We are told to fear the unknown, and what’s more unknowable than what we can’t see?
Psychological thrillers are often the scariest movies, deriving their entertainment value from how they portray psychological behaviors. Still, we must ask ourselves: do they perpetuate the stereotypes that we hold of people with mental illnesses?
During the suspense unit in my Creative Writing and Publication class, a couple of my classmates wrote about mental illness, which made me think about its relationship with horror movies. All scary stories are based on fear of what we can’t understand, which makes perfect sense, seeing as mental illness is often misunderstood in the media.
Although including depictions of mental health in our media may help reduce stigma, television, and movies often misportray it. We need to be cautious about romanticizing or ostracizing people struggling with mental disorders.
With the recent popularity of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” and the movie “Joker,” young audiences are being exposed to increasingly harmful portrayals.
Horror movies and thrillers often use stereotypes linking the “outcast” to mental illness. These characters—the stalkers, the ghosts, the murderers—are unliked; in other words, they are the villains.
One of the main reasons I question horror movies is because when I was younger, I watched one that had the setting of a horrifying asylum. I remember thinking that’s what psychiatric hospitals must really be like. Years later, when my depression became too hard for me to manage on my own, I was placed as an inpatient in McLean Psychiatric Hospital. I was terrified when I found out I had to go there because I had images of the creepy figures and violence of my childhood movies.
As an inpatient, I found out that everything I had been told was not real. McLean was clean and allowed patients to feel safe. People were not isolated and were treated as human beings. Asylums are very different from psychiatric hospitals. The idea of a terrifying hospital has been created by the media to add further fear to their audiences, which is very similar to what the press does regarding mental conditions themselves.
Part of me wants to say that we should never include mental illness in shows because I know firsthand how media can warp people’s views in a harmful way. But that might undermine the very genre of thriller movies. When thinking about different thrillers, all the ones that come to mind are those focused on psychological disorders. The villains are the characters who can’t tell right from wrong - those who can’t do most anything right - the mentally ill.
If we can’t stop these movies from being made, the least we can do is show people who do not suffer from mental conditions that these depictions are overexaggerated in film. We can highlight good examples of mental illness representation in the media, such as movies, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and “A Beautiful Mind.” People struggling with mental illnesses are not monsters but are facing real medical conditions.