I write horror. I also suffer from anxiety, and sporadically from depression. Most of the time, I’ve managed to keep this to myself, but, in recent years, I’ve tried to be more open with friends and family about my mental health. The interesting thing is, in doing that I learned that a lot of my horror colleagues are also pacing to and from at the ramparts checking for danger or engaged in all-out battles with kaiju of epic proportions. Was it time to open a discussion about horror writing and mental health? I consulted my friend, Forever Man author, and psychologist Brian Matthews, who agreed that a discussion was timely, and with his help we put together a panel for 2018 StokerCon, Providence which we called Writing From a Dark Place. We were able to enlist some incredible panelists too, including Brian Kirk, Leslie Klinger, James Arthur Anderson, and Eric J. Guignard. The conference committee welcomed the proposal, and the resulting panel conversation was frank, informative, and warming. Then, some months after the convention, I shamelessly used the panel discussion as the basis of an essay, which was later published in Victoria University Press’ Headlands anthology, along with 33 other New Zealand writers with their own personal stories of anxiety. The Headlands project has led to an upcoming hui (gathering) to bring the writers together for further discussion and a possible documentary on the topic. It seems when you open a conversation about mental health and lift it out of the darkness, a lot of good things can result. For that reason, I welcome this new initiative by the HWA to support Mental Health Awareness. I’m excited (and a little anxious) to contribute to the blog series and to an ongoing conversation about horror writing and mental health.
I have worked as a mental health professional in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) for 35 years. I have been a writer of dark and obscure fiction for considerably longer, writing my first horror novella at the age of 13. The novella was poor, but my experience of working with those who endure mental illness over the years has been nothing short of amazing. It is an honour to work with those who endure mental health issues on a day to day basis, they are the brave and mighty, they know true suffering and they have fought for light in the darkness. I know this because I have seen it, holding the hands of troubled souls, witnessed the tears and the trauma. It leaves a person humbled beyond words.
In his 1964 publication, Madness and Civilization French philosopher Michel Foucault writes, “Mental illness has its reality and its value only in a society that recognizes it as such.” In other words, how we define mental illness as a society reflects how we ultimately treat it. There is truth in that those with severe mental illness are marginalised, the stigma associated with acts and behaviours making more of an impression on how they are viewed rather than on what these people endure. As a mental health professional and a horror writer I have a duty to readdress the balance and ensure the social stereotype of ‘lunatics’ and ‘maniacs’ are challenged from the beginning. Nothing puts me off a book quicker than the thoughtless misrepresentation of mental illness.
Thanks so much for agreeing to chat with me, Dave. I’m looking forward to hearing your perspective as a mental health professional and a horror writer.
Naomi Arnold, my editor in Headlands says, “Clinic anxiety is a chronic crushing panic. Sometimes you can function fine, with a faint residual fluttering and a few deep breaths,” She writes. “Other times, it grows until it takes over your mind, your gut, your heart, your breath, your limbs, and everything in your life until your entire being feels reduced to the nub of your earliest brain. The one that pumps adrenaline through your system, puts everything on red alert, shuts down all your body systems and makes every cell scream.”
I waited until I was 50 for a diagnosis of anxiety. “Oh and by the way, you have depression, too,” the doctor said.
When I tell them, most people can’t believe it. “But you’re so bubbly and outgoing,” they say. “So smiley.”
It’s true, I do try to be cheery. But it strikes me that a person’s mental health isn’t always evident from their demeanour, and sometimes those who we least expect are suffering the darkest demons.
After the Writing from a Dark Place panel, panelist Brian Kirk wrote to me, and what he said interested me because it’s something I’ve noticed too. He said: “I’ve always found it curious that, in general, horror authors are some of the friendliest and most optimistic people I know. Whereas comedians are typically morose and depressive.” Would you agree with that comment?
My experience of the horror writing community is indeed one of warmth and inclusion, and an almost overzealous need to help others. I often wonder if there is a compensatory element in that writers are, by nature, insecure entities and perhaps coming to the aid of others has a basis in the desire to create climates in which they, too, feel safe. In their study of personality types, Ando, Claridge and Clarke (2014) concluded that comedians have traits not dissimilar to those who suffer psychosis, so I would certainly agree that comedians overall tend to be somewhat distant in real life.
