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:
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.”
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.