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Horror and Schizophrenia

The inspiration for the following was an old newsgroup posting about the 2001 film FRAILTY. The poster in question (whose moniker I’ve forgotten) was outraged by the film, about an apparent nut (Matthew McConaughey) recounting how he came to murder people he believed were “demons.” Much of the movie takes the form of an extended flashback showing how McConaughey was inculcated in this belief by his religious nut father (Bill Paxton); eventually, however, we learn that McConaughey’s demons are far more real than was initially apparent. It was that latter assertion that so fired up the aforementioned newsgroup poster, who raged that the film, and by extension “Hollywood,” affirmed the delusions of madmen.

     The idea of a horror story presented as an extended psychotic fantasy is nothing new. It can even be called a cliché, and with good reason: horror and psychosis have always made for agreeable bedfellows. It’s a fact that schizophrenics the world over tend to incorporate horror iconography--evil spells, demonic possession, ghostly visitations--into their delusions, just as horror writers and filmmakers have long used madness as grist for their fiction.

     This is a tradition that stretches back to some of the earliest-ever examples of horror literature and film. Take Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” whose unnamed narrator attempts throughout the tale to convince us of his sanity, although by the end, when the narrator is moved to confess to a murder because he can’t get the sound of the dead man’s beating heart out of his head, it’s clear this person is anything but sane.

     Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla” from 1887 is related in the form of a diary by an individual who finds an alien consciousness controlling his actions, while constantly proclaiming (falsely?) that he’s not insane. See also Charles Willeford’s 1963 collection THE MACHINE IN WARD ELEVEN, a six story anthology consisting of accounts of madness lurking in the hearts and minds of several seemingly mild mannered protagonists, and John Antoine Nau’s “Horla”-like ENEMY FORCE (1902), whose incarcerated protagonist tells us he’s possessed by an extraterrestrial entity that makes him do terrible things--or so he claims.

     In the film world there’s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI from 1920, often cited as the world’s first true horror film. CALIGARI is noteworthy for its artfully distorted visuals that are explained by the ending, in which we learn that the protagonist is a delusional mental patient (the film, incidentally, is credited with introducing the twist ending). Similarly minded shock fests include PSYCHO (1960), which lacks CALIGARI’S expressionistic décor but is not dissimilar in its presentation of a series of murders committed by a character who turns out to be a projection of a psychotic mind, and SHUTTER ISLAND (2010), which with its insane asylum setting and hallucinogenic visuals is practically a remake of CALIGARI.

     But getting back to Mr. Anonymous Newsgroup Poster, we come to a slightly different type of fictional madness. The aforementioned FRAILTY, you’ll recall, actually had a double twist ending that confirmed the protagonist’s beliefs about demons in human form. It was that second twist that really got the poster’s panties in a bunch, positing as it did that our reality was as skewed as that of the apparently deranged protagonist.

     At the risk of further upsetting our newsgroup friend I’ll report that, once again, this is hardly a novel conceit. In fact, the gambit of leading the reader/viewer to believe a story’s proceedings are schizophrenic hallucinations only to eventually reveal otherwise is nearly as old as the first-person psycho fests mentioned above.

     See H.P. Lovecraft’s 1932 tale “Dreams in the Witch-House,” about an obsessed man whose seemingly insane claims of inter-dimensional time travel and dream monsters are given credence when the titular house is examined years later. There’s also T.E.D. Klein’s “Nadelman’s God,” whose buttoned-down protagonist discovers that an apparently made up deity he invoked as a teenager is in fact all too real, and Harlan Ellison’s MEFISTO IN ONYX, a first person account of telepathy and serial murder that’s nearly as twisty as FRAILTY. And we mustn’t forget the 2007 film BUG, with its portrayal of a traumatized couple literally driven mad by rampant paranoia which, the film continually hints, may not be entirely unjustified.

     There are of course far more examples of horror fiction and film that would appear to validate the delusions of schizophrenics. In fact, the list can be extended far beyond the likes of FRAILTY and “Dreams in the Witch House” to encompass every supernatural-tinged account. To repeat what I wrote earlier: schizophrenics the world over incorporate horror iconography into their delusions, meaning everything from WUTHERING HEIGHTS to THE CONJURING can be said to validate their psychosis.

     But what about those of us who watch and/or read this stuff? Could it be that we identify a little too closely with the psychotic viewpoints expressed in so many horror tales? Or is our love of such fare a sign of mental stability, proving that we’re able to leave the madness on the page/screen? In the case of our newsgroup poster friend I strongly believe option number one is accurate--truly, the man doth protest too much! As for myself, I lean toward the second option, but cannot in all honesty entirely rule out the first.

     How about you?

 

--3/27/14 

     

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