Friday, 20 January 2012

Mental Illness in Horror

Trying to kill someone is not a very sane thing to do. Sane people don't sit up one morning and decide that it's time to break out the chainsaw. With its propensity for masked killers and pointy objects, horror movies are often the genre in which the mentally ill are most visible - and definitely not in a good way.

It ought to be pointed out that being a "psychopath" as such has no medical definition. You're never going to visit a doctor for a psych. consult and be branded a psychopath, even if you're still holding a severed head. It isn't featured in the DSM, but of course this hasn't stopped the term from being absorbed into popular consciousness.

Google gave me an image of this guy without a face. Kind of freaked out.

I think most people know that in general the Michael Myers and the Jason Voorhees of the world are very unlikely to exist, not least because it's difficult to obtain immortality in this day and age. Although Wikipedia's list of serial killers makes danger seem to lurk in every shadow, even if you were flung into the centre of a mental asylum you would be unlikely to lose any vital organs, since there tends to be security measures in place to avoid accidental blood donation.

In which case, the entire presentation of these killers ought to be nothing more than a shared fiction, but there remains a worry about the impact of these depictions on the general public conception of mental illness. When I tell people that I have mental health issues, I assume that they don't automatically assume that this means that I have uncontrollable murderous rages. There is, however, a stigma against saying that kind of thing, and the overwhelming depictions of "crazy" people clutching knives probably doesn't help. This isn't so much a case of meaning that there shouldn't be psycho-killers, because they're fun; rather it's more a complaint that mental illness is something that doesn't get much screen-time in anything other than super-dangerous or super-serious contexts.

Googling for terms related to mental illness might now be my favourite hobby.

There is another way in which the theme is included in horror movies, and that is the looming threat of being diagnosed as mentally ill. In wide-ranging films, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Rosemary's Baby, and Candyman, the protagonist reports their fears about whatever threat it is that's threatening the world this time around, only to find themselves on the receiving side of suspicions that they've lost their mind. In the case of Rosemary's Baby, this results in Rosemary being delivered back into the hands of the very people she'd been trying to rescue; in Candyman, she is strapped down to the bed which leaves her vulnerable to a floating-man creeper-attack from the candyman; in the extended ending of Invasion of the Body Snatchers proof shows up to demonstrate that the protagonist isn't crazy, but if we go on the original ending then everything seems to imply that the world is going to be taken over by the body-snatchers because everyone thinks he's just a ranting mad-man.

In all of these instances, being viewed as mentally ill is clearly shown to be a bad and dangerous thing - and yet only if it isn't true. As viewers, we're aware that what they are ranting about is real. Yet no judgement seems to be passed on whether or not this treatment would have been suitable if they really were mentally ill: is strapping someone down to a bed and abandoning them okay if the person genuinely is having terrifying delusions? Is handing them over to a spouse they're frightened of okay if you think it's just a result of paranoia? Those are issues unwitting raised but never addressed in the narratives (mostly because the films are far too busy fighting monsters to stop and ponder upon the treatment of the mentally ill in society).

Mental illness and the mentally ill loom large in horror movies. It's frightening. Our brains are our entire world/existence: I think therefore I am. Knowing that your very thoughts could be compromised is a scary experience, which is why we also end up with movie "twists" in which we find out that the entire narrative has taken place in a character's mind. It works as a way to trick the audience, but I think it's also alarming to consider how little we're capable of processing reality. Our brains are like computers - and computers crash and process information incorrectly. A lot.

I think dealing with the issue of mental illness on film is a very difficult one. In general, films choose not to do it. It's far more fun to present a psycho-killer than it is to come up with a reason or diagnosis, especially as these films are a form of escapism. It still bears to be remembered that every year 1 in 4 people in Britain will experience mental health problems - and very few of us ever pick up a chainsaw.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, really thought provoking and well written, hope it gets the attention it deserves.