How 7 Popular Horror Movies Portray Mental Health


Every Halloween season, people peek through their fingers to watch the most frightening horror flicks. Many of these movies center on the freakishly paranormal, the stuff too spooky to think about during everyday life. But when the main villain is human, these movies often rely on exaggerated mental illness symptoms as shorthand for “evil.”

These portrayals are hardly flattering. Horror movies often demonize those with mental and behavioral health challenges, making people with mental illness appear threatening and dangerous to everyone around them. Media misrepresentation can even prevent people from seeking mental health help.

Mental health does not have to be scary at all, and it’s important to differentiate between fictional portrayals of these serious illnesses and the real thing. St. Hope Foundation offers an array of mental and behavioral health services for people seeking treatment for mental disorders. Once a person learns how to properly manage mental and behavioral health, they can lead a perfectly happy and productive life.

Mental Health in Film

Behavioral health is covered in most movie genres, particularly horror, drama and comedy. Yet, horror movies contribute something different to the mental health discussion than all other genres of film.

Unlike drama (e.g., What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), the dialogue in horrors tends to be limited, with much of the screen time spent building atmosphere and tension. And unlike comedy, there is no lighthearted or self-deprecating relief (e.g., What About Bob?, The Fisher King, Little Miss Sunshine).

So, how is mental health portrayed in horror movies? Through violence, usually, even though people with mental health problems are statistically no more violent than the average person. Linking violence to mental disorders like this can misinform both avid horror fans and casual viewers.

That being said, the following seven classic films are still worth watching. It can be helpful to see how they talk about mental and behavioral health in order to separate medical fact from Hollywood fiction.

Psycho (1960)

As the title hints, one of the main characters in Psycho has a mental illness, most likely Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which was brought on by a previous trauma. Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most influential horror directors. This film’s well-known portrayal of mental illness might help explain why so many horror films rely on mental and behavioral health as a plot point.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

A slasher and cult classic, Texas Chainsaw Massacre stars the mentally ill character Leatherface. This character is thought to be inspired by the true story of Ed Gein, a notorious serial killer. Reference to Ed Gein is also found in Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs.

Halloween (1978)

The main character in Halloween, Michael Meyers, is shown committing violent acts at a very young age. After being placed in a mental health facility, he breaks out and begins terrorizing his hometown.

Friday the 13th (1980)

Viewers frequently interpret the killer’s motivation in this movie to be auditory hallucinations, which could indicate some form of psychosis.

The Shining (1980)

The Shining begins with a seemingly normal Jack Torrance and his family arriving at a hotel to act as caretakers for the winter. Jack is a recovering alcoholic who starts hallucinating, becoming more and more violent as the movie progresses.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Freddy Krueger is a killer who haunts children while they are dreaming. While he is a supernatural entity in the movie, he was once a violent human criminal.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Hannibal Lecter, one of the main characters in the movie, is housed in a hospital for the “criminally insane.” He is a highly intelligent person known for cannibalizing his victims.

Have Fun at the Movies, Just Remember They’re Fictional Portrayals

Whether you love or hate the movies on this list, they are worth a watch this Halloween. These flicks have shaped the horror genre, and are part of the conversation on mental health, even if they exaggerate many behavioral symptoms.

If you would like more information about the mental and behavioral health services offered by St. Hope Foundation, please contact us.