By Emma Eden Ramos
If the purpose of film, like literature and other narrative-driven art forms, is, in part, to examine and portray under-explored or overlooked aspects of the human condition, then it is the perfect medium with which to explore mental illness and the impact it has on those effected by it. If, however, the purpose of film is simply to entertain and titillate, it is the least appropriate medium to use as an exposé on mental health. Some will argue that genre film, like genre fiction, is a “lower” form of the art and not meant to achieve much more than excitement or amusement.
This seems like an overly simplistic claim, especially when you consider how many genre-specific films are multi-layered. David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” (1986), for instance, is much more than a Sci-fi flick about an eccentric scientist who accidentally turns himself into a giant bug. The film explores the physical and psychological impacts terminal illness has on a person and his/her loved ones. “The Fly” is not the only example of genre cinema with a sprinkle of depth; there are many others. So, why does it seem that the treatment of mental illness in film is rarely afforded the same care and respect as physical illness or other serious conditions?
Historically, psychiatric disorders have been exploited for entertainment. Alfred Hitchcock’s Norman Bates, “Psycho” (1960), murders beautiful women who visit his motel because he suffers from dissociative identity disorder (previously called multiple personality disorder) and, except for the brief, last minute explanation that his mother was abusive, is simply psychotic because having a mental disorder makes him a scarier, more unique (for 1960) villain.
“Why does it seem that the treatment of mental illness in film is rarely afforded the same care and respect as physical illness or other serious conditions?”
Alex Forrest, Adrian Lyne’s villainess in “Fatal Attraction” (1987), has become the most famous cinematic example of borderline personality disorder, a psychiatric disorder marked by emotional dysregulation, interpersonal dysfunction, and an unstable self-image. As Dr. Jeremy Clyman points out in his 2012 article for Psychology Today, “Viewers watched Alex Forrest and began to link the behavior and inner life of this troubled figure with BPD [borderline personality disorder] in a process that continues to cement in the mainstream mindset to this day.”
In “Fatal Attraction,” 36-year-old Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), a single woman living in New York City, spends a romantic weekend with a married lawyer named Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) and, when confronted with the reality that he has no intention of abandoning his family for her, embarks on a mission to destroy him and his family. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that there is no line Alex won’t cross in order to exact her revenge. She is the embodiment of playwright and poet William Congreve’s “Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d” (The Mourning Bride, 1697).
“There is no explanation why Alex reacts the way she does, very minimal backstory, and her progressively destructive and deviant behavior is ultimately chalked up to her being a “crazy bitch.”…If Alex Forrest were a real person, she would have one of the most severe cases of borderline personality disorder.”
By the end of the film, viewers have come to view Alex as evil and deserving of the harshest possible punishment. There is no explanation why Alex reacts the way she does, very minimal backstory, and her progressively destructive and deviant behavior is ultimately chalked up to her being a “crazy bitch.”
So why, if no formal diagnosis is provided in the 159 minutes of this film, has “Fatal Attraction’s” Alex Forrest become the poster woman for BPD? Because she displays all of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders’s symptoms of borderline personality disorder to the most extreme degree imaginable.
If Alex Forrest were a real person, she would have one of the most severe cases of borderline personality disorder. If she were like at least 75 percent of the individuals who suffer from BPD, moreover, she would have a history of severe childhood trauma, a history of self-mutilation (80 percent), and survived at least one suicide attempt (70 percent).
If Adrian Lyne’s famous villainess suffered abuse and/or neglect as a child, if her personal history is meant to mirror that of someone who lives daily with the psychiatric disorder with the highest suicide rate, Lyne doesn’t bother to address these aspects of her story. Instead, he introduces viewers to a woman whose complicated and confusing behavior is given no explanation. Alex Forrest just happens to have all the markers of borderline personality disorder.
While there are examples of genre films that achieve more than immediate entertainment, there are few that do so while tackling the issue of mental health. Jennifer Kent’s brilliant horror film “The Babadook” (2014) comes close, although it is more broadly about fear, anxiety, and learning to tame one’s personal demons. Mental illness is both denigrated and weaponized so often in our culture that it feels irresponsible for filmmakers to contribute to the stigma. That is, unfortunately, precisely what they do when releasing films that exploit psychological disorders for the purpose of cheap thrills.
Emma Eden Ramos is a writer and teacher from New York City. She is the author of two novels, a poetry chapbook, and numerous articles and interviews. Ramos’s articles and interviews have appeared in Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, Luna Luna Magazine, Directed by Women, Agnes Films journal, and other known periodicals. Ramos teaches high school at The Beekman School, has a degree in psychology from Marymount Manhattan College, and is certified through The College Board to teach AP Psychology.