Take your dominant hand and hold up your index and middle finger. It should look like the letter “V”. Now curve the ends of your fingers so they resemble a pair of fangs. Take those “fangs” and press them against your neck. Congratulations, you’ve just learned how to say vampire in American Sign Language!
If you are new to American Sign Language (ASL), you might not find this sign especially useful for day to day life. For horror fans on the other hand, a basic knowledge of ASL might be more advantageous now than ever. Over the last decade, movies like Hush (2016), A Quiet Place (2018), and A Quiet Place Part II (2020) have solidified ASL’s place in mainstream horror fiction.
The inclusion of ASL is important here, because it allows us to make an important distinction between two ideas: representations of d/Deaf people in horror, and representations of sign language in horror. One of the first d/Deaf people we see in Western cinema is Hugo in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which introduced us to the pervasive trope of the “deaf-mute” assistant.
“The appearance of disabled individuals as assistants also points to perhaps the most pervasive use of characters with disabilities in horror films: supporting characters who contribute little to the narrative but a lot to the ominous tone a horror film frequently demands.”(Travis Sutton 78)
The lack of a signed language among d/Deaf characters in early horror films, or the designation of the label “deaf-mute”, immediately renders these characters voiceless and leaves them little room to express their thoughts and feelings, allowing d/Deaf people to be represented as having “silent hearts, devoid of coalition, passion, or any spark of human kindness” (Sutton 78).
Alternatively, investigating the usage of ASL in the horror film reveals a much more interesting history, starting with the independent film Deafula (1975).
Deafula follows Steve Adams, the son of a preacher and theology student. Steve has been chronically ill since childhood and has relied on blood transfusions from his father to stay alive. Meanwhile, two detectives are investigating a series of murders, which they suspect to be the work of a vampire. When a young couple on a motorcycle attempt to rob Steve, it is revealed that he transforms into Deafula, a vampire with a healthy bloodlust and powers of increased strength and hypnotism. When Steve’s father’s cardiovascular health begins to decline and Steve begins to feed on more victims, he seeks out his mother’s best friend Amy to find answers about the nature of his existence. Amy reveals to Steve that his mother was engaged in an affair with Dracula during her pregnancy, making Steve the son of both the preacher and Dracula. After visiting Dracula’s tomb and killing him, Steve repents his sins and sacrifices himself to God.
The film was written and directed in 1975 by Peter Wolf, who also stars in the film as Steve/Deafula. Deafula is often credited as the first movie created entirely in ASL; no spoken languages are used throughout the film and many of the actors in the film are Deaf. Aside from the title, d/Deafness is never actually addressed in the story. Instead, the story is set in a world where hearing people do not exist, and the use of “sign language, doorbells connected to blinking lights, and teletypewriters” is considered the norm (Sutton 83).
To understand the perfect storm of events that led to the creation of Deafula, there are three important things you need to know about Deaf culture in the 1970s.
Firstly, you need to know about the Milan Conference in 1880. Prior to this conference, there were two schools of thought regarding d/Deaf education; manualism and oralism. Manualists (such as Abbe de L’Epee and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet) believed that the d/Deaf and hard of hearing should be educated in a signed language, arguing that sign language was the “native communication and education method of deaf people” (Jay). Oralists (such as Alexander Graham Bell) believed that d/Deaf and hard of hearing folks should be taught speech therapy and lip reading as a way to assimilate them into hearing society.
Alexander Graham Bell was a social Darwinist, who fought ardently to enforce eugenic policies and to eliminate d/Deafness from the human race. Bell was particularly concerned with reproduction in d/Deaf populations and encouraged the “dilution” of “undesirable” blood. In his 1884 essay “A Deaf Variety of the Human Race”, Bell warns hearing educators that allowing socialization and intermarriage between d/Deaf people would lead to a new subspecies, and in his 1914 essay “How to Improve the Race”, he suggests this can be countered through “admixture with normal blood; and most of the offspring will be of the normal type” (Bell 7). Bell’s advocacy for oralism proved to be rather influential, and when the International Association of the Deaf met in Milan in 1880 to decide which of these two education systems should be enforced, oralists won the popular vote (Jay). After the Milan Conference, the deaf education system became increasingly punitive, and children who were caught using sign language often had their hands beaten or tied behind their backs (Zezima).
