Mental Illness Stigma in Horror: Thoughts on loving a genre that often perpetuates an offensive stereotype

Guess what? This is not the face of Mental Illness. Like it or not, it is the face of Mental Illness Stigma.

As a woman who is a lifelong horror fan and yet also a feminist and supporter of equal cultural representation for all genders, races, sexual orientations and abilities, I have often found my values shit on by my favorite genre. Nowhere is this more evident than the historical perpetuation of mental illness stigma by lazy and offensive depictions of mental ill characters in horror. I say “lazy” because it is too often used as a convenient plot device instead of actually using creative storytelling to explain who the villain or threat is and why they do the murderous things they do. I say “offensive” because these depictions are almost always grossly inaccurate and perpetuate a view of mental illness that causes untold shame and despair for individuals already suffering an incredibly difficult condition.

How can I reconcile this with my sincere enjoyment of such films like Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Maniac, or The Crazies? I don’t know that I can. Furthermore, I don’t ascribe to the idea that in order to be able to enjoy a work of art, it must strictly adhere to my personal values. However, I try the following things:

I call myself on it. I question my own view of the mentally ill character and try to separate the metaphor from reality. I recognize that such depictions are never literal to me; they are representative of some societal big bad and not transferable to any individual human walking around on earth.

I listen to the objections of the community and take their views seriously. I may continue to support said work (or not), but I don’t seek to silence those that question it. There is this pissy sort of entitlement that comes out, often in the comments section of any article that points out that some aspect of an “entertainment” work (film, videogame, book, etc) hurts and offends some people. Something like this sarcastic piece of shit found in the comments section of this excellent article on mental illness depictions in videogames: “I can’t wait for the day when video games have no plots or artwork or mechanics or other elements that could possibly offend anyone in any way. Now those are going to be some fun games. Also, I won’t have to worry about forming my own perception of the world anymore because I’ll have those nice developers doing it for me.” (Sound familiar? How dare anyone get offended by anything and ruin your fun, dude.)

I actively seek out artists who are using the incredible potential of the horror genre to challenge this stigma, and when I find them, I support them. How do I do this? Well, I blog about it. I share it via social media. I tell people about it. I give money when I can to their crowd-funding campaigns. I volunteer my time and skills. I go out of my way to let them know that I appreciate their efforts.

So, in keeping with my pledge to share such stigma-challenging work in horror, I’d like to highlight two articles that explore some independent horror videogames that are specifically motivated by a desire to engage the gamer in an empathic (ethical) relationship to the struggles of a mentally ill protagonist:

 

Fans of Edward Gorey will love the pen and ink graphics of this beautiful game. Go here to play: http://www.neverendingnightmares.com/

Sarah Leboeuf writes from The Escapist: Neverending Nightmares Fights the Stigma of Mental Illness Through Psychological Horror. She had a chance to interview Neverending Nightmares  developer Matt Gilgenbach at an Indiecade convention:

“In Neverending Nightmares, you take the role of a young man named Thomas who keeps waking up in his bedroom from a series of ever-more-disturbing dreams. “I want to capture the fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and horror that I’ve faced in my own experience and channel it into the game,” Gilgenbach told me in an email after the convention. He finds it “tough to communicate what struggling with those issues is like to others,” and Neverending Nightmares is his way of doing just that.”

 

 

Knock-Knock, from developer Icepick Lodge, features a protagonist who spends much of the game rationalizing his hallucinations as an effect of his diminished emotional and mental state. Go here to play: http://knock.ice-pick.com/index.html

 

Patrick Lindsey wrote this excellent article for Polygon: Gaming’s Favorite Villain is Mental Illness, and it Needs to Stop where he offers insightful criticism of current “crazy is scary”trends in horror games, as well as some examples of games that challenge such trends (such as this gorgeously illustrated game Knock, Knock).

 

I encourage you to check these articles out and let them lead you to some innovative and entertaining horror games that offer a more nuanced perspective on the role of mental illness in horror narratives.

splatter2

 

Prime Cuts: Horror Comic Takes A Slice Out Of Sweeney Todd

While the horror community tends to generally dismiss remakes as lazy writing–viewing the retellings of old stories as tired recyclables that are best left in the bin–there are certain historical tales that transcend redundancy precisely because of their generations of iterations. Since 1846, the story of Sweeney Todd has evolved from its penny dreadful origins into an ever-shifting tale that seems to greedily consume each new narrative and grow like a macabre, literary version of Telephone.

PRIME CUTS is a graphic novel that offers a modern incarnation of the Sweeney Todd mythos. Written by the experienced horror-writing team of John Franklin and Tim Sulka, it is packed full of sardonic twists on familiar elements of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

As screenwriters, Tim Sulka and John Franklin are no strangers to the horror genre. Their film, “Children of the Corn 666” was produced and distributed by Miramax/Dimension. You may recognize John Franklin as the talented actor who played ‘Isaac‘ in both the first “Children of the Corn” and again in “Children of the Corn 666”.

