The Horror! Misrepresentations of Mental Illness in Horror Films

The Video Essay:

Stigma On Screen

Visibility in film is important. In contemporary culture influenced by films and other media, finding validation of identity is crucial. However, this visibility is often harmful to those diagnosed with a mental illness.

Charles Derry coined the term “horror-of-personality” which analyzes the form of the monster-with-psychosis (Derry 22). The common element linking horror antagonists is a history of mental illness. Using madness as the reason for a character’s violent behaviour is a popular device in the genre.

While incredibly iconic, Halloween (2007) is equally as stigmatizing. Rob Zombie’s reimagining of the original slasher film attempts to explain Myers’ violence through an extensive backstory of childhood abuse. He is given an identity to sympathize with: perhaps he is not evil but rather driven by trauma.  However, the film misrepresents the mentally ill as destructive through iconography, technical codes, and thematic elements of the genre that conceal social reality and perpetuate the stigma around mental health for entertainment. The implications of using mental illness as an explanation for violent behaviour and innate “evil” in man miseducates viewers and keeps them afraid.

While many are aware of mental illnesses, not all of them are educated on the degree of them. This stigma generates a collective public assumption that violent people have psychological issues. Still, this approach undermines the work of correcting misconceptions around mental health as well as demonstrates how media can grossly misinform viewers.

My video essay analyzes technical codes and iconography of horror films, inclusive of masks, violence, and mental illness as a spectacle in the news. I also investigate obscurity and exposure paralleling terror and identification, and the psychology behind the fear of mental illness and innate “evil” in man to critique horror films as influential producers of information whose miseducation is critical for visibility.

Process of Creation

The video essay creation was laborious work as expected. After formulating a research question I watched the slasher movie Halloween (2007) and took notes on technical and thematic elements that dramatized or misrepresented mental illness. Categorizing my findings based on camera angles, iconography, and physical and behavioural attributes of the antagonist Michael Myers, I began researching the generalities of the horror genre and the

Fig 1. Screenshot of Michael Myers unmasked taken by Alexandrea Fiorante from Rob Zombie’s horror movie Halloween ©2007 Dimension Films.

groupings. I investigated further into techniques of technical code and theme in generating fear, the use of masks and weapons as iconography for fear, violence, and the spectacle, and theories of shock-value in respects to cinema and consumerism. After finding more information among these findings, I watched Halloween (2007) a second time to collect time-stamps for my video and use my enhanced knowledge to analyze scenes for takeaways I may have missed. In-between research I met with my Professor for guidance and help to narrow my scope.  Script building was time-consuming but necessary to formulate a dialogue and to situate clip time-stamps for a cohesive final product.

The Form

Using a film essay was the best fit in undertaking a film analysis. The visual and auditory elements of this form lent themselves similarly to film as a mode of sensory entertainment. Video essays, like movies, communicate ideas and allow both audiences and me to compare and contrast the influence of cinematic tropes on perspective.

The form is likely to appeal to audiences who enjoy “screens,” rendering it an effective mode of engagement. Anne Friedberg’s theory of “the screen” and its immersive qualities from darkness and a singular light to simulate isolation and create a “new reality” reflects my ideas about video essays and media as important in guiding beliefs. I wanted to show in which ways horror’s dramatized representation of the mental health community as “psychotic killers” can be hindering to their recovery, and how easily viewers accept these portrayals by involving them through an active visual engagement.

Still, a video is easily disseminated online through Youtube, websites, news channels etc., As the modern man had become impatient and demands information quickly, video essays are easily accessible, widely circulated, and feeds information in a less-intimidating manner than an academic paper.

Cultural, Historical, and Intellectual Context


Iconography, as discussed by Erwin Panofsky, suggests that objects have cultural meaning beyond the work in which they appear through their repetition of use in other texts and media (Grant 11). The “masked killer” is a popular archetypal character in horror infused with symbolic meaning. Michael Myers, like Jason Voorhees and Leather Face, are easily recognizable characters known by their masks and their ambiguity to produce fear. Likewise, the iconography of weapons in horror are tied to the killers who inflict the pain: the mentally ill.  Presenting a mentally ill person as a dangerous “monster” covered by a mask conceals and distorts the reality of the mental health community by turning its victims into something inhuman and incomprehensible for emotional reaction for entertainment’s sake.

