What are the best depictions of mental health in science fiction, fantasy, and horror? What are the worst? How can creators in these genres write mental illness responsibly? And is there something that makes them better at accurate portrayals than so-called mainstream “literary” works, if they do at all?
These were just some of the many topics discussed during New York Comic-Con 2019’s Putting It All Out There: SFF and Mental Health panel, featuring authors Shaun Hamill (A Cosmology of Monsters), Lauren Shippen (The Infinite Noise), and Stephen Graham Jones (The Only Good Indians), and moderated by Princess Weekes, Assistant Editor at The Mary Sue.
(Note: Because this topic is so nuanced, and both the panel and the audience questions so insightful, there was no way we could fit everything into this recap. Here, however, are some of the highlights.)
Weekes kicked things off by asking the authors what fictional works they thought portrayed mental health and mental illness well. Jones’ choice was Gemma Files’ Experimental Film, a horror novel about a depressed woman who discovers a malevolent silent film after her son is diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. “The way that it’s presented, rendered, expressed–it doesn’t sugarcoat anything,” he said. “It’s all about the frustration and the rage, the day to day-ness of it. It’s responsible without being hand-holding.” Meanwhile, Shippen picked the 2018 movie Annihilation, Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel about a grieving biologist who joins the expedition that led to her husband’s death.”It depicts depression in a way that I had never seen before, of warring with yourself and being crushed by yourself,” she said. “…It just hit something inside of me. It was a space that no media had ever hit before.” And Hamill’s choice, surprisingly, was not a genre work at all, but both the novel and film versions of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, a coming-of-age novel featuring a character whose mother is suicidal. “It was the first thing I’d seen where there’s no magic fix, no easy way out,” he said. “It’s about learning to live with it rather than making it go away…I think genre does tend to turn it into a metaphor that can then be expunged.”
This is especially true in the horror genre, where mental illness can frequently take the shape of a monster, or a demon, or a poltergeist. But whereas traditionally, it’s been the antagonists that are mentally ill, Weekes noted that with recent films like Midsommar, Hereditary, and Babadook, the genre appears to be shifting to mentally ill protagonists. “What do you think is inspiring this change of using the horror genre not to marginalize a bad person, but to highlight the feelings of a marginalized person?” she asked.
Hamill thought the shift towards marginalized heroes goes beyond just mental illness. “You’re seeing characters who would formerly be the villains suddenly being the heroes across the board,” he said. “It felt like it gave me permission when I started writing my own book, because it was already starting to happen. So it’s been immensely gratifying.”
As for why horror, Jones said one explanation could be that “we’re getting tired of those stories where the slightly autistic telepathic kid is used as a secret weapon against the bad guy.” Seeing such a character, we know exactly they’re going to be “deployed” later. “That makes somebody disposable,” he said, “and people shouldn’t be disposable.”
Shippen agreed that more marginalized voices were getting to tell their own stories. She added that “sci-fi and fantasy and horror tend to be genres that have to break the mould and push things forward a little bit. […] Because we now know, as audiences, the cadence of horror. We kind of know when something is going to jump out,” she said. “We know how the rhythms of those stories go […] and I think approaching subject matter from a different angle is one way to really undercut the rhythms that people are familiar with.”
Noting that “we’re still struggling to expand the image of people who suffer from mental illness besides middle class white men,” Weekes wanted to know what particular voices the panelists wanted to highlight in their own works.
“I’m so sick of novels that assume privilege,” Jones said about his novel Mongrels, which features characters living on the road, who scrounge for change and food. “That food is going to be easy to come by, that housing is going to be not an issue. I wanted to write a novel where those things are at the front of the characters’ minds constantly. That’s how I make my monsters into people that I recognize.”
Meanwhile, Shippen’s work focuses on both the queer community and teenagers. Although young people’s mental health concerns are recognized, they’re often glossed over or ascribed to hormones. But teens, especially those in the queer community, do see a lot of suicide and depression, and this is true for LGBTQ+ adults as well. In writing for the young adult audience, the author wanted a story that wanted to validate teens’ feelings and both open up avenues for conversation, without providing a simple fix. “I really wanted to create a narrative where it wasn’t about that clean solution, and also writing a romance where getting together with somebody isn’t going to solve your problems,” she said. “Having a girlfriend or having a boyfriend or a partner is not going to make you not depressed anymore.”
