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National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Horror Movies and STIGMA

By Megan Wimsatt

October is here and that means horror movies are going to be playing on television and in theaters again. Although the topic of mental illness and how it is represented in horror movies has been talked about before, it does not make it any less important. With Mental Illness Awareness Week in the first full week of October, and NAMI’s theme of “CureStigma” this year, the stigma of mental illness in horror movies is pretty relevant.

Most of the time, when a character in a horror movie has a mental illness, they are either the villain or at the very least, negatively represented. Different mental illnesses have been shown time and time again throughout the horror movie genre, covering a range rather than sticking to a few cases.

“Black Swan” for example, shows a representation of both an anxiety disorder along with a personality disorder with the main character Nina. The pressure and anxiety of earning the lead role in a production of Swan Lake causes her to hallucinate, and it’s implied that she self-harms throughout the film.

The movie “The Uninvited” has the main character Anna, who attempted suicide and is sent to an institution, hallucinating her dead sister Alex as soon as she returns home, who isn’t revealed to be a hallucination until at the end of the film when Anna kills her stepmother.

One of the most notable examples from recent releases that I could remember was “Split” from 2016. The antagonist of the movie was a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder or Multiple Personality Disorder; one of his personalities happened to be a murderer, with the rest of the personalities doing little if anything to help his victims.

Of course, other genres of movies can have poor or inaccurate representations of people with mental illness, and television shows can do the same. Heck, the main plot twist behind “Fight Club” was that The Narrator and Tyler Durden were the same person, playing on dissociative identity disorder more so for only shock factor in some interpretations. For a television example, in “The Big Bang Theory”, Sheldon Cooper’s OCD tendencies get played on for laughs and gags in numerous episodes, such as needing to knock three times on Penny’s door and saying her name, earning increasingly sassy remarks in reply.

Most of these examples and more only feed into the stigma behind mental illness. Although I hope there is a general agreement that these tropes and portrayals are extremely exaggerated and fictionalized representations of mental illness, it does little to help. Negative portrayals can still feed into negative interpretations; just because it’s not filling one interpretation fully doesn’t mean it’s not filling some part of it.

When mental illness is used as a sensationalized mechanic in a plot, to me, it undermines the seriousness of what people go through. If anything, it can make things worse from people making jokes about mental illness and relating it to what they’ve watched, whether it be a specific character or a certain representation. There needs to be the active recognition between fiction and reality, not only to avoid pushing stigma on people with mental illness but to help understand what they’re going through better.

Remember that mental illness is a serious factor in people’s lives and certainly provides an array of difficulties, but help is out there.

So when looking for unstigmatized movies to watch this October, there’s plenty of other options to consider that have less stigma around mental illness, if any.

  • Hocus Pocus, which is having a 25th anniversary special on Freeform
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas
  • Corpse Bride
  • Coraline
  • ParaNorman
  • Ghostbusters
  • The Addams Family
  • The Halloweentown series
  • The Haunted Mansion
  •  Clue
  • Hotel Transylvania

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