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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Aside

Oh, this is a good one. This is that movie that comes along every once in a while as a reminder that, when it comes to portraying mental illness, there are people who actually do know what they’re talking about. There are, in fact, writers and actors out there who care about this stuff, who are willing to commit to getting it right and create a meaningful piece of art.

Silver Linings Playbook asks the viewer to see the world through the eyes of mental illness, and understand that maybe we’re all just a little more similar than we’re willing to admit.

I’m not sure that I was prepared for how real this movie was. It’s unexpectedly dark. It doesn’t go down easily; it’s tense and uncomfortable. As uplifting as Silver Linings is, it’s also exhausting, and stressful. What David O. Russel presents in this film is an emotionally challenging viewing experience.

The movie’s portrayal of bipolar disorder and depression isn’t perfect, but this is, after all, just a movie, so we have to expect that. Certain elements were added or given more weight for the purpose of facilitating storytelling (Cooper’s character Pat Solitano being so triggered by hearing a song, for example, may be bending the reality of bipolar disorder a little at times), but a literate audience will understand.

Some of the dialogue might be just a little too transparent in its educational intent: a little too much talk about medication here, a little too much unrealistic dialogue about stigma. Don’t get me wrong; from a mental health advocacy, I was thrilled to find these little details in there. From a film viewer’s perspective, there’s something a little off in the writing.

I don’t think that anyone can walk away from this film without a better understanding of what it means to live with mental illness. The characters here aren’t “Other.” They’re us, and we know them and understand them. They show us shades of ourselves that exist in everyone, and to see them is a terrifying but necessary experience.

I’ll have more on Playbook as the Academy Awards ceremony on February 24 approaches.

Mental Health in the Media: Worst of 2012

Content Warning: mentions of suicide

I can’t deny that the major portrayals of mental health in the media have come a long way. We’re seeing accurate, sensitive, and responsible looks at mental health and illness across genres, and it’s thrilling to see the silence broken in such an impactful and visible way.

But we’re not quite there yet. Here, in no particular order, are some of the most misguided and unfortunate portrayals of mental health that have crossed my desk in the past twelve months.

“Are You Happy Now?” – SpongeBob SquarePants

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In this episode of the long-running Nickelodeon cartoon, the cantankerous Squidward copes with feelings resembling depression after realizing that he doesn’t have a “happiest memory.” The episode features two blatant and disturbing suicide sight gags, a far cry from the more subtle humor of the show’s early days. Mocking suicide is never appropriate, and doing so alongside a visual representation, on a children’s show no less, is unconscionable.

“Lids” – Saturday Night Live

And while we’re on that particular subject, SNL committed a similar crime this year when it, too, joked about suicide in a sketch. After a faux-PSY performed a rendition of “Gangnam Style,” host Seth MacFarlane, as a Lids employee, said, “Man, if you’re not in a better mood after that, you’d might as well just hang yourself in the stockroom.”

Bipolar – Chinkie Brown ft. Lil Scrappy

The sultry singer tells a lover goodbye. Why? Because he might “be bipolar… Bye, polar, bye.”

Pitch Perfect

“Kill yourselves,” charming villain-turned-love-interest Bumper Allen says to his female a-ca-mpetitors. And that’s supposed to be a punchline.

that one line in Perks of Being a Wallflower

The film adaptation of Perks was outstanding, and I hate to nitpick here, but there was one moment that was really didn’t sit well with me. You guessed it, it’s Emma Watson’s non sequitur “I love bulimia” line. I don’t understand what a line like that, which makes light of a serious eating disorder with absolutely no explanation (if we later found out, for example, that Watson’s character was actually dealing with bulimia and was using attempted humor to cope), was even doing in a film about youth mental health. It’s been four months, and I’m still waiting for an explanation.

“Sheer Madness” – Raising Hope

Jimmy’s ex-girlfriend is back in town, and he realizes that he likes her more now that she’s off her mood stabilizers. Because she’s a lot more fun.

Jacintha Saldanha death – almost everyone

This one speaks for itself. After the death of Jacintha Saldanha by apparent suicide, countless news agencies speculated that her death was the direct result of the infamous “Royal Radio Prank” of which she was an unsuspecting victim. By pushing blame for her death onto a single isolated incident, the countless tabloid-style stories that ran about Saldanha trivialized both the mental health aspects contributing to the tragedy and the seriousness of suicide. News coverage of suicide tends to mystify the act and depict it as inevitable, rather than offering insight into prevention or showing even the least bit of respect for the life of the deceased.

Lark Vorhies rumors-  People and Entertainment Tonight

In October 2012, when People Magazine published a story based on interviews they conducted with former Saved By the Bell star Lara Vorhies and some people close to her, they took an angle that the actress wasn’t expecting, claiming that Vorhiees had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“Voorhies, 38, would frequently stop mid-sentence and stare off, often mumbling to herself or to others who weren’t there,” the magazine reported in its sensationalist and ill-informed story about Vorhiees’ “sad spiral.”

It got messier when Entertainment Tonight picked up the story, and aired a series of pieces centered around an interview that was, as one online commentator put it, “bitchy.” And I couldn’t agree more. Vorhies was visibly flustered by the interviewer’s accusational tone, irrelevant line of questioning (“Do you hear voices?” she asked, apropos of nothing), and intrusive aim of making the actress out herself.

The exploitation continued when ET had the interview analyzed by a “respected psychiatrist” (with Lark’s permission, they said) who, thankfully, stated that he was unable to speculate on her diagnosis based on the interview.

The story was picked up elsewhere on the web, where some bloggers implied that Vorhies’ idiosyncratic manner of speaking, characterized by misused words and run-on sentences, was proof that her alleged diagnosis was valid.

Honorable Mention: American Horror Story:Asylum

As the National Alliance on Mental illness opined in October, the latest season of American Horror Story, set in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s, just might be too over-the-top to be stigmatizing. Sure, there’s nothing positive about the ongoing ‘trend’ of casting mental healthcare as the setting for horror entertainment, but no one watching the series is likely to mistake its events and characters for mental health reality. The series perpetuates existing stereotypes about mental health and violence, and the nature of psychiatric hospitals, but is produced in such a way that viewers with even an ounce of media literacy will understand that what they’re watching has no connection to the reality of mental health.

That said, the coverage of the show in the entertainment news media was probably more stigmatizing than Asylum itself. Headlines like “New Cast Goes Nuts” and “Back to the Loony Bin” offer some examples of the mental health slurs and clichés that writers on the TV beat chose in discussing the program.