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The Haunted Asylum: Mental Illness in Horror

Every horror fan has seen the scene before: the main character or characters wanders around the old asylum. It’s night time and the building has long since been abandoned, but they’re on the search for clues. Maybe they’ll get chased around. Perhaps they’ll meet a lover which will give the film makers an excuse to have pretty girls run around in their underwear. But usually, they’ll find a file. It will be the villain’s medical records, filled with notes from psychiatrists and lists of medications. Sometimes, it will be a person that hasn’t been a suspect up until this point. The disturbed, the heroes find out, walk among them.

There’s many issues with this trope, the first of which is the attitude with which the genre approaches mental illness. It presents it as some unsolvable mystery. It turns into a device used to explain away anything and everything. Mentally ill characters are able to do superhuman things and are always dangerous.

Occasionally, however, the hero will get some form of PTSD from the traumatic events they experienced throughout the story. Often, however, this is used only for drama. Either the character will stay ill and possibly become the next killer, or he or she will have flashbacks or hallucinations meant to either scare the audience or reveal some big secret.

The horror genre has not caught up with modern psychiatry. There are treatments for mental illnesses, and, even without treatment, many mentally ill people will not become crazed serial killers. This just further purports the idea that illness is something that we don’t understand, and that simply isn’t true.

The other aspect of this trope is that the villain will gain savant-like capabilities from their illness. In Pretty Little Liars, Mona becomes practically omniscient, gaining the ability to become a super-hacker and seemingly be everywhere at once, all while maintaining a perfect GPA and being the most popular girl in school. Carrie in Carrie gained powerful telepathic powers from the trauma of abuse from her mother and from her peers.

So, why does the horror genre continue to lean so hard on this trope even though it’s been done countless times before? One reason could be that it’s recognizable to audiences and a simple explanation. At this point, it’s a lazy explanation, but it gets the job done. Audiences will understand that the killer’s motivation is the anger from the death of his family. Maybe this even makes the villain more sympathetic.

Another reason this trope is leaned so heavily on is due to the cultural fear we have about mental illness. Media (like films and television) can represent mental illness as striking harshly. There’s an ominous “it could happen to you” with every backstory including loss of a family member or horrible accident. Mental illness stemming from trauma in this case is severe and irreversible as long as the plot dictates it is.

Basically, this trope is at the very least problematic. Abandoned buildings are dark and scary, and when you fill them with “crazy” people, the hope is that audiences will be even more scared. They lean on a loss of predictability to add drama at the cost of perpetuating myths about mental illness and the people who suffer from illnesses. Now, I still love horror films, but with everything I love, I have to analyze it. And even the lightest analysis of this trope brings up major issues. You can enjoy things  and still find problems with it, but this should at the very least signal lazy writing to fans.

Fiona L.F. Kelly (@FionaLFKelly)
Fiona L.F. Kelly is a writer, editor, and podcaster. She has published numerous articles about all things gaming and pop culture on websites all across the internet, was also a writer for Trinity Continuum: Aberrant 2e, and has been published in books and magazines. She is an editor for the pop culture and media website GeekGals.co. In addition to her writing and editing, she has also been a guest and host on several podcasts. She hosts the Project Derailed podcast Big Streaming Pile, produces and performs on Fables Around the Table, and plays the githyanki pirate Rav’nys on Tales of the Voidfarer. Buy her a coffee: ko-fi.com/fionalfkelly

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