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Mental Illness in Horror Films: Eerie or Exaggeration?

BETHANY TAYLOR dissects historic and contemporary depictions of troubled characters in horror films

With Halloween just around the corner and ‘spooky season’ in full-effect, it seems only natural to discuss horror films! Whether you’re a scaredy-cat spilling popcorn across the cinema floor for some unfortunate underpaid worker to clean up or laughing maniacally at your friends’ fear of a faux scenario, most of us have seen a horror film or two in our lifetimes. Now, as more movies are relentlessly pumped out, it becomes increasingly apparent that there are only so many stories that can be told.

The Basics of Horror Cinema

I’m sure those of us well-versed in thrillers, who have been around the metaphorical horror block a few times (and probably since a too-early age) are familiar with the classic scenarios: haunted house; jump-scares; slashers; found-footage; caught-on-camera; creepy child singing after being possessed by some red-faced demon with an obvious penchant for eerie nursery rhymes; the pretty blonde woman who makes all the wrong decisions yet somehow ends up surviving until the end regardless; … And, unavoidably, the family’s pet, so often unnecessarily killed (why do they always have to do that?).

The Evolving Landscape of Horror

There is, however, a second theme that emerges, becoming more popular as you track through the recent history of horror filmmaking: mental illness. The Black Cat, released in 1934, and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, is cited as being the first psychological horror film to be produced. It follows a guilt-ridden alcoholic and, in classic horror fashion, ticks the box of murdering a beloved household cat (seriously, why is that a thing?).

Perhaps more well-known, however, is Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1960 film, Psycho, in which the infamous Norman Bates kills six people at his motel, whilst struggling with a poor and extremely of-its-time depiction of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) (see later).

A similar image is painted by Stanley Kubrick 20 years later in The Shining, which centres around recovering alcoholic, Jack Torrance, as he slowly slips into psychosis, his deteriorating mental state leading him to (almost) killing his wife and son. But, just in case you think this cliché of ‘unstable person goes mad and evil’ is a thing of the past, you only have to look to more modern films like American Psycho (2000), Black Swan (2010), and Midsommar (2019) to see that this trope is still alive and kicking. But does it do more harm than good?

Harmful or Helpful Depictions of Mental Health in Horror?

Some may argue that the inclusion of such a plot-line does not always serve a negative purpose, and the audience’s reception depends wholly on the portrayal of the specific character with the mental illness. An example of this could be seen in the aforementioned Black Swan, where main character Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) appears to struggle with several disorders, including visual hallucinations, anorexia, self-harm, and OCD. Despite committing (or attempting to commit, as we find out during the climax of the film) several heinous actions against her family, friends, and foes, on the whole, the audience is encouraged to pity her. This suggestion appears successful, as Sayers is often referred to as an “obsessed artist” by fans of the film, as opposed to an attempted murderer.

However, I would argue that even sympathetic portrayals such as this don’t necessarily paint the most positive image of mentally unwell individuals, given that the crux of the film is still centred around Nina’s instability. The ‘horror’ aspect is triggered by unsettling the audience who, like Nina herself, don’t know what is real or what she is capable of doing. After all, if the best we can get is a condescending ‘aw’ from viewers who still think she should be strait-jacketed and locked away indefinitely in a cushy white room, it doesn’t exactly feel like the right message is being conveyed about mental health through the screen.

Beyond the Screen: Real World Implications

Personally, I enjoy psychological films just as much as – if not more than – the next person, so this isn’t just an aimless rant about the presentation of mental illness in film. Movies like Fight Club (1999), Girl, Interrupted (1999), Shutter Island (2010) and Joker (2019), all make it to the top of my Letterboxd reviews. As someone who has always had a keen interest in psychology, I am often captivated by, and enjoy analysing, demonstrations of mental illness in media. (My frequent tangents in A-Level English Literature regarding Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire are an indication of this, but that’s for another article). I do, however, take issue with horror films that use mental un-wellness as a key plot point, or as a way to warn the audience away from trusting a certain character, because I believe everything we witness can affect the way we view the world, whether we realise it or not.

For example, it seems commonplace in horror to portray people with disorders like DID as being inherently murderous (think Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a terrible stereotype of the disorder). Meanwhile, in reality, studies have shown such individuals are actually more at risk of harming themselves than other people as a result of their condition. In this way, having films constantly portray unstable people as dangerous creatures, as opposed to human beings in need of medical attention, is more likely to do harm than good. Not only does this implicitly encourage alienation of those who are in need, potentially worsening their mental state and creating a devastating cycle of isolation and illness, but this also has the potential to damage society as a whole. It falsely alters our perception of important topics and limits our ability to communicate with and understand each other fully.

Making Visible, the Misrepresented

Overall, I am not wholly against using mental illness as part of a film plot, as long as it is done in a well-researched and carefully-constructed way (so, basically, the complete opposite of the plot of Split, 2016). I believe this is important so as to avoid actively spreading misinformation about a historically marginalised and mistreated group, who are still fighting for visibility and acceptance to this day. Furthermore, portraying mental illness in film in an informed way could, conversely, offer an opening for a long-awaited dialogue; unlocking the mental gates for neurotypicals, who, may be able to use the form of media to further understand those suffering with such disorders.

If you feel any of the topics discussed in this piece have affected you, please reach out to a mental health support line like Samaritans (116 123) whose helpline is open 24/7, 365 days a year, or CALM (0800 58 58 58) which is open from 5pm til 12am daily.

Written by Bethany Taylor

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