Depictions of Mental Illness in Psychological Horror Films
Against the best wishes of more traditional directors, found-footage horror films have become ubiquitous in the American box office. Since the release of The Blair Witch Project in 1999, the subgenre has been steadily gaining ground in the mainstream, with films like Cloverfield (2008) and V/H/S (2012) pushing the boundaries of horror. Outside of the horror genre, found-footage hasn’t yet hit its stride, although a few science fiction films (Europa Report , Chronicle , etc.) have shown that the technique can be utilized tastefully. To horror fans, though, the subgenre has been common ground for over a decade, largely because the low production costs are attractive to indie filmmakers.
Creep (2015) is an indie found-footage horror movie about a videographer (Aaron) who answers a Craigslist ad to go to a stranger’s (Josef’s) house and film him for the day, in exchange for $1000. When Aaron arrives at the house (outside of which a gleaming axe is wedged into a log), Josef explains that he is terminally ill with only a couple months to live, but that his wife is pregnant, and he wants Aaron to document his daily life so that his unborn son will have some understanding of what he was like.
As Aaron films him in various places, it gradually becomes clear that Josef’s wacky sense of humor actually borders on derangement, especially after he drunkenly relays a story about raping his wife while wearing a wolf mask. Aaron drugs Josef with benadryl and attempts to find his car keys, which Josef had hidden, in order to escape the house. Finally, while Josef is passed out, Aaron answers a call on Josef’s phone from his “wife” to find out that she’s actually Josef’s sister, and that he isn’t terminally ill, but instead has some undisclosed mental problem that makes him dangerous.
Most horror films would end here with a fight between the hero and the “madman,” but Creep lets Aaron narrowly escape and continue filming vlog entries at his home. Josef finds Aaron’s address and begins mailing him disturbing videos and objects. The police are unwilling to help. In a particularly ham-fisted scene of dramatic irony, Aaron hears a noise and leaves his camera pointed at the front door while he stalks around the house with a knife, and we see Josef standing spookily in the doorway before scampering off.
Josef’s last tape to Aaron is a plea for help: he’s burned bridges with his family and lost all his friends because of his illness, and he believes Aaron is his last hope at a real human connection. He requests a meeting at a public place where he can apologize for his actions. Absurdly, Aaron agrees, and predictably, Josef sneaks up behind him and murders him, using the Chekhovian axe from the beginning. The final scene, filmed by Josef, reveals that he’s a serial killer with a cabinet filled with footage of his victims dating back to the ‘90s. Queue heavy metal over end credits.
Creep is not a genre-bending film, and its few attempts to subvert found-footage and psychological thriller tropes are subtle. Co-writers and lead actors Mark Duplass (Josef) and Patrick Brice (Aaron) utilize many of the groan-inducing tropes horror films have relied on for fifty years. There are plenty of jump-scares, but the ones in the first act are practical jokes by Josef: jumping out from some hiding place and screaming at Aaron, before apologizing for scaring him. The scenes involving the wolf mask might have been hokey had they been done by someone else, but Duplass’s acting is terrifyingly weird, or weirdly terrifying: he gyrates, jumps around, sings off-key, and does jazz hands, all (ironically) as part of an act to convince Aaron he’s harmless.
