By Joel Reese

Chicago Daily Herald Staff Writer

February 26, 2004

People with albinism are often portrayed as oddballs, freaks and — oddly — murderers in movies. Is this dramatic license, or a tired stereotype?


Here’s a hypothetical Saturday afternoon in the life of Dan Lee, who suffers from albinism.

Let’s say Lee, a Mount Prospect resident for most of the year, heads to see the movie, “Cold Mountain,” which is up for seven Academy Awards this Sunday.

There, Lee watches Bosie, the murderous sociopath with frost-white hair and skin, kill and/or torture several key characters.

The 67-year-old Lee goes home and picks up the wildly popular book, “The DaVinci Code,” by Dan Brown. On the book’s first page, he is introduced to Silas, the murderous, red-eyed “hulking albino” hitman who is obsessed with self-mutilation.

Lee puts the book down and reaches for a back issue of Time magazine. In the Dec. 1 issue, he reads an article that refers to Michael Jackson as an “albino freak.”

Lee then reads about Conan O’Brien’s apology, which he offered after his show offended some Canadians during a recent visit to Toronto. In the apology, O’Brien said, “People of Quebec, I’m sorry” in English, which the show translated into French as, “People of Quebec, I’m an albino jackass.”

And so it goes with albinism, which afflicts roughly one out of every 17,000 people in the United States. (Like many others who have this condition, Lee dislikes the word “albino.”)

Lee’s genetic condition means he has little or no pigment in his hair, skin or eyes. As a result, he has white hair, pale skin that’s remarkably sensitive to sunburn, poor vision, not-to-mention a lifetime’s worth of unclever nicknames and malicious teasing.

This medical state is aggravated by a popular culture that constantly portrays people with albinism as oddballs, weirdos, progeny of incest and, oddly, remorseless killers.

“It’s bad enough that you have this skin condition and you can’t see very well, and you’ve spent your life putting up with people calling you names,” Lee says. “But then you see the way we’re portrayed as ‘freaks.’ Every time you turn around, there it is.”

Agrees Kelsey Dalton, a 24-year-old Chicago resident who has albinism: “There’s never a normal character,” she says. “If someone has albinism, he’s the weirdo or the bad guy.”

All in the family tree

White is considered a sacred color in many cultures. Native American tribes saw the 1994 birth of a white buffalo in Janesville, Wis., as a holy event.

Western culture typically associates white with purity and virtue, as in wedding gowns or phrases like “pure as the driven snow.”  Even the dictionary defines “white” as “Morally or spiritually pure; spotless; innocent; free from evil intent; harmless.”

This association between white and goodness, however, hasn’t made it to the cineplex.

Examples of films that feature a malevolent character with albinism include:

* “Foul Play,” featuring the murderous Whitey Jackson, who — like many cinematic characters with albinism — dresses in all white.

* “The Princess Bride,” boasting an ogre executioner known only as “The Albino.”

* “Village of the Damned,” the 1995 John Carpenter film with evil white-haired children.

* “The Omega Man,” in which Charlton Heston battles a world filled with malicious white-faced zombies.

* “The Eiger Sanction,” which features a bizarre, white-haired character with albinism named Dragon. This rotund man not only is confined to a red-lit room, but also requires a blood “changing” (á la the popular Keith Richards myth) twice a year.

* “The Matrix Reloaded,” which features two all-white brothers who try to kill Keanu Reeves’ messianic Neo.

Ironically, there’s an insurmountable problem to hiring a white-haired hitman: With albinism comes vision problems. So hiring a person with albinism to be a killer would be like hiring a newborn to be your chauffeur.

“You definitely wouldn’t hire a person with albinism to be your sharp-shooting assassin,” says Vail Reese, a San Francisco dermatologist who has studied skin conditions in film. “It just wouldn’t work.”

The “evil albino” image isn’t limited to films. Edgar and Johnny Winter, two musician brothers who have albinism, were depicted years back as the grotesque Autumn Brothers in a DC Comics book.

The pair were portrayed as hateful half-human/half-worm creatures with green tentacles growing from their chests. The characters ripped the heads off of livestock, had sex with pigs and then ate the animals’ brains.

There are a few examples of sympathetic movie characters with albinism: The 1995 film “Powder” features a benevolent, hairless, alabaster-white teen who teaches tolerance to a small town.

