The Complex Relationship Between Horror and Mental Health

As seeking counseling and support become more commonplace, the depiction of mental illness in film and television has at times been slow to reflect our changing attitudes.

Horror and mental health share something of a turbulent history. Looking back in history as far as the original publication of Dracula, the depiction of characters suffering from mental health conditions has been open for scrutiny. And with more recent controversy over Halloween costumes and attractions – horror fans are being asked to question some of the genre’s established tropes.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM — Pictured: Lizzie Brochere as Grace — CR: Frank Ockenfels/FX

First off, there is the obvious fact that many people who experience mental health conditions are also horror fans. Kate Davis Jones writes about how her love of horror films helped her to cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after a devastating house fire. As part of World Mental Health Day, writer Rosie Fletcher discussed how scary movies helped her to process grief after the death of her father. For those who experience mental illness, horror films are often a source of comfort and an outlet for emotion. Despite criticism of the depiction of mental illness, horror is proving to have a lot of positive mental health benefits to offer its fans.

So has horror moved on from it’s roots? Looking back on over a hundred years of film history, there is a staggering number of horror movies set inside mental health hospitals and institutions. Horror has come under fire for using these settings, and the patients within them, as a cliche ‘spooky’ backdrop which furthers stereotypes the public might hold toward mental health conditions. And with the rise of haunts, these old school asylums have been popping up as seasonal attractions in the Halloween season – prompting further controversy. Yet there is a flipside. Sociologist Margee Kerr runs a haunted house where she measures the responses in visitor’s brains in order to study new ways of helping those with a range of mental illnesses. She believes that small, controlled doses of fear can be beneficial, explaining: “What we are finding is that by focusing on a very ‘up’ emotion, a scare response is going to help people with anxiety and rumination”.

Kerr’s brand of horror relies on researched techniques to generate small doses of fear effectively. But despite a shaky history, even the traditional horror movies are starting to catch up with their audiences, and their desire for a better on-screen portrayal of mental health. The Babadook achieved incredible success and praise several years ago, with critics praising the eerie tale for it’s presentation of grief and depression. The fictional character who visually represents the symptoms of these conditions is a far more compassionate – and original – approach than the stereotypical patients of the asylum films.

The Babadook

So where can horror go from here? Horror cannot turn it’s back on a century of history stretching back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and it’s representation of “madness”. But nor should it stay rooted in the past, when all the evidence suggests that it’s community comprises of people who find it a positive influence on their mental wellbeing. Perhaps more abstract, symbolic characters such as The Babadook will be hitting screens in the coming years, as well as more thoughtful haunted attractions which don’t rely on stereotypes to scare. Despite their complicated historic relationship, horror has never been in a better position to depict mental health issues in an intelligent and innovative way.