During the 1970s, however, things were starting to shift, and educators began to develop a “total communication” philosophy that integrated the use of both oralist and manualist techniques (Jay). Peter Wolf, who himself attended a residential school for the deaf, would have witnessed the changing culture of acceptance surrounding the usage of ASL in real time (Deafula Recorded Zoom Q&A: 11:27 – 11:59).
Secondly, our cultural perception of disabilities in general was rapidly changing. According to Travis Sutton, “writers and thinkers began to apply the prominent questions of identity (already applied to race and gender) to further complicate the idea of disability, and thus contributed to the development of the social model of disability” (75). At this point in time,
“to be known as a freak in the American counterculture was then a badge of honor, a mark of individuality”(Sutton 74)
Thirdly, American television was on the verge of a closed captioning revolution. Most film and television was still inaccessible to d/Deaf and hard of hearing audiences at this point, and while students at Galladuet University were already protesting the lack of accessible entertainment by 1972, closed captioning did not appear on live television until 1982 (National Captioning Institute).
Peter Wolf was left to reconcile with a world where d/Deaf people and their language were both becoming embraced by mainstream society, but were still being neglected by mainstream media. While Deafula was considered a powerful foil to this problem at the time, modern scholars have acknowledged that Wolf’s representation of d/Deafness is not perfect.
In a recent Q&A, Wolf admits that he was inspired by the 1972 “blaxploitation” film Blacula. Though many “blaxploitation” films are created by Black filmmakers, they fail to dispel negative stereotypes and encourage the correlation between Blackness and monstrosity. Deafula has similarly been accused of missing the mark when it comes to positive d/Deaf representation and the film’s role in reinforcing power structures that vilify d/Deaf and disabled people.
The anxieties around blood in Deafula mirror those of Alexander Graham Bell, who was deeply troubled by the hereditary nature of deafness. Bell’s image of d/Deafness spreading through bloodlines and eventually forming a new variety of the human race immediately invoke the Victorian traditions of vampire fiction. Much like Stoker’s Dracula (which was published ten years after Bell began to publish essays policing d/Deaf marriages and reproduction), the author’s anxieties of a changing world was channelled into the image of the monstrous “other”.
In Deafula, Steve is haunted by the question of his paternity, and when he discovers that his chronic need for blood has genetically been passed down by his “father” Dracula, he begs God to “forgive this piteous victim of ancestry!” In a desire to be freed from his patrilineal curse, Steve chooses to live a traditional lifestyle and study theology like his father. This “admixture” of blood, as Bell might put it, splits our protagonist into two bodies; one normative (Steve) and one non-normative (Deafula). While Steve tries his best to fit into the world around him, he is constantly forced to reconcile with the fact that something is “different” about him, and that this “difference” is holding him back from pursuing his career, starting a family, and making his father proud.
When Steve arrives at Amy’s house, he also meets her hand-less servant, Zork, an adaptation of the “deaf-mute” assistant for an ASL-using world. Amy explains that Zork’s hands were “taken by the Devil”, and that he was “punished” by God for behaving “abominably”. We see Zork again at the end of the film when Steve sacrifices himself to God, an action which inexplicably restores Zork’s hands.
Zork’s hands being taken away as a punishment is reminiscent of the punitive measures taken at oralist institutions after the Milan Conference. It seems odd, then, that Zork’s hands are returned after Steve rejects Deafula and sacrifices his non-normative body to God. In the film’s problematic ending, disability becomes equated with monstrosity, and both Zork and Deafula are “cured” of their ailments through prayer.
