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Afro Horror: Horror and Mental Health

February 26, 2021
3 min read time

For about five years now, I’ve been actively seeing a therapist. It started when I quit an extremely toxic survival job while trying to break into writing. I worked as a manager in a French restaurant. I was overworked and underpaid, which resulted in a pretty significant weight gain (no, I will not share the number because it is irrelevant  something I learned in therapy). After leaving my draining position, I sought professional help to work on my body image that was severely damaged, commonly known as body dysmorphia.

Body dysmorphia is a mental health disorder where you