Kirk also says, “The basic commonality I see between works of profoundly troubled people is an extreme kind of sensitivity. A brutally insightful look into our basic human condition.” If what Kirk says is true and people with mental illness have an ‘extreme sensitivity’ and ‘insight’ into the human condition, do you agree that horror writers who suffer from mental illness, make better writers? After all, many of our best-loved horror icons, past and present, are known to have struggled with mental illness—writers like Sylvia Plath, Stephen King, Ann Rice, and Mary Shelley.
I’m comfortable with the view that those who are ‘in tune’ with the darker side of the human condition can make better sense of how to translate that onto the page. There does need to be balance, of course. My view is that one-sided worldview, for example: the terrible actions of one person or one group of people somehow defining humanity, makes for a dull, cliched narrative, no matter what the intention of the writer. The links between mental illness and creativity has been long established, so I’m not surprised by Kirk’s view on this perspective and would support it wholeheartedly.
Horror and mental illness are effective bed-fellows. Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart is a classic example of how this can be used to incredible effect as the narrator questions his own sanity following his heinous act of murder, and the guilt this generates. Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a less subtle take on the dualities of man and the consequences of wanton action. This concept of two sides to a personality has plagued public perceptions of schizophrenia for centuries. This cannot be laid at Stephenson’s feet as the book is of a time where the renaissance of modern-day psychiatry was a few years away. Do you have any favourite examples of where horror and mental illness have been used effectively?
I was afraid you were going to ask me that. Let’s start with Hamlet, given that I spent my high school years quoting Lady Macbeth’s ‘Out, out damned spot’ soliloquy whenever I washed my hands in someone’s hearing. Other fiction titles addressing mental illness that resonated for me while growing up include Madge Piercy’s classic A Woman on the Edge of Time, The Madness of a Seduced Woman by Susan Stromberg Schaffer, and The Bone People, by New Zealand’s Booker-prize winner, Keri Hulme. More recently, I could add The Drowning Girl by last year’s StokerCon guest of honour, Caitlin R McKiernan and there’s Mark Matthew’s grueling anthology Garden of Fiends with its stellar line-up of authors writing addiction-inspired stories. Your own novella Bad Vision effectively addresses how the system fails sufferers when a man faced with a debilitating mental illness is unable to find support from his doctors, his community and even his wife. And there is Kirk’s We Are Monsters, which won him a Bram Stoker-nomination for First Novel. The book examines two doctors’ approaches to a schizophrenia: one, Drexler, who uses his patients as guinea pigs for his experimental drug treatments, and the other, Alpert, who advocates for therapy. As the story unfolds, a serial killer named Crosby becomes the test subject for Drexler’s latest treatment, but something goes wrong: the medicine alters Crosby’s mind, dragging him, and everyone with him, into a parallel plane where they are forced to face their demons. If we’re talking about translating the darker side of the human condition onto the page, then Kirk has definitely achieved that.
I’m going to stop there, and let you jump in with a couple of favourites because so many of our horror colleagues are doing excellent work addressing mental illness in their fiction that this could become a very long list.
Gosh, there are so many to cite, outside of those I’ve mentioned earlier. If I’m looking at recent examples, I would have to say Gary McMahon’s excellent What They Hear in the Dark which focuses on the cost of terrible loss. I also add King’s novel, Pet Sematary, Richard Farren Barbers’s novella, Closer Still and James Everington’s Trying to Be So Quiet as wonderful stories that capture grief and its impact on the psyche. One that certainly lingers in the memory is Phil Sloman’s Becoming David which is a subtle and brilliantly executed exploration of the descent into madness.
For anyone who would like to read more widely, I’ve found an excellent summary of more than 250 mainstream titles featuring mental illness (non-fiction and fiction) on the Bookscrolling website. The page also includes 22 other sources listing mental health and illness titles.
