You don’t scare us…

I think deaf people suffer as viewers of movies. And no, I’m not talking about access to cinemas, though I could rant from 9-5 about the lack of access to subtitled films showing at family-viewing times.

But! That’s not the thrust of this article; I just want to talk about how subtitles can make or break emotional engagement in a movie, depending on the level of effort invested by the captioning team.

Briefly, let’s talk about Titanic. There’s not a great deal of mystery with this film; the boat is going to sink. Visually, it’s fantastic, but of the several times I’ve seen this on TV, I’ve seen very different moods in the way that the dialogue and plot are conveyed through the captions. Phrases like the ones below suggest that the subtitler is beginning to resent the length of the film:

“Jack!/Rose!/Jack!/Rose! Etc”

“Rose STILL screaming for Jack”

“Hoarse Rose whispers ‘Jack’ repeatedly”

The last one tickled me because the tone suggests that she’s given herself laryngitis with all that screaming. However, there were some really diligent efforts to convey the many noises produced by the ship just before it snaps in half and plummets into the icy depths (alarming groan; unnerving creak). The iconic sound-track was given minimum attention with the repeated phrase “solemn music” bracketed between two little note icons.

So… what happens with horror movies? A few months ago, Netflix arrived in my home, along with the limitless supply of horror movies in their back catalogue. I’ve seen a few films that made me want to hide under my blanket, but I’ve largely been thwarted by less-than-invested captioning. Examples:

  • Creepy music [splendid]
  • Unconvincing ghostly laughter [unconvinced viewer too, now. Cheers!]
  • Dull thud; disturbing creak; indistinct muttering; sinister whispers; guttural moan; rasping sort of sound [coming from where, please?]
  • Creative descriptions: fearsome squeak; wet, slappy sounds; hums like possessed vacuum.

Wow. Those just have my blood running cold.

There is also the slight problem of subtitle placement. They can be a little over-generous in size, thus entirely obscuring any poltergeist activity taking place on the screen. I sat through much of ‘paranormal activity’ while wishing that more spooky stuff happened on the ceilings. I couldn’t watch more than half an hour of Blair Witch Project because of the vertigo-inducing combination of stationary subtitles against a constantly jerking background of shocking camera work. That said, at least the subtitles saved me from the limitless supply of nostril close-ups and snot that put so many other viewers off.

So what horror movies are really good for genuine shocks, regardless of the quality of the captioning?

  1. Cloverfield: Like Blair Witch Project, also filmed with a hand-held camera effect for that ‘live horror’ feel, but you can actually see what’s going on. The horror in this film is wondering how long the main characters will last before they get eliminated.
  2. Amityville horror (original and/or remake featuring Melissa George and Ryan Reynolds): Lots of visual horror all over the screen, and the creeping feeling that the house is turning the stepfather eeeeevil.
  3. Paranormal activity: the graininess of the film might get on your nerves a little, but it’s high on tension.
  4. The Ring/The Ring 2: The frequent ABRUPT appearances of the perennially wet girl with the hair covering half her anaemic/dead face will give you the creeps.
  5. Ghost ship; yes, it’s corny, but there’s many a moment to make you leap out of your seat, particularly if you’ve not had the benefit of the ‘creepy music’ warning. It’s a good movie if you select English subtitles (just not English SDH)


Overall, I can’t help thinking that subtitles in horror movies should be automatically stripped of the SDH option. Just give us the dialogue and let us create the creepy music/creaking floorboards/ghastly winds for ourselves.

I’d love to hear different opinions on this – and other people’s stories about horror subtitles which have inadvertently produced comedy gold.

On a final note, so that we get to see these subtitling gaffes live at the cinema, I’d be grateful if people could sign the petition below, and share it onwards.