It’s nearing Halloweentime, which is one of my favorite times of year. I love horror movies, I love haunted houses, I love thinking about the parts of humanity that are creepy and mysterious and tinged with evil and darkness. I am all in.
Well, I’m all in except when it comes to a theme I see over and over again in local haunted houses, in shows like American Horror Story, in movies like Halloween or Silence of the Lambs- the use of mental asylums as a perfect setting for terror, and the portrayal of mentally ill folk as dispassionate psychos, incapable of being reasoned with.
I’m not being overly PC here- I get why it’s such a commonly used trope in horror. We’re all scared of the idea that our brains could betray us, and severe mental illness is the biggest betrayal possible. It’s terrifying to think that an illness could turn you into someone you’re not, or could turn someone from being human to being something different, something sinister.
But mentally ill people aren’t sinister. They’re sad, happy, angry, silly, confused, irritating, and everything else. They’re people- people who have sometimes been eclipsed by their illness.
I spent almost two years working in an institution that was home 270 people with schizophrenia- this was a place very much like the institution in American Horror Story, except it was set in an old hotel that hadn’t been redecorated since the 1980s (the horror!). Some of the residents had lived there over 10 years and were never going to leave, because they couldn’t live independently. This was their home.
Every day, on the short walk to my office, I encountered no less than 30 patients in varying throes of mental illness- some were calmly talking to themselves; some were angry and ranting to themselves; some were hopefully reaching out for my soda can; some were wanting me to help them comb their doll’s hair with them; some were praying or quoting Prince lyrics. None of them were scary. They were people who’d had lives of varying degrees of success until mental illness took them down and wouldn’t let them back up. Few of them were married. Many of them hooked up with each other, and rolled cigarettes so tight they looked professional, and had jobs on the grounds.
The thing that people don’t get about severe mental illness is that it is so all-encompassing that the sufferers don’t have the headspace to be concerned with what you’re doing- they’re too busy just trying to keep themselves together. They are much more of a danger to themselves than they are to you. And yes, there are the occasional cases of mentally ill people attacking or hurting other people, but those cases are few and far between. When a teenager attacks a stranger, we don’t decide that all teenagers are unsafe. People with severe mental illness are still individuals, and their illness affects them all differently, but very rarely does it lead to violence against others. In my two years at this job, I only felt unsafe one time, and that was with a patient who wasn’t actually schizophrenic, but an angry, depressed drug addict that had been misplaced in our facility. I set boundaries with him that set him off, and he tried to attack me. The other patients shrunk away in fear at his actions, and my terrified reaction.
The everyday sad reality of severe mental illness is the really scary thing. The inhumane way that institutions used to treat people with mental illness is a terrifying thing. And the stigma that horror movies place on institutions and people with mental illness is horrifying. But none of these topics would make good horror movies.
To me, setting a horror movie in an institution is like setting a horror movie in a cancer ward. Both places represent our horror of our bodies betraying us, but one would be considered extremely tacky and uncouth, and the other ripe for a slasher movie. And yet the stigma continues, and Amanda Bynes becomes a hilarious punchline for her suffering.
I propose we move on from this setting. It’s hack, it’s tacky, and it’s perpetuating some very insulting ideas about the mentally ill. Unless it’s a patient with severe mental illness that takes medication and stabilizes only to wreak revenge on all the horribly unethical treatment providers he’s encountered in his years being institutionalized, I’m not interested. I hear vampires are hot these days- maybe the creepiness of a blood bank? Or a sperm bank raided by a band of bloodthirsty lesbians wanting to procreate?
That’d be scary, right?