Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) first read The Babadook - Image courtesy of NPR

Frightfully Misrepresented: On Hollywood’s Portrayal of Disability in Horror

By creating movies like these, scepticism and discomfort are increased in those who are misinformed and rely on false information through movies like Split and Psycho. 

We’ve talked about the ways in which horror films use alternative means to protray the messages they want before. Today we’ll be talking about how, in their portrayal of mental illness on screen, there have been many harmful films that show the wrong diagnosis. This kind of negative visibility is harmful and perpetuates the stigma that mental illness is dangerous to society. Horror films like Halloween (2007) attempt to explain the character’s backstory by sympathizing with them. Halloween implies that Myers’ character is driven to commit violent acts due to his childhood trauma and as opposed to evilness. Mental illness, such as depression, are used as metaphors in movies like The Babadook (2014) and Lights Out (2016). These more recent portrayals have offered more sympathetic and positive visibility to mental illnesses that have often been depicted negatively. 

However, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is about depression, maternal difficulties, and the trauma of Amelia (Essie Davis), who is raising her seven-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman) after her husband’s death. She spends the day caring for residents of a nursing home and follows a similar nightly routine of checking her son’s bed and wardrobe for monsters. Amelia’s constantly tired and has a difficult time managing her job and her son with behavioural issues.

One night, Samuel finds a book called Mister Babadook. Amelia reads it out loud, witnessing the graphic and violent illustrations and writing firsthand. She fears that the book might be haunting her family’s life and senses the Babadook’s presence in their house. She tries to get rid of the book by ripping the pages but it comes back and haunts her again. Samuel fears that the book might be overcoming his mother, as she succumbs deeper and deeper into the Babdook’s grasp. 

The Babadook is a perfect example of the comfort and familiarity in the relationship between mother and son. The relationship between Amelia and Samuel at the beginning of the film is wholesome as they promise to protect each other. However, this changes when the Babadook possesses Amelia and her mental state slowly decays. She becomes violent, throwing irrational fits and violently screaming at Samuel. At one point, after Amelia explicitly tells Samuel to not call anyone for help, she finds him speaking to a friend on the phone. In her response, she screams at him and cuts the cord with a knife, frightening Samuel.

She’s often in a state where she is in and out of reality. She hallucinates thoughts of murdering Sam. What is haunting about Amelia’s mental state is that the Babadook is a living metaphor, a beast terrorising herself and her son. In the book, the Babadook tells her that the more Amelia tries to get away from the beast, the closer it will get. By trying to get rid of it the second time, she falls into the Babadook’s possession and starts to believe that everyone is against her. She has a difficult time maintaining social interactions with her sister and her neighbour, who reassures Amelia that she is not alone in this.

Amelia (Davis) and Samuel (Wiseman) – Image courtesy of Screen Australia

In an article by The Take, Kent’s movie depicts how people try to distance themselves from others who are mentally ill. It states, “The Babadook is a representation of how society often doesn’t put enough emphasis on treating people with mental illness, but instead takes on “out of sight, out of mind” approach.”

In a scene where Amelia is called to Samuel’s school to talk about his behaviour and bringing weapons to class, their suggestion is to ostracise him from the other classmates and assign a special teacher to look after him. Upset over this proposed solution, Amelia demands that she would rather send her son to another school. In another scene where Amelia and Samuel are invited over to her niece’s birthday party, her sister’s friends are talking about the kind of troubles that they have had to go through their day. Amelia suddenly bursts out of frustration and they look at her like an “insane” person and dismiss her. And not just them, so does her own sister. Later, when Amelia asks for help regarding the demon that is terrorizing her home, her sister makes no effort to help her.

In the end, it is Samuel that helps her mother to find the strength to fight back the beast. Even in the darkest moment, the lovely neighbour offers to give her a helping hand and empathise with Amelia’s difficulties. The meaning behind this support is the unconditional love that the neighbour has for Amelia and Sam. She vomits out a black substance which happens to be the Babadook. The invisible beast drags Sam into Amelia’s bedroom and she confronts it. She demands the beast to leave her family alone and it retreats into the basement.

Even after the Babadook leaves Ameilia alone, there is no way to get rid of it. It’s still lurking behind the shadows. It cannot be shut off as it needs attention and care. Amelia feeds insects to it every day, and it is now the Babadook that lives in fear. Amelia understands what the beast is going through and comforts it. Even with the dark themes that The Babadook explores, it does not villainize the protagonist. It has cautionary narratives of maternal depression, loss and death, and the behavioural issues of children. Yet, it prevents traditional stereotypes of mental illness and conceives interesting metaphors for it. 

Another example of using metaphors with regard to mental illness is David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out, which is set around a mother who suffers from depression and others around her who demean her. Similar to The Babadook, Lights Out uses a monster as a metaphor for depression. And this monster appears in the dark when the lights are switched off. The opening sequence of the movie introduces the death of Sophie’s (Maria Bello) husband (Billy Burke). Her daughter, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is informed that her step-brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is not getting enough sleep and is frightened of her mother’s imaginary friend, Diana.

