Mental Health and Horror: A Complicated History

How people with mental illness/poor mental health are portrayed in horror 

I’ve said it before, opens a new window and I’ll say it again: Movies have an impact on how we see the world. As I have become more aware of this fact, I have also become more sensitive to how the world is being portrayed onscreen.

Horror use our fear of the unknown, of death and dying, fear of pain, fear of aging, fear of losing our sanity, and more to thrill and to entertain us. These movies and stories play with our fear of the “other” and the unknown and have a history of using negative stereotypes, opens a new window. This is harmful, in my opinion, when this means portraying marginalized people as monsters. Portraying people with mental illness as being dangerous to others is just one of these stereotypes. Unfortunately, this helps to perpetuate the social stigma surrounding mental illness, which can cause people to neglect their mental health, thinking that going to a therapist or taking medication to relieve symptoms might make them seem “crazy”. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, "1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year and only half of them receive treatment." , opens a new window To improve and save lives, it is important to be aware of our preconceived ideas about mental health and illness and try to change them.

Consider the different horror movies set in old psychiatric hospitals and asylums, opens a new window, often turning them into haunted houses. This narrative makes the idea of being mentally ill seem especially terrifying because of the neglect and abuse people with mental health problems have endured historically.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, opens a new window

Binge Box - Featuring Shutter Island, opens a new window

Unsane, opens a new window

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, opens a new window

The most often cited instance of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of a mental illness in horror movies is probably dissociative identity disorder or DID. There are different types of DID. The type commonly represented in films is sometimes referred to as multiple personality disorder., opens a new window A non-horror movie featuring this illness is Sybil, opens a new window. Those who supposedly, opens a new window suffer from this disorder switch between very different personalities. An early horror story with this kind of behavior in it is the famous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, opens a new window. In films like Psycho and Split, characters who suffer from DID are represented as dangerous murderers. In reality, the people with this disorder have suffered some sort of childhood trauma and their mind is trying to process this trauma. They are suffering from a serious medical condition, opens a new window and deserve treatment and empathy.

Split, opens a new window


Greatest Classic Films Collection, opens a new window


There is another horror movie trope that I like to refer to as the “crone problem.” These films are usually categorized under the psycho-biddy, opens a new window genre. Society tends to favor youth and therefore shun older people, especially aging women. This is reflected in horror films. As the name suggests, psycho-biddy films are about dangerous older women who torment others, usually younger women. These films negatively portray older women as frighteningly unattractive and suffering from dementia.

It is true that as we get older, we can suffer from illnesses such as dementia and, in some cases, this can lead to being a danger to ourselves and others. The prevalence of this idea in horror films stems from our fear of aging and dying. It is unfortunate that we tend to mock and caricature aging instead of embracing it. Those of us who are lucky enough to live long lives are all going to age.

Am I saying we can’t still enjoy problematic old horror stories? Of course not! I think the most important thing is to stay informed so that you can look at these films and books through a different lens, with empathy and understanding for the people that are being portrayed.

The Visit, opens a new window

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, opens a new window

X, opens a new window

Ma, opens a new window

Greta, opens a new window

Last Night in Soho, opens a new window

More “Positive” Representations of Mental Illness in Horror

Luckily for horror fans, times are changing. Newer films and books are attempting to reframe mental health and horror. Recent horror movies attempt to show the difficulties of dealing with mental illness without painting the characters in a negative light. These films are not perfect, they are still horror movies and use fantasy elements, but the filmmakers do a far better job of humanizing the characters who are struggling with mental illness. When horror is at its best it demonstrates the terror that someone who experiences a real mental illness might feel with nuance and empathy and how hard it is when that person doesn't have the support that they need. A film like The Babadook shows how people with mental illness are often ignored or marginalized, "out of sight, out of mind", opens a new window, instead of receiving understanding, support, and treatment.


Lights Out

The Night House

We're All Going to the World's Fair

Black Swan



Talk to Me


Can Watching Horror Movies Be Self-Care?

I am an anxious person. And it may surprise you, but I think this is part of the reason that I love horror books and movies. 

People with anxiety tend to “worry about almost anything having to do with ordinary life, opens a new window.” Horror movies can temporarily relieve this anxiety through something called exposure therapy. For some people who live in a constant state of low-grade to high-grade worry, having a dose of horror and then the subsequent relief when it’s over can be therapeutic. Horror novels, haunted houses, rollercoasters, and scary films--these are all small doses of terror that we have control over. We can choose when we get on the ride and when we get off. This means that we can gain some positive feelings from the experience. There is an adrenaline rush and endorphins, which make us feel good and improve our mood.  Just to be clear as well, even though it may seem obvious, watching horror is a supplemental way to get temporary relief from anxiety, it is not a substitute for therapy or medication!

Know thyself, opens a new window. If you know that you do not like horror and it tends to make you anxious, this will not work for you. In my case, I am a big fan of supernatural fantasy horror. Give me eldritch creatures, monsters, ghosts, and ghouls any day. I think one of the reasons I enjoy horror so much is there is usually catharsis at the end. The hero slays the monster, saves their friends and loved ones. Evil is defeated for now. Goodness and order have prevailed! However, I am NOT as interested in horror stories about serial killers. I need to be a few steps further away from reality, and horror movies are a good way to distract myself for a while, opens a new window. I can go back to my mundane chores, maybe a little less anxious about my adulting to-do list.

Mental health awareness is important and if you, or someone you know, needs help and support, reach out, opens a new window! How do you feel about horror movies? Do they make you feel more or less anxious? Do you have a favorite horror movie to share? Let us know in the comments!