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Horror and Mental Illness

As a preface, I am not a licensed anything, I am not providing mental health services, and I do not suggest that this should be used as any form of psychological advice. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, I encourage you to seek out a licensed therapist in your area and schedule an appointment. There are plenty of places that provide online lookups (here is the APA’s), and many great people out there very willing to listen and provide whatever help they can.


This is a topic that has been spinning around in my head for a while. I mean, the draft has been percolating since mid April, and the idea began far before then. I owe some of my inspiration to return to the topic to the recent creepypasta.com announcement regarding the Wisconsin stabbings.  It is a very well written discussion of horror, violence, and mental illness, and it touches on this cultiral war being waged against anyone with a mental illness. Now, my take is a bit different than that one, and obviously not directed at the recent events. I am instead looking at how horror as a genre has contributed to stigmatization of mental illness, but the recent events got my wheels turning back to this topic.

To get my biases out of the way, I have a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and in the midst of pursuing my doctorate. So, I have a may be a bit hypervigilant when it comes to identifying stigmatizing or discriminatory messages in the media. I suppose I’d rather be a bit oversensitive and prevent the risk of hurting someone than to laugh it off.

Also, I grew up loving horror movies. I was raised on the creepy and crawly and terrifying. I had my fair share of nightmares as well, and to be honest, I think that drove me deeper into the horror genre. Rather than running from my fears, I drowned myself in them and embraced it. I watched horror movies, TV shows, read the books, and wrote stories that tapped into those themes. I can say for certain that I read all of Stephen King’s IT at age 12, though that was one of a long line of his books that I had devoured, so my introduction into “adult” horror began pretty early. Going off to college did not dim my enthusiasm, and I found myself drawn more and more to writing darker stories as I jumped at every new scary movie in theaters. My boyfriend was kind enough to allow me this, and now as my husband he continues to consider supporting my habit with ample Netflix offerings. Yet, at some point in college, I ran out of time to read and write for fun, so part of that faded. Eventually I stumbled on the creepypasta community sometime during my first year in graduate school. Reading the stories on there was a joy, and revitalized some part of me. As this blog itself demonstrates, it even prompted me to pick up the pen (er…keyboard?) again. All of this to say that, despite my critique, horror is one of my first true loves in the realm of creativity. I just want to see it be the best genre it can be.

On to the point, now. The history of horror and mental illness goes way back. It’s almost unfair to say it, because understanding of mental illness has historically been poor, but the earliest overlap between these two concepts is likely the link between mental illness and demonic possession. I would imagine the link is undeniable throughout history, but I want to focus a little more recently as mental healthcare has made great advances which have yet to really pierce the current cultural milieu.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, released in 1919, is considered one of the first horror movies, and one of the first to include mental illness as a significant component. It is available in public domain and can be viewed here.  Now, it’s an old silent film, and I doubt many readers are up for a 50 minute homework assignment prior to reading on. So, to summarize, it is the story of a man (Dr. Caligari)  who controls a sleepwalker, forcing him to commit murders in a small town. While some may consider it a stretch to consider sleepwalking a mental illness, it is in the DSM, so I think we can make the stretch (however, that opens a whole discussion about the current states of diagnostics in psychology, and I don’t want to go there). But, of greater interest is that the movie is actually being told from an institution by individuals with…let’s say poor reality testing. So, in a final twist, it’s revealed that the narrator invented everything in the throes of “mania.” I do not call this out as an egregious error of marginalization, but rather to show that the desire to bring mental illness into horror goes back well into our cultural history.

And, since then, horror has actively embraced the inexplicable link between mental illness and horror–and monsters, really. I cannot count the number of movies I have seen that use schizophrenia or dissociation (wrongly, I might add, but that’s another post) to create a monster capable of killing most of the remaining cast. Or the myriad of films that rely on an abandoned mental institution as their setting because, duh, the ghosts there would be particularly cruel, vindictive, and evil.   These ideas seem rather harmless until you sit across the room from a young man who states he has no aspirations for his future because he “is schizophrenia.” That his family will not take him back in because he is dangerous, despite the fact he has never demonstrated any aggression. Or until someone refuses to seek out help for depression, anxiety, mania, or psychosis because it risks being labeled a threat to others, thereby leading to years of suffering without treatment. That is a sampling of the harm these stereotypes create, and the reality is that it can be far more dangerous. Our misconceptions may even blind us to reaching out to those in desperate need of help because they do not match the often inaccurate Hollywood stereotypes of the mentally ill.

So, what prompted my long discussion here? I ran across a crappypasta.com post (which I will not link here, because I do not believe it was intentionally harmful, just buying into the cultural trope on horror) that stated that spirits of people once in the asylum were menacing and evil merely because they were institutionalized. Other spirits who were kind, caring, compassionate, etc. were deemed to not really be crazy people, but accidental souls who were locked away in the asylum for petty reasons, like sexual orientation or out of wedlock pregnancy. That stung me deeply, because I know so many kind, caring, and compassionate individuals who live in what are our current form of institutions. As I said, this was not the author’s attempt to stick it to the crazies, but rather someone who bought into the cultural myth of “dangerous” mental illness. Not to say that some people with mental illness are not dangerous, but then again some psychologically “healthy” (if there is such a thing) individuals also are very dangerous and not worth being around. It really has more to do with the person than a diagnostic label.

Do you have a point with all this rambling, Katherine? Yes, I do. I always do, it just takes me a while to get there. My point is easily misunderstood, so I will be blunt. I am NOT saying that mental illness should be taboo for horror. I think it can be terrifying, it can lead to great tragedy, and it can cause people to act in decidedly uncharacteristic ways. What I propose, however, is that we stop trying to make someone with mental illness always the bad guy. And stop with shoddy representations of mental illness. Plenty of people with a psychiatric diagnosis live healthy and productive lives. They are successful and treat their condition effectively. Do not use a dissociative cop-out or lazy mental illness tack to the end because you are too lazy to write a better ending. Stop making mental illness the butt of horror, and allow it to be an integral portion of the lives and times of characters. And for heaven’s sake, do some basic research before slapping some diagnostic label on someone. We live in the wide world of Google, so hop on over and type in “disorder XYZ diagnostic criteria” and try to get something right. I try to live up to this, and sometimes I do okay, but even as someone face to face with mental illness on a daily basis, it’s easy to buy the cultural lies.

We live in a world where nearly everyone either has a mental illness or knows someone who does. Why not write a representation of someone who lives life with this illness, who maybe is even the hero with it? I ask for people to be aware as they create media and speak with others that people reading, viewing, overhearing, and interacting with you may have personal struggles they are facing. If your mother, father, brother, sister, best friend, cousin, or next door neighbor had whatever condition you are writing about, would you be able to look them in the eye after s/her saw how you viewed people with his/her label?

Mental illness is not an easy recipe for horror. It is not a one-way ticket to the greatest twist ending or terrible evil. It is a part of everyday life for millions of people, and horror needs to find ways to respectful work with that reality. Your words count.

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