The Injustice of the Horror Genre and its Portrayal of Mentally Ill

I like horror movies, and the horror genre LOVES me.

Why else would I appear in so many of their films? Single White Female, Fatal Attraction, Chloe, The Roommate, and several episodes of Criminal Minds, which is a highly informative show that regularly features a mentally ill serial killer. My personal favorite is the one starring a bipolar cannibal whose killing/flesh eating spree is triggered by not receiving enough attention from his emotionally absent mother, BUT I digress.

This photograph is part of a project called Reality Check. I did this project with people who are advocates for reducing stigma surrounding mental illness, and asked them "If you could be granted one wish related to mental health what would it be?". After they came up with a wish we would work together to translate that desire into a single photograph.

The person in this photograph is Katherine Victoria Taylor. She is an artist, mental health advocate, and member of "Make 'em ups Improve Co." in Halifax Nova Scotia. Her wish, that we used for this photograph, is: " I wish Hollywood wouldn't demonize the mentally ill for entertainment"

This particular wish and photograph is a reference to the film Fatal Attraction. A film that has been described as a portrait of Borderline Personality disorder, despite the fact that it is extremely stigmatizing. Alex Forrest, the character who was frequently cited as Borderline after the film's release, exhibits far more violent and extreme behaviours (such as attempted murder, and boiling a bunny rabbit as an act of revenge) than the large majority of people diagnosed with BPD.

A recurring theme in the horror/thriller genre is casting villains who have recognizable features of Borderline Personality Disorder. Having BPD or even traits of BPD written on your chart is enough of a treatment nightmare without your diagnosis conjuring up images of Glenn Close boiling the family pet.

The symptoms of BPD are very difficult to handle at times, but the illness does not make the person... in real life. In Hollywood the person is a physical embodiment of BPD’s most notorious symptoms, and nothing more. It is hard enough to cope with the fear of abandonment, depression, mood swings, isolation, and suicidal traits associated with BPD without going to the theatre and seeing a villain who is a lump sum of all the characteristics you hate about yourself.

In these situations I generally direct my gaze to the floor, and pull my sleeves over my hands because I don’t want anyone to know that I share a single quality with the madwomen brandishing a knife on the big screen. I don’t want other movie goers to know that I might empathize with aspects of Alex Forrest, Chloe Sweeny, or Hedy Carlson. I worry they may run in terror; perhaps the fear of abandonment isn’t so unfounded.

The magic of Hollywood has turned me from a person with a problem into a person to be feared. Never mind that people with mental illness are more likely to be the victim of violent crime rather than the perpetrator, because that doesn’t sell tickets. Perhaps the stranger who once punched me in the face upon seeing the scars on my arms thought he was acting in self defense. Perhaps he was a lover of bunny rabbits.

Movie magic aside, here is the real horror story, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health:

  • 42% of Canadians are unsure whether they would socialize with a friend who has a mental illness
  • 46% of Canadians think people use the term mental illness as an excuse for bad behavior, and 27% say they would be fearful of being around someone who suffers from a mental illness
  • 55% of Canadians say they would be unlikely to enter into a spousal relationship with someone who has a mental illness