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Misrepresentation of mental illness in cinema is a problem, but what’s the solution?

The psychopath has been an archetypal character since cinema began and seems to only get more popular as time goes on. We have all grown used to these characters and the tropes of thriller or horror films, increasingly familiar with the real figures who inspired them thanks to the proliferation of true crime. But the most well-known movie “psychopaths” are inaccurate and even irresponsible takes on real stories and people, often contributing to the stigmatisation of mental illness. More often than not, these villains exhibit characteristics of other mental illnesses, which serves only to create negative stereotypes of people with these very real struggles.  

Firstly, most “classic” horror psychopaths are inspired by Ed Gein: Leatherface, Buffalo Bill, Norman Bates, and all the film versions directly attempting to tell Ed Gein’s story. There is one problem here - Ed Gein wasn’t a psychopath. He did terrible things, including murdering two innocent women, but not because he was a psychopath. The real Ed Gein was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was abused and neglected by his parents, culminating in his vile actions. Most schizophrenics don’t harm others and are more likely to be victims of crimes than criminals themselves. Of course, all the characters I have mentioned were labelled psychopathic and copied Gein’s crimes to justify this label. Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill make suits out of their female victims, one due to an unhealthy relationship with his mother. The Gein house has been recreated in film numerous times, from House of 1000 Corpses to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but the case is exaggerated, made even more bizarre, gruesome, and bloody.  

Of course, Gein’s mental illness cannot be used to defend his actions, but the point is that the film industry has latched onto this case more firmly than those of true psychopaths, such as Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer, and instead has created a harmful narrative around psychosis, mania, and schizophrenia. Even Joker, which was undeniably a popular film rather than a cheap horror flick, centres on Arthur Fleck’s transformation into the psychopathic, manic Joker due to his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia. This is an unrealistic narrative, even without Batman swooping in, and incredibly harmful. Schizophrenia and other mental illnesses do not cause psychopathy. 

Dissociative identity disorder is even blamed in numerous movies, such as Identity and Split, where the main character has a hidden psychopath inside, despite the fact this is not considered to be a feature of DID or psychopathy. Even Patrick Bateman from American Psycho doesn’t fit the definition of a psychopath, sociopath, or someone with antisocial personality disorder. A villain and a criminal, yes, but not an actual psychopath. The character is likely narcissistic and mentally ill, but his hallucinations and extreme emotions don’t point to the psychopathy suggested by the title, but instead again perpetuate the false notion that psychosis, mania, or hallucinations are signs of psychopathy.  

In fact, characters who aren’t often even being sold as psychopaths are more accurate to the actual definition than characters in films such as Psycho. James Bond, for example, has no issue using people to benefit himself and doesn’t bat an eyelid when faced with death or murder. Soldiers, CEOs, stockbrokers, surgeons, and lawyers are statistically more likely to be psychopaths than your friend who’s in therapy. Think Jordan Belfort from The Wolf of Wall Street, or Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas, or even Begbie from Trainspotting. These characters use others for their own enjoyment or benefit, show no remorse for their actions, and are excellently written psychopaths with no mention of mental illness. 

Even Disney films do a better job of it, what with the wicked stepmothers and cold-hearted villains - although this brings up a whole new problem. Just thinking of the manipulative femme fatale archetype could conjure up a variety of sexy sociopaths, going way back in the history of film. Apparently, every female psychopath is much more sex-crazed and attractive than their male counterparts. Lisa in Girl, Interrupted or Catherine in Basic Instinct immediately come to mind, although these are written more accurately than most of the male characters I mentioned above. Two of the best (male) movie psychopaths I can think of are Javier Bardem’s characters in Skyfall and No Country for Old Men, and Alex in A Clockwork Orange, all of which beat Joker’s idea of a psychopath by a long shot.  

So many of us find these stories fascinating. Our morbid curiosity and the dramatic, sensationalised, psychopathic film villains we love to hate are a match made in Hollywood heaven. But not all psychopaths are serial killers, and not all psychopaths (very few, in fact) have schizophrenia or other heavily stigmatised mental illnesses. And even more certainly, people with mental illnesses are not in any way more likely to be psychopaths or serial killers. Hollywood has conflated our idea of what schizophrenia, psychopathy, PTSD, and other illnesses actually are for the entertainment of the masses, but it is crucial we are aware of the damage this does. It is also crucial to note that few of these filmmakers appear to have given more than five minutes to the consideration of what psychopathy, or any similar disorder, actually is.  


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