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Five Halloween films that stigmatise mental health problems

by Sarah Graham
Thursday 30 October 2014
771 5751

Last autumn supermarket giants Tesco and Asda, and online retailer Amazon, sparked outrage by stocking 'mental patient' fancy dress costumes as part of their Halloween ranges. After a groundswell of complaints that the outfits stigmatised people with mental illnesses, Asda and Tesco both withdrew the items, apologised for any offence, and agreed to make donations to mental health charity Mind. This year, most major retailers appear to have learnt from Asda and Tesco's mistakes and kept 'psycho ward' outfits off the shelves.

But how many much-loved Halloween films have the same stigmatising effect? Accredited Counsellor Jan Baker says Halloween is a particularly bad time for films that add to the stigmatisation of mental health conditions.

"Films such as the ‘Halloween' series, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street' and ‘The Shining' are shown, in which people with mental health issues are portrayed as violent and dangerous," she says. "In ‘Halloween' for example, the main character, Michael Myers, is shown escaping from a psychiatric hospital and rampaging through town, murdering innocent teenagers. Although not directly stated, it is inferred that he is suffering from schizophrenia."

Jan adds: "People who have this condition - a serious and debilitating mental health problem - are often incorrectly portrayed as having violent behaviour or a ‘split personality', such as in the ‘Jekyll and Hyde' films. In reality, people with schizophrenia are more likely to experience violence towards themselves from others who are uninformed about the condition. These films, therefore, can only increase people's fear and ignorance, thus stigmatising and isolating further those people in our society who would benefit more from our support and understanding."

These films can only increase people's fear and ignorance, thus stigmatising and isolating further those people in our society who would benefit more from our support and understanding.

Registered Counsellor Ann Rapstoff agrees: "The portrayal of people with mental health issues in films such as 'Halloween' links into our childhood fears and insecurities about being attacked in the dark, or having a visit from the bogey man," she says.

"The idea that anyone experiencing a mental health problem is unpredictable and beyond a cure perpetuates a lack of understanding of the individual experience and the autonomy many people have over their lives. It is you, me and everyone who is vulnerable to mental ill health at some point in our lives. When it is accepted in the same way as physical illness, we will make progress."

She adds: "There is rarely a film which includes the main character with mental health issues having any control over their lives and functioning on a day to day basis."


Five Halloween films that stigmatise mental health conditions:

1. Halloween

The 1978 film 'Halloween' is a classic example of the 'escaped mental patient goes on a killing spree' film genre. In it, protagonist Michael Myers, at six years old, murders his sister with a knife on Halloween. He is later found in a trance-like state by his parents and committed to a psychiatric hospital. Fifteen years later he escapes and - pursued by his psychiatrist - returns to his home town, where he stalks and kills a group of young women. Although not made explicit, the audience is led to believe that Michael is suffering from some form of psychosis such as schizophrenia or a personality disorder. 'Halloween' went on to inspire a number of other 'psycho killer' Halloween films, including 'Nightmare on Elm Street' and 'Scream'.

2. The Shining

The iconic 1980 Stanley Kubric film 'The Shining' stars Jack Nicholson as protagonist Jack Torrent, a writer who moves his wife and son to remote hotel The Overlook during the winter. After developing symptoms of schizophrenia and a number of other mental health conditions, he ultimately attempts to kill his own family. Jack experiences hallucinations, delusions and disorganised thinking - all suggestive of schizophrenia - and also demonstrates signs of paranoia, obsessive compulsive behaviours and alcohol dependency. As Jack's mental health deteriorates, the audience sees him as an increasingly violent and volatile figure, which reinforces the stigma of schizophrenia as a violent and dangerous condition.

3. Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 thriller 'Psycho' stars Anthony Perkins as motel owner Norman Bates. Norman suffers from dissociative identity disorder (a condition often wrongly conflated with schizophrenia) - his two identities being his own and that of the mother he previously murdered. Unable to come to terms with killing his own mother, Norman mummified her body and took on her identity, effectively resurrecting her in his own mind. As 'his mother', Norman feels jealous of his own attraction to motel guest Marion and stabs her to death while wearing his mother's clothes. Again, we see the character with a mental health condition as someone who is inherently volatile and violent.

4. Silence of the Lambs

'Silence of the Lambs' is the second in the 'Hannibal Lector' franchise, a series of films starring Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector. Hannibal is a forensic psychiatrist by trade, but also happens to be a cannibalistic serial killer who has himself been incarcerated in a mental institution. Hannibal shows clear signs of antisocial personality disorder and, in 'Silence of the Lambs', Hannibal's psychiatrist Dr. Chilton describes him as "pure psychopath", strengthening the public perception that mental health issues and murder go hand in hand.

5. Friday the 13th

Like 'Halloween', 'Scream' and 'Nightmare on Elm Street', 'Friday the 13th' features archetypal 'psycho killers' and spawned a cult following and seemingly endless sequels. In the original film, bereaved mother Pamela Voorhees hears voices telling her to kill the people she holds responsible for the death of her son Jason. In the second film, Jason is revealed to be alive and goes on a masked killing spree to avenge his mother. Several hours of slasher gore later, the series' fifth installment is set in a mental institution, where one inmate is killed by another and the grieving father is driven insane - resulting in (you guessed it) another murderous rampage.


Finding support

If you are concerned about the issues raised in this article then you may like to read about finding the right therapist for you. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

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Updated 30 October 2014