Mama (2013): Are We Literally Afraid of Mental Illness?

Trigger Warning: Non-graphic references to suicide and acts of violence, no triggering images

Spoilers Lie Within

I should preface this by saying that Mama was absolutely terrifying, and one of the least terrible horror films I’ve seen in years. And I don’t say that lightly.

When two young girls with a troubled past are left in the care of Annabel (Jessica Chastain), she quickly becomes concerned that supernatural elements are at play.

As much as I enjoyed the jumping-from-my-seat experience of watching Mama, there was a naggingly distracting flaw in the story that I simply can’t ignore, and that I’ve seen countless times before. It was the choice to add mental illness as an element of the horror, without any real reason to do so.

Let me break it down for you: when a man’s business fails, he kills his estranged wife and two professional partners, and takes his two young daughters away from their destroyed home environment, ending up at an abandoned cabin. He’s killed by a mysterious specter of some sort, leaving his daughters alone and orphaned.

They’re found five years later, and have clearly suffered from the lack of social interaction. It’s quickly discovered that they’re talking to an unidentified figure known as Mama. She sings to them, comforts them, and loves them.

So, it turns out that Mama is the ghost (or something similar) of a woman who, after escaping a psychiatric hospital, murdered a nun and jumped from a high cliff with her baby in her arms. She has spent over a century searching for her baby’s body.

My problem is this: did we need to know that Mama was a woman who was, in her lifetime, perceived to have mental illness? The story could have been told without that element. For example, maybe Mama was a woman who lost her child in a storm and continues to search for him out of guilt. Maybe Mama and her baby died together of disease. Mama’s death isn’t a major plot element, and there’s no reason it couldn’t have been changed to prevent a needless perpetuating of stereotypes about people with mental illness.

Mama is portrayed as violent, unattractive, incapable of speech, and irrational in her behavior. These are all characteristics that make perfect sense applied to a horror film character, but are extremely problematic in a media portrayal of mental illness.

Like I said, it’s not the first time we’ve seen this. Mental illness is all too often a go-to in the horror genre. It’s so common that it’s easy not to question its presence when it does show up, and to forget the actual implications of what’s happening.

I can’t stress enough that seemingly innocent choices by the media don’t happen in a vacuum. Tacking mental illness onto the back story of a horror character without any other explanation or details maintains the one-dimensional perception that many have about mental health.

In a way, the proliferation of references to mental illness in the horror genre may be an indication that we fear mental illness on a very different level than we do physical illness. We fear the unknown, we fear the struggles of the future, and we fear that which is difficult to control. Mental illness represents all three of these, so it’s no surprise that it’s so long stood as a symbol of fear.

But “not surprising” does not mean “acceptable.” Ending the stigma around mental health will mean ensuring that fear is no longer considered the default, “natural” reaction to mental illness.

What do you think? Why do we see so many references to mental illness in horror films, and is it really that significant?

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