Mental Illness in the Horror Genre

DISSECTING FILM (a short study)

  Memories of Murder (2003)  - CJ Entertainment, Sidus Pictures

Memories of Murder (2003) - CJ Entertainment, Sidus Pictures

Mental Illness in the Horror Genre - Charlotte Haley (FR)

As part of a new series, Dissecting Film, I will be looking at prevalent cinematic themes and how they impact audiences, hopefully helping avid film-watchers better understand what makes our favourite movies so good.

Horror, as a genre, often plays on its audience’s wariness of people with mental illness, even exploiting psychological conditions in an attempt to increase the film’s ability to scare and shock. Linking to the exploitation of mental illness in the Gothic genre of literature, horror films - when dealing with human antagonists - often ask the question of whether an evil act can be committed without the perpetrator having some form of mental impairment. This has helped to create an assumption in the public consciousness that people who commit violent crimes must have an undiagnosed disorder; the idea that someone can be ‘neurotypical’ and just, simply, evil seems infantile and unscientific.

Even Jigsaw from the Saw franchise, while never explicitly ‘mentally ill’, is motivated by the perspective his inoperable brain tumour has awakened to him, that his victims have taken their lives for granted. The condition of the mind and one’s ethical stance, or attitude to life, is central to horror films.

  Memories of Murder (2003)  - CJ Entertainment, Sidus Pictures

Memories of Murder (2003) - CJ Entertainment, Sidus Pictures

Aside from this assumption that everyone is morally upstanding until proven mentally ill, the horror genre thrives on unpredictability in its villains, invariably upping the tension and making a more successful film. Mental illness is seen as an accessible trope to ensure audiences will buy into the atmosphere of unease that every horror film seeks to create.

The 2014 film The Taking of Deborah Logan is a prime example of this: an old woman with worsening Alzheimer’s is subject to close scrutiny by a film crew until they find that her condition is not all it seems. The film then descends into the usual mess of spiritual possession and outlandish exorcism, yet it sends an interesting message about the old woman’s original mental state. By aligning Alzheimer’s disease with spiritual possession, the film posits a doctrine similar to the practices of ancient times where behavioural idiosyncrasies, likely caused by mental illness, were attributed to witches, fairies and demons.

  Saw (2004)  - Evolution Entertainment, Twisted Pictures

Saw (2004) - Evolution Entertainment, Twisted Pictures

The stigma and mystery surrounding mental health conditions also aid horror films exploit this trope. M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming horror-thriller Split (2017) plays on the many misconceptions surrounding Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), and while the trailer showcases James McAvoy’s impressive versatility on screen and Shyamalan’s return to more conventional methods of developing suspense, it is just another film exploiting legitimate mental illness for shock-value. Not to mention how much this cinematic treatment undermines the work of mental health organisations attempting to lift the veil of mystery surrounding less common conditions. With few other honest cinematic depictions of conditions such as DID, these films demonstrate how the public’s perspective of mental illness can be misguided, however subtly.

Innocent mentally ill characters are also used to highlight the moral depravity of the real antagonist. The TV-movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) concerns the manhunt of a mentally handicapped character who is assumed to be the killer of a young girl. The villagers’ fear of the ‘unpredictable’ mentally handicapped Bubba (Larry Drake) then creates the true monster of the film, illustrating how damaging these attitudes to mental illness can be.

These destructive sentiments even impact true life. Based on a true story, the 2003 Joon-ho Bong film Memories of Murder (often deemed one of the greatest serial killer films of all time) is an example of this. The assumption is that a mentally handicapped young man has committed the heinous crimes being investigated, though no evidence points to him - the detectives, not able to comprehend the young man’s world-view, align his unconventional behaviour with that of a pervert, or killer. It goes without saying that this wastes so much time that other victims suffer. Moreover, this young man’s exoneration suggests the true killer is beyond mental illness, that he is inherently evil.

  The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)  - Eagle Films, Millennium Entertainment 

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014) - Eagle Films, Millennium Entertainment 

The innocent character, psychologically atypical, is symbolic of the innocent people who suffer daily from the stigma (perpetuated by horror films) surrounding mental illness. While the horror genre has taken to exploiting various mental health issues for the success of horror films, it is important we keep in mind that these portrayals are intended to shock us by their outlandish nature, and can often be tremendously entertaining. More important, however, is that mental health issues should always be treated with sympathy and support.

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By Charlotte Haley - 2016 Film Representative @ FAFF