Drawing from his own childhood experiences of his family “drop[ping] out of the middle class,” Hamill is interested in “looking at being impoverished and also how that can exacerbate your mental health. Because even if you’re getting treatment for it, you’ve got no safe place to be. But also looking at how external circumstances change, but it still doesn’t fix the problem.”
Speaking of treatment, in a conversation about depictions of mental health, the character of the therapist is unavoidable. “The topic of therapy is interesting because in media, you typically either get the incompetent therapist or the corrupt therapist,” Weekes said. “Harley Quinn herself was a therapist at one point.”
For Jones, therapy in fiction can read like the same sort of narrative crutch as dream sequences. “The therapy session is also, particularly in the forms of western writers, it can be a form of exposition,” he said. “It can be a place where, instead of dramatizing the character’s internal state, you just have them sit there and speak it for the audience. And that’s the sort of therapy where nothing is moving forward.”
One thing Shippen made sure never to include in either her book or her podcast was the line, And how does that make you feel? “Because no therapist has ever said that to me,” she said. “And it’s such a trope in media, and I think that that leans into the idea that oh, therapy in stories is just for the person to sit there and say their emotional state, and the therapist is just this blank wall. No, when you go to therapy, it’s a conversation, and your therapist is also a person who’s probably also in therapy.”
Shifting gears, Weekes’ next question was about how gender plays into depictions of mental illness. “The depictions of women with mental illness, to me, [are] always interesting because there’s this element of hypersexualization,” said Weekes. “Thinking of Basic Instinct, and thinking of even the idea that you have to save a woman by killing her. (Rest in peace, Daenerys Targaryen.)”
Shippen saw similarities between how teen characters and women characters are dealt with in media, where oftentimes their feelings and mental health are simply dismissed and blamed on hormones and hysteria. “For me, in writing two male characters, one of whom can feel [others’] emotions, it was very important that when he was feeling emotions from his mom, or his sister, or his dad, or Adam–the emotions are very different, because they’re different people,” she said. “But he’s never really identifying, like, ‘Oh, my sister is a girl, so her emotions are totally different from this boy in my class.’ They feel differently because of the people they are, not because of the genders that they are.”
Hamill circled back to Weekes’ point about stereotypical, hypersexualized depictions of mentally ill women, citing examples like Harley Quinn and the manic pixie dream girl trope. However, he says it wasn’t something he really thought about when writing his book, because he was drawing so much from real life experiences. “It was like no, this is just what it’s like,” he said, about writing a woman character with mental illness. “It’s like the same thing as having your dad be like this, or whatever, and letting it be ugly and not Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, for example, where she’s never not cute,” he said. “Let it be ugly. Let it be drab. Let it really feel what it feels like. Let it weigh.”
Jones was interested in a statistical analysis of whether men or women writers render women with mental health issues more often. “If it is more men, as I suspect it to be, then probably it’s one of two things: It’s either they’re trying to re-inscribe the Pygmalion thing, where ‘This woman is clay and I can mold her into something useful,’ or [it’s,] ‘How do I make her more interesting?'” he said. “They know that they shouldn’t have her raped, which is like the go-to thing in fiction. And so they think, ‘I’ll give her a mental health issue, that will make her more interesting.’ It seems like that’s just symptomatic of not dealing with your characters as actual people, just dealing with them as functions.”
Which brings us to two of the most invaluable pieces of advice the panel had when it comes to writing about mental health: writing what you know and learning from first-person accounts. Not just Wikipedia articles either, but stories, especially written works, from people who had experiences firsthand, whether they be survivors of hurricanes or former military members going through the homecoming process. “If you have people in your life who are already struggling, then just listening to them and being around them in an honest way, not trying to fix them, I think can do a lot,” Hamill said. “Just actually letting people tell you their own stories.”
Towards the end, an audience member asked the panel why science fiction, fantasy, and horror lend themselves so well to more accurate depictions of mental health. “For me, horror works really well because horror is kind of the text of the marginalized,” Weekes said. “If you’re a marginalized person, whether it be class, race, or whatever, you are living a life where people are telling that you don’t know your own narrative, that you don’t have control over your own life. And that lack of self-control is really tied to horror. It’s about this monster that you can’t stop, and I think it really personifies that.”