Despite Deafula’s shortcomings, I still hesitate to label this movie a true “deafsploitation”, primarily because of its impact and influence within the d/Deaf community. As previously mentioned, Deafula was created while closed captioning was still in its infancy, and is widely considered the first ASL film. The oralist education system, which was more focused on assimilating d/Deaf children than educating them, often produced high illiteracy rates; Deafula was able to make the classic vampire story publicly accessible to d/Deaf and hard of hearing folks for the first time.
Deafula also succeeds at displaying d/Deaf and disabled bodies as sexual beings. Much like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, many of Deafula’s feeding scenes with both men and women are highly eroticized. While one might argue that these scenes further villify Deafula as the personification of Alexander Graham Bell’s anxieties, depicting a d/Deaf and disabled person as a sexual being was still extraordinarily transgressive at the time.
“Reproductive withdrawal of sexual opportunities serves as a key impetus for most socially perpetuated violence against disabled people: why disabled people are institutionalised, why marriage laws develop at the end of the nineteenth century and why disabled people are coercively sterilised by nations practicing eugenic beliefs”(Mitchell and Snyder 19)
Nearly fifty years after Deafula’s release, the legend of the d/Deaf vampire can continue to be witnessed in independent cinema. One notable example is the 2002 French film Sang Froid (Cold Blood). The film depicts a group of Deaf vampires preying on an able bodied man. When the man finds a church to hide in, he turns to laugh at the vampires, knowing that he has entered a space that is inaccessible to them. In a horrifying twist, the vampires begin to laugh back at the able-bodied man, barging into the church and killing him (Mitchell and Snyder). Just like Deafula, Sang Froid presents the d/Deaf and disabled as monstrous and the church as a landmark for normative hearing society, but flipping this idea on its head, presents the Deaf vampire as an ostracized figure who has learned to overcome systematic barriers. Other recent interpretations of the Deaf vampire include Deaf Vampires (2012), an independent short film that features British Sign Language, and “Timothy the Deaf vampire”, a regular series of comedy sketches from Irish Tiktoker Bodhrán Naoise.
These writers, filmmakers, and creators continue to add momentum to the history of d/Deaf vampirism, which is long, arduous, and often difficult to reconcile with. As more d/Deaf voices begin to pop up and enjoy participatory roles in the creation of horror media, we may be fortunate enough to see more interpretations of the d/Deaf vampire. Their contributions are enormously important to Deaf culture and the culture of disabilities in horror fiction, as ““independent disability films derive largely from local community contexts but speak globally to people with disabilities living around the world” (Mitchell and Snyder 21)”.
Now take your dominant hand, flatten your fingers together, press it to your chin, and thank the incredible d/Deaf creators who work hard to make horror accessible for everyone.
Bell, Alexander Graham. “How to Improve the Race.” Journal of Heredity, vol. 5, no. 1, Jan. 1914, pp. 1–7., Accessed 31 Oct. 2022.
Jay, Michelle. “History of Sign Language.” Start ASL, Michelle Jay, 15 Feb. 2021, https://www.startasl.com/history-of-sign-language/.
Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. “Global In(ter)dependent Disability Cinema: Targeting Ephemeral Domains of Belief and Cultivating Aficionados of the Body.” Cultures of Representation: Disability in World Cinema Contexts, edited by Benjamin Fraser, Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 2016, pp. 18–32.
ReelAbilities Film Festival Los Angeles, director. Deafula Recorded Zoom Q&A. YouTube, YouTube, 1 Nov. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywvG0ke-PiM&t=719s. Accessed 31 Oct. 2022.
Sutton, Travis. “Avenging the Body: Disability in the Horror Film.” A Companion to The Horror Film, edited by Harry M. Benshoff, Wiley Blackwell, Chichester, West Sussex, 2017, pp. 73–89.
Zizema, Katie. “9 Students at School for Deaf Say They Were Abused by Nuns.” New York Times, 12 May 2004.