When I was much younger, I defined horror stories very narrowly. Ghosts. Vampires. Always something unearthly and not-quite-human. It wasn’t until many years later, after seeing the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, that I re-assessed what “horror” meant and realized that it was a much, much broader subject and it can overlap with other genres like fantasy (Pan’s Labyrinth) and thriller (Don’t Breathe).
Supernatural elements are not a necessary component of horror stories. In fact, there are stories that revolve around supernatural beings that cannot be reasonably categorized as horror at all. Think Ghostbusters and Casper. Oh, and yes, the Twilight series which, I wish, never existed.
Taking supernatural elements out of the equation, yes, there are horror films and novels with only humans in them — no ghosts, zombies, vampires or aliens. Sometimes, the horror is an unexplained phenomenon (Videodrome) or in the unnatural way that the human mind works. Yes, as in insanity.
Insanity versus mental illness
I should point out that “insanity” is a legal defense which goes back to the M’Naghten case in 1843. The appropriate equivalent medical term is “mental illness”. Since this is neither a legal brief nor a medical paper, I’ll be using the term interchangeably along with some pop culture synonyms.
Films with insane people
So, I was trying to remember all the books I’ve read and films I’ve seen that had insane people in them. So many. But, in addition to The Shining, these are my favorites.
Another Stephen King novel. Romance novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) gets caught in a blizzard and his car careens off the road. A nurse, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who was passing by the scene of the accident pulls him from the wrecked car and brings him to her house. He wakes up with broken legs and dislocated shoulder. Annie, his “number one fan” is aghast that Paul wants to stop writing romance novels featuring the character Misery Chastain.
Annie keeps Paul a prisoner until he finishes the manuscript for a new Misery novel. Paul discovers that Annie had been tried for the deaths of several infants in the past but was never convicted. When he tries to escape, Annie drugs him, straps him on the bed and breaks his ankles with a sledgehammer.
While Annie’s frame of mind and what she was capable of doing constituted the horror part of the story, how Paul outwitted Annie to escape makes it a thriller.
Try reading the novel and seeing the film adaptation. Both are stupendous.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
I wasn’t even born yet when Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? came out in 1962. Based on the novel with the same title by Henry Farrell, I first saw the black-and-white film on TV — quite surreptitiously — when I was a child. My mother thought I was already asleep but I was watching through the sheets. The parakeet scene scared me out of my wits.
The Hudson sisters, both aging former actresses, live together. In the past, Jane (Bette Davis) was a successful child actress. When her career waned, her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) became a famous actress. Envy and sibling rivalry were strong. Emotions running high led to a car accident that left Blanche paralyzed from the waist down. Although she was never arrested, the alcoholic Jane was thought to have something to do with the accident.
In their old age, Jane is left to care for the invalid Blanche. Jane, who still blames Blanche for her lost career, is cruel and keeps Blanche a prisoner. As she descends into madness, she serves Blanche two memorable meals — her pet parakeet and a rat she killed in the basement of the house.
How the story ends is more dramatic than horrific. But watching Bette Davis as “Baby” Jane with that make-up that she was rumored to have designed herself, you just know that the film is a horror as much as it is a drama.
After seeing The Sixth Sense and Signs, I had such huge respect for M. Night Shyamalan that I watched all his films until 2008. That was the year that The Happening hit the movie houses and I swore it was the last M. Night Shyamalan film I would waste money on.
When The Visit came out in 2015, I had no idea that he had anything to do with it. But because I enjoyed it tremendously, I decided to follow his films once more. I shouldn’t have. Split was a disappointment. But The Visit, I still recommend to horror buffs.
The Visit is a story about two teenaged siblings, Becca and Tyler, who are meeting their maternal grandparents for the first time. Their mother hadn’t spoken to her parents in 15 years but, when they reached out, she decided that her children could visit with them for a few days while she goes on holiday with her boyfriend.
Becca and Tyler meet “Nana” and “Pop Pop” at the train station and they proceed to their farmhouse. Rules were laid out (Don’t go to the basement; bedtime is 9.30 and no stepping out of the room after that) and it looks like the kids were going to spend a boring rural vacation.
Then, they start to notice some very strange behavior. Nana spewing projectile vomit and clawing at the walls while completely naked. Pop Pop’s collection of soiled adult diapers. Nana shaking uncontrollably when Becca asks her about the day her mother left home.
Creepy is the best word to use to describe the mood of The Visit. The viewer knows that Nana and Pop Pop are both off. Disconcerting. Disturbing. Not easy to judge early on if it’s the eccentricity of old people or something worse. By the time the viewer becomes sure, the real horror sets in.
Do horror films stigmatize the mentally ill?
I came across an article, How Certain Horror Movies Propagate the Mental Health Stigma, which essentially says that the damage inflicted by horror movies that feature mentally ill persons far outweigh the entertainment value.
Sure, horror movies are entertaining sources of Halloween fun. But when certain movies warp the symptoms of mental disorders into murderous drives, the implications to society dramatically outweigh any potential entertainment.
Well, the writer is a teenager and obviously concerned about being politically correct. When she gets older, she will hopefully realize that it is not irresponsible to point out, in the form of fiction or otherwise, that mentally ill persons can pose danger to others. And you don’t need to “warp” symptoms in order to do so.
Take the case of David and Louise Anna Turpin who stand trial for chaining and starving their children. Their story is not all that unique. There have been others before them. The captives are not always children may not be biologically related to the captor.
Stories like that have been the subject of more than one film — some, dramatizations of real events; others, fictionalized.
Do films with such subject simply aim to mock mentally ill people? Think context. If you’re talking slasher films like Saw and House of Wax, the answer is an easy yes. Otherwise, analyze first. It’s easy to make sweeping generalizations with a holier-than-thou attitude but it’s not always smart to take that path.