In PRIME CUTS, Todd is a sullen young man who gets out of cosmetology prison with the agenda of avenging his family. He navigates a degenerate setting that could have sprung from the mind of John Waters. In this world, mad cow disease has wiped out all the cattle in the USA, and everyone is obsessed with meat. Everyone is also some sort of sex-crazed, drugged-up bucket of human filth. Most everyone Todd comes into contact with seems to want to fuck, humiliate, or hurt him until he meets Electra Love, the Goth Princess of Pizza. Electra takes the role of Mrs. Lovett, and pizza replaces meat pies. With pepperoni at $32.99 a pound, Electra has been using dog food as a mystery meat topping, but when she meets Todd, we all know that will soon change…

PRIME CUTS is illustrated by Rob Gutman, an artist/graphic designer and musician out of Austin, TX. The art is unique: scratchy, exaggerated and almost juvenile–it’s like you’re looking over the shoulder of an angry kid in a Slayer shirt drawing this stuff in his tattered notebook in detention–and it works perfectly with the story.

prime cuts

If you’d like to get your hands on this sweet slice of Sweeney Todd homage (I think you do), PRIME CUTS Volume 1 can be purchased at IndyPlanet.com. You can also visit www.primecutsnovel.com for more information.

 

“Expressway To Your Skull”

Expressway To Your Skull

This film’s micro-budget packs a macro dose of skill

If you consider yourself a horror film aficionado, you probably claim to support independent horror films. You probably know, at least in theory, that it is precisely the constraints of a meager budget that has historically driven innovation in this genre. You probably also know, somewhere deep inside your little subversive heart, that if you want to be a supporter of independent horror and provide the sort of community where such innovation can flourish, you have to actually watch and pay for independent horror films!

Lucky for you, Brain Damage Films has just released Expressway To Your Skull, a micro-budget psychedelic horror thriller debut from the very promising independent filmmaker Michael Okum. This film really makes the most of its resources: compelling plot, talented acting, relatable dialogue, and creative cinematography with tight editing.

“A gripping horror film, Expressway to Your Skull follows Ed and Amy, a thrill-seeking couple in their 20s as they steal away from the city to the backwoods for a spur-of-the-moment camping trip to cut loose and “expand their minds.” With a stash of drugs, backpacks and halfcocked enthusiasm, Ed and Amy hit the road… But soon the couple cross paths with a mysterious survivalist named Charlie. As their plans for a drug-hazed vacation turn sour, they instead find themselves fighting for their lives in a deranged, psychedelic-fueled death trip that blurs the line between reality and nightmares.”

I have to say, the above description, which I was given via press release, did not do this film justice. After reading it, I expected a couple of whoo-hoo, hot-but-terrible actors running through the woods yelling “Let’s get fucked up!” with cheesy trails effects, and some chainsaw-wielding beard-o in a trucker hat flailing his weapon around. What I saw instead was so much better. This film seems to use a dichotomy structure, a sort of light and dark mirroring of a series of events. It opens on the dark side: a woman, a man, money, a rape, a kidnapping (I was very impressed by the performance of Katie Royer, she manages to bring an overwhelming amount of vulnerability and emotion to her small part). This is juxtaposed with the light side: a woman and man, money, consensual and loving sex, a coerced (but consensual) camping trip. The central couple, Amy and Ed (played very well by Lindsay Atwood and Paul S. Tracy), have an undercurrent of anxiety and youthful shiftlessness about them that makes them very believable. Their dialogue is natural, and they have a level of chemistry and love that is rare in such low-budget films. This film takes time to build the characters of this couple and to lay the groundwork for the motivations of their careless actions that later get them into trouble. And guess what? It is totally believable that they are just out camping and wanting to take some mushrooms. Yep, this film just shows people doing something they often do when seeking recreation in a natural environment: drugs.

Expressway To Your Skull Amy and Ed

In fact, the drugs are used more as a clever plot device and not (as I feared would be the case) a replacement for plot. By the time they meet Charlie, our complex villain, it isn’t totally ridiculous that they would decide to go off through the woods with him for the promise of killer hallucinogens.

Expressway To Your Skull Charlie

Charlie, played by the very expressive and effective Mark Aaron, offers an understandable villain. Frightening in his blind and arrogant delusions, as well as the obvious trauma and loss that fuels his need for such ludicrous self-inflation of perceived power, he is one human-sized pile of crazy shit that poor Amy and Ed step right into. Again, the hallucinogenic cinematography seeks to enhance the viewer’s empathy and show the fear and confusion of characters in a fight or flight situation trying desperately to pierce through the fog of an altered consciousness.

This is certainly one of the best horror films I have seen within its budgetary peers. I urge you to put down your tired and scratched copy of “Phantasm” and give this one a try. It is released on DVD on November 3rd, 2015 and will be available VOD on December 1st, 2015. For more info, please check out http://expresswaytoyourskull.com.