mental health

Take In Horror Depictions Of Mental Illness With Caution, CT Professor Warns

NBC Connecticut

Halloween is here, and if you are brave, you might want to turn out the lights and test your courage with a horror movie. However, one local professor says some of these movies can cause harm, and people need to view depictions of mental illness with caution.

The 1978 classic, “Halloween: The Night He Came Home,” launched a film franchise.

“This was a very scary movie when it came out. It brought audiences in in droves,” Troy Rondinone, professor of history at Southern Connecticut State University, said.

The horror flick stars a famous villain, Michael Myers, who breaks out of a mental hospital, then goes to his old neighborhood to butcher babysitters.

“It also reflected what was happening in America at the time,” Rondinone said. “This was a time when the large institutions are shutting down. Patients are ending up on the streets.”

Rondinone said more troubling than the gory plot line are depictions of mental illness.

“Michael Myers is a person who is utterly and purely evil, who cannot be treated with our current mental health care system. And it does kind of purvey a message that violent mentally ill people are a danger to communities,” he said.

The professor spent hours researching the cultural history of mental hospitals. His findings are outlined in his book, “Nightmare Factories: The Asylum In The American Imagination.”

“I watched in the neighborhood of 250 movies,” Rondinone said. “Dozens of depictions of electroconvulsive therapy, other kinds of shock treatments, padded cells, straight jackets.”

He raises concerns about Hollywood’s portrayals of these treatments, referencing a scene showing shock treatment in the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

“Jack Nicholson's character, Randle McMurphy, is given ECT without any sedative as a punishment for acting out. Where in real life in that period of time, patients would be fully sedated and would receive the treatment under a doctor's guidance and care,” Rondinone said.

He argues the scene caused real-world consequences.

“That movie did for ECT what ‘Jaws’ did for shark,” he said.

Rondinone cites data that shows someone who watches a horrific depiction of treatment in a movie is more likely to decline help. He says that was the case for “Star Wars” actress Carrie Fisher.

“She talks about her doctor asking her to do electroconvulsive therapy, and she's afraid she doesn't want to do it because all she can think of is Jack Nicholson,” Rondinone said.

The scope of his research spans films released in the early 20th century through the present, from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Silence of the Lambs,” to the new release, “Halloween Kills.” Despite decades, Rondinone says imagery in horror films has not changed much.

“The amazing thing about the depiction of mental hospitals in movies is they keep repeating themselves,” he said.

Rondinone understands these movies are made for fun, so he says go ahead and grab the popcorn, but when you do, be wary.

“It’s okay to watch horror movies and to be entertained by them,” he said. “The trick is to be able to differentiate between reality and fantasy when you go to see movies.”

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