ByArianna Belle-Kepas Brown, writer at

The world we live in is a scary place at times, there are violent crimes, wars, murders, life threatening diseases and real evil that exists right outside our front doors. One topic that mystery films often use to instill fear in its viewers are films that use a villain who has some sort of serious mental illness, the core aspects of these films are designed to scare—mad murderers on the loose killing innocent or not so innocent people in possibly gruesome ways—perpetuates and stigmatizes people with mental illness.

Alfred Hitchcock, often called “the Master of Suspense,” over his career, he directed more than fifty films. His top ten movies according to IMDB are Rebecca (1940), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Rear Window (1954), Dial M for Murder (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955), I Confess (1953), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Rope (1948).

Frequently, mystery movies bring up certain issues of the world we live in—murder and crime being the most prevalent. But one of the more sensitive topics that comes up time and again in mystery films is mental illness, and how it is portrayed in these films. Does depicting someone who is mentally ill in a mystery movie add significance to this genre? Does it affect the way we see others who have mental illness in a positive or negative way? And is it necessary to have commentary of the mentally ill, in this genre?

The representation of mental illness in mystery/horror films is very stereotypical and does not paint a fair picture of others who struggle with mental illnesses. The way films like Psycho and almost all horrors movies which have followed, have created a more negative connotation and stigma towards the mentally ill that still hasn't been broken completely to this day. In Psycho, Norman Bates murders two people while dressed up as his mother, similar to how the real life serial killer Ed Gein would “become his mother” by wearing her tanned skin. It appears that the mental illness that Hitchcock depicts in Norman Bates is a mix of schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder.

In the movie, it is easy to label Norman Bates as “schizo” or “crazy,” part of a make-believe horror show. But mental illness is a real and growing problem. The reality is that today there are an “estimated 43.8 million adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. with AMI (any mental illness) in the past year. This represented 18.5 percent of all U.S. adults.” (National Institute of Health) The vast majority of people suffering from schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder do not become serial killers or murderers or criminals. Conversely, most serial killers have been found to have some sort of mental illness that has been left untreated before they commit their crime, becoming fodder for movies like Psycho, that use people with schizophrenia or any other mental disorder for their horror and shock value while misrepresenting the disease, the causes and treatment for the disorder.

A group of psychologists conducted research about the effects of television and film exposure on our knowledge and attitudes on mental health. Their findings were quite shocking, because we don't often believe that the media really does have a big impact on our thoughts and views. But these researchers found that, "on television, the presentation of mentally ill people overemphasizes negative aspects (Signorelli, 1989): Mentally ill characters are shown displaying violent and bizarre behavior. Mentally disordered characters are portrayed as much more violent than they are in reality: In Diefenbach’s (1997) analysis, 2.2% of characters on primetime television were portrayed as mentally disordered, 34% of which were shown committing murder, rape, or violent attacks. In reality, only 3% of the mentally disordered people in the U.S. population show conspicuously violent behavior." The difference in percentages between how the mentally ill are portrayed in film as violent compared to the lower percentage of real mentally ill people committing crimes is quite staggering.

When the researchers considered how these portrayals of the mentally ill changed our attitudes, they discovered that when we see someone with a mental illness acting in a violent manner, we automatically have a negative opinion of people with mental illnesses. "Wahl and Lefkowits (1989) showed that participants who watched a movie with a violent, mentally ill character perceived mental disorders more negatively than participants who watched a movie in which the violent character was not mentally ill." And again research from Granello, Pauley, and Carmichael (1999) "showed that people who gathered most of their information about mental disorders from the media were less tolerant toward persons with mental illness than participants with direct experience with mentally ill people". Kimmerle, Joachim, Cress, Ulrike. (The Effects Of Tv And Film Exposure On Knowledge About And Attitudes Toward Mental Disorders. Journal Of Community Psychology 41.8 (2013): 931-943. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.)

It is time for media to paint a more realistic image of someone with a mental illness, and to end the stigma of mental illness. While we may enjoy to be scared and frightened for our own amusement watching a movie, we should let the fear of a fake villain who is represented fictionally with a mental illness impact the way we view someone in real life with a mental illness, because it is most likely going to be the case that they are nothing like the villain that was portrayed in the mystery films we watch.


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