Mental Illness in Horror Movies: Exploiting and Stigmatizing For Scares

Years before Joker raised a furor, the American Psychiatric Associated (APA) levelled similar criticisms at DC Comics. Specifically, the APA took issue with Batman’s ‘rogues gallery’ and its misrepresentation of mental illness. Outside of comics, popular culture has historically misrepresented mental illness. Like mainstream news media, our movies and television entertainment have propagated the myth that mentally people are dangerous. Similarly, horror movies have been just as complicit in stigmatizing mental illness. The ‘masked madman’, the ‘haunted asylum’, the ‘terrible past’ that drives someone mad – these are all familiar horror tropes. And they’re not just found in decades-old horror movies. It’s only been five years since M Night Shyalaman’s Split divided audiences with its depiction of the mentally ill. Over the years, how has horror exploited and stigmatized mental illness? Can new horror movie change this conversation?

Mental Illness, Horror, and Freud in the Shadows

Perhaps no other psychiatrist or psychologist has influenced cinema more than Sigmund Freud. Given Freud’s ideas around dynamic struggles between our id, ego, and superego deep in the unconsciousness, it’s not that surprising. Psychoanalytic psychology offers a compelling story template for filmmakers and writers. Take a quick looks at ‘Master of Suspense’ Alfred Hitchcock’s works. Trauma, repression, and kleptomania take centre stage in Marnie. Hitchcock’s Spellbound is rife with Freudian themes. But it’s Psycho, and its neurotic split-personality murderer, Norman Bates, that most stands out. Psycho was Hitchcock’s first, and maybe only, outright horror movie. Arguably, Psycho also shifted horror’s focus from Gothic monsters and aliens to psychologically damaged madmen.

Arguably, Psycho also shifted horror’s focus from Gothic monsters and aliens to psychologically damaged madmen.

Following Psycho’s success, Hollywood horror movie increasingly conflated trauma and mental illness with violence. Grindhouse cinema of the 70’s and early 80’s took great pains to re-create Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and its portrait of man’s descent into madness. Brutal exploitation flicks like The Driller Killer, Deranged, Pieces, and Maniac took audiences on their killer’ journey from early trauma to mad killer alongside stomach-churning gore. Golden-era slasher movies routinely employed mentally killers as their masked antagonists. From John Carpenter’s Halloween to Alone in the Dark, he ‘escaped lunatic‘ became a popular horror trope. Other horror movies, most notably Sleepaway Camp, constructed transgenderism as a disease that triggered homicidal violence.

The Asylum as Horror Iconography

Batman has Arkham Asylum. And horror movies have their own long-established iconography. For example, religious symbols and imagery are commonplace in supernatural horror. In addition, the Gothic castle and haunted house are common ‘dark places’ found in horror. Similarly, the asylum has frequently figured into horror movies. Not surprisingly, horror movies have typically mixed the Gothic and ‘haunted house’ visuals in their portrayals of mental health facilities. Generally, horror movies have imagined hospitals as contemporary Gothic places with looming arches and dim hallways. Patients are inmates in these movies, raving while confined in padded cells. Consider Hellbound: Hellraiser II’s hospital basement of incurable madne. Early in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, an asylum security guard bluntly says, ‘Jesus ain’t got nothin’ to do with this place’

‘Jesus ain’t got nothin’ to do with this place’.

In horror movies, mental health facilities are traditionally ‘dark places’ where evil manifests. Session 9, Eloise, and Grave Encounters, for instance, place their horror in the abandoned, decrepit halls of empty asylums. In some of these movies, the madness and mistreatment of the mentally ill lingers as a supernatural evil. Though it’s an imperfect remake, The House on Haunted Hill’s opening scene indictment of mental illness. Stereotypically ‘crazy’ patients revolt against a cruel doctor in a psychiatric institute for the criminally insane. Other movies, like Session 9, see mental hospitals as destitute places where mental illness and demonic influence are one in the same. Haunted asylums are commonplace in horror – – Gothika, The Ward.

Horror Taking Some New Directions in Depictions of Mental Illness

Not all horror movies paint the mentally ill as dangerous. More recently, we’ve seen a few movies offer more sympathetic portrayals. One of the better examples of a complex portrayal of mental illness is Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. On the surface, The Babadook is a movie about a ‘boogeyman’ haunting a single mother and her son. Yet it’s also a movie that intricately explores depression and trauma without ever stigmatizing. While They Look Like People didn’t enjoy a wide theatrical release, this indie psychological horror takes great pains to depict psychosis realistically. Unlike M Night Shyalaman’s Split, which ultimately equates mental illness with monstrosity, They Look Like People humanizes its mentally ill character. Another indie horror effort, Resolution, similarly avoids exploiting addiction for jolts. That is, the character isn’t reduced to a plot device – he’s a real person struggling with a very real disease.

At the very least, it’s a sign that horror movies can have more complicated conversations about mental illness.

Even the recent Halloween sequel has delivered a more nuanced insight into mental health. Of course, the movie still uses the ‘Escaped Lunatic’ trope. And it’s opening scene plays on all the stock stereotypes about the mentally ill. Nevertheless, Halloween 2018 gives Jamie Lee Curtis’ ‘Laurie Strode’ a much more interesting character arc than what you’ll find in most horror sequels. Much of the sequel focuses on Laurie’s trauma and its impact across generations of her family. Most importantly, Halloween 2018 avoids demonizing Laurie or her mental illness. It’s far from a perfect representation of mental illness, but there’s certainly some silver-lining in what’s essentially a slasher sequel. At the very least, it’s a sign that horror movies can have more complicated conversations about mental illness.

Mental Illness and Horror in the Future

News media have drawn links between mental illness and violence for years. Back-and-forth debates about gun control and mental health usually follow mass shootings. Conversely, decades of psychology research illustrates a much more complex relationship. Considerable efforts, such as Bell Media’s #BellLetsTalk movement, have been made to de-stigmatize mental illness. Horror movies are unlikely to stop including representations of mental illness. After all, horror works best when it examines those things that frighten us the most. Nonetheless, a few recent horror movie illustrate how these representations can de-stigmatize mental illness rather than exploit it for scares.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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