Certainly, there are elements of augmented dread and writhing discomfort in moments where Maddie is aware of imminent threats but cannot communicate vital information to those not as hyper-aware as she: the scene in which she watches in agonized terror as the unwitting husband of her slain neighbor stumbles upon the killer outside perhaps is one of the most poignant. But from the film’s meticulous opening, which demonstrates the efficacy with which Maddie conducts her existence, it is apparent that disability, just as archetypal femininity, are not confines but constructs that can be torn apart and reestablished in ways that give autonomy and strength, and imbue a kind of perseverance in a way that does not reek of or wallow in tokenism. We as the viewers are immersed in Maddie’s world not in an empathetic way, but in a way that conveys that she has, throughout the entire film, the advantage; she possesses the skills and adroitness to survive the terror inflicted upon her. Hush is at its most sneakily smart when it puts the viewer in far more peril than Maddie—we are at the behest of the megrims of the killer, we are defenseless. This is no more blatant than in the denouement of the film, in which Maddie relies on her “voice”—the voice she hears that guides her writing, and the voice, presumably, that guides her emotional, intuitive self—and her submersion in her inner self to triumph over her stalker. Desperate to attack, Maddie strategizes the possible methods of fleeing her home—each she acts out with gruesome accuracy, the voice in her head fragmenting, warning her of every potential danger. After a violent, frenetic struggle, Maddie is able to debilitate her attacker with her fire alarm (prophesied in the opening scene), and eventually tricks her attacker into believing she is dead to ultimately, satisfyingly kill him. Maddie is not subjected to the scopophilic torment that other female horror victims endure—she is not violated or brutalized for fetishistic entertainment. Her turmoil is authentic and ruthless. More importantly, Maddie prevails because of her adroitness, and the complexities of her identity make and define her mettle.