There are few things more quintessential to Halloween than horror movies. Whether you’re a vampire kind of person, or maybe more into zombies, it’s become a cultural norm to ring in the spooky season with some kind of hair-raising feature film.
I’ve recently become a big fan of horror. It’s a genre with a tremendous ability to explore the human condition, how we act and react in tough situations, and what we all hold in common. The visuals are cool, and the action is intense. Like most people, I do get a bit grossed out by certain things. Anything to do with the eyes (looking at you, that one episode of Game of Thrones) sends the exact wrong kind of shivers down my spine.
Another thing that makes me wince? Cartoonish, misguided portrayals of mentally ill people. How many horror movies have you seen that give no depth to the villain, instead presenting cardboard cutouts of monstrosity? How many horror movies and shows have been set in asylums or psychiatric hospitals? How often do we hear words like “crazy” or “insane” or “unstable” to mean evil?
This issue isn’t something vague or detached to me. I have depression and Borderline Personality Disorder, and have spent time in a psychiatric ward. I have been the person who is labeled as “crazy” and “unstable.” Spoiler alert: it’s not a great experience.
Now, this isn’t anything new. These inaccurate, dehumanizing portrayals have been around since the very first movies in the genre. In one of the most classic, foundational horror films, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the final big twist is simply that the antagonist, Norman Bates, is crazy. From there, the film fizzles out into an expository sequence and ends rather abruptly.
Mental illness is used as a catchall reason for why a character acts the way they do. It saves lazy writers from having to come up with a proper backstory or even just admit that sometimes people do terrible things to each other with very little reason. Instead, they just say they’re “crazy.”
To be frank, I find these kinds of cop-outs disappointing. There’s no leadup and no true payoff or development. Also, the assumption that mentally ill people are all violent criminals is simply incorrect. It actually tends to be the other way around. Studies show that those diagnosed with psychiatric disorders have a higher chance of being a victim of crime than those who do not: for men, it goes up 50%, while for women it goes up 64%.
In my own home city of Richmond, on May 14, 2018, a young teacher named Marcus-David Peters was murdered by police as he was having a mental health emergency. Peters was unarmed and naked. Richmond community members have reclaimed the former Robert E. Lee monument in the hub of the city and renamed it Marcus-David Peters Circle in memoriam. No matter how much the community comes together, however, there is no returning a beloved mentor, teacher, brother, and son.
Peters’ story, sadly, is not unique. As we’ve become particularly aware of police brutality this past summer, attention must also be drawn to the epidemic of police killings of the mentally ill. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition. According to a Washington Post database of fatal shootings by on-duty police officers, more than 20% of people shot and killed by police have a mental illness.
As Herb Geraghty notes in the Rehumanize Podcast, dehumanization affects real people. “The words we use shape our perceptions,” remarked Geraghty. Films like these may seem inconsequential, but they shape how we view the mentally ill. And when we diminish one group of people, we harm all people, everywhere.
You may think you know what a “crazy” person looks like, but mental illness is often a silent struggle. As someone with BPD, it stings to see personality disorders like mine caricatured and exaggerated.
These films don’t always use vague depictions of “crazy” people. Many of them give specific names to disorders. In my opinion, this worsens the issue. Yes, now audiences know the names of specific disorders, but they also associate these issues with movie depictions of genuine human health problems.
For instance, Split (2016) revolves around a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Kevin, our antagonist has twenty-three distinct personalities, and his violent abduction of three young girls is directly and unsubtly attributed to his disorder. One of Kevin’s personalities is known as “The Beast” and possesses super strength and the ability to crawl on walls. He’s not superhuman, but monstrous, and there’s no separation of his mental disorder and his monstrosity. In this film, they are one and the same.
A great amount of stigma already surrounds mental illness. People are afraid to talk about their struggles. It took three suicide attempts for me to be hospitalized and begin medications and therapy. I was too scared to ask for help, to admit that I had my mental struggles. I didn’t, and still don’t want to be seen as subhuman, monstrous, fragile, or unstable. I want to be seen as a human being with my own set of strengths and weaknesses.
I’m not saying you can’t have a mentally ill antagonist. Being mentally ill doesn’t make you inherently good — and neither does being mentally well. But if your villain is mentally ill, don’t let that be all that they are. Don’t fall prey to the trap of other-ing. Truly great horror movies, like my particular favorite Midsommar (2019), get us to understand the horrible things that people do and why they do them. When we connect to a character, it makes their actions so much more personal and compelling.
Of course, horror movies aren’t the root of all of our problems regarding dehumanization. They’re more a symptom than anything else. But by addressing misguided characterizations and working to create more meaningful and nuanced depictions of others that don’t villainize intrinsic and uncontrollable parts of who they are, we can take a small step towards a more balanced and fair society for all.