Mental illness is often portrayed in a very negative way in horror movies. We’ve all seen at least one horror movie where the escaped mental patient goes on a murder spree. What these kinds of stories do it’s very toxic. They give us this negative perception of mentally ill people as being violent, and that ‘mental patient’ is code for ‘killer’. We saw this exact storyline in M. Night Shyamalan’s movies The Visit and Split. Split is about a man with dissociative identity disorder, a real condition people might equate with phrases like split personality. This isn’t a character who is just crazy and murderous in a nebulous way. The movie takes an actual disorder and makes the very idea of its symptoms monstrous.
These movies show antagonists commit evil deeds purely through mental illness. If someone is mentally ill, and they are violent, they’re violent because of their mental illness. It’s this combination of almost exclusively negative portrayals, combined with inaccuracy in movies, that makes our current portrayals of mental illness on the screen so problematic.
Mental illness in real life
In the real world, mental illness is extremely common, but also very taboo. Around one in four people may experience mental health issues in their lives, and one in 13 people will have psychotic episodes. ‘Psychotic‘ doesn’t mean you go around killing people. Psychotic episodes are just periods when people find it difficult to establish what’s real or to express themselves. One in 13 people will go through this in their lives; but when the entire portrayal of mental illness is so negative, it just serves to stigmatize people more. Mental illness in real life is pretty much like any other kind of health, it’s a sliding scale. People can have it more severely, or less severely. People can have it throughout their entire lives, or just for periods of their life. It is something that can be treated and managed. This is not the portrayal that we see onscreen.
Mental illness in movies
Often there are two reasons behind mental health in movies: either it’s something that you are born with, and which is linked to being inherently evil, or it’s something which is a result of childhood trauma that has made you a bad person. In both of these portrayals, there is an idea that this is just who this person is, there’s no way of getting treatment for them. We just have a lot of very negative images and motifs in movies to do with mentally ill people. For example, the insane asylums or straitjackets. When in reality now, we have hospitals, units, rehabs that help people to manage their illnesses.
This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the knowledge about mental health that people had meant that they would be able to tell the difference between the fictionalized elements of mental health and the stuff that has a basis in reality, but they can’t. These portrayals serve to have real-world effects on attitudes to mental illness. This affects both people who will never have mental issues and people who will. It encourages the idea that mental health treatment either doesn’t work or is in itself scary and evil. This is shown through the portrayals of mental health professionals as either evil sadists or people who are more messed up than any of us.
The negative effects movies have on real-life
So let’s talk about the real-world effects that media portrayals of mentally ill people can have. This is something that has been documented and studied. Most people actually get their information about mental illness, not from any educational site or background, but through mass media. These portrayals can encourage dehumanization because a lot of the time mentally ill characters will have a physical trait that distances them from ‘normal’ people. It can also encourage stigma around mental health. It also perpetuates the idea that people who are victims of child abuse will inevitably become abusive and violent themselves.
Silence of the Lambs and Fantastic Beasts have the conventional trope that early trauma and horrific childhood abuse creates a monstrous adult. But one of the most insidious things that come from these movies is the link between violence and mental health. When in fact studies show that people who suffer from mental illness are more likely to be the victim of violence than they are to perpetuate it. In reality, according to the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, no more than three percent of violent crimes are committed by mentally ill people.
Now I am not saying that these movies are responsible for all of our negative idea about mental health. I think that’s a societal web problem with a lot of different elements to it; but when we don’t have any provisions for actual education around mental health in schools, or elsewhere, it’s no wonder that people are turning to mass media for their ideas around mental health. It’s not to say that every mentally ill person has to be some kind of saintly character; but when we don’t have a real variety and show of reality in the portrayals of these people, that’s when it becomes a problem.