This generation of suspense via the abuse of fraudulent accepted horror tropes is typical not just of horror movies but of thrillers as a whole. According to Stephen Neale, “Whatever the structure, whatever the specificity of the diegesis in any particular thriller, the genre as a whole, unlike that of the gangster or the detective story, is specified in the first instance by its address, by the fact that it always, though in different ways, must have the generation of suspense as its core strategy.” (Neale, 29)
In an interview with Fangoria, Brice and Duplass revealed that Creep was initially conceptualized and written as a dark comedy, but that during test screenings, audiences responded more to the elements of psychological horror. Even after scenes were rewritten to better cohere to the label of “horror,” Duplass admitted that the experience of the film was different depending on the audience:
“…What’s interesting about a movie like Creep that plays very quietly and patiently and has very few traditional sound design scares in it is that what plays as scary in one moment actually plays funny in another moment. It changes the viewing experience. If you were to watch the movie alone in the dark on VOD or Netflix, it might actually play scarier than a theater full of people because if someone laughs, you might feel like it gives you permission to laugh.” (Henley)
Without an excellent performance by Duplass, Creep would have been unbearable. During the first act of the film, Duplass’s character walks a thin line between weirdly endearing and menacing. He fakes having a terminal disease, he acts inappropriately and upsets Aaron, but it’s because he has a mental illness: his behavior is beyond his control, and even though the audience is fully aware that the horror form requires a violent ending, they might at least feel conflicted about Josef’s true intentions, at least until the last scene in which it’s revealed his behavior is pathological.
Unfortunately, it’s in the vague depiction of Josef’s illness that Creep falls short. Josef is “creepy,” he’s a “stalker.” His sister’s description consists of saying he “has problems.” In a scene near the end, while trying to convince Aaron to meet with him one last time, Josef explains: “…I saw doctors, and some of them thought ‘Hey, you know, he’s crazy,’ and some thought not, and there were medications, but none of that helped me.”
Josef’s manipulative tactics and dishonesty are consistent with borderline personality disorder, but could also stem from a plethora of other illnesses. His tendency to “go overboard” and frighten Aaron, then apologize with (seeming) sincerity, is also sadly a reality for many with personality disorders. For the entire movie, Aaron is placed in secluded environments and in compromising situations that Josef chooses not to take advantage of, instead opting to deliver one-liners and self-satisfied pranks. Finally, at the very end, the audience is meant to believe that because of this illness, Josef commits serial murder, and that because of his illness, he’s somehow capable of concealing it as a bad sense of humor.
It’s regrettable that some of the attributes that separated Creep from the chaff of indie horror also damn it from a psychologically informed perspective, particularly the “dark comedy” elements; Josef’s absurd song about his wolf mask character (named “Peachfuzz”), his body language, or the scream gags, which are often played for relief and humor. From this angle, his behavior towards Aaron becomes a sort of lame parody of mental illness, one that culminates in delivering a false, yet unfortunately ubiquitous, message: that the mentally ill are either to be laughed at, or to be feared.
In Disease and Representation: Images of Illness from Madness to AIDS, Sander Gilman claims that in media, “The portrait of the sufferer, the portrait of the patient, is… the image of the disease anthropomorphized. Our examination of the image of the sufferer provides us with rigid structures for our definition of the boundaries of the disease, boundaries that are reified by the very limits inherent to the work of art: the frame of the painting, the finite limits of the stage, the covers of the book, the perspective of the photograph, or the narrative form of the novel.” (Gilman 2) In Creep’s depiction of Josef, the boundaries of the horror and psychological thriller genre inform a warped representation of illness based on exaggerating what’s most repulsive and frightening about the character. It’s worth noting that the archetype of an exaggeratedly dangerous and aberrant mentally ill character almost exclusively applies to the antagonists in these films.
The limits of the horror movie form in particular on representations of mental illness are even more dismal than those of most other art forms, and because there is no specific disorder in Josef’s case, the representation of his illness is all-encompassing: Creep teaches the audience to fear the awkward, weird, and funny behavior of not just Josef, but of all mentally ill people, because behind it there might be a calculating murderer. Of course, this representation is consistent across a wide variety of genres and forms of media. In “Media Madness,” Otto Wahl remarks that “It is not simply that the image of people with mental illnesses as violent and criminal appears so often and in so many different sources that troubles mental health advocates… It is that this image is characteristic of media portrayals. The role of violent, dangerous villain is the one most commonly assigned to mentally ill characters in the mass media. (Wahl 65)
It’s not just the violent twist ending of Creep that turns the film into a harmful depiction, though. Just from examining the cover and title (including the font), the audience enters the world of Creep already informed that the villain will be the strange man who lives in the house on the hill. As Wahl puts it, “It is… the case that sinister madmen of print and film fiction are characteristically advertised in threatening poses, conveying their message about the bestial violence of people with mental illnesses even without words.” (Wahl 71)
Duplass and Brice stated in the Fangoria interview that there’s supposed to be some ambiguity over who the “creep” actually is supposed to be, but Aaron is guilty of nothing other than the essential horror-protagonist lack of self-awareness. It’s no mistake on the part of the filmmakers that Josef’s behavior, even early in the film while it’s still being played for laughs, is supposed to elicit dread and unease in the audience.
