Tonight, I went to see The Visit with my mom. Watching horror movies together is one of our favorite pastimes. I cringe in fear and bury my face in her shoulder, peeking through my fingers as she narrates the action to me. Our close quarters in the movie theater seats allowed me to scream directly into her ear when the antagonists jumped out from behind closed doors.
Basically, the movie was about two kids who go to visit their estranged grandparents. The grandparents volunteer as counselors at a local mental hospital. Strange events occur: Grandpa attacks a man who he believes is watching him; Grandma runs around naked and claws at closed doors; Grandpa thinks he’s going to a costume party and dons a tuxedo; there are a whole lot of soiled adult diapers in a pile in the barn. Midway through the movie, it’s revealed that the couple with whom the children are staying are not in fact their grandparents. Rather, they are patients of the grandparents who escaped from the mental hospital, killed the real grandparents, and are now after the kids.
I have two criticisms of this plot line. First of all, I feel that blaming strange behavior on “craziness” is an easy way out. There are countless movies where “crazy” people are the antagonists. It Follows, The Uninvited, and Session Nine come to mind. Has everything in the horror genre already been done? Are a slasher’s only driving forces insanity or demonic possession? Surely not.
Regardless of the imaginations of horror movie screenwriters, my main objection to “crazy” killers in movies is the misguided portrayal of mental illness. I’ve been pretty open on this blog, but one thing I have yet to write about is my experience with psychosis.
Psychosis has two main parts: hallucinations and delusions. In my case, hallucinations are visual, auditory, and tactile, meaning I see, hear, and feel things that are not there. Delusions are false beliefs that persist despite evidence that they are not true. Psychopathy, on the other hand, is the condition of having no empathy for others, which could lead to committing violent crimes. Because both terms start with the prefix “psycho,” they are often jumbled together, creating the image of the “psycho” killer whose lack of touch with reality drives them to violence.
A quick Google search for “insane person” produces hundreds of images like this: people screaming, making comical faces, and restrained by straight jackets. It’s funny, isn’t it? The world is filled with “crazies” laughing at nothing and talking to their imaginary friends.
On the other hand, a search for “psycho” pulls up images of dangerous people wielding knives and covered in blood. Most of them are smiling. That’s what “crazy” people do, right? They must be emotionless masochists who take joy in harming others.
What do these people have in common? They hear voices. They believe things that are not true. Here’s another person who shares those characteristics. It’s me. I hear voices. I have delusions. I do strange things. I once wrapped my fingers in “magic tape” every day for a month to prevent someone from stalking me. I often slap myself in the face trying to kill bugs that only I can see and feel. I talk to a snake who lives inside my body. And yes, I sometimes hear voices telling me to harm people or animals. That does not mean I am dangerous. My working diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder (a combination of bipolar and psychotic symptoms) has not robbed me of free will or common sense. I am slightly different from many people on the schizophrenic spectrum in that I can differentiate between reality and psychosis. When I slap at a bug that’s crawling up my arm and there is no insect carcass stuck to my palm, I have the insight to realize, “I’m hallucinating. There was no bug there.” Some people have this insight; others lack it. This disorder does not make me dangerous or violent. Mostly, it makes me afraid. A common thing for the voices (which I’ve nicknamed Henry) to tell me is, “Your dad is dead because you don’t love him enough.” I then have to call my dad and make sure he’s still alive. When he reassures me that he’s fine, I sometimes become suspicious that the man on the phone is working for my perceived stalker and is only pretending to be my dad. Henry once told me that my best friend had taken a drug that liquefied his organs and that he was going down the drain in his shower. I knew this was unlikely, but the distress persisted and I had to check on him. Psychosis has me half-believing every thought that comes into my head, no matter how unusual or unlikely.
When I see a psychotic killer in a movie, I wonder, is this how society perceives me? Has my psychotic diagnosis reduced me to a list of symptoms, to a “danger to myself or others?” No, it hasn’t. I am a person with schizoaffective disorder. I am also a person who loves pizza. That does not mean all I do is eat pizza and think about eating pizza. Nor does it mean that my life is consumed by psychosis and I am hallucinating every moment of every day. Having schizoaffective disorder has been a huge challenge for me. It has made me question every facet of the reality I once took for granted. It has made the world a much scarier place. I feel guilty for things I never did, and worried about things that will never happen. But schizoaffective disorder will not rob me of the things that truly define me: my creativity, my love of learning, my sense of humor, and my loyalty to my friends and family.
I do not believe that everyone with psychosis has the potential to be an ax murderer. People with psychosis are just that: people. We experience the world differently than most, and it can be challenging at best, debilitating at worst. But don’t, for one second, believe that we are what you see in the movies. We are individuals just like you. We are your neighbors, your children, your classmates, your coworkers, and your parents. We are worthy of respect, love, and care just like anyone else. Having psychosis does not automatically make me a crazed killer. It makes me a person who faces different challenges than most people. The world needs fewer “crazy” killers in movies and more compassion and understanding on the subject of mental illness.
For more information on the difference between psychosis and psychopathy, check out this article.