From the birth of the genre, horror in all forms has been used to safely explore the deep-seated fears of the people in our society. As civilization has changed and adapted throughout history, we have uncovered a wealth of information that has helped lessen fear, and art has changed alongside to show that. Horror has been used to depict war, poverty, famine, the rapid progress of technology, issues of race, gender, and sexuality. It has covered a mass of topics, but none so popular in the modern-day as mental illness and disorders. While this is a topic that can be covered respectfully (i.e. The Babadook (2014), The Haunting of Hill House (2019), etc), it is most often handled very poorly and perpetuates negative stereotypes. These extremely popular films spread the idea that mental illness is dangerous, therefore furthering the stigma and mistreatment of mentally ill people in the real world.
A journal titled “Violence and mental illness: an overview”, published in a journal by the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), cites a study called the MacArthur Assessment. It suggests that the rates of violence among mentally ill patients may originate from that stigmatized fear of violence, which, in return, can cause violence and preliminary retaliation from neurotypical family members, friends, and romantic partners (“violence most frequently erupted in the family when relationships were characterized by mutual threat, hostility, and financial dependence”). They find that those with mental illness are very rarely a threat to the public and that neurodivergent individuals contribute less than 5% to violent crimes (“For those with a major mental disorder, the population attributable risk was 4.3%, indicating that violence in the community could be reduced by less than five percent if major mental disorders could be eliminated”). Society’s view of people with psychiatric disorders and their tendencies towards violence is greatly exaggerated, and the evidence shows that violence has far more to do with the circumstances, not the illness in itself.
Published by the Lancet, the article “The horror, the horror: stigma on screen” (pg. 423-425, 2014) directly explores the relationship between mental illness in horror and the public’s opinion on mentally ill people. It references a critique of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Asylum (2012), “if you take it on its macabre, kinky terms…[a] focused,…frenetic, screamfest,” (Time Magazine, 2012). Though, it claims mental health professionals might find an issue with it and its stereotypical portrayal of its mentally ill patients. It depicts demonically possessed nuns, sex-obsessed schizophrenic psycho-killers, and cruel Nazi psychiatrists, among other things. The article doesn’t necessarily shame the showrunners, but the industry itself, saying: “They are doing what film-makers have always done—satisfying their audience. (…) Why do people crave horror movies, and is there a way to satisfy this desire without stigmatization of mental health problems?” The article suggests that horror originally satisfied a fairy tale narrative. There is a monstrous problem, and steps are carried out to defeat it. The ending is a cathartic triumph. It represents the values of a Golden Age America, back when it was true that the U.S. was the greatest country in the world, an economically successful superpower that had, as of yet, gone undefeated. The land of the free, the land of the strong. But as the country moved into the sixties and seventies, those values changed. There were new traumas that were heavily affecting the country: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the Watergate Scandal. Horror, in turn, reflected these fears. Gone were the days of young heroes triumphing against the hokey evil villains. Horror no longer “presumed a safe world”. Filmmakers were no longer interested in making their audiences comfortable. Society’s vulnerable became their antagonists. The Exorcist (1973) horrified audiences with its story of Regan MacNeil, a 12-year-old girl that gets possessed by a demon. The film depicted this child in a way that no other child had been treated in film before, with blatant and vile language, sexuality, and gore. The Omen (1976) features an even younger child, a five-year-old boy named Damien who is implied to be the Antichrist. In the film, he pushes his mother off a balcony, and his father comes to the conclusion that he must murder his young son. Instead of repulsing audiences and pushing them away, it drew them in. A morbid curiosity of these vulnerable, innocent beings becoming monsters sold seats for these films, and many others for decades to come. With this, the era of the psychologically damaged antagonist was born. It was something society feared and didn’t understand, with a horrifying history to match. The image of straitjackets, lobotomies, electroshock therapy, blood-letting, and opium treatments was intriguing and explored thoroughly by directors throughout the years. The “asylum-escapee” became a common trope in horror, with films such as Halloween (1978), which famously opened with two sequences: one, of a six-year-old Michael Myers violently murdering his sister on Halloween night, and two, Michael Myers escaping from the sanitarium he was kept in exactly fifteen years later. Michael Myers would become one of many similar horror villains, among the ranks of Freddy Kruger (the spirit of a pedophilic serial killer), and Leatherface (a cannibalistic, mentally unstable serial killer). Films about schizophrenia, dementia, mood disorders, and asylums flew into the mainstream, bringing in masses of money with each release. The Lancet article states that the depiction of mentally ill individuals in horror is dangerously inaccurate, and may even have the power to dissuade those suffering from getting help, out of fear of being seen as a monster by their friends and family. It also, often, depicts therapy as a punishment, only showing those outdated mental health practices of years gone by, (“Mental health professionals fare no better. Therapies, in horror movies, are used as a punishment, and patients are treated in an inhumane way,”). Alongside this, it creates fear of experiencing any form of psychosis, as well as fear of coming into contact with anyone that does, instead of destigmatizing it and promoting empathy towards those suffering individuals.
Stigmatized representations of mental illness in horror films perpetuate negative stereotypes and violence towards real-life sufferers of illnesses like schizophrenia and psychosis. Those that suffer from mental illness deserve patience and medical help for their ailments. These films may prevent an ill person from getting the help and care that they need. A pursuit in furthering understanding, education, and empathy towards subjects like these would relieve the need for a psychologically damaged killer because the unwarranted fear would no longer exist.
- Preston Shand, J., Hatters Friedman, S. and Espi Forcen, F., 2014. The horror, the horror: stigma on screen. The Lancet Psychiatry Journal, 1(6), pp.P423-P425.
- Loren, R., Mulvey, E., Robbins, P., Silver, E., Steadman, H., Monahan, J., Grisso, T., and Appelbaum, P., 2001. Rethinking Risk Assessment: The MacArthur Study of Mental Disorder and Violence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Stuart, H., 2003. Violence and mental illness: an overview. World Psychiatry, 2, pp.121-124.