Mentally Ill Monsters: Mental Illness in Horror

There are a few well-trodden settings for horror stories: the haunted house, the carnival, the ghost town, and—my area of interest—the asylum. This last setting has been used in such narratives as American Horror Story: Asylum, Outlast, and Shutter Island.

While I am a proponent of exploring mental illness in stories, especially in speculative fiction, the asylum setting in horror has got to go. There is absolutely no place for it in creating a healthy, positive self-image for people with mental illness.

At its least harmful, the story sympathizes with the mentally ill, but still ultimately Others them. This is the case with Shutter Island. The protagonist, Teddy, is mentally ill and the entire film’s plot is centred on an unorthodox treatment to “cure” him. While we can sympathize with the mentally ill protagonist (and it is a good thing that we see the world through his eyes), the outcome is far from healthy—he is condemned to a gruesome treatment that no mentally ill individual could look at with hope. While lobotomies are no longer a common treatment, there is no hope left for Teddy, who does not want to live as a “monster.”

And that is precisely the problem. Each horror setting has its own token monsters: there are ghosts in haunted houses, creepy clowns in carnivals, and cultists in ghost towns. The mentally ill are the monsters in asylums. We are stigmatized as odd, different, and wrong by society, and we are represented as evil, often murderous monsters in horror stories, to be pitied and/or feared.

The mentally ill face enough stigma and hardship in their day-to-day lives without having to consume media that literally paints them as inhuman, evil monsters.

Asylums are a cruel part of our past. While contemporary psychiatric not perfect, we have improved from past methods of complete social isolation, non-consensual treatment, and torture. We need to remember this past, so that we can continue to progress into healthier and more positive healing.

Setting horror stories in asylums is not a part of this remembrance and it is a hindrance to healing. Even if mentally ill people steer clear of these damaging stories, non-mentally ill people will not. They will continue to consume the images of individuals so violent they “need” electroconvulsive treatment and lobotomies, or of people in straightjackets foaming at the mouth. The invisibility of contemporary mental illness furthers this belief that all mentally ill people are less than human, need extreme treatment, and are monsters.

We are not monsters and we are not here for your shock-value or thrill-seeking.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I love seeing mental illness in speculative fiction. In fact, it’s what I want to focus my research on in graduate school. Writers can do this without making mentally ill people the monsters – just look at the Harry Potther series!

J.K. Rowling created Dementors, the physical manifestation of depression in the Harry Potter books. Mental illness is technically the monster here, but it is disconnected from the individual, and becomes something the individual can control and defeat. This is actually a helpful tactic in thinking of your mental illness!

Clearly it is possible to include mental illness in your narrative without harming mentally ill people. Speculative writers and fans need to resist the asylum trope, and think critically about narratives that use it.

-contributed by Emily Maggiacomo

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