This figure has haunted Rebecca’s childhood and she is determined to save Martin from her mother’s depressive episodes. Sophie exhibits symptoms of depression and she stopped taking her meds soon after her husband died. Due to this, Diana comes back to haunt Sophie and she falls deeper and depper into her mental illness. 

Rebecca, portrayed by Teresa Palmer – Image courtesy of Vox

The underlying metaphor in Lights Out is that it’s the spirit that keeps Sophie from coming out from the dark. Diana prevents her from taking the anti-depressants, and when Rebecca and Martin try to help her come back into the light, she attacks them. What Sophie needed from the very beginning was the support and care of her children. Sadly, they abandoned her in her time of need. By keeping herself locked in her room, Diana’s grasp on Sophie becomes stronger and what happens at the end of Lights Out is undoubtedly controversial.

The only way to stop Diana from hurting Sophie’s children is for her to kill herself. When Sophie tries to shoot Diana, she keeps disappearing, almost flickering when the gun fires itself. So Sophie places the gun on her temple and Diana lashes towards her to stop her. Sophie pulls the trigger and Diana disappears. 

What is frightening about the fight against depression is that Sophie is unable to fight “it” (Diana) who haunts her. Symbolically, Lights Out is a metaphor for the state of one’s depression, which Sophie is unable to endure. Regardless, she sacrifices herself to save her children from getting hurt, effectively becoming the victim of her inner demons. Her depression is considered “weak” and “unstable”, which is reflected in the parts when her own children would rather stay away from her. Whether Lights Out generates empathy or not is debatable. But, the idea of portraying and using metaphors for depression is certainly common amongst stories that include a mother mourning the death of her husband. 

When Horror Representation Goes Wrong

Other horror movies such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2017) spun the genre into a rather dangerous storyline. These films include characters with a history of mental illnesses who kidnap, murder and stalk people. These elements misrepresent mental health. It’s safe to say that horror movies have influenced cinema in an unremarkable way. This negative portrayal of mental illnesses was first filmed in a German Expressionist film called The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It presented a link between the psychiatric condition and how dangerous the patient could be to society. 

According to Ryley Mancine in Horror Movies and Mental Health Conditions Through the Ages, this movie started the horror trope using psychiatric conditions in the form of monstrosity. This trope, continued in Psycho, revolves around protagonist Norman Bates: a cold, calculating killer who murders his mother and bases a personality after her.

This movie is deemed as one of the most iconic portrayals of psychiatric conditions mainly because of its protagonist murdering several people and demonstrating features of dissociative identity disorder (DID). Mancine continues to state that DID is a mental condition that is very misunderstood. It was not explored at that time in media and often misinterpreted Bates’ behaviour as schizophrenia. This kind of portrayal perpetuates mental illnesses and negative stereotypes of the violent acts in movies. 

In the case of Split, the myth of the beast takes over James McAvoy’s character who has dissociative identity disorder. McAvoy’s Kevin has 23 personalities and another personality that dominates him is called “The Beast”. Kevin’s personalities work together to kidnap three girls and imprison them inside a secret underground lair.

Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) attempt to escape several times. As they try to figure out who the friendly personality is, Kevin goes to visit his therapist, Karen (Bette Buckley). She is helping him through the process and recognizes that one of his personalities is becoming dominant. When The Beast emerges, he takes an animalistic figure and changes his physical characteristics. The Beast kills Claire and Marcia, and the only one who lives is Casey due to the scars on her body, which The Beast deems as “pure”. 

Casey (Taylor-Joy), Claire (Richardson), Marcia (Sula), and Kevin (McAvoy) – courtesy of Film Comment

What is explicitly wrong with Split is how Kevin’s DID is portrayed as violent and dangerous. It perpetuates the stigma of a disorder that is already considered misunderstood. When The Beast takes over Kevin, he changes his body, increasing the size of his muscles and becomes impenetrable to bullets and gains the ability to climb walls. Healthline interviewed some psychologists who talked about the movie and its harmful portrayal. They said that DID is a form of coping mechanism for trauma and abuse. This disorder is neither violent nor does it harm people, as it does in the movie. Another states that the media likes to sensationalise mental disorders such as DID. As a result, this often does not help people who are diagnosed with it. 

The misrepresentation of psychiatric conditions like DID is negatively conceptualised in stereotypes to entertain the audience and misinform them. By creating movies like these, scepticism and discomfort are increased in those who are misinformed and rely on false information through movies like Split and Psycho

Based on real life serial killer, Ed Gein, Psycho is considered a horror masterpiece. However, it adds the twist of DID at the end of the movie. But the film’s impact has given the chance to create more movies that portray mental illness negatively. This kind of ploy to keep moviegoers entertained and frightening in horror movies is exploitive. When stories like Split and Psycho are being written in the context of horror, it begs certain questions. Should Hollywood keep writing stories like this? Or rather, continue to use metaphors to write about depression? Even though Lights Out had a controversial ending, it helped get their theme and message across. But with the use of monstrous spirits haunting the victim, is it a negative portrayal?

Despite these questions and problematic stories, horror movies that depict mental illnesses in the form of metaphors may be changing the public’s opinion. The Babadook welcomed a new lens of horror movies where disabilities do not villainize its characters. Instead, it shows that there is compassion and understanding for people who are fighting their inner demons.

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