Horror movies play on one concept: the unknown, the unexpected, the invisible, the uncertain, the inexplicable, and what we all project into that space. The world in which stigma around mental health exists does the same.
There are a few now-streaming horror films that—alongside ones that have perpetuated issues such as misogyny and racism—effectively throw mental health under the bus in a gruesome way. Beware of these horror films, whose takeaway message is problematic: Lights Out, Apartment 143 (Emergo), and Inner Demons.
Warning: dangerous spoilers ahead.
In Lights Out, we find out that the terrifying entity known as Diana can only exist/live/prey in the dark, and that she had befriended "the mom" while the two stayed in an institution. Throughout the movie, her children try to avoid becoming prey to Diana, until mom kills herself in order to make the dark entity that is Diana go away. Anyone who cares about someone struggling with mental illness knows that it can be trying at times. You feel powerless, helpless, and, above all, afraid. And when the drugs or therapy don't seem to be working, it's already easy for a person to blame themselves. And here, we have a message of "self-sacrifice" that seems to imply that suicide is the best way out of depression and "being a burden" on your loved ones.
Chicago-based psychotherapist Kelley Kitley asserts that individuals who contemplate suicide often do so because they think it's the only way out, and that this storyline doesn't do much to flip that script. "People often have a hard time asking for help, especially when it affects their families," she says. "This summer, I was privy to seven suicides of people ranging in ages 15 to40. It is preventable, but it takes a team approach to get the help people need, and that starts with eliminating shame," she says.
Next, let's look at Apartment 143 (Emergo). In this found footage flick, we have a brooding teenage daughter, a curious son, a dad who's struggling to hold everything together, and a beloved mother who died "unfortunately." Dad is concerned about how much his daughter hates him, and the inconvenient fact that they are being haunted. Toward the end of the film, we find out that the beloved mother was actually fired from work, was cheating on the father, and died after fleeing the house because she was schizophrenic. The "paranormal investigator" they hired had seen pictures move and a girl become possessed during a séance-style ordeal—and decides that it's all because the daughter must have inherited her mother's schizophrenia.
Of course! That's what made her levitate. A bad, estrogen-fueled bout of schizophrenia. At the end of the film, as the daughter is being taken to the hospital, the investigator and his team seem satisfied with their psychological conclusion. Then, in the final frame, one last jump scare confirms a demonic entity—her mother? The same demon her mother was facing after all, proving none of it was schizophrenia—was lurking around the whole time, apparently.
In this film too, mental illness is used as a catch-all for terrifying, paranormal, room-shaking, eyeball-rolling, levitating, downright evil behavior. This does nothing to help us separate our own fear about the people who live with these diagnoses and how we respond and react to them.
Paul Hokemeyer, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist in California, asserts that while schizophrenia is, as a clinical condition, the most difficult to treat, what's central to this difficulty is the patient's detachment from reality.
"This detachment makes it extraordinarily difficult for these people to connect with other human beings. They see and hear things that others don't see and hear," he says. "They act and react in socially awkward and unacceptable ways." However, their "external expression" is not "demonic." It's a reaction to the terror they feel from "living in a world where they are profoundly alone, disconnected from the everyday physical and emotional connections that the rest of us enjoy," he says.
Lastly, let's look at Inner Demons. Also a found footage flick, the story follows Carson, a teenage girl who went from being a religious straight-A student to a goth, addicted to heroin. She also believes she is possessed by a demon. Things continue to go wrong after she enters a rehab facility, and many of the very disturbing events that transpire are visible and inexplicable to those around her.
Now, what really carries this story is a cameraman from Craigslist named Jason, who shows a vested interest in Carson. He's the only one who believes she's possessed, and "understands her." Jason tries to save Carson—and unfortunately, since the remedy is heroin, he stops her from completely detoxing on day five by smuggling it into the rehab for her. He gets her expelled from the facility and himself fired in the process, but not before the facility director has the chance to claim that the signs of the need for an exorcism are also all symptoms of psychosis.
The majority of us have been told that alcoholism isn't an officially, medically diagnosable disease, yet, there are ways to treat it and there is certainly proof that it exists. Being six years sober myself, I understood the metaphor in this flick long before the protagonist blatantly stated that she did drugs to keep what she felt was "the bad stuff" at bay. We're dealing with a demon who can only be satiated by heroin, like a hungry baby is by a bottle. We also have a mother whose last words are, "I didn't tell you the truth, she grew up around violence!" and a father who relapses himself and shows up to shoot Carson in the head and kill himself. Jason, the lone survivor, now appears to be possessed, although, before that, Jason managed to save her by repeating, "I know you're in there, Carson," and hugging her.
Is the message, then, that if you attach yourself to someone like this, they'll drag you down with them and poison you, sucking out your livelihood as well? Is it another way of blaming our parents? Kitley's major concern is the lack of personal responsibility in this scenario.
"I hear this all the time in treatment with my clients who are in recovery. 'I had a good childhood, I should be able to manage my symptoms better,'" she says. "The stereotype of people with mental health issues or who live with addiction having a difficult childhood is another mass-marketed notion that actually keeps other people from getting help."
Mom's parting line should have been left on the cutting room floor.
Growing up with misdiagnosed PTSD, my episodes when triggered were so severe that you could argue it looked like I was possessed, crying and screaming, slamming things, and my parents never stopped trying to help me find a diagnosis and recovery. After I got better, I still drank—socially, mostly, but alcoholically—and while I did not attend rehab to get sober or use any hard drugs, it did have an impact on the people who loved and worried about me.
Films like this hurt the recovery community by turning its "victims" into something inhuman that we can't understand. Hokemeyer notes that perhaps the biggest takeaway in this storyline is that we're dealing with a crisis of ethics in the treatment community, where personal care is being exchanged for personal profit. "Rather than being seen as human beings in pain, people who suffer from addictive and mental health disorders they're viewed as objects to be exercised of their money and dignity," he says.
Kitley adds that we're still fighting a major uphill battle against "unrealistic and horrifying examples of what mental health looks like, how loved ones can help, and treatment." "This causes people to minimize and compare their own symptoms to worst case scenarios such as psychosis. In short, it keeps people afraid."
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