Movies Stigmatize Mentally Ill as Violent and Dangerous

Anti_Stigmatization.jpgThink of popular movies you have seen which portray someone who is mentally ill. Often the fictional character is violent, dangerous and scary. You may not have thought of that portrayal as stigmatizing to the mentally ill, but after viewing a movie with a homicidal maniac or other violent psychotic involved, consider the effect on the stereotypical beliefs about the mentally ill on families of the mentally ill, legislators, or the patient themselves?

Here are some notable examples of movies sensationalizing homicidal maniacs:

As far back as 1909, D. W. Griffith gave the American public The Maniac Cook. “In this film, Griffith introduced the stereotype of the deranged mental patient who is dangerously violent and requires incarceration lest he or she wreak havoc upon society.” (1) In this film, a “cook becmes distressed and starts attacking her employers and is led away by the police. She escapes and first plans to kill her employers in their bed with a kitchen knife, but instead kidnaps the baby and puts it in the oven to roast.” (2)

The sociopath killer entered Academy Award consciousness in 1937 when Robert Montgomery was nominated for Best Actor for his performance in Night Must Fall.

Psycho (1960). A homicidal maniac portrayed by Anthony Perkins kills a woman in the famous bloody shower scene. He is later discovered to be wearing his mother’s clothing and believes he is his dead mother.

Halloween series (1978 and later). A psychotic murderer institutionalized since childhood escapes on a mindless rampage while his doctor chases him through the streets.

Friday the 13th series (1980 and later). Many years after two summer camp counselors are killed at Camp Crystal Lake, the owner decides to reopen, which sparks a series of grisly murders by homicidal maniac “Jason”.

In 1990, Kathy Bates in Misery brought attention to the female homicidal maniac.

Silence of the Lambs (1991) and later the movie Hannibal brought to the screen the character of Hannibal Lecter, the homicidal psychiatrist who killed his victims and, in one case, ate his liver “with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

Summer of Sam (1999), directed by Spike Lee, tells the story of the summer of 1977, “when all of New York City was paralyzed with fear by the Son of Sam, David Berkowitz. The murders are depicted in chilling detail, and there are vivid demonstrations of the protagonist in the throes of his psychosis, howling at the moon and wrecking his room.” (3) There were many other films of this genre, including The Bone Collector (1999) and Primal Fear (1996).

American Psycho (2000). “Christian Bale plays Patrick Bateman, the ultimate yuppie homicidal maniac. The film never resolves whether the character is actually committing the gruesome murders or whether they exist solely in his imagination. In any event, the title and the message are that psychosis is equivalent to homicidal mania.” (4)

Other films portraying dangerous and violent mentally ill are The Boston Strangler (1968); Confessions of a Serial Killer (1987); Copycat (1995); Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990) and Henry, Part 2 (1996); Kalifornia (1993); Kiss the Girls (1997); Natural Born Killers (1994); Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974); Basket Case (1982); Disturbed (1990); The Howling (1981); Maniac Cops (1988); Clean, Shaven (1993); and Butterfly Kiss (1994).

Movies portraying fearsome and violent mentally ill characters obviously influence peoples’ perceptions of the mentally ill. But are these movies portraying reality? Are the mentally ill really dangerous and violent? Sometimes the answer is “yes”, but this is true only in a small number of cases.

“In actuality (with certain exceptions, e.g., substance-induced psychoses), individuals with mental disorders are not more likely to commit violent crimes than is the general population.” (5) The fact is, according to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, statistically, people with mental illness are more often the victims of crime than its perpetrators and are no more violent than people who do not have mental illness. People “diagnosed with mental illnesses are, by far, not the most violent group in American society, and, in fact, according to the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, are responsible for no more than 3% of the violence in the United States.” (6)

It is true that a mentally ill patient will act out in terrifying ways in certain situations. Examples of this are Jeffrey Dahmer, Dennis Nilson and other serial killers. It is the unusual cases like these which receive the most publicity. This sensationalism, combined with other factors such as the stigmatization of the mentally ill resulting from portrayals of dangerous and violent mentally ill people in films, results in injustice and prejudice to the great majority of the non-violent mentally ill.

Stigmatization of people with mental disorders has persisted throughout history, but the continuing portrayal of the violent mentally ill in movies is a huge contributor to stigmatization today. Such distorted and formalistic images of the “homicidal maniac” impoverish the lives of people diagnosed with mental illness, who are overwhelmingly non-violent. The effect of such stereotypes is to create a pariah status of the mentally ill in a world made increasingly hostile to them.


Stigma Continues in Hollywood
By Steven H. Hyler, M.D.
Psychiatric Times June 2003 Vol. XX Issue 6

Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General
Office of the Surgeon General, Health and Human Services

Stereotyping Mental Illness
by Ron Schraiber, M.A.