In 2018, when my pain resurfaced, I thought of it as punishment.
I was working my coffee shop job where after my shift, I’d bike home, write, and go out dancing. Nights I didn’t go out dancing, I went on dates. Nights I didn’t go on dates, I’d break into the big park at the outskirts of my neighborhood, scrambling over the fence and walking among hydrangeas bright and pale as the moon. My father had just died. I filled every second of my time with people, drawing goth circles around my eyes in eyeliner, daubing crimson lipstick, kissing strangers with abandon.
That summer I did my best to forget my previous history of sickness, an entire childhood in and out of hospitals. Which isn’t to say I had become healthy then. I still passed out in bathrooms, massaged my aching wrists every night, handled fierce and frequent bacterial infections. But for a while, it all was manageable; I could tell myself these were anomalies. And when things got worse and every part of me hurt for months, I couldn’t believe it. I feared becoming sick again for so long, the actual event was almost anticlimactic.
Fear never produces itself on its own. A young sick child, I’d linger in the horror aisles at the local Blockbuster, picking up cassette after cassette. I was built by scary movies, and those scary movies built how I felt about myself. Girls were punished. The disabled were to be feared. Anything gender-nonconforming was out of the picture. What does it mean as a sick girl to learn again and again that sick girls deserve to be punished? What does it mean as a trans child to only see a film industry’s bile spat back at you?
In the summer after my father died, I spent days unable to get out of bed. I had vivid nightmares of monstrous women lurching out of televisions or crammed into attics, bones cracking out of place. I had nightmares that I was monstrous, too. I thought these dreams were further punishment, a reflection of who I had become. But now I wonder how much the things that scare us are always trying to form their own communities, too.
If you first see yourself in a host of ghosts, what does it mean to live despite that? If you grow up disabled and only have hatred surrounding you in every bit of media you consume, what does it take to turn that into an act of love anyway?
I. GIRLS AND GHOSTS
As a child, no one talked about why The Ring was scary, just about it as a state of being. The autumn after that movie came out, all the girls with the same long thin legs as me walked down their streets extra quickly when they passed a tree too flaming crimson. That Halloween, white water-stained dresses were everywhere.
In 2002, my body was a mess. I grew up sick in ways that didn’t make sense at the time, each day a new physiological surprise. I’d convulse into seizures when I was least expecting it — on runs, in my gym class, at dance parties, at my uncle’s funeral, once while urinating in the middle of the night. I had mood swings that would take over my entire day, crying violently through whole periods of school. My wrists and ankles would sprain themselves weekly.
Maybe this is why it took me so long to see The Ring; the fear it held for otherness was too real for me still. When I did watch the movie, my father had just recovered from his first cancer scare and I was in the middle of several trips of my own into the hospital. It was 2005; I was in the sixth grade.
In the movie, the girl, Samara, had a father who called her evil and stomped around the house and a mother who talked endlessly about how much she loved the girl. In the movie, the girl was locked in a medical treatment facility away from home and then, once released, locked in a little room at the top of her family’s barn. The girl stared unblinking at the closed circuit television in the medical facility she was in, and the girl stared unblinking at the bottom of the well.
When I say I felt seen by her, I’m not justifying her evil. It’s just that when a movie tells you to hate a child again and again and again, there is something else it is telling you to ignore. In this movie, with all its animosity for people like me, I had found a second home.
A point The Ring makes inadvertently is how interconnected all monstrosities are. The young dead girl who’s the villain is different and sick, so she becomes a recipient of violence. She becomes a recipient of violence, so she becomes an enactor of violence. Then, only then, do the deaths start.
This isn’t the case with everyone. Some people, I’m sure, are purely victims, and there are certainly types of violence that are worse than others. But in my own life, I’ve seen unforgivable acts beget themselves again and again. The girl in The Ring is domestically confined and abused, so she becomes a horror—a genre that always infects the domestic, wreaks its own violence on the bodies in closest proximity.
