Mental illness and the monster

As I left my last blog post, I discussed how women were ‘excused’ from monstrosity by assigning a mental illness to them, in particular with Aileen Wuornos, or Hannah McKay being dubbed ‘psychopathic’. But it goes much deeper than that. Before the advent of the DSM (the psychologist’s bible), acts of ‘monstrosity’ weren’t often excused. They were just seen as evil. Killers were driven by the devil, and narcissists were evil people out for their own ends (like Othello’s Iago).

Anyway, the tables have turned. Now, we’ve gone so far the other way that it’s detrimental to those with mental illness who don’t happen to partake in a spot of light murder or raping. Whenever a serial killer, mass-murderer or particularly contemptible human being does something vile, we search their life-history like wannabe-Sherlock Holmes, desperate to piece together the solution as to why they did what they did. But sometimes, there isn’t always a simple solution. Often, any signs of mental struggle are pounced upon and a nod of understanding is given as if to say that solves the mystery. This absolves both the monster and the society that raised it. Take, for example, the recent vile human (that I’m not going to name) who killed women. Once a history of Asperger’s was found, there was less of a focus on his actions, and more a look at how his asperger’s had taken root.**

The same has happened over and over again, particularly as mental illness has been more specifically categorised and used in narratives onscreen. Interestingly, many monster narratives now position their monsters as suffering from illness in the form of compulsions or addictions (vampires). Toby Whithouse, the writer for the BBC series, Being Human, stated that his original idea for the main cast was to portray different mental illnesses – agoraphobia (the ghost), anger issues (werewolf) and addiction (vampire). Monsters can embody these because they are not human, but as we’ve seen with the vampire, the closer they do get to humanity, the stronger the need to classify their mistakes as a form of mental illness.

Although understanding our monsters may be interesting, and helps reassure us of our own ‘normality’, it’s a double-edged sword. By giving every criminal a diagnosis, it fuels a perception of mentally ill people as violent, when in reality, they are far more likely to be the victims of violence than anyone else. There are different types of illness, and a minority of them can trigger violent outbursts. Unfortunately, absolving our monsters of blame has become screen-worthy.

In a slight tangent, the artist Toby Allen created a series of images anxietymonstersthat imagined various mental illnesses as monsters themselves – which helped separate the person from their illness. They are beautiful, and can be found here.


**This is not to say that Asperger’s is a mental ‘illness’, rather that it is often seen as one, and anything ‘out of the ordinary’ is seen as a reason – and simultaneously assures others that they are in the remit of ‘normal’.


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