By: Kylie Poling

See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil. Thought to originate during the 17th century, this proverb has evolved to encompass several meanings, including a warning for those who remain ignorant to evil and even as a code of silence among groups. The phrase can be used in sinister, mysterious ways to elicit fear, such as in horror or thriller movies and even in real life. During World War II, the following billboard was put up near the laboratory used for the Manhattan Project: 

Image via Google Images

The U.S. government maintained a strict code of silence regarding the infamous Manhattan Project, its methodology and goals kept a national secret. In short, the Manhattan Project was something to fear. The government made it something to fear and propagandized those who knew of it using fear.

One way to cultivate fear as it relates to the proverb “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” is to create sensory deprivation. In recent years, several thriller films have created worlds which oppress the senses of characters, eliciting a sense of anxiety among viewers. 

In 2016, Netflix debuted the film Hush, a slasher film following Emily, a writer who is deaf, as she is stalked by a murderer outside her house. At one point, viewers watch helplessly as Emily’s neighbor shows up on Emily’s doorstep, banging on the door and screaming, until she is murdered. Though the film is not set in a dystopian society, it manages to create the same sense of unease and suspense often present in dystopian works. 

Similarly, the 2018 film A Quiet Place, directed by John Krasinski, deals with the deprivation of sound. A Quiet Place is a dystopic take on sensory deprivation. Extraterrestrial beings hunt human survivors in a post-apocalyptic world assisted by their extra sensitive hearing. To survive, humans must remain silent. Audiences are intrigued by the obstacles these characters must face, as they are denied access to senses that most take for granted. How do you combat evil when you cannot hear it or speak of it? Parts of the film are completely silent, restricting viewers’ abilities to listen to background noise and character dialogue. Audiences are subjected to the exact same sensory deprivation experienced by the characters they are viewing, contributing to the suspense factor of these films and making them more effectively unsettling.

Likewise, how do you combat evil when you cannot see it? Bird Box, debuted in 2019 among the latest releases of Netflix original films, presents a dystopian future invaded by monsters. Once you look at the monsters, you are uncontrollably compelled to make yourself die in one way or another. The movie’s main character, Mallorie, portrayed by Sandra Bullock, must take two children to a safe haven of sorts, all while blindfolded when outside. 

Bird Box presents an important look at dystopian society because it offers perspective on many tropes present throughout dystopian literature and films. Some ideas present in dystopian works include riotous groups, which in Bird Box is shown as people who are somehow immune to the monsters’ compulsion but suffer from a warped sense of reality. Additionally, maintaining the in-group is emphasized and new membership into the group is repressed while all outside communication is done underground via radio signals. Those still alive lose a large portion of their identity for the sake of survival. Meanwhile, the main characters lust after a proclaimed safe haven at some undisclosed location that they have no proof of actually existing. To survive on the journey to said safe haven, people raid abandoned houses for necessities such as food and clothes. These ideas are often present as part of a dystopian society, rendering Bird Box to be the latest to fit this particular mold.

What makes Bird Box so enticing to viewers is that it alters and questions reality. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that inside of the house the characters are able to look freely, so long as all windows and cracks are covered. Peeking through the blinds, though, could prove fatal. The fascination and curiosity to look is present among several characters at the beginning of the film, resulting in them taking their own lives.

Most people rely on sight to survive. Sight is a part of human nature that is not consciously used; rather, it is just used. Even if eyes are closed, people are usually still able to use their imagination via images they have already seen. When sight is taken away, it has noticeable effects on the human psyche. 

Conversely, some may argue that sensory deprivation can have positive effects. Sensory deprivation tanks, referred to as float tanks, can have calming effects on some people. The tanks allow a person to float in buoyant water that is submerged in absolute darkness with complete silence. For others, however, data conclusively supports that even brief periods submerged in float tanks can induce hallucinations and psychotic episodes among even low-risk people.

While Bird Box only deprives characters of sight while outside, it purports that humans are inherently reliant upon their senses. When those senses are unavailable, it aggravates the paranoia and anxiety already present in dystopian worlds. 

In dystopias evil is everywhere, whether you can see it, hear it, speak of it—or not.


Christina Daniel and Oliver J. Mason, “Predicting Psychotic-Like Experiences during Sensory Deprivation,” BioMed Research International, vol. 2015, Article ID 439379, 10 pages, 2015.