Spooky season is officially upon us. The air is crisp and golden, full of the smell of candy corn and, best of all, a frenzy of horror movies are hitting the theaters. I love scary movies just as much as the next person, however I think we can all agree that some take outlandish and factually inaccurate methods to frighten us. The effects of these blunders might seem innocent to those not directly affected by the negative stereotypes these movies portray, but it is important to remember that messages put forward by these films can actually have a damaging impact upon society. In particular, the subject of mental illness is perpetually butchered by many of our favorite movies, and it is important to recognize these flaws before they influence our subconscious and turn fictional stories into real prejudices.
The horror genre capitalizes upon the unknown in order to draw fear from its viewers. The brain, what can go wrong with it and how people act as a result are topics that are poorly understood and can thus be capitalized upon to create a sense of uneasiness and wonder. However, this is no excuse for directors that use mentally ill characters as crazed villains whose personalities and actions are considered to be manifestations of their condition. Such characters are often shallow, overgeneralized projections of the illness they have, promoting not only stigmatization but also a “witch hunt” mentality where people fear individuals with certain similar conditions and those with mental illness fear reaching out for help.
While it is true that, in the most severe of cases, mental illness can result in acts of violence, the relationship between the two variables is poorly understood and influenced by a multitude of other factors. For example, research indicates that a person with schizophrenia is 15 times more likely to engage in dangerous behavior if they abuse alcohol or street drugs. Horror movies also promote dangerous generalizations about psychosis — only between 60 and 80% of people with schizophrenia actually experience auditory hallucinations — and depressive episodes which, contrary to the opinion of movies such as “Shutter Island,” does not typically result in a mother drowning her three children. People with mental illness are an infinitely greater danger to themselves than to others, and it is important to recognize where the true risks lie in order to devillify these people and help them live happier and healthier lives.
While society is purported to be moving in a more accepting direction toward all groups, a surface glance analysis of some of the more recent horror movies indicates that this is far from the case. For example, the movie “Joker,” which was just released this month, depicts the title character becoming increasingly violent as he stops his medication and mentally deteriorates into psychosis and grandiose thinking. It is unclear whether people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or both are being depicted as monsters, but either way, it appears the creators of this movie did not do enough research to straighten out which specific group they were stigmatizing in the first place, and rather lumped a host of mental conditions into a general “crazy villain” character trope.
Another popular but poorly executed movie, Netflix’s “Bird Box,” describes invisible monsters that present visions to people and convince them to kill themselves. A lovely twist, however: Those with a history of mental illness are immune to the monsters’ effects and rather serve as their agents of evil, viewing the visions as beautiful and convincing “normal” people to see them. As stated by the movie, one such character, a grocery store clerk that helped kill Charlie, had gone “to prison and [was] always a bit crazy.”
While I am not arguing for an organized boycott against the horror genre, I do believe that the industry still has a very long way to go in sparking spooky scenes that do not simultaneously promote damaging stereotypes. As viewers, the most important thing we can do is recognize the underlying messages these movies are presenting to us, and to dismiss them as the falsehoods they are.
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Katherine Lee is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.