Fig 2. Screenshot of Michael Myers masked taken by Alexandrea Fiorante from Rob Zombie’s horror movie Halloween ©2007 Dimension Films.

Determining a person’s mental state based on their appearance is difficult. However, “masking” suggests a physical change due to the “otherness” of the character. The iconography is understood to hide deformities and distances the viewer from identifying with the character (Wahl).

Masked Killers

I explore the “concealed” versus “exposed” binary of masking in the first hour of the film where Myers’ identity is shown. While his unmasking invites facial recognition to viewers who can sympathize with his “human” face, donning the mask dehumanizes him. This binary reflects the antagonist’s identity and insanity in conjunction with his violent behaviour.

The binary in conjunction with violence uncovers his masking to be motivated by immortal behaviour. It becomes a question of his sanity as he wears it to hide his negative personality. Importantly, exposing his face in-between acts of violence allows viewers to recognize themselves there. His face hides no deformities and looks “human” which reflects the spreading concern of possible innate insanity and violence in man (figure 1).  Myers’ revealing that he “likes the mask because it hides his ugliness” implies that mental abnormalities manifest physically and can be “masked.” The contradiction appears in giving the audience knowledge of mental illness but still using horror’s iconography as a physical difference to create the “other” (figure 2).

Consequently, viewers are willing to accept psychosis as his drive to murder to “alleviate their own fears” rather than understand him as someone who seemed “normal” but was not (Derry 23). The audience needs to fear the villain and past trauma may communicate why Myers’ should be seen as dangerous.

Violence & Film Persuasion

A misconception of the mentally ill is that they are violent, a recycled trope through horror’s serial killer archetypes. I reinstate that weapons are important icons in horror tied to killers provoked by mental illness. I examine Halloween in respects to Julian Hanich’s theory of “suggested horror”: an aesthetic strategy that relies on imagining intimidating violence in the placement of withheld visions, which lends itself to the audience’s imagining the horror behind the mask (figure 2) (Hanich 109). Inline with symbolic iconography and “masking,” I render Myers’ hidden identity and abnormal behaviour before any violence as problematic to representation. In the investigation of violence, I compare the high statistics of murders done by the mentally ill in horror films against factual statistics of mental illness and violence that instead show the majority as nonviolent. This treatment explores the exaggeration of behaviour in horror films necessary to provoke fear.

I close the essay with an explanation of why the film is so persuading. In respects to the intent of “body genres” to evoke emotional responses, and Anne Friedberg’s discussion on the immersive quality of cinema’s apparatus, I theorize how viewers accept these “new realities” albeit dramatized and stigmatizing.


Movies about mentally ill antagonists are intended to provoke fear and dramatic effect on audience engagement. While the notion of being “born evil” has changed through an implementation of backstories, psychological issues still stand as the explanation for murderous behaviour. These distorted perceptions are used to profit off, and, so long as these misconceptions about mental illness are represented in film, the violent, mentally-unbalanced villain will continue to be a genre favourite.

Images in this online publication are either in the public domain or are being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education. 

Works Cited

Bullins, Jeffrey. “Evil or Misunderstood: Depictions of Mental Illness in Horror Films.” Academia, 2014,

Craven, Wes. Nightmare on Elm Street. New Line Cinema, 1984.

Craven, Wes. Scream. Woods Entertainment, 1996.

Derry, Charles. Dark Dreams 2.0: a Psychological History of the Modern Horror Film from the 1950s to the 21st Century. McFarland, 2009.

“Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder).” Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, 2016,

Friedberg, Anne. “The Screen.” The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft. MIT Press, 2009

Fiorante, Alexandrea. “Unmasked,” Halloween ©2007 Dimension Films.

Fiorante, Alexandrea. “Masked,” Halloween ©2007 Dimension Films.

Grant, Barry Keith. Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology. Wallflower, 2011.

Hanich, Julian. Cinematic Emotion in Horror Films and Thrillers: The Aesthetic Paradox of Pleasurable Fear. Routledge, 2011.

Mancini, Rob, director. Child’s Play. United Artists, 1988.

Miller, Victor. Friday The 13th. New Line Cinema, 1980.

Wahl, Otto F. Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness. Rutgers University Press, 2006.

Wedding, Danny. Movies and Mental Illness: Using Films to Understand Psychopathology. Hogrefe Pub, 2014.

Zombie, Rob, director. Halloween. Dimension Films, 2007.

Images in this online publication are either in the public domain or are being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.