The Measure of a Monster

A paper I wrote for a Science Fiction and Horror class I took in the fall of 2016.

     Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the first science fiction novel, pulls no punches in illustrating what makes a man monstrous. From these beginnings, the genre now includes monsters of various shapes, sizes, and origins, from Mr. Hyde to the demon Pazuzu. What makes a monster? Is a terrifying visage sufficient, or does a monster's true definition come from some innate aspect of personality? Furthermore, how has society's view of monsters affected the mentally ill? Society's abhorrence of those with physical or mental disabilities asserts itself in both historical and modern media. Using monsters and demons as representatives of a stigmatized group, and pushing the notion that the mentally ill are violent and frightening, science fiction and horror remain trapped in a harmful, antiquated way of thinking. By changing how we represent the mentally ill in fiction, we can challenge society's prejudices against those victims of a mental illness.

     Doctor Victor Frankenstein works tirelessly to create new life until, upon succeeding, he rejects his creation. While he fits the profile of "mentally unbalanced," his monster fulfils society's expectations of the mentally ill and criminally insane. The monster suffers severe depression, fueled in part by his continual rejection from every aspect of society until, overcome with rage, he murders Frankenstein's loved ones before he takes his own life.

     This idea that the mentally ill are ticking time bombs is as foul and pervasive now as it was in the 1800s. When shootings occur, news outlets rush to proclaim the shooter suffered from some mental illness or another. We use the terms "psychopath" and "sociopath" to describe murderers, and we cast a wary eye on anyone who talks frankly about having a mental illness. A 2008 study by the Canadian Medical Association found that 25% of Canadians fear the mentally ill, and almost half believe that mental illness is used "as an excuse for bad behavior." This stereotype persists even though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that people with mental illness are ten times more likely to be victims of crime than the average citizen.

     The sad truth is, many of those with depression will follow the fate of Frankenstein's monster, as suicide remains one of the leading causes of death. What made Frankenstein's creation "monstrous"? Revealed to be an intelligent, sensitive creature with an innate gentility, society ostracizes him due to his frightful appearance. In this case, Frankenstein himself is the monster, surrounding himself with delusions of grandeur and ultimately rejecting his creation like a mother abandoning her baby. Casting away his creation sets the creature on the path to monstrosity. Frankenstein's acceptance would make all the difference in the creature's life, and spared both characters their tragic end.

     In 1886, some 70 years after Frankenstein's initial publication, Robert Louis Stevenson published Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in which the titular character suffers from a literal form of dissociative identity disorder. Dr. Jekyll's alter ego Mr. Hyde represents his hidden urges and forbidden vices. The duality of his character as well as the nature of his transformations reinforce the idea that the mentally ill suffer from some inherently evil trait, and that without proper monitoring, said evil nature will take control.

     Somewhat ironically, society's views on the matter often echo the very intrusive thoughts that many sufferers of mental illness experience. A person with obsessive compulsive disorder is often tormented by the idea that their intrusive thoughts are somehow reflective of suppressed desires rather than a hyperawareness of the fleeting thoughts experienced by every human. Many of those with mental illness fear that, like Dr. Jekyll, they are somehow hiding their true evil nature. Society encourages these fears with the preconception that the mentally ill must be incarcerated or subjected to wild forms of therapy to prevent their "inner Mr. Hyde" from coming out.

     Even Mr. Hyde's demise is touted as justice for his actions. Dr. Jekyll, overcome by his guilt, cannot prevent his transformation into Mr. Hyde. Rather than face punishment for his crimes, Mr. Hyde ends up committing suicide, thereby redeeming Dr. Jekyll in some small way. Messages such as these posit that the mentally ill must atone for their illness, and contributes to the inadequacy many feel for being sick. If Dr. Jekyll can only save himself by taking his life, why would the same not apply to a modern sufferer? Harmful messages like those present in Stevenson's work reiterate the notion that mental illness is a moral failure and makes its victims dangerous to the world around them.

