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The Haunting of Her Body

As of the writing of this essay, I have had a cough for five weeks. No one can figure out why. The cough plateaus after medication but does not cease, lingering in my body like a ghost.

I am tired of living in a haunted house, and I don’t mean the property that I own. I mean the body that I live in.

Haunted house stories are manifestations of lived experience. They tell us what it is like to live somewhere that is heavy with reminders or contains lots of surprises.

I have enough ghostly manifestations like this cough that my body could be the setting of a Mike Flanagan show, with hundreds of hidden ghosts spliced neatly into each frame.

So why do I love haunted houses and horror so much, if every single day of my life is the site of a haunting, a medical mystery that will probably go unsolved?

Because at the end of most haunting stories—even Flanagan horrors like The Haunting of Hill House, Bly House, and The Midnight Club, there is so much closure.

There is closure for the reader, who gets to walk away from the creeping horror when we find out who is behind the haunting, or what caused it in the first place. But living in a haunted body causes no such relief.

I think one of the things that makes these stories particularly interesting to me is that they do, in fact, create false closure. Perhaps you are able to end the haunting of your house, but does it end up becoming the home for another? What’s to say another ghost won’t come along and try to take up residence?

That’s the experience of living in a chronically ill body like mine. You’re never quite sure which time is the last time.

This is what’s so compelling to me about Mike Flanagan’s newest show: The Midnight Club. It features terminally ill characters who are obsessed with telling horror stories. This particular framing device really resonated for me as a disabled person who loves horror and who lives in a body not quite like theirs, but similar. I was surprised to see this show on Netflix of all places: a proudly disabled story with the kind of snark about what it’s like to live in bodies that don’t particularly want to listen was revelatory.

Let’s start with Dana. Dana is the show’s Irish power chair user. Dana’s character is an excellent representation of disability, comparable to disability autofiction. Look no further than Alice Wong’s Year of the Tiger for an example of the kind of storytelling I mean, which interweaves real history with imagined reality in the same way Dana’s story “The Two Danas” does. In stories structured like these two, the reader cannot be completely sure of what’s true or not, or where the real experience of Dana’s disability came from. (For the most part, disability origin stories are always obscured in darkness. I used to tell people my heart surgery scar was either from a tiger attack or from a swordfight.) But Dana’s story, even with the appearance of the Devil, has truth to it. Truth in self-harm. Truth in failure. Truth in Dana’s body being uncontrollable, and therefore difficult for her to accept.

Dana is a disabled person I know. I’ve seen her rage, her snark, her storytelling in other people’s experiences.

And then there is Spencer, who I also know. Spencer, the main character of The Midnight Club, has HIV. Watching Spencer’s story was hard for me, because his story was not just a true one when it came to his disease. In the moment when he rolled back his sleeves to show a lesion from Kaposi sarcoma (a type of cancer associated with advanced HIV infections) on his arm, I gasped. Harder still were the ways in which his illness and his life have divorced him from his family. For Spencer to be welcome back home, for him to feel his mother’s support, he would have to go back to church, have to stop identifying as a gay man, have to say that he had done something wrong.

In Spencer’s story what I see is the true gift of disabled community. When it comes to the end of Spencer’s story for his group of horror obsessed friends, he admits that he knows he is loved. Maybe not by the people who raised him, but he has found new community.

The Midnight Club beautifully portrays this experience of new family, and the knowledge that even if the people who raised you are ableist, or sexist, or homophobic, you can find new family in the people who will always tell you that your disabled life (and death) are worth living and honoring.

Of course, the show has its problems. Set in the ‘90s with a host of ableist language, but it features an honest look at disability and its relationship to the horror genre nonetheless.

I will continue to lean on my friends, to address the hauntings of my body, and to find humor in the fact that sometimes I feel like a cyborg. I will sometimes tell stories about my body to make it more livable, and I will never, ever, take the dark elevator down to the basement by myself. That kind of adventure is reserved for a group of disabled friends with flashlights, ready to investigate the haunting that’s real: the ghosts that haunt old houses, not the illnesses that we experience. Sometimes the lights we carry with us come from the stories that we remember. The Midnight Club shines bright in those dark elevator shafts. And we don’t have to go alone; Dana and Spencer are the kind of characters who would always take a hand and come with us.

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Elsa Sjunneson

Elsa Sjunneson is a Deafblind author and editor living in Seattle, Washington. Her fiction and nonfiction writing has been praised as “eloquence and activism in lockstep” and has been published in dozens of venues around the world. She has been a Hugo Award finalist seven times, and has won Hugo, Aurora, and BFA awards for her editorial work. When she isn’t writing, Sjunneson works to dismantle structural ableism and rebuild community support for disabled people everywhere. Her work includes her debut memoir Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism, her Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla novel Sword of the White Horse, and her episode for Radiolab “The Helen Keller Exorcism.”

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