Key Learning Points So Far:
The portrayal of mental illness by writers/creators affects stigma. Stigma leads to negative treatment once individual is identified (‘marked’) as mentally unwell.
Mental illness is difficult to define but is socio-culturally determined. Cultural context is important when depicting a character as mentally ill. There should be no drug/alcohol intoxication or organic illness. Behaviour/experience also needs to be sustained in order to attribute it to mental illness.
The assessment of mental illness should draw information from as many sources as possible (self, others, mental health workers), and should consider a change from the baseline.
Examination of Buffy s6ep17 shows superficial attendance to reality of mental illness.
Electro-convulsive Therapy (ECT) has a troubled history, but is both safe and effective.
Be sensitive. Suicide should not be a punchline or plot device. Remember that what you write affects real people with real lives. The suicide of Morpheus in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was nuanced.
Trigger Warning: Up to 1 in 4 people can be affected by mental illness so if any of the topics discussed here affect you contact your health professional (General Practitioner in the UK).
Scope: This is for creators of speculative fiction. The idea is to improve depiction of the mentally ill in narratives like film, books, music videos etc. It is just a primer, therefore it will not go into too much detail.
Spoiler Alert: Here there be spoilers. Deal with it. I will try not to reference anything currently showing in cinemas, but I make no promises.
Part 7: ‘Hush’ and the Freakshow
For the final part of this primer we’ll talk about Buffy again. ‘Hush’ is the episode 10 of season 4.
Before we get to this a few points about the freakshow tradition by way of Bedlam.
There was a guy called Tom Rakewell who ended up in the notorious Bethlem Hospital a.k.a Bedlam. Except that’s not true. Rakewell never existed, but he was a satirical invention of William Hogarth who painted a series of depictions titled ‘A Rake’s Progress’ in 1735. Plate number 8 is Tom Rakewell ends up in the Bethlehem Hospital Madhouse
I’m not going to go into the details of very clear poor care. One particular touch is the inmate carving the name of Betty Careless, a famous sex worker, on a step, perhaps an allusion to neuro-syphillis (General Paralysis of the Insane). What I would really like to draw your attention to is the two high class ladies incongruously placed. Note how the light falls on them in the painting. Hogarth wanted us to see them in particular. They were there to entertain themselves watching the suffering of the mentally ill. This was very common. The well-to-do would go to asylums and people with mental illness would be put on display.
The treatment of mental illness moved in seizures and spurts towards morality, but the use of psychiatric disorder as amusement continued and survives to this very day, though transmogrified into tropes such as the ‘psycho-killer’. Historical freak shows such as those promoted by P.T Barnum in the 1800s used mostly physical deformity as a form of entertainment, but shows also included oddly-behaved people who may have been mentally ill. They key feature is the use of physical or mental abnormality as exhibition.
Which brings us back to ‘Hush’.
The monsters of the week are the Gentlemen.
The rhyme about them goes Can’t even shout, can’t even cry, The Gentlemen are coming by. They arrive in a town, steal all the voices, then come at night to carve out hearts from seven people.
The horror of this episode is about failed anaesthesia. If you consider the semiotics, the Gentlemen are doctors (they wear suits, they use scalpels, they have doctors bags, they keep their extracted hearts in specimen jars, they congratulate themselves after successful heart extraction, and come across as genteel). The victims are unable to cry out, which would be the normal way to express pain or to indicate to the doctor or dentist that your flesh is not numb. It’s a great episode and one of my personal favourites. So what’s the problem?
The assistants, familiars, servants, minions or whatever. They aren’t even named in the nursery rhyme or the episode. They do not matter. They are unnamed, and hence unimportant. While the Gentlemen are doctors the symbolism of these minions screams psycho-killer or mental patient.
They wear strait jackets, their faces are bandaged from psychosurgery, they act brainless, their crouched, almost simian movements and the weird jerky hand movements evokes the extreme side-effects of antipsychotics or some of the problems of Huntington’s Chorea. Interesting side note: the shirts used by the Gentlemen are not contemporary. They would have been used when asylums were around. These minions are made to seem more pathetic by the comparison with the Gentlemen who have graceful movements and who glide about a foot above the ground.
This is the essence of freak show: they are there to entertain by virtue of being mentally ill. The message to your subconscious is the mentally ill do not matter.
What I hope to do (or to have done) is inject some curiosity about the facts of mental illness. Most media representations are largely inaccurate. As writers, artists, film makers or creators of any kind do not shy away from the uncomfortable truth, but find it. You may discover that real mental illness is not sensational, but you must make an effort because with time what you write has the potential to change the experience of real people.
At least, that’s my hope.
(P.S. I know I’m going to regret this, but if you’re creating something and you need an opinion on the way you have portrayed mental illness feel free to contact me. I don’t charge a fee and it all leads to a reduction in stigma.)