As highlighted in my introduction, the stigma of mental illness is an ongoing issue in society. For someone who works in the mental health field, the frustration when inroads in challenging these issues are swept away by negative, inflammatory media stories is beyond description. Yes, some people have committed terrible acts of violence when they have been in the throes of psychosis, but statistically the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of crime. It is my view that those with extreme forms of mental illness have become a soft target for society’s ills. When someone commits heinous crimes, they are often labelled ‘insane’ or ‘crazy’ when it has more to do with deficits in their personality or behavioural programming. Perhaps they are just bad people. Many atrocities have been undertaken by governments all over the world and throughout history, after all. These constructs became the motivation for writing Finding Jericho and has been, if it hasn’t come across already, a passion of mine for most of my working life.
I agree the stigma surrounding mental illness is perhaps the most significant barrier to getting support to people in need. As an example, for several years I sat on the committee of our local Alzheimer’s Society, providing community support to the families of sufferers. At that time, the region had two part-time field officers and a growing number of clients. With growing demand, the committee discussed the possibility of purchasing a vehicle, which the field officers would share and which we would brand with the Alzheimer’s Society logos to improve community awareness, another of our stated goals. The field officers were against the idea, preferring to use their private vehicles despite personal cost to themselves. We wouldn’t understand it. Field Officer ‘Anna’ explained: “As it is, several of my clients have asked that I not park in the same street, and to please come to the back door when visiting, so that the neighbours don’t see.” The field officers were concerned that an Alzheimer’s-branded vehicle would mean clients would refuse valuable help, for fear of friends and neighbours finding out they were suffering from a mental illness. Even the words used to describe mental illness have stigma attached, our local field officers using the less offensive term ‘memory loss’, rather than Alzheimer’s or dementia, when speaking with clients and their families. It’s clear, the stigma of mental illness is a monster in itself.
The associations between horrific acts of violence and mental illness in genre media can be exacerbated when such misguided links are assumed in horror fiction. As a horror writer, do you think we have a responsibility to temper this view when we write our narratives?
I think we have a responsibility to write with authenticity. My Writing From a Dark Place panellist, Eric J. Guignard, is of the same mind. He says writers should: “create empathy with real life sufferers by sharing authentic experiences by way of storytelling”. To do that I believe we need to write complex rounded ‘real’ characters, including characters with mental illnesses. And if we also show the missed opportunities for help, those pivotal moments for connection that might have averted those acts of violence, then perhaps we would also see opportunities to affect change.
I guess that gives us an altruistic reason to write horror, doesn’t it?
Something interesting I learned recently is that while New Zealand’s Māori and Pasifika population currently have the country’s the highest rates of mental illness and suicide, a study conducted in the 1940s showed that, by contrast, Māori had no discernible incidence of mental illness at that time. Mental illness is a new phenomenon in Māori communities and is largely a product of the pressures of our modern society, arising because the traditional support networks provided by family and community have been broken down.
Baker (1988) reports: “Society had this fear of contamination from mental disease and also a massive denial that it even existed. These concepts were alien to Māori people whose whānau (family) members suffering from trauma were always included within the whanau (family), hapū (subtribe), iwi (tribal) boundaries and given special status.”
I think we have a lot to learn from the traditional Māori approach of inclusiveness and care when dealing with mental health issues.
I would agree with your viewpoint. There is certainly a recovery-based ideology prevalent in Baker’s description of Māori culture, and this can be seen in Western values throughout the history. For example, in 1796, Quaker William Tuke set up The Retreat, a facility built in the city of York, UK that was to become the cornerstone of a philosophy of what was called The Moral Treatment. The programme involved giving patients purpose, including them in their decision-making and giving them a meaningful life through the sanctity of work. These are key tenets that we see in the recovery paradigm that is so fundamental to mental healthcare in the 21st Century. Community and inclusion are essential to the concept of reducing stigma. With celebrities using their high profile to share their experiences of mental health issues, I have to say we’ve come a long way, but it is nowhere near enough.
Whether or not it is therapeutic, writing has been known to save people.
