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Why the Depiction of Mental Illness in Horror Films Is Damaging

Why the Depiction of Mental Illness in Horror Films Is Damaging

Horror movies are, and always will be, one of my favorite genres of movies. The unnerving sounds, eerie movements, and startling sights stimulate my thoughts and emotions—to the extent that I begin vicariously living another person’s chilling life. I love the intensity and adrenaline rush that accompany horror movies, in addition to the opportunity to live in a world that is clearly a lot worse than our own. One of the most thrilling movies I’ve seen? The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick.

But recently, as a part of a school assignment, I’ve been reading up about the depiction of people with mental illnesses in the media. And I have to admit, what I found out did shock me—not just the truth, but the fact that I hadn’t noticed it in the first place:

A vast number of horror movies exist because they’ve deformed the behavior of people diagnosed with mental illnesses.

When I come to think of it, it shouldn’t come as so much of a surprise. Psycho (1960), Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (2009). All incredibly iconic, yet each equally stigmatizing. There is strong evidence that Norman Bates, the protagonist of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, has Dissociative Identity Disorder—for he is shown constantly vacillating between his identity and his dead mother’s identity, in a futile attempt to “bring her back to life”.

There are various stereotypes when it comes to the portrayal of mental illnesses in the media. And the main one has to be the depiction of psychological disabilities as a source of violence, volatility, or brutality. And regardless of how brilliantly Psycho was directed, we can’t ignore the fact that it invariably equates Dissociative Identity Disorder with extreme violence or madness. We can’t ignore the fact that this disorder has even been glamorized, to an extent. The gravity of this illness has been replaced by cinematographic stereotypes; and given the iconic nature of this movie, not much can be done about it.

Now here’s a thriller (borderline horror) movie I thoroughly disliked, but believe that it’s worth mentioning: The Roommate (2011). I mention it because I know for a fact that several of my friends have watched it, and inevitably inhaled the stereotypes it embraces. At first, everything seems fine, albeit the dark undercurrent shadowing the movie. Two attractive girls are starting their freshman year at college—with one (Sara) being portrayed as ‘normal’, and the other one (Rebecca) being… slightly ‘off’, even from the start. Things escalate when Rebecca starts growing an obsession with Sara: threatening Sara’s friend to stay away from her, getting the professor who hit on her dismissed, and even killing her ex-boyfriend!

And what’s the reason behind these disturbing acts by Rebecca? Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. In a trice, this movie has taken two mental disorders, diagnosed a main character with them, and made her either a violent murderer or a sexualized seductress.

As written in a Literature Review by Dara Roth Edney,  “Considerable research has concluded that the media are the public’s most significant source of information about mental illness”. So… if we look at Rebecca’s demonizing portrayal in The Roommate, what’s the natural thing to conclude?

And unknowingly, we end up lumping people with these mental illnesses into a single, discriminatory category. No wonder there’s such a vast, harmful stigma surrounding mental illnesses.

And let’s look at a third movie, Halloween (1978). As said by Sarah Graham in an article published on RSCPP, “The 1978 film ‘Halloween’ is a classic example of the ‘escaped mental patient goes on a killing spree’ film genre’”. It is heavily implied that Michael Myers, the protagonist, suffers from a form of psychosis. And the result of this virtual diagnosis? Several stalking episodes, murders, and a constant characterization as ‘evil’. Or, to put it briefly, a person with psychosis became the subject of a horror movie: thereby deepening the stigma we’re surrounded by.

After these small bits of research, I have to say: although The Shining is one of the most chilling movies I’ve seen, I can’t say that I like it anymore. Jack Nicholson’s terrifying portrayal of Jack Torrance—a writer who develops alarming symptoms which point to schizophrenia, OCD, and bipolar disorder—is more than enough to leave a person shocked and disturbed. What starts off as mood swings and nightmares quickly intensifies into vivid hallucinations and violence: and culminates in an attempted murder of his own family.  

Sure, horror movies are entertaining sources of Halloween fun. But when certain movies warp the symptoms of mental disorders into murderous drives, the implications to society dramatically outweigh any potential entertainment. In the words of Lindsay Holmes (in her article published at The Huffington Post), “There’s evidence that these false stereotypes can be severely damaging: Research shows that the negative perceptions surrounding mental health disorders can prevent people from seeking help”. This stigma is especially prevalent in my own country, India, where people diagnosed with mental illnesses are looked down upon as unfavorable, weak, or even dangerous. And what we see in the media is definitely not helping.

Of course, that’s not to say that all horror movies are guilty of stigmatizing psychological disabilities. Quite a few of them, such as The Conjuring, steer remarkably clear of such biased depictions. And there are numerous movies in other genres that are said to portray an accurate and positive image of mental illnesses, such as Silver Linings Playbook (2012), A Beautiful Mind (2001), and Rain Man (1988).

I’m not saying that we should stop watching movies that spout inaccurate or demonizing portrayals of mental disorders. That said, we should be aware of the stereotypes embedded within them—and actively attempt to oppose them. Mental illnesses do not define people; they are only a part of them. Whether or not someone is diagnosed with a psychological disability, we have to remember that that person still has hopes, quirks, insecurities, and dreams. Yes, horror movies can be wildly entertaining; but perhaps we should leave them in that realm: pure entertainment.

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