From Villain to Hero
Reimagining the Role of Mental Illness in Pop Culture
[this blog, in an edited form, was featured by the National Alliance on Mental Illness]
Stephen King is a master storyteller. One of my favorite movies is The Shawshank Redemption. I often find myself quoting Red’s lines in Morgan Freeman’s voice. But I avoid horror movies, and I can’t help but think that Mr. King has made the world a harder place for people experiencing a mental health condition.
Should we list all of those suffering mental illness in Mr. King’s collection? Jack from The Shining comes quickly to mind, as does Annie from Misery. But of course, he only extended a concept from earlier works. How about Hitchcock’s Norman Bates, whose terrifying shower scene traumatized kids for decades? My generation grew up with a long list of unfortunate characters, like Jason from Friday the 13th and Mike Myers from Halloween.
It’s an old trope, and an awful one, but understandable. As a society, we find the idea of a malfunctioning brain terrorizing. Someone suffering psychosis looks normal but speaks and acts in a completely unpredictable and disturbing manner. They can say or do anything. If you are a writer, looking to shock and frighten, those experiencing mental illness are an easy target.
Our own precarious balance adds to the terror. Each of us is nothing more than our brains. Sure, we have other organs, but our minds make us who we are. Someone facing mental illness—either on the screen or in person—is a sharp and immediate reminder of the reliance we all have on the proper functioning of our brains. If it can happen to that character in the movie, can’t it happen to me, too?
The answer, of course, is yes; it can happen to any of us. In fact, it does. 20% of Americans are currently wrestling with some form of mental illness, probably more given the pandemic. If you aren’t suffering, consider yourself lucky. For many people, the torment comes in the form of depression or anxiety. Others are dealing with addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder or any number of other issues. Still more are haunted by the frightening reality of psychosis.
Imagine, for a second, that you are suffering from psychosis—but you don’t know it. How would you? You wouldn’t have noticed any difference when you broke with reality. According to your brain, everyone else is acting strange but you are acting rationally. Those around are witness to your delusions, but you have lost the capacity to recognize them.
Let’s also assume that you are fortunate to receive treatment—medicated, restrained in a facility, cared for by experts. Again, you wouldn’t understand any of this; to you, it would seem that others are forcing you to take pills and locking you up. Wouldn’t this be more frightening than any Hollywood horror show?
Continuing our thought experiment, let’s say that you fully recover. You’re the same as you were before the illness, with one clear exception: that harrowing experience of learning that for a time you couldn’t trust your own brain. But you’re healthy now and ready to resume your life. How does society receive you, someone who has shown so much courage and resolve?
We greet you with prejudice and ridicule. We view you differently, maybe act warily around you. We preclude you from working at certain jobs and prevent you from being elected into office. And your illness need not include psychosis to summon this behavior. No, in our society, any issue related to brain health invites scorn.
Given what people with mental illness have been through—what they have survived—they should be celebrated for their indomitable will. Take leaders like Brandon Staglin and Elyn Saks, highly successful and accomplished individuals who live with schizophrenia. Or look at Lady Gaga, who has thrived even while battling PTSD and bouts of psychosis. I can’t imagine people more deserving of praise and admiration.
But it isn’t only the well-known and famous; anyone who has overcome or endures a brain illness should be recognized for such fortitude. My wife, the closest person in my life, suffered recurring psychotic episodes ten years ago. As a family, we lived through the spookiness of acute psychosis, but she suffered more than we could ever fathom. Through incredible strength, perseverance and patience, she endured the experience. She fully recovered and, as a family, we’re stronger now than ever.
“You shoot me down, but I won't fall. I am titanium.” -- David Guetta feat. Sia
Where are the movies about survivors like my wife, films where we can revel in their successes? Silver Linings Playbook would be one. Who can possibly be rooting against Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper when they take to the dance floor? But we need way more characters like these across our pop culture landscape.
Society needs to experience, though accurate representations, the reality of mental illness. With love and support, and access to the appropriate treatment, people can recover from and successfully manage mental health conditions. Only through better storytelling will society learn that overcoming mental illness should be commended rather than rebuked.
Haven’t we had enough of the old tropes? C’mon Mr. King, put those prodigious talents to use in ending rather than perpetuating the stigma!
“Cant' somebody say, "'Hey, let's be positive? Let's have a good ending to the story!'” -- Pat in Silver Linings Playbook