Well folks, we’re at the halfway point of American Horror Story: Asylum. So far, we’ve seen alien abductions, rape, murder and mutilation. We’ve got a possessed nun, a Nazi doctor, a serial killer and Anne Frank. We’ve had forced sterilization, conversion therapy, ECT and canings. I almost don’t know where to go from here, and I don’t think the writers do either. This season is actually more coherent, plot-wise, than last season was, but it’s still just what the writers think will be scary all thrown together. Instead of tension or character-driven horror, we’re getting big set-pieces of scary. But why do the writers think these things will be scary? Why are we so conditioned to fear mental illness?
Mental health and mental illness have a long history in horror movies. The earliest horror movies often showed people with some form of mental illness (especially the vaguely defined ‘madness’) as the villains, or the idea of driving someone mad as a way for the villain to gain something from the main character (1944’s Gaslight gave rise to the term in pop culture). Later, as mental health was more understood, the idea that a person might not be able to tell what is real or not became a common theme, like in Jacob’s Ladder. Now, movies go out of their way to explain why a character is “crazy” (usually childhood abuse by their mother), but the idea of madness always stays the same. The character is diabolical, good at planning crimes, and sadistic, whether there is a sexual element or not. Despite the fact that there are numerous mental illnesses that manifest themselves in completely different ways, mental illness in movies always looks the same.
I think the reason for that, and the reason why mental illness is only really depicted in horror movies, are the same reason. Horror movies exist to disturb the viewer, and as a result, they discuss topics that make people uncomfortable. What goes on in the fringes of society are discussed openly in them, albeit in a heightened way. Topics like rape, murder, child abuse and mental illness are all dealt with directly. Usually these events are part of the tragic backstory of the villain, or something the main character has to overcome to survive. Hearing any of these topics discussed in drama movies is very rare, though it does happen. (Interesting, horror movies have had a strong influence on crime movies and television, where these types of topics are also discussed, but less openly.)
The reason mental illness in horror movies has remained so popular is that the way mental illness is depicted in horror movies is scary. We depend on our senses to bring information about our world and we depend on our brains to interpret that information. A breakdown in either place leaves us incredibly vulnerable, and that vulnerability is terrifying. The idea that we can’t trust or control ourselves is the stuff of nightmares (and horror movies!). Because that idea is so powerful, the fact that it does not reflect reality of mental illness is completely ignored. The average person with a mental illness is not out of touch with reality. They know they are sick, but have problems getting into treatment, rather than not realizing there is a problem. In addition, most people with mental illnesses are not violent. In fact, they are more likely to be the victims of violence, rather than the perpetrator. (To learn more facts about mental illness and violence, visit: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1525086/).
The image of the slobbering, violent madman completely out of touch with the world around them is an effect image for a horror movie, but it fails to address the issue in a realistic way. The stigma around mental illness means drama movies, the Oscar bait stories of real people in everyday situations, never get made. As a result, mental illness is confined to that horror movie image, which reinforces the stigma about what people with mental illnesses are like. Like rape and child abuse, society has yet to address these issues in an honest way, and so the art of our culture hasn’t either. So mental health stays in the realm of horror movies, and shows like American Horror Story use it to scare people, instead of using it to help them.
This image certainly bothers me, on a number of levels. Let me know in the comments if it bothers you, and why? Also, let me know what you think we should discuss for the final episodes. I have some ideas, but I’d love to address any topics you think I’ve missed.
Quick Author’s Note: Next week’s recap will be on Monday, after Thanksgiving. Have a wonderful holiday!