In sixth grade, I watched The Ring because it scared me, but also because it and its ilk taught me how to act. This is what horror movies do, send their coded moral messages to a whole generation. I took notes: the blonde woman was mean to her ex-husband because he was bad, and we felt sympathetic. The girl at the bottom of the well looked scary so it didn’t matter how badly she hurt. The stepfather was loud but ultimately not guilty and that made him redeemable. Anyone who looks dissimilar from the norm ultimately becomes a threat.
But in my friends’ scramblings over tree stumps pretending they were wells — long hair draped across the face — we ignored the other message buried throughout this whole film. Every time we see her, the girl in the well is clearly sick, and no one who purports to care about her cares about this at all. Unless it’s used to stoke fear, the girl’s sleep disorder, pale skin, dislocated bones, moods, deep sadnesses, are all completely ignored. Instead — living inside a well, twisting her body within a television — her proximity to the grave becomes her sole defining trait.
As a child, I shuffled from doctor to doctor, and each of them ignored me in a different way—because I was femme, because I was sick, because, to some doctors, I appeared healthy and had nothing to worry about. When I turned twelve, my father started training me to run, following along on his bicycle, telling me that if I became strong, I would stop getting ill so often.
This extended to boxing lessons in our garage, a small set of weights in my bedroom, a whole regimen to make my body both masculine and healthy, becoming less and less visible to doctors. Maybe this influences why I see the neglect that the girl herself faces — how it exists as part of the same continuum I am on, the desire to heal disability by hiding disability from view. Maybe it explains why her family was hiding the girl, too.
I’ve read dozens of books and articles on The Ring, trying to make sense of the film’s message, and not a single scholar — mainly white and able-bodied and cis and in power — mentions the girl being sick or disabled. No one even mentions how she’s bad, she’s inhuman, because her body refuses to appear like everyone else’s — in the well, but refusing to be well. Even at the end of the movie, when we see her finally in full frame, decomposing and rotting with water, she’s only presented as an object of mourning. She’s never a girl by herself, only a body filtered through the horror or grief on other’s faces — a self mediated by others’ disgust, barely a girl at all, a cypher, a ghost, primarily — no, only — hated.
II. THE TREATMENT FACILITY, THE PET SEMATARY
Of course, it’s not just The Ring perpetuating these ideas of sickness as evil or as punishment. It’s an entire blood-soaked society.
Pet Sematary, which I watched as my girlfriend fucked me drunk and upside down on Halloween 2015, features a woman with spinal meningitis terrorizing the beautiful blonde main character. Her hair looks dirty, long, stringy and copper; her skin is sallow and pale; her backbone, exposed and fossilized, pokes through a torn nightgown. I paused the movie and rolled my girlfriend off of me. It was 3:00 a.m. I was still drunk.
As a sick person who doesn’t look sick, I see the revolt in this moment as something supposed to be aspirational. There’s a hatred I should feel on behalf of the character who looks like me at the one who doesn’t. For most people, according to IMDb reviews, the sister is far scarier than the cemetery that brings the dead back to life, or the spirits lurking within the cursed, colonized land.
Inevitably, the trappings of sickness are supposed to be “scary.” Back in The Ring, our first glimpse of the dead girl’s face is when she’s under doctor’s observation, and this is a sign she’s bad. Her skin is anemic, with deep circles under the eyes; she constantly has electrodes taped under her hair. Even as a dead body floating in the well, the girl wears a dress the color of a hospital gown.
When I was in the seventh grade, I took an EEG test to find a source for my seizures — a test we got largely because my parents, recently settled into the white middle class, could afford it. But I can’t deny this was also a test administered because I didn’t yet appear disabled. Instead, I was “otherwise normal”— a phrase that appears again and again on diagnostic sheets throughout my life, from appointments seeking to remedy joint troubles to chronic sinus infections to day-to-day mood irregularities to the autism diagnosis that, in the third grade, doctors decided not to record on my chart “to make my life easier.”
The test I took was inconclusive, and we had a hard time scheduling a follow-up appointment after doctors realized the futility of finding one straightforward diagnosis for me. I’ve heard this story, too; after resisting medical categorization, there are two piles people tend to be tossed into. I was discarded and dismissed and became invisible to those in power. In the movies, the dead girl and the sister were scorned, turned into objects of fear. I felt angry being ignored, but didn’t even stop to think the alternative was much, much worse.
