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Whether it’s the ‘evil’ alter, ‘hysterical’ ex or the classic ‘Heeere’s Johnny!’ horror movie trope, cinema seems to walk the shaky line of sensationalism when it comes to its portrayal of mental illness.
While there’s no doubt a level of acceptance of the somewhat caricature-like presentations in the movies, it does raise questions over how far we’re willing to go for a popcorn-laden scare-fest – and the damage we could have left behind in the process.
As horror movies remain at the forefront of the ‘when madness meets evil’ notion, it begs some important questions: Have perceptions of so-called ‘madness’ been warped by jump-scare movie scenes, still frozen in the Cuckoo’s Nest’s devastating asylum? Or are we moving towards a more sensitive portrait of mental illness on the big screen?
Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction turns 34 today, September 18. The smash-hit flick sees Glenn Close star as Alex Forrest, who engages in what’s understood to be a one-time fling with the married Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas). However, it soon becomes clear that bloodshed is on the horizon as we witness Forrest turn violently obsessed with Gallagher, hell-bent on sabotaging his married life – with deadly consequences.
The Oscar-nominated movie was a huge box office smash right off the bat, raking in more than $300 million and going on to become the highest-grossing film of 1987 worldwide. It’s also regarded as one of the most famed (and arguably, flawed) portrayals of borderline personality disorder (BPD).
While it’s not explicitly stated in the movie that Forrest has BPD (although, at one point in the film, Gallagher tells her to go and see a ‘shrink’ – a suggestion seen as an insult rather than one out of any kind of genuine concern), there’s been lots of noise online surrounding her behaviour and how this lends itself to the often controversial diagnosis.
According to the NHS, BPD is a mood disorder with symptoms grouped into four main areas; emotional instability, disturbed patterns of thinking or perception, impulsive behaviour and intense but unstable relationships with others. In any given year in England, it’s estimated 2 in 100 people are diagnosed with BPD.
Maddie Bruce, a mental health advocate and YouTuber who was diagnosed with BPD aged 20, says she feels ‘frustrated’ over the way mental illness is portrayed in the infamous film: ‘In Fatal Attraction, Alex Forrest is presented as this terrifying violent woman who does a whole host of horrible things. Many have said it’s clear she suffers with BPD, however the depiction of BPD in the film is incredibly unrealistic. We see her manipulation, lack of empathy and crazed attempts to get vengeance when realistically we need to understand that this is not how BPD sufferers act’, she told UNILAD.
Indeed, from relentless stalking to breaking in and boiling Gallagher’s daughter’s pet rabbit alive, there seems no line Forrest isn’t willing to cross to carry out her so-called revenge. But, as Maddie points out, this isn’t an issue exclusive to Fatal Attraction, drawing attention to M. Night Shyamalan’s 2016 thriller: ‘Split completely stigmatises dissociative identity disorder as, once again, the character with mental illness was a dangerous villain. I was incredibly annoyed whilst watching the film as I don’t think it’s done anything except negatively impact those who suffer from this disorder.’
Maddie, who frequently uses her platform to help destigmatise and educate people about BPD, is clearly tired of those with mental health issues always being the villain. ‘They always portray characters with mental illnesses as someone bad… a danger to society, which of course can be true. However, the majority of people, especially those with BPD, would prefer to take out their emotions on themselves through self-harm, suicide attempts etc, instead of others.
‘They also portray people with mental illnesses as somehow abnormal creatures when 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year [in England]’, she added.
This concern is echoed by Chris Holden of 42nd Street – a charity offering various inclusive mental health services, including group therapy, talking therapies and creative projects – who highlights the extremely damning view society already has of those with a BPD diagnosis. ‘I think there are harmful stereotypes around BPD and maybe a lot of misunderstanding. Some of the classic ones can be ‘people with BPD are manipulative’, ‘people with BPD are dangerous, scary, hard to work with or untreatable”, he told UNILAD. ‘It’s a mental health diagnosis that still carries a lot of stigma, I think. There’s probably been some good work in recent years over reducing some of the stigma around mental health but there’s still a long way to go with what people might call ‘mental illness’.’
As for the impact the ‘crazy’ villain can have on those actually living with these disorders, Chris tells UNILAD it can ‘make the diagnosis even scarier’ and ‘gives this idea that people with severe mental health problems are scary individuals and that we need to avoid them.’ Chris also expressed concern that it ‘makes people slightly less likely to be sympathetic to people with these diagnoses’.
When it comes to why these portrayals exist onscreen in the first place, Chris agreed there is definitely an ‘odd attraction’ to mental illness being painted in movies as dangerous and, in some cases, murderous: ‘This idea that people with severe mental illnesses are scary – maybe it lends itself well to horror movies. It’s an odd one because there’s no evidence that there’s any accuracy to that. If anything, people with those presentations are more likely to have experienced abuse rather than be the perpetrators.’
While of course, it’s down to the writers and filmmakers as to what makes it onto our screens, there’s no doubt there’s something to be said for the fact a lot of us enjoy going to see these films – we’re attracted to the darkness in a similar vein to the way we all love to binge-watch the latest grisly true crime documentary. But what exactly is the appeal of labelling these characters as mentally ill? After all, as Emma Eden Ramos states in her piece for In Their Own League, in some movies, we seem to struggle to afford mental illness the same level of care and respect we do serious physical illnesses or conditions.
Jamie Coles, a former filmmaker, media critic and former lecturer in Film and Media, shed some light on why we seem so attracted to this horror movie trope:
Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho came out in 1960 and marked a turn in horror cinema, which previously relied on monsters and external horrors. Hitchcock made them human – humans who killed for pleasure or because of some unseen madness, rather than the caricatures of monsters and mad scientists. Since then, screenwriters and directors have been working hard to make villains just like us… though with some kind of justification for why they do the awful things they do. Often, it would seem, mental health issues have been an easy way to explain their extreme behaviour.
I think the appeal to horror audiences is that the ‘monster’ is unseen and could be living among us, as it were. The lack of public awareness of mental illness has contributed to this fear of the unknown that could strike any one of us at any moment. After all, horror fans want to be scared, and humans – neurotypical or not – have been the perpetrators of some horrific acts throughout history.
The idea of sensitivity over sensationalism seems to be a big one, with Jamie quick to point out there’s been a huge issue with accurate illustrations of mental illness in the past, although he believes the problem is being tackled ‘with films like Silver Lining Playbook, Black Swan or The Babadook‘.
However, Jamie emphasised that ‘a lot of horrors still play up to the psychological fright by relying on outdated mental health tropes’.
‘Maybe the villain doesn’t need a mental health issue or tragic back story, maybe they’re just bad’, he told UNILAD. ‘Maybe studios try to humanise the villains to let us know that, under the right (or perhaps wrong) circumstances, we all have the potential to be the bad guy.’
Moving forward, Jamie stressed: ‘As more and more people are aware of mental health and the social attitudes towards mental illness become more sympathetic and understanding, I think that culture will have to change, too, or else these movies risk falling out of public interest’.
As we look beyond the 34-year-old Fatal Attraction lens, whether we like it or not, it’s clear depictions of mental health on the big screen are having a real impact on those living with these illnesses, as well as shining a light on the attitudes of society as a whole. As Maddie points out, so many people with complex mood disorders are already villainised in society, the last thing we need to do is pile more onto this misunderstanding in the name of a jump-scare.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone
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