You don’t have to think long about the genre of horror before thinking of murdering madmen, I’m sure plenty horror fans have been accused of being one more than once just for loving the genre. The idea of a madman, a person unable to control their mental compulsions to kill, is one that has been prevalent in the genre and popularised by films like Hitchcock’s Psycho. Obviously that film didn’t set out to demonise anyone with a mental illness but it didn’t try to defend those people either. With a topic as sensitive as mental illness, how should horror films handle the subject matter.
The film that I watched recently that inspired me to write this piece was The Taking of Deborah Logan, a found footage possession film that came out fairly recently. The film starts off as a documentary focusing on the horror of living with Alzheimer’s, but the woman they are filming becomes stranger and it becomes apparent that there’s something else going on here. And it’s that plot development that irritated me. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease and for the filmmakers to come along and more-or-less say “yeah that’s pretty bad but what if it was ghosts/demons/monsters” makes it’s feel exploitative in my mind. It’s downplaying that seriousness of Alzheimer’s and I just don’t think that’s cool.
Another film that came out recently was The Babadook, which has subtext about mental illness and the following will contain spoilers if you haven’t already seen the film. So in The Babadook a single mother is suffering while raising her problem child and his boogie-man manifests in all manner of terrible ways. However the implications of what happens to the two is that the mother has some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. The film has an unusually upbeat ending in which the mother has accepted the death of her husband and she has the monster, The Babadook, locked away in the basement. She feeds the Babadook and the son asks if he’ll ever see it again, which the mother replies “when you’re older”. She’s living with mental issues. This kind of film takes the emotions that someone living with a mental illness, the terror and anxiety, and uses imagery to inflict it upon it’s viewers. It doesn’t belittle any victims, it helps us empathise.
As I said before, horror films have always had maniacs and madmen, some of them have used mental illness in less than tasteful ways. The problem of representation comes to mind again, that perhaps if more functional people with mental illnesses were to be shown in the genre they might not feel like the genre was demonising them. I’m not saying to boycott any films with negative representations in them, but encouraging anyone who’s writing or producing to give it a thought.