But as Reese notes, “Powder isn’t evil, but you can’t say he’s normal, either: He channels electricity and he’s got telekinesis. He became an albino because his mother was struck by lightning when she was carrying him. But I guess it’s true — at least he’s not attempting world domination and mass murder.”

Vampires, not albinos

Despite the mountain of damning examples, Hollywood pleads innocent to stereotyping.

Warner Bros. defended “The Matrix Reloaded” by saying the pale twins aren’t albinos, they’re vampires. (An odd claim, since the two have no problem appearing in the daylight, and they are never seeing consuming blood.)

And in the “Cold Mountain” example, the film’s production company insists Bosie’s appearance was taken straight from the book.

“The description in Charles Frazier’s book was pretty clear,” says Matthew Hiltzik, senior vice president of corporate communications for Miramax.

Indeed, the book describes the character with, “his head was white. He looked to have German or Dutch blood in him. Maybe Irish or some inbred product of Cornwall. No matter. He was now American all through, white skin, white hair and a killer.”

The actor who played Bosie, Charlie Hunnum, reinforced this false in-breeding/albinism connection when he told several interviewers that albinism is caused by incest.

“There is absolutely no connection between albinism and incest,” says Chicago resident Mike McGowan, the president of the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation. “Albinism is caused by genetics.”

Oddly, people born with albinism often don’t have the condition anywhere in their family tree.

“Neither my husband nor I have albinism anywhere in our families,” says Sheila Adamo, whose 6-year-old son Joe has the condition. “We have two other children, and neither of them have it.”

The condition begins with parents who carry the recessive gene for little-to-no pigmentation. If both parents have this gene, the chance for an infant with albinism skyrockets to 1 in 4.

In addition to the white hair and skin, people with albinism suffer from visual difficulties, such as nystagmus (irregular rapid movement of the eyes); strabismus (crossed eyes); astigmatism and sensitivity to light.

No censorship

McGowan says he doesn’t want to put any sort of restrictions on using characters with albinism in movies.

“You’re stepping toward censorship there,” he says.

That said, he’s simply tired of seeing people with albinism portrayed so negatively — possibly because screenwriters have never met someone with the condition.

“They don’t know anyone with albinism, they’ve never seen anyone with albinism, so they use this device,” McGowan says. “They don’t realize they’re doing any harm.”

Some say albinism has become a cinematic scapegoat for very mundane reasons: “It’s laziness, and there are some visual considerations — people with albinism can be very visually striking,” says Evanston writer Jay Bonansinga.

Every movie needs a way to visually define its villain, says Bonansinga, whose book, “The Killer’s Game,” is being made into a film starring Paul Walker.

“It’s like the old Bond films, where there was this visual shorthand for the villain,” Bonansinga says. “He was always bald and very feminine and had a kitten sitting on his lap.”

In movies that portray an evil albino, “They’re saying that the person who is washed-out of all ethnicity is obviously the worst person. He’s the white, android-like person with no color. The white symbolizes the emotionless, hidden fascist in everybody.”

Lee says always portraying people with albinism as evil or other-worldly sets them up as outsiders who simply aren’t normal.

“It’s a dehumanization,” says Lee, who spends three months a year in McAllen, Tex. “You dump this white skin, white haired, pink-eyed person into the film as the bad guy. And you don’t even give them a name — sometimes they’re just called ‘The Albino.’ In other words, they’re not human.”

Time for a whuppin’

In addition to the beating he’s taken on movie screens, Lee says he was thrashed several times as a youth because of his appearance.

McGowan reports similar poundings, and also grew up hearing nicknames like “Grandpa,” “Whitey” and “Squinto.”

Although she never faced the same antagonism, Dalton says the more subtle scrutiny can be just as painful.

“The hardest thing to deal with is the things people don’t say,” she says. “I notice getting looks from people — stares on the train or in the malls. If people say something, then you have the chance to respond. But if they don’t, you can’t say anything. You just have to stand there.”

Naperville’s Sheila Adamo says she’s endured many thoughtless or naive questions about her son.

“People who saw ‘Powder’ say, ‘What special powers does he have?’ or ‘Do you keep him in the basement?’ ” she says. “Sometimes it’s favorable, like, ‘Ohhh, look at the little tow-head!’ But I also overhear a lot of, ‘Did you see that kid?’ “