There are far worse precedents for this neglect. During the AIDS crisis, homophobic doctors would refuse to even touch their patients, afraid they would become contaminated. Now and always, Black patients in hospitals are disproportionately denied testing, blamed for their own ailments, ignored. It’s a common statistic that women’s pain, to say nothing of those whose gender is less readily legible, is regularly ignored by doctors. Hospitals are built on anti-sick architectures of thought, but not all sick people are equal in the eyes of the institution. Existing oppression proliferates.
When my father died, he was in the ICU. My whole body freckled with bruises from the 12-hour bus ride to visit him. Twenty-four hour care, the hospital told us, was a medical necessity; us checking him out and taking him home was impossible. By the end, my father had had multiple strokes. He was resuscitated twice. He was in withdrawal from acute alcoholism. When I visited, the combination of his bodily pain and my memories of the wreckage of my childhood led to us barely speaking all day.
During my time in the hospital, I’d ask for blankets to wrap around my body against the shattering AC, pillows to make sitting in the hard hospital chairs easier. I didn’t get any of these things. I was angry at the circumstances we both found ourselves in — my inability to receive diagnosis at the time, the ventilator and medical staff he had access to immediately and the little good it did. As he was dying, we both seemed to be ignored. So many people have it worse than this.
This essay is, among other things, a defense of rage. It has to be. During my father’s death and after, the anger of every one of these ghosts was the only thing that could stifle down my grief. As we found out later, there was no reason my father couldn’t have been released. Half the information we got from doctors — prognosis, chance of recovery, his illness’s trajectory — was erroneous. My father was kept in the hospital because, for the doctors there, it was the easiest and most financially lucrative option. Could my father even agree to the level of sedation necessary to keep him near-unconscious and on a ventilator, tubes in his throat rendering him nearly voiceless? His own desires were completely disregarded.
“I was laughing when my sister finally died,” the blonde protagonist says in Pet Sematary, and everyone rushes to express empathy. “If you were,” her husband adds, “I salute you for it. No one should have to deal with that thing in their life.”
I can handle the neglect, but it’s the cruelty of it all that tips me towards the monsters’ side.
The woman in Pet Semetary is actually a man (or is played by one), just like Samara in the original Japanese book is — one last irredeemable thing about these movies that glommed onto my own identity.
Medical transition, like disability, is viewed by the mainstream as a sensational departure from normalcy. But the two are not the same. I’ve been injecting hormones into the fat of my leg for years, and every time the needle draws a little tip of blood, I feel faint again. I’m trying to reconcile the complexity of my body, but these movies aren’t concerned with how my hormonal needs and my larger health exist out of whack. By their calculus, what’s bubbling through my joints and what’s beneath my pants are both equally repugnant.
Here is my life. I was born, according to some, defective. Because my family had the privilege to do so, we had tests done, which initiated a long and incomplete corrective process. I went to physical and speech therapy. I went to doctor after doctor. By the time I hit undergrad, my defects were all but invisible. Even now that they’ve resurfaced, I still can go day-to-day without displaying a sign of a single one. The surprise on people’s face — but oh, how you don’t look disabled at all. I would have never known. I came out as trans in the middle of this, and became acclimated to a different sort of passing as well.
As I write this, I’m weary of the endless bromides of those adjacent to power that their own powerlessness has been incorrectly recognized. But at the same time, I have to know that at every moment I pass, even as it makes my life easier, I have chosen to define myself by a system of rules operating to enclose and restrict. I put on makeup and shut my trap, and disappear from record. I write “F” on the intake form at an urgent care and have to fabricate an entire history of menses to the nurse practitioner in order to even make my appointment. As long as I don’t show signs of being disabled or trans, I’m safe.
There’s a whole canon of literature determined to talk about the redemptive qualities of horror as a mode of truth-telling — the feminist or subversive ways they can be a home for marginalized viewers. That’s not what I’m interested in discussing. These movies hurt me and I kept watching them, and there’s nothing redemptive about that. They were all I had.
