Student Stories

How Scary Movies Made Me Hate Myself: The Effects of Inaccurate Portrayals of the Mentally Ill

Scary movie nights were the height of my high school social life. Everybody who was anybody would get invited to some sweaty basement on a Friday night to cuddle up and get the bejeezus scared out of them, and my basement just so happened to be the hot spot for these hangouts. My dad had spent close to two years renovating what was essentially a giant storage closet into an awesome home theatre with surround sound, a sectional couch, and massive beanbags (perfect for cuddling).

Me and my boyfriend of 4 years on one of our very first scary movie group dates.

So there I sat, just like I did every Friday night: palms sweaty, face as red as the walls of the basement I felt trapped in. But my fears were far from the Babadook or “It”. I was much more afraid of telling my best friends about my anxiety disorder.

I had been seeing a therapist for probably six months and was well on my way to feeling like myself again when the scary movie craze really hit its full stride. Before the hangouts started, my anxiety attacks were becoming less frequent and I felt like I could finally “be normal.” But in the basement watching movie after movie of Hannibal Lector or Buffalo Bill being seen more as animals than people I shrank further within myself, and all the progress I had made in therapy felt like it was fading away. What if they found out *I* was one of the crazy people we watched in the movies? There was no way they could love or respect somebody who was actually a monster, like those we gawked at in the movies.

The first person I ever told about my anxiety was one of my best friends at the time, Christina. We were taking a walk around the neighborhood, as we so often did when we wanted to chat without worrying about our parents hearing. My stomach was in knots as we walked and talked. I think she knew I needed to get something off my chest, but was gracious enough to act like everything was fine. The only thing I really remember about the conversation was saying “Something is wrong with me. I’m in therapy.” I broke into tears after having said it out loud for the first time. The shame of being “crazy” enough to need therapy was too much for me to handle. I had seen so many movies, and the only portrayal I had seen of somebody like me was that they could amount to nothing but a lonely, criminal life.

In my upper middle class, predominantly white suburban life, that was the only exposure I got to people like me – people who just needed a little help.

Nearly five years later, when I told Christina I was writing this piece, she graciously agreed to interview with me, but when I asked her to describe this incident, something amazing happened. She could hardly recall the event, at least not in vivid detail like I did. An interaction that I thought could potentially ruin my life had left no negative impact on her, or the way she saw me. She said “I think in a way, I was a little surprised, only because nobody in my life had ever really talked about therapy before….I was happy that you had decided to get help, and I wish I had the strength or the insight to realize that I should’ve followed in your footsteps.”

But from everything I had seen on television and in movies, that never seemed like a possible outcome. How could people ever like me just for me? Christina now attends James Madison University studying psychology. She explains how basic the fear of the mentally ill really is. “I think what we don’t understand intrigues us, as a species. Mental illness is so foreign to a lot of people. It’s either not talked about, or is attached to such a terrible stigma. The unknown or different is scary to us, which makes great movies, unfortunately.”

A few years after I stopped going to therapy I was still feeling the stigma when I started dating my current boyfriend, Emmett. For a few months I thought perhaps I could just go without telling him about the anxious side of me, but once I figured out he was in it for the long run, I knew I couldn’t hide it. Emmett remembers this pretty fondly…

“Carly seemed not always especially interested in social interaction though she was always one of the friendliest people I knew. I didn’t really think much of Carly’s anxiety disorder when she first told me. I kind of laughed (which was probably not exactly the perfect response) at the thought that her anxiety would make me like her less. Then I told her that I didn’t mind and that it didn’t change anything.”

The scary movie genre focuses on what most people don’t understand, and are too afraid to talk about. It’s so easy for the human mind to categorize between “us” and “them”. By portraying the mentally ill as violent criminals, that’s all we’ll ever see them as. Emmett described the effects these movies had on him “I know that for me, these poor portrayals made mental illness seem like a distant and terrifying occurrence. In reality, as I now know, people with even some of the most extreme mental illnesses live normal lives with the help of support systems and medication.”

The fact of the matter is that people with mental illness are twice as likely to be the victim of a crime, than to actually commit one. Then why don’t movies ever portray mentally ill characters in ways that are more humanistic? Why aren’t there films and television shows about people with anxiety that shows them as more than just unstable, socially awkward, and consistently on the verge of breakdown? If the problem could be as simple as people being scared of what they don’t understand, why don’t we make them understand it?

We are a new generation of movie makers and art creators. It’s important to consider what 1 in 4 of us feel on a daily basis, and how 4 out of 4 of us are all impacted.