What’s With the Demonization of Mental Illness in Cinema

Mental health awareness has become a bit of a buzzword lately. It’s wonderful to witness more people talking openly about their mental health and adopting self-care strategies. Nonetheless, when it comes to serious chronic mental health conditions like schizophrenia, people are still relatively uninformed (or misinformed) about the realities of living with a serious mental health condition.

When considering the reasons behind common misconceptions with mental illness, it’s hard not to look towards Hollywood for a partial explanation. One look at the IMDB Top 10 indicates that of these movies, at least one third vilify characters who experience mental health problems.

Let’s first take a look at David Fincher’s Fight Club. Brad Pitt stars as a depressed man who is later discovered to suffer from a personality disorder. Pitt’s alternative identity, Tyler Durden, is a deranged man intent on tearing down society as we know it. A significant portion of people who watch this movie consider Pitt’s character to suffer from schizophrenia. The version of this serious mental illness portrayed in the film is a glamorous anarchist who has no problem with murder or destruction.

Of the other movies in the IMDB Top 10, The Dark Knight and Joker stand out as films about a character who descended into villainy at least in part due to mental health issues. This is perhaps most prominent in Joker, which introducers Arthur Fleck as a sympathetic, unstable character, who finds liberating in killing people. The portrayal of mental health here is in no way black and white, but somewhere ingrained in the film is that the mentally ill have the capacity for villainy.

From Silence of the Lambs to Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the list of mentally unstable villains goes on. Of all these, perhaps Joker is the worst example as the movie at least explores the different factors playing against Arthur Fleck and how his specific struggles led him to become the infamous Batman villain. In many horror movies, however, mental illness is loosely used to vilify a dangerous character and is never actually part of a deliberate and thoughtful narrated backstory.

At the end of the day, the question we are trying to ask is not the question of whether Hollywood should stop portraying villains as mentally ill. The emphasis is on when villainy and insanity are connected as a default. The problem is that this predictable narrative leans on people’s prejudice against the mentally ill. The two don’t naturally go together and too many films use this offensive trope. If mental illness is going to be a trait in a character, there ought to be good reason for it and maybe, from time to time, the reason is to show different types of minds’ capacity for good.