Before I knew what I was, I built a life out of them. And so I’m stuck with it all. I have to believe that if we stare closely enough at what hates us, somehow we can make our own love as well.
III. EVERYONE’S COLD
I watch most things through a scrim of rage, and horror movies are no exception. Each film I see — and there are many many more I haven’t mentioned — draws a line in the sand. On one side, the heroes, able-bodied and quivering at becoming different. On the other, disabled people, shunned and cast away by dominant systems of support. These films render chronic illness and physical difference only in terms of their capacity to shock and disrupt.
When my father died, I thought the way to respond to The Ring, Pet Semetary, and other films was through their own frameworks. Here is a negative representation, so I show you why it’s wrong. Here’s an evil girl, so I show you how she’s the hero instead. But this cause-and-effect thinking is a problem by itself, still adhering to the same rotten goalposts. There I was, like a doctor. I set a problem, diagnosed it, and attempted to vanish it away. My father was still dead. I was still disabled. Nothing had changed.
So maybe instead the solution is refusing to answer the question asked in the first place.
When you live on an island and catch a cold, a doctor in The Ring says, it’s everyone’s cold. The doctor says this to excuse her complicity in the girl’s murder. She believes the murder serves the good of “everyone.” She believes sick people are the vector of infection themselves. I’m bored by the doctor’s casual cruelty, but what happens if we ignore her prompt and start sharing space with ourselves instead, the infected?
The poet and activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha calls disabled people caring for one another together “revolutionary love without charity” in their brilliant book Care Work. I love how this is an argument by extension not against these films’ narrow representation, but in a different plane entirely. If there isn’t a supremacist culture to view things through, does monstrosity even exist? Certainly, my own life got immeasurably easier once I stopped hiding every affliction, and instead began resting with friends. Taking care of ourselves, we reject the abled gaze.
So instead of challenging these films, maybe the way forward is to acknowledge the gift they give, oblivious in their own framing. What does it mean to “share a cold” instead of shutting it away? I’m inspired by absorbing the small dominions we have, how much has been shared already. Money. Gofundmes. Personal care assistants. Event spaces. Online threads. Virtual dance parties. Disabled people have created a whole wellspring of culture and activism and vitality. My girlfriend herself has chronic pain, and as we fucked over Pet Semetary that Halloween in 2015, it strikes me that this too was an act of defiance, of connection I believe sick bodies doing what they do, refusing to be stifled — together — is one of the most radical things there is.
When I realized I was sick again after my father’s death, I didn’t get better. I didn’t stumble across a cure. I didn’t emerge from the other side in a burst of triumph. Instead, I just resumed the treatments I was engaged in earlier. I started wearing wrist braces to sleep in, took herbal supplements. I booked more appointments with massage therapists, medical workers, pilates instructors. And gradually, I altered my field of comparison, avoided the trap of thinking I was grotesque or other. Slowly, I built a community out of a life.
I’m grateful for what I’ve made. I’m grateful for the anger that propelled this making in the first place. But even still, I have to wonder what my life would be like had I never been exposed to these supremacist messages in the first place. Without the culture I responded to, would I even need to find myself in these wrathful ghosts?
Here’s one last little story.
In The Ring, when the girl climbs up the well, her bones cracking out of place, bending behind herself, this is supposed to be a sign she’s to be feared and pitied and isn’t even human.
When I discovered, suddenly as a child, that I could do the same thing, joints twisting out of place and then aching, aching afterwards — when I discovered that myself, oh, it felt like freedom.
This piece is in dialogue, conversation, and kinship with a lot of extant disability writing and scholarship, and wouldn’t exist without any of it— especially Care Work by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Brilliant Imperfection by Eli Clare, The Undying by Anne Boyer, “Sick Woman Theory” and “Letter to a Young Doctor” by Johanna Hedva, Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s work with the Harriet Tubman Collective and elsewhere, and ACNE [unpublished manuscript] and personal communications with Jesse Rice-Evans. My gratitude to all of these thinkers and writers for making space I could find myself within as well.