Calculating Infinity: Mental illness in Horror
At the root of any horror story, no matter how fantastical it may be, is a real human fear. From JAWS embodying our fear of the water to The Exorcist being everything we fear about what comes after death, horror is supposed to be about what scares us. The only trouble with that is unfortunately society often possesses irrational fears of anything that is different, or that which we do not immediately understand. Such is often the case with mental illness, arguably one of the biggest inspirations on the genre. All fears take shape in the unknown, but it is important to come to grips with and discern an irrational fear from the rest. Mental illness can be difficult to understand without having experienced it yourself, as it is demonized too often in the genre, and sympathetic portrayal is hard to come by.
*Be wary of heavy subject matter that may be potentially triggering. Also slight spoilers for The Evil Within and Silent Hill 2 below. *
There was a particular event that occurred almost exactly two years ago that changed my life forever. Unlike most life altering moments though, this one was not planned and was not stirred about by any particular actions. I was out driving with the plans to meet up with some friends, then suddenly I couldn’t hear out of my left ear. It was like that sensation, when a loud noise goes off close to you and all you can hear is a faint ringing. In this case however, there was no sort of loud noise that could have caused this. Shortly after the ringing began my heart began to beat at fast pace and with a large impact to every thump. I had no idea what was going on at the time, so I decided to turn in early for the evening. “It’s just something I need to shake off” I thought to myself as I tried to relax at home. Though despite my best efforts, whatever was happening to me did not go away, in fact it only got worse. Soon my whole body was going numb, cold, and I was pacing all around my apartment. I still had no idea what was going on, but at this point I had a guess: It felt like I was dying.
Two ambulance trips, several talks with doctors, and about 4 days of agony turned out to be the products of a massive anxiety attack. Generally an anxiety attack is caused by a particular event, but it just happened in my case. Since then I’ve had to deal with this lingering beast that is anxiety as it comes and goes without warning. Before that initial event, I was fairly ignorant of what mental illness actually was and what it could do to a person. When you don’t suffer from a form of it, or have no experience with it through friends or family; it may seem like just some sort of vague notion. It’s like trying to calculate infinity.
Now the reason why I just went into all that detail about my personal life just now is so you know where I’m coming from for the rest of this piece. I have always been a fan of horror but after being diagnosed with anxiety it gave me some important perspective on how fiction, and in particular horror, has a tendency to portray the mentally ill in a very negative light. If you are a regular here on Rely On Horror, then you most assuredly know what I am referring to. Straight jackets, asylums, padded rooms, psychotic patients, mad doctors, bloody hospitals, and a myriad of other stereotypes regarding the mentally ill are staples of the genre. This sort of iconography is practically all we see from survival horror games that feature prominent themes of mental illness, and that’s not really a good thing.
Whether people want to admit it or not, fiction influences us in powerful ways and can subtly shape our opinions regarding virtually everything. While most people know that mental illness does not turn a person into a face eating zombie murderer like the enemies in Outlast, people may still derive a negative connotation from the experience. As I said earlier, you really can’t understand mental illness unless it has directly affected your life in some way through real world experiences. When I let a lot of my friends and family know that I had anxiety, most of them did not understand it at all. They suggested I was too stressed, that I was not positive enough, that I needed a better attitude, that I just need to relax more often, and that if I just decided to be happier that my condition would just go away. This was all even after I told them that the initial attack happened out of no where and even my doctors have no idea what happened. Now despite the somewhat hurtful response I received, I did not take any of it personally. After all, there was a time when I probably would have silently agreed with a lot of those suggestions. Heck, even though I have anxiety, I can’t pretend I know what people that suffer from depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and many other forms of mental illness must go through every day. I’m lucky enough to have friends that will listen to me when things get bad, but not everyone has that luxury. However, I can’t help but think that a lot of negative portrayal in media, particularly horror, has played a big part in why people are not more empathetic towards the mentally ill. It’s like that old saying: You may not have noticed, but your brain did.
So many novels, games, and movies continuously retread the same old tired tropes (asylums, straight jackets, etc.) over and over again. When I was playing through The Evil Within, it was like I had reached a tipping point with my tolerance towards putting up with these portrayals. The entire game exacerbated all of the aforementioned tropes to an absurd degree. Several chapters in the game have you chasing after a patient that was experimented on by the game’s antagonist, while also fighting off people that have become infected with the crazy-nutcase-psycho-sickness trope. It was not anything I hadn’t seen before, but that’s just what bothered me–we’re doing this again? There’s nothing inherently wrong with being initially wary of mental illness itself, after all nobody wants it. However, being fearful of people with mental illness is a different matter entirely. It’s largely an irrational fear that is exploited in fiction probably due to how easy it is to put a knife in an person’s hand and say “That dude wants to kill you, because he’s come down with crazy-nutcase-psycho-sickness you see!”
The thing about being afraid of the mentally ill as opposed to say being afraid of something like drowning is that no one is hurt if you say you’re afraid to go swimming. As I said earlier, all horror stories have their roots in reality no matter how fantastical the monsters that inhabit them may be. Let’s go back to the movie JAWS for a moment so I can articulate this point fully. The shark in the movie represents our fear of the water, and the movie scared so many people because it tapped into a primal fear we have of how vulnerable we are when we enter the open ocean. Most people know that the shark itself is as much as much an exaggeration of real sharks as any other movie monster, but regardless the monster in that movie was not made at the expense of a large group of people. The thing about fearing mental illness and particularly making the mentally ill the enemy like so many games do though, is that it’s detrimental to those of us that have it. So many people come to associate mental health issues with these silly tropes exclusively. It makes me think back to when I was telling my friends and family about my anxiety, that a lot of them could not put together that it is a sickness no different from any physical ailment, and it didn’t turn me into an axe murderer that wanted to eat their faces. To them anxiety was just like a silly nervous thing you get before you write an exam, and not mental illness, ’cause only the “crazies” have that. Basically, what I’m saying is a game like The Evil Within perpetuates the stigma that the mentally ill are all dangerous and it muddles the truth as to what it actually is. So many people are afraid to get help with their conditions due to being labeled “crazy” by others, and as a result they may not get the help they so desperately need. Maybe they wouldn’t be afraid if more fiction was sympathetic to their ailments.
There is one instance that comes to mind though where a horror game featured prominent themes of mental illness and was inoffensive about it. That game being the survival horror classic Silent Hill 2, specifically with its supporting character Angela Orosco. You see, we are never explicitly told in the game what it is Angela suffers from, but simply through the interactions between her and the game’s protagonist James, we know it’s there. More importantly though, Silent Hill 2 does not demonize Angela’s ailments. The writers understood what mental illness is and what it can do to a person, and they wrote Angela in a sympathetic and understanding way. Regardless of her past and what it is that brought her to Silent Hill, only empathy is on display here. It would be pretty easy to take a character like Angela and exploit her ailments in a way to get a cheap scare in a horror game. At no point however did the writers do this, and for that I am forever grateful.
The thing about mental illness is most people are afraid to mention or even consider the possibility that they have it for fears of being associated with the negative connotations that come from fiction. So much of horror revels in the act of going for the low hanging fruit to mock, exploit, and stigmatize at the expense of the mentally ill. Much of what I have said here is probably heavy handed, but I think myself and many others would agree it is important to communicate to everyone. Art is far more powerful at shaping perception than many people realize, which is why demonizing the mentally ill is so troubling. We need less face-eating-crazy-screeching-patient enemy types and more characters like Angela Orosco. More importantly though, there just needs to be more understanding in regards to this subject. We may not be able to calculate infinity, but we can always be empathetic.