I’m a recently converted avid horror fan. My love began with the likes of The Shining and rages on to this day with films like It Follows and Lights Out. I think this love can be boiled down to one thing: the best horror films are just really fucking clever. Jump scare upon jump-scare doesn’t impress me now I’m a seasoned horror watcher: I crave something more. Something better. Don’t get me wrong, jump scares can be excellent, when built up effectively and used sparingly. I’ve found what scares me the most is surprise and sustained fear, not little spooks when the ghosties jump up in front of the camera. This lack of clever plot to me however extends further than just shitty jump scares. It’s a problem that’s been in the back of my mind for a really long time, and that is mental health in horror films. I’m almost certain that in the majority of your favourite horror films, there will be at least one person with a mental health problem. This could be the person who sees ghosts so is ‘crazy,’ or the ‘pshycho’ killer who says the voices made him do it. I am in no way innocent here; nearly all my favourite horrors feature one of these characters. It’s hard not to argue that no matter how people with mental illnesses are featured in these films, they are meant to scare us.
I wanted to express these thoughts a while ago, particularly inspired by the film Lights Out, among others, but I felt like I was being too picky. To put it simply, the main characters mother only sees Dianna, the monster/ghost in the film, when she doesn’t take her medication. I was worried I was being just another hashtag social justice warrior, aka finding problems where they don’t exist, and taking things too far. So I let it be. But let me make one thing clear, if I doubted how I felt then, I shouldn’t have, because I have watched a LOT of horror films, and continued to feel the same way. A few days ago I watched the James McAvoy thriller Split, and I can’t keep my big mouth shut any more.
Split, if you don’t know, is a very recent thrillerish nail biter about a man with multiple personality disorder who kidnaps a group of young girls. There are spoilers ahead, so don’t say I didn’t warn you! Basically, three of the Kevin’s twenty-four different personalities believe in ‘the beast,’ another of Kevin’s personalities that is essentially a higher evolved human, with advanced super-strong abilities. He can climb up walls, and alter his body chemistry with his mind to make him big and strong. This personality needs to feed on ‘impure’ flesh to grow stronger, and believes those who haven’t suffered in life are weaker in the evolutionary chain. The pure ones are the ones who have suffered, eventually saving the protagonists life. He doesn’t eat her when he sees her self harm scars and learns she has suffered and is thus pure. In summary, these three personalities kidnap the girls to feed to the beast, but first hold them hostage for a while to keep the spooks going.
Already, this sparks a lot of red flags for me. The trailer revealed most of this information, but I still went to see it, knowing it’s probably very dodgy. Why? Because it looked damn good, and it was. Looking at this film as a horror, regardless of the problems it could create in the stigmatisation of Dissociative Personality Disorder (split personality disorder,) it was a good horror. It came with clever and subtle suspense, with deliciously disturbing scenes to boot. But I can’t detach myself from this problem, and I don’t think I should have to in order to enjoy a film. I don’t believe it’s exactly easy writing, like jump scares- but I think there are other options that can be taken. The film was incredibly clever, and the idea of using this disorder created some highly unsettling scenes. But I still can’t quite let it go. For a lot of people, this may be the first time they ever encounter Dissociative Personality Disorder- a violent unhinged kidnapper, cannibal, and somebody who can supposedly alter his own body chemistry to make a monster? I’m no expert, but I’m 99.9% sure that isn’t possible. I wanted to get a proper opinion, so I found an article in which a proper doctor, Cathy Kezelman, describes the film as ‘stigmatizing,’ and I can’t help but agree The article also says that studies have found only 3% of people with DPD have done anything criminal: “the soon-to-be published research paper, Mental Illness and Violent Behaviour: The Role of Dissociation, which found that out of 173 people treated for the disorder, only three per cent reported having been charged with an offence in the past six months.” Basically, it’s pretty darn uncommon.
This is all getting a bit complicated, so let’s explore a more simple example. In The Ring, Samara is a creepy little girl who is seen either as a creepy ghost, or a little girl in a mental hospital. With her forever wet looking hair covering her face, in her white gown in her white room, Samara personifies all these things we associate with creepy. But why? It’s clear that Samara’s supernatural abilities are much more than her being a little ‘crazy.’ Then there’s the mental asylum scenes in Insidious 2, the ‘monster’ being a tortured and evil transgender person? Seriously?
Asylum horror has somehow become an entire genre too, and it grinds my bloody gears. With the likes of Grave Encounters and The Ward, these scary representations not only of mental illness, but also how the mentally ill are treated, are repeated over and over. How much media is out there to combat it? When I’m watching this stuff I can’t help but sit and wonder why mental illness is so scary to us as viewers, but the answer of course is obvious: it is scary. As someone who’s grappled with dodgy mental health personally, and watched people close to me grapple too, of course it’s scary. It’s fucking terrifying. But not in the way we see in horrors. Mental hospitals are not filled with ghosties and demons and torturous surgeons. The vast majority of mentally ill people are just living their every-day lives, just the same as any neuro-typical person. A pretty fucking big majority, actually. Not murderers, or kidnappers, and definitely not people with supernatural abilities to alter their own body chemistry etc etc.
On the other hand, there is the obvious thing to consider: these films are fiction. They’re not real, and they’re made to entertain, not to educate. It may also be important to note that murder and mental stability don’t exactly go hand in hand. Portraying a completely sane serial killer in a slasher wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. But for me, that doesn’t take anything away from how important representation is. As long as we have these scary portrayals, we need something good alongside them. As I said I’m in no way innocent when it comes to watching and loving these films. A lot of the films I’ve mentioned today are my favourites, and I’ve seen all of them. I’ve seen Split even though I knew what it was about. I love Lights Out and the Ring and so many others that pose the mental health problem, whether in subtle ways or not. I’m also not a film maker, and I wouldn’t have a clue where to begin when it came to writing something genuinely scary. I wanted to come to some kind of conclusion with this but I’m not sure what the answer is. Only to recognise that the world is moving forward, and it’s vitally important to show this in representation. Shows like My Mad Fat Diary and films like Silver Linings Playbook pave the way towards a better view of mental illness in the media. Am I just being too picky? Regardless of what I think, we still have a long way to go.
Am I being too picky or do you agree? Let me know what you think! Help end the mental health stigma with Bell Lets Talk.