Janet Frame is one of New Zealand’s most iconic writers of dark fiction and the subject of Jane Campion’s 1990 film An Angel at My Table. Almost all of Janet Frame’s work, including her debut novel Owls Do Cry (1957), addresses mental illness and is thought to have been drawn from her own experience. After a suicide attempt, Frame spent eight years in mental hospitals and received 200 electroshock treatments. She was about to undergo a lobotomy, but the New Zealand Society of Authors sent a letter advising the hospital that she had recently won a major literary prize, and instead she was released.
Later, a panel of psychiatrists determined that she didn’t have schizophrenia, a fact which Frame resented, as she wrote in her third autobiography: “Oh why had they robbed me of my schizophrenia, which had been the answer to all my misgivings about myself?”
It introduces a chicken and the egg aspect to the horror-mental health debate, doesn’t it? Which comes first, the horror writer who suffers mental illness, writers who suffer mental illness who are then drawn to dark themes? Why exactly do we choose horror over happier more light-hearted themes, anyway? As a mental health practitioner and a horror writer yourself, do you consider dark themes are therapeutic in any way?
I think if done with integrity and skill then, yes, it can be therapeutic. I say with the caveat of recovery, of course. If people relate to the experiences of characters then it reinforces the concept that they are not experiencing these things in isolation, that social context is has given them common ground through the characters. Where it becomes less helpful is where the narrative is delivered in a clumsy way by those who prefer to shock, reinforcing those ever-present societal views of the salivating lunatic who kills anyone they see, a human monster terrorising the innocent. My advice to those who are planning on writing about mental illness in horror fiction is to treat it with the sensitivity as they would gender and race issues. That way you will take the time to consider what the pitfalls are and ultimately write something interesting and, above all, authentic.
Lee Murray and Dave Jeffery are current co-chairs of the HWA Wellness Committee.
Lee Murray is an author, editor, screenwriter, and poet from Aotearoa New Zealand. A USA Today Bestselling author, double Bram Stoker Award® and Shirley Jackson Award winner, her work includes military thriller series, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir trilogy The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and short fiction collection, Grotesque: Monster Stories. Lee is the editor of nineteen volumes of dark fiction, among them Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women (with Geneve Flynn). Other works include non-fiction title Mark My Words: Read the Submission Guidelines and Other Self-editing Tips with Angela Yuriko Smith, and several books for children. Her short stories and poems have appeared in venues such as Weird Tales, Space and Time, and Grimdark Magazine. Lee is co-founder of Young NZ Writers and of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, an HWA Mentor of the Year, NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, and a Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow. Read more at https://www.leemurray.info/
Dave Jeffery is the author of 17 novels, two collections, and numerous short stories. His Necropolis Rising series (Severed Press) and yeti adventure Frostbite (Severed Press) have both featured on the Amazon #1 bestseller list. He regularly contributes both articles and short stories for the prestigious genre publication, Phantasmagoria Magazine. His YA work features the Beatrice Beecham supernatural mystery series (Crystal Lake Publishing & Crossroad Press). Jeffery is also the creator of the critically acclaimed A Quiet Apocalypse series (Demain Publishing). His contemporary mental health novel Finding Jericho is currently being optioned as a TV miniseries.
Jeffery is a member of the Society of Authors and actively involved in the Horror Writers Association where he is a mentor on the HWA Mentorship Scheme, and co-chair of the HWA Wellness Committee. He is contactable through his website: http://www.davejefferyauthor.com
Ando, V., Claridge, G. & Clarke, A. (2014) ‘Psychotic traits in comedians ’. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 204(5)
Baker, R. (1988), ‘Kia Koutou’ IN Walsh, C. & Johnson, S. (eds.), Psych Nurses, 88, Wellington, p.40.
Beaglehole, E., Beaglehole, P., (1947), Some Modern Māori, New Zealand Council for Educational Research, Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, Auckland.
Foucault, M. (1967) Madness & Civilization. Routledge, London.
Arnold, N. (ed.) (2018) Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety. Victoria University Press, Wellington.
Tuke, W. (1813) Description of the Retreat. Alexander: York.