Axe-murderers and psycho-killers: Mental Health Conditions and the Horror Film

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I sat at home the other night watching Roger Corman’s 1961 film version of the Poe story The Pit and the Pendulum. I confess that it is my favourite of the Corman Poe films and one that I return to more than the others. When I finished the film, came upstairs and started browsing the internet, I was reminded that this week was Mental Health Awareness Week, and it got me thinking.

Last year Thorpe Park was under attack for its “asylum” Halloween attraction, and yet we seem to have no problem with mental health issues being used for entertainment purposes in horror films. From the “mad doctor films” of the 1920s and 1930s through to the “psycho killers” of today’s horror films, mental health issues have been used in order to instil fear into audiences, and one has to wonder whether this has had an impact on society’s view of those suffering from mental health conditions.

While most of us are not going to view the “mad doctor” films of Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and others as somehow a form of education on “madness,” can the same be said for other representations on film? I would argue that the “mad doctor” films (or any films referring to “madness”) are somehow less “real” because the specific health condition of the protagonist is not spelled out but simply given the general term “madness” – a term that is not really in use these days.

It is when the exact nature of the mental health condition is spelled out in more detail and given a name that things become more complicated. After all, if the word “schizophrenic” or “schizophrenia” is searched for within the Internet Movie Database, the list of films that is provided is quite telling: The Mad Ghoul, Bug, Cutting Class, The Boston Strangler and the “wonderfully” titled Schizopheniac: The Whore Mangler (I must hunt that one down). I don’t pretend to have watched all of the films on the list, but what is clear is that, even when the mentally ill character turns out not to be the murderer, the association between mental illness and violence and murder has been made and reinforced.

This isn’t just the case for schizophrenia, of course. The same is true for any number of mental health conditions. For example, a new indie (and low budget) horror film is due out in 2014 entitled Bipolar, which IMDB tells us has the following plot: “When Harry Poole tries out a new medication for Bipolar Disorder, he is reborn as “Edward Grey”, a seductive but dangerous alter ego who dramatically takes over his life, changing the young man and those around him forever.” Similarly the otherwise-splendid drama series Rookie Blue last year had a narrative arc that involved a bipolar policewoman acting irrationally, obsessively and dangerously – leading to other members of her force being shot and wounded (and possibly killed).

There have been relatively few studies on these issues, although Peter Byrne writes in The Psychiatric Bulletin that it has been discovered that these films are “sources of misinformation about mental illness, causing distress of relatives of the mentally ill. The images reinforce the spurious association between all mental illness and violence.”[1] In other words, many of the prejudices about mental illness and those that suffer from mental health conditions may well originate from how film and other forms of fiction have “educated” us over the years.

The big question, of course, is what to do about it. After all, even as a bipolar sufferer, I am not going to give up my regular dose of watching Karloff, Lugosi or Price descending into madness and bumping a few people off. However, it seems to me that, at some point, filmmakers have to become somewhat more responsible. Attitudes change. Nobody is suggesting the films that have been with us for decades should suddenly be banned, but is it responsible to make a film like Bipolar in 2014? Is it about time that killers in films had another reason to kill other than the fact that they are mentally ill? If the “asylum” Halloween attraction at a theme park is now viewed with disdain, then perhaps it is finally time for filmmakers to look again at their representations of mental illness and start taking into account the damage they might be doing in helping to reinforce the prejudices and misconceptions of the past.

[1] Peter Byrne, “Fall and rise of the movie ‘psycho-killer’,” The Psychiatric Bulletin, 1998, 22:176.

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