     When it isn't touting messages about the moral failings of the mentally ill, the media appropriates the symptoms of mental illnesses and repurposes them as hallmark traits of possession. In the 1973 film The Exorcist, the audience is introduced to Regan, a sweet girl who, without warning, begins exhibiting strange new behaviors, including fits and streams of swearing. Over the course of the movie we learn that she has been possessed by a demon and that the evil spirit must be driven from her so she can recover. Similar behaviors are used in many horror films, piggybacking on the ancient superstition that the mentally ill have been possessed by demons or angry spirits. While modern viewers are aware that such is not the case, these portrayals continue to spread the idea that mental illness is something to be afraid of. Regan may be the victim of demonic possession, but in the real world a child who experiences fits of thrashing, swearing, and uncontrolled urination more likely suffers from epilepsy and requires medical care. Since that would make for a poor horror movie, however, it is more lucrative for films to exploit such behaviors and reinforce the narrative that what is different is what is scary.

     The treatment of the mentally ill in fiction has greater effects than just hurting the feelings of its mentally ill consumers. Stigmas against them are real and present in every day interactions. A student who fails to come to class and drops out of school is labelled "lazy" instead of suffering from severe depression and anxiety. A woman who resents caring for her newborn is a bad mother, not a postpartum depression sufferer. Employers are less likely to hire people who admit to having a mental illness. Maintaining work, school, social lives and mental health is difficult enough without society throwing additional obstacles into the fray.

     Attitudes surrounding psychiatric disorders also make it more difficult to diagnose and treat those who suffer from them. In addition, these stereotypes often prevent victims from speaking up about their experiences. Why would someone with schizophrenia want to talk about their illness when it means their colleagues regard them as unstable and potentially dangerous? Someone with obsessive compulsive disorder will hide their anxieties for fear that someone will believe that they do, in fact, want to murder their spouse (or burn down the building, or spread AIDS to everyone at work) and lock them away. While they will still be known as being strange, it is thought that one is better off being called strange than potentially dangerous or evil.

     While stereotypes about the mentally ill are omnipresent, it is unlikely that authors such as Shelley and Stevenson go into their works with the intention of vilifying people with psychiatric disorders. It is more likely, even, that many of these authors and creators of popular culture suffer from some type of mental illness themselves. With 20% of Americans suffering from some form of mental health problems, it is unavoidable that some, if not all, of those artists misrepresenting the issues have had personal experience with them. In this case, why does the problem continue? These prejudices are so ingrained into our worldview that we cannot discern where they end and the truth begins. However, instead of claiming change is impossible, we as creators and consumers of popular culture must work harder to disentangle these stereotypes from the reality. Fear does not have to come from a place of "us against them," and it does not - it should not - require exploiting those who face enough difficulties as is.

     Science fiction is a powerful genre, capable of tackling difficult issues and exploring the nature of what it means to be human. When it comes to its treatment of the mentally ill, however, science fiction remains trapped in outdated social views. We can do better with how we represent the victims of invisible illness, and that starts by destroying the idea that the mental illness are monsters or somehow less than human. For a genre that addresses subjects like racism and colonialism, it should not be so difficult to convey the idea that "people suffering from psychiatric disorders are people too." So why has it taken this long?

Works Cited

Canadian Medical Association. 2008 National Report Card. Canadian Medical Association.
     Ontario: Ipsos Public Affairs, 2008.
Kambam, Praveen R. "Why Is Mental Illness Scary?" 31 October 2013. Psychology Today. 8
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Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. London: Longmans, Green
     & Co., 1886.
Tartakovsky, Margarita. "Media's Damaging Depictions of Mental Illness." 17 May 2016. Psych
     Central. 8 November 2016. <
     -mental-illness/ >.
The Exorcist. Dir. William Friedkin. Perf. Ellen Burstyn, et al. 1973. Film.
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Mental Health Myths and Facts. n.d. 8
     November 2016. < >. © 2017 Alyssa