“Terror relies on convincing the audience of the fallibility of the logic we assume governs the world. To achieve this the horror film makes the audience oscillate between terror (of uncertainty), horror and revulsion (both at things ultimately glimpsed or shown) and finally relief.” (Rockett 133) In the case of Creep, Aaron’s idealism and kindness towards a stranger eventually leads to his bloody death.
It would be a bit strong to say that Brice and Duplass intended Creep to be a portrait of mental illness as something terrible and revolting; to the contrary, Duplass starred in Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), which offered an intelligent and mostly factual (if not perfect) representation of someone with paranoid delusions. The shortcomings of Creep are mostly, like all horror movies, products of its genre constraints. The psychological thriller genre in particular is rife with examples of faulty psychological explanations for murderous actions, not the least of which is Psycho (1960), which features a similar (although more exaggerated) twist ending in which the mental illness of the antagonist is confirmed beyond doubt to be the motivation behind their behavior.
In Disease and Representation, Gilman provides a social reason for this confirmation, which is actually a psychological requirement for audiences, particularly those viewing horror films: “Disease, with its seeming randomness, is one aspect of the indeterminable universe that we wish to distance from ourselves. To do so we must construct boundaries between ourselves and those categories of individuals whom we believe (or hope) to be more at risk than ourselves.” (Gilman, 4)
That Josef must be crazy as well as creepy is absolutely necessary to the form. Were his actions not foreshadowed by his peculiar mannerisms and social disinhibition, the thrill of Aaron’s cold-blooded murder at the end would be less stunning than it would be baffling. Had Josef lured Aaron to his home and murdered him for financial gain, or over a shared romantic interest, Creep would be an entirely different type of thriller, and probably not a very interesting one. Creep can only be such a satisfyingly dreadful horror film by unconditionally alienating Josef’s manipulative, creepy actions; by making them murderous.
In the final scene of Creep, Josef watches Aaron’s footage of his own murder back at the house. He briefly monologues a voiceover while the audience is treated to a placid shot of Aaron’s slumped body next to a glimmering lake on Josef’s television. Suddenly, in Aaron’s video, Josef jolts into the frame and screams: simultaneously, the real Josef picks up the camera filming his television and whips it around, screaming in unison. It’s not played for laughs, like any of the other jump scares in the film. Instead, it serves to assure the audience of something, but is it Josef’s evilness, or his illness? Whether deliberate or not, in this final scene, the two are indistinguishable.
Brice, Patrick and Duplass, Mark. “Q&A: Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass Talk “Creep” Trilogy Plans.” Interview by Ken W. Hanley. Fangoria. Fangoria Entertainment, 13 July 2015. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
Cook, Pam, ed. The Cinema Book (Third Edition). London: BFI, 2007. Print.
Gilman, Sander. “Depicting Disease: A Theory of Representing Mental Illness.” Disease and Representation: Images of Illness from Madness to AIDS. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988. Print.
Neale, Stephen. Genre. London: British Film Institute, 1980. Print.
Rockett, W. H. Perspectives. Journal of Popular Film and Television 10 (3) (1982) Print.
Wahl, Otto F., PH.D. Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995. Print.