Horror has always been a genre that rests heavily on its tropes, from the suspicious stranger to the abandoned cabin in the woods. Unfortunately, it has also at times relied on a toxic trope that can damage more than it entertains: that of the mentally ill psychopath.
I’m currently crowdfunding the anthology Out of the Darkness with Unsung Stories, a book that aims to raise awareness of mental health issues within the horror and fantasy communities, as well as raising funds for charity Together for Mental Wellbeing. We have an impressive lineup for the book – Alison Moore, Jenn Ashworth, Tim Major, Aliya Whiteley and Simon Bestwick, to name just a few – but one of the things that several of the writers struggled with was how to present mental illness and mental health issues in anything other than a negative light. The horror trope has become so deep-seated that it’s hard to avoid.
I’m pleased to say that all sixteen contributors have found ways to engage with mental health in a more positive way – the light at the end of the tunnel, or as it says in our Kickstarter campaign, ‘the healing that comes after’. That doesn’t mean the stories have put a positive spin on mental illness, however, and it’s an important distinction to make. For many people suffering from mental health issues, there is no easy answer, no behaviour or pill that will suddenly make everything alright. It’s a struggle, and for some, a struggle without end. But what our contributors have managed to do is show their characters coping with, and living with, their problems, rather than succumbing to them. For someone living with depression or anxiety, just getting through another week can be a victory.
It’s unreasonable to expect that every horror story will fit this mould. After all, it’s in the genre’s nature that bad things will happen, and often to good people. Horror thrives on the reader’s fears and anxieties, and it has to play with those to work effectively; as soon as you start to pull some punches, you blunt Freddy’s blades. It’s not unreasonable to expect the horror writer to have a responsibility towards his reader, however – many of whom, remember, will suffer from mental health issues themselves – and be sensitive to the way they depict mental illness. To use a well-worn phrase, it’s about being part of the solution, not part of the problem.
One of the most obvious – and most often used – examples of the mentally ill character as psychopath is, of course, Psycho. Hitchcock’s movie has practically become the blueprint for a certain type of horror narrative, and the depiction of Norman Bates is both memorable and horrifying. Rather than re-tread the same old arguments, though, I’d like to consider a novel that was published in the same year that Psycho was released: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
While not a horror novel, Mockingbird plays with some of the horror tropes, in the same way that it borrows heavily from crime fiction. In particular, reclusive neighbour Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley is the typical suburban bogeyman, a stranger who doesn’t fit in – and therefore, according to the trope, must be dangerous. Without giving too much away, Lee flips this trope around, for it’s Boo who rescues Jem and Scout later in the novel. It’s telling that Scout closes the novel by imagining what Boo Radley’s life must be like – a call for empathy that’s as relevant now as it was in 1960.
I’d like to suggest that To Kill a Mockingbird, with its flipping of the familiar trope and its empathetic ending, offers a new template for fiction dealing with mental illness – one that’s more constructive and less damaging than that offered by Psycho. Nobody has ‘cured’ Boo Radley, his life hasn’t suddenly turned up roses, but the story allows us to understand him in a way that Psycho doesn’t. Indeed, in sympathizing with him, I’m suggest that the reader experiences a deeper and more lasting form of horror: the horror that comes with realising how truly sad and damaged someone else can be.
It’s this kind of melancholy horror that I tried to achieve in my own collection, Only the Broken Remain, and it’s present in most of the stories in Out of the Darkness too. Not only is it a more responsible approach to writing about mental illness, especially when the readers themselves may be facing mental health problems, but it also tends to have a more lasting resonance. Beyond the jump scares and axe murders, there aren’t many places to go with the traditional psycho-killer narrative. There’s a reason that To Kill a Mockingbird has become a modern classic: empathy has the power to touch us on a much deeper level.
If any of this speaks to you, then I’d encourage you to check out and support our Kickstarter campaign for Out of the Darkness. Within its pages you’ll find a host of different ways to depict mental health issues in horror – but with an eye on writing responsibly as well as strong storytelling. Being a part of the solution, not the problem.
If you haven’t already done so, also take a look at Dave Jeffery’s excellent article ‘Brands That Serve to De-Humanise and Isolate’ on the Ginger Nuts of Horror website, and the Horror Writers’ Association’s Mental Health Awareness initiative. By reading around the subject and educating yourself on the facts about mental illness, it’s possible to create stories that not only thrill and horrify, but also show a way out of the darkness.
Out of the Darkness is crowdfunding now on Kickstarter. Featuring brand new stories by Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore, Tim Major, Aliya Whiteley, Simon Bestwick, Verity Holloway, Malcolm Devlin and many more, it aims to raise awareness and funds for mental health charity Together for Mental Wellbeing. The crowdfunding campaign closes on 8 April.