Mental Illness and Horror

In Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in his portrayal of Batman’s most notorious villain in The Dark Knight, he said, “As you know, madness is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.”

The film, the actor, and real life orchestrated a cacophony that sends a chill up my spine to this very day. When I used to run the ScHoFan Critique Group in the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society, I remember a time when I introduced a story with a suicide narrative. It was then that I learned how using the wrong language could trigger a negative response.

I never wrote that story, becoming aware that reinforcing certain stereotypes of people with mental illnesses was dangerous and could cause real-life discrimination, or worse, harm. There have actually been novels, which I will not name out of sensitivity to the subject, that led to a copycat effect that increased by more than 300% after one of those novels was published. That is a stunning number.

In this article, I’d like to discuss whether horror writers should start exploring how to develop characters with severe mental illnesses with fairer and more accurate representation, how writing certain stories actually increases copycat responses, and what stories are out there in the horror genres that chose to tread different paths of presenting mental illness.

Does the DC film Joker: Put On A Happy Face portray the character as a psychopath or a mentally ill person? The film creates empathy for the character, and portrays him as a person that has a difficult time dealing with an array of physical abuse. When the supervillain first appeared in the debut issue of the comic book Batman on April 25, 1940, the joker was introduced as a psychopathic prankster with a warped sense of humor.

Forensic psychiatrist Vasilis K. Ponzios, M.D., says, “There is still a misunderstanding to the portrayal of insanity in the Batman films and movies and what it means to be legally insane.” He goes on to say, “For instance, the Joker has been hospitalized at the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, even though in real life he probably wouldn’t qualify … Just because a behavior is aberrant … it does not mean the behavior is a result of mental illness.”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not list insanity as a disorder. According to one article I read, hallucinations, delusions, and incoherent speech, which are traits of a severe mental disorder, are not usually the characteristics of a master criminal. Dr. Hannibal Lecter is the main character we all hate to love in a series of suspense novels by Thomas Harris. A brilliant and sophisticated forensic psychiatrist in the day, and a cannibalistic serial killer by night.

To my knowledge, the portrayal of that character was not diagnosed with a mental illness. However, iconic horror characters in the Halloween and Friday the 13thfranchises play with the idea that psychopathic serial killers are mentally ill. Eventually, both characters are committed to mental institutions. In real life, these characters would be in a penitentiary, and/or on death row.

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