Halloween and representations of mental health

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‘Mental Patient’ costume. This is clearly inspired by Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter. Does that make it ok? And who is to blame for the offense? The author of the book? The director of the film? Or the costume maker?

As Halloween looms closer, I’ve noticed a considerable number of stories appearing in my time-line about ‘scary mental illness’ being used in Halloween media. The best known examples being the campaign for Asda and Tesco to take down ‘mental patient’ costumes, and the current debate over Thorpe Park’s ‘Asylum‘.

Mental health service users  have been debating these issues online with strong opinions on both sides. On the anti-campaign are claims that these images of people with mental health problems as frightening are deeply stigmatising and build into the damaging discrimination that people experience. Mental health charity Mind encouraged followers to tweet pictures of themselves to who what a real ‘mental patient’ outfit would look like.

On the other side have been voices (including those of people who have experience of mental health problems) saying that these costumes and attractions are clearly based on horror movie imagery rather than real mental illness and that the campaign has drawn further attention to the attractions and made people with mental health problems appear obsessive and joyless.

I haven’t fully formed an opinion on either side. The costumes are indeed insensitive, though they wouldn’t be the only ones out there. Though I don’t necessarily support it, fancy dress is often very un-PC. Cultural appropriation is rife (think red indian and geisha costumes), as is sexism. When it comes to Halloween, I wonder how pagans/wiccans and people with facial disfigurements feel about the other ‘scary’ costumes out on sale? Everyone has the right to be offended and express their view, but if we take down these ‘patient’ costumes, we should probably do away with many of the others also.

The idea of someone with mental health problems as scary wasn’t invented by costume makers. We have a long history of characters in horror films who are portrayed as suffering for mental illness, often shown as the ‘motive’ for their behaviour. The ‘psycho-killer’ is a common stereotype. These films are very popular and the incredibly negative portrayal of mental illness has seemingly gone unchallenged. Often these ‘mental patient’ costumes seem to be based on characters like Silence of the Lambs‘ Hannibal Lecter.

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Mental illness and horror – a popular combination?

An abandoned asylum is often a horror movie setting (think House on Haunted Hill). Asylums have an awful history, and rightfully so. The patients who lived in these asylums were subjected to awful treatment, and there’s a reason why these places were shut down. Some horror films have used this history, portraying cruel doctors and the kinds of horrific ‘treatment’ that was given out. Unfortunately some have preferred to focus on the patients themselves, and characterised them as frightening characters. Mental health problems can cause someone to act in a way that others might find hard to understand and frightening, but these media characterisations of scary patients surely does nothing to encourage understanding.

In one of Thorpe Park’s responses to the campaign they commented that the ‘Asylum’ attraction has been running for 8 years without complaint, and has been popularly attended. Why is it that uproar is only gathering now? Similarly, the ‘mental patient’ costumes are not new this year. It may be that mental health campaigners feel more empowered to take a stand and take on companies profiting from these negative stereotypes. While I hope this is the case, I think we need to consider why we’ve let negative portrayals of mental illness go so unchallenged for so long. We’re appalled by the straight-jacketed costumes but still flock to the films that inspired them. These costumes are in bad taste and I wouldn’t like to belittle the hurt they’ve caused to an already stigmatised group, but I think amidst the uproar surrounding them we need to think about where these ideas originate and whether taking down the costumes and attractions will really get to the heart of the stereotypes and stigma around mental health problems.

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Young and Naked: Vee Speers’ Party Guests

I caught sight of Vee Speers‘ photographs in an article recently in the Metro, where residents living near her Chelsea gallery show had kicked up a fuss about her work being ‘distasteful’ and ‘semi-pornographic’. No doubt the complaints have generated more publicity for the exhibition and the artist than they have deterred visitors. The exhibition, entitled ‘The Birthday Party’ features children dressed up as if to attend a party in a range of quirky and curious outfits. The pictures have an almost-painted quality, they’re pale and slightly eerie, staring doe-eyed, reminding me of the work of Erwin Olaf and digital artist Ray Caesar. The photographs are of Veers’ own daughter and her friends, though she has put together the outfits for the photographs. Some of the shots do involve nudity; a girl clutches dolls to her bare chest, a boy poses with in his underwear with boxing gloves, a girl wears a Minnie mouse-style outfit un-buttoned at the chest. Admittedly these poses might be more provocative for an adult, but I don’t think they’re presented in a sexualised way. Even the shots in which the children dress in more ‘adult’ outfits, the image seems more like ‘playing dress-up as grown-ups’ rather than imitating maturity.

Nudity in itself need not be something sexual or offensive, and in childhood it can be very innocent and playful. Often family photos of children when they’re young will involve some nudity, perhaps playing on the beach or in the garden. Sometimes kids don’t want to wear clothes! Young children don’t tend to feel embarrassed or ashamed of their naked bodies, they haven’t yet learnt to treat it as such. Where does the concern come from over these images? Is it that they might encourage others to view children in a sexual way, or that those who have an attraction to children might find them arousing? Unfortunately we can’t choose what other people get turned on by, one man’s porn is another’s M&S lingerie catalogue. Personally I find these photos rather fascinating, they seem to create a rather bizarre and perfect world ruled by children, with its own rites and customs, that we are not invited to. Sometimes children wear less clothing, but it’s for themselves, it’s their own, not for others. The photos are beautifully composed, simple yet exquisite. The combination of something soft and natural and something more fantastical. We’re all naked underneath and maybe there’s nothing inherently offensive or erotic about a nude body out of any associated context. Maybe we need to decouple the body and nudity from sexuality, which though often intertwined, can exist separately.