There’s a lot of talk going on about the role of mental illness in the horror genre. There’s probably even more than usual since Netflix released Bandersnatch and Bird Box over the holidays.
I am a big horror fan. I love being scared and creeped out. I even love cheesy horror movies that are so bad they are fun to watch. But as someone who has struggled with various mental health issues and faced the trauma of the psychiatric system, my relationship with this genre is volatile.
There’s three big categories that horror falls into with its depiction of mental illness: the mentally ill as the external villain, mental illness as a gaslighting tactic, and mental illness as the internal source of horror. Mentally ill villains have been a trope since the beginning of horror as a genre. If I were to name every film that does this it would take up a whole article, and that’s not even touching on horror in other media such as books or video games. Despite being the most common and arguably most harmful trap I’m not going to really be talking about this one.
The second category is a plot device where the protagonist is called crazy to invalidate their fear of external events or people (but they totally aren’t crazy!). I’m also going to include under this category the trope of “person is institutionalized but they aren’t ACTUALLY crazy, so they don’t deserve to be here and that’s what makes it terrifying.” This is seen in probably most paranormal horror as well as in the classic Rosemary’s Baby.
I think the device of “mental illness as a source of internal horror” is the most fascinating to me but it is so often done poorly. I actually am in the works of planning out various horror short stories and even a full length novel about this. But its purpose is to describe the horror of being a neurodivergent person in an ableist society, particularly when it comes to mental illness diagnoses and how we are treated in the psychiatric system. It is a topic I am very interested in, but it’s hard to find in fiction despite it being one of the most invisible sources of real world horror. I don’t think this is what happens with most fiction that ends up falling into this category. Most of it is about how horrifying having mental illness is instead of how horrifying it is being diagnosed mentally ill in our society.
What we end up seeing are things like Bandersnatch. It came so close to what I want to see in the genre but it ended up severely missing the mark. Bandersnatch is particularly distinct because it’s a choose-your-own-adventure (it also happens to be a Black Mirror “episode” and as someone who loves Black Mirror I am especially upset about this). It has you assume the role of the protagonist where you can make decisions for how the plot unfolds. It ends up being a horror about the character falling into a psychosis-like state where he realizes he has no choice about his actions and that there are multiple timelines. A lot of “horror of mental illness” ends up coming to the question of whether or not the character is “truly crazy” and that ends up being the source of horror. As someone who lives with mental illness: this is not the source of horror and depicting it as what is “horrifying” about mental illness is ableist and harmful. First let me rant about Bandersnatch a bit more.
While roleplaying mental illness seems like a powerful tool I don’t think its execution created a coherent narrative. What is horrifying is that someone who hasn’t experienced these things is going to walk away with a different message than those who have. They will understand the horror differently.
Three scenes had a particularly awful impact on me: having to choose which way to throw out pills, having to choose which way the character gets compelled to self harm, and which character kills himself.
For a long time I was having periods where I would look at my meds and dissociate because I was torn three ways: destroy them knowing it was self sabotage, take them how I was supposed to knowing that they weren’t quite helping enough, and overdosing. I have chosen all three options, and more than once.
To see a “choose your own adventure” of holding pills in your hand and being forced to decide which method of disposing of them was a really difficult flashback for me.
When I was in an inpatient unit I was having really bad anxiety and nobody was helping me. The nurse was ignoring me and nobody was giving me any meds I was asking for to calm me down. I hurt myself and learned that it was able to stop anxiety and other hurtful emotions. I struggled a lot with self harm after that, including biting. In one scene you have to pick a self harm method; I forget what the second option was but one was nail biting. I saw the character grab his hands, desperately trying to stop this overwhelming compulsion to bite down. I have been there. Not wanting to bite, wanting to break free of the cycle but your body insists that it will help. Sometimes I wouldn’t even know the reflex was going to hit and it would be too late.
Then there is the scene of jumping off a balcony. Jumping off a height is a method I was always terrified of but got desperate enough to start considering and planning for. The game asks you to choose to kill yourself or not. If you don’t, then the character next to you does. You don’t truly understand the horror of this unless you fantasized about taking this step for months, years on end. After a while it scars your brain to a point that you will never properly heal. And this adds an element of, “If you don’t do this, someone else will suffer. To protect someone from suffering you have to kill yourself.” THAT is the message this scene sends.
I don’t need this “roleplay” or “choose your own adventure.” I already know. So many of my friends already know.
What audience this was aimed for? Because it’s taking OUR stories and retelling it in a way that causes SO much harm. It is “entertainment” for people who haven’t experienced this, and could be dangerous for severely mentally ill people.
I didn’t finish Bandersnatch so I am unsure what the ultimate message is, or rather I’m unsure what message the creators were going for. Based off of experience with other stories I imagine one of the big questions is “was the protagonist REALLY crazy?”. After all, you are actually making decisions for him and there are multiple timelines. This realization seems to drive him into an extreme state of paranoia and he very clearly begins to suffer greatly. I’m not even sure that it counts as horror for other people because some of the options seem to be more about fucking with him instead of telling a story.
The source of fear for me in Bandersnatch was reliving horrifying experiences in my life such as struggling with self harm or wanting to jump to my death. I very strongly suspect for a lot of other people the story is less a horror and more a way to play around with someone’s life to the point of making them have a mental breakdown. The horror might be in the uncertainty of the space between mental illness and sanity. I’m not sure, I’m not convinced anyone knows. What I know for sure is the creators thought that a story like this would be “unique” and “edgy” because its play on the experiences of mental illness. It is taking our narratives and playing it up for shock value.
Despite the horror genre continually letting me down, I still have high hopes that we can use it as a way of telling our stories. But it has to be done in a way that creates a uniform message and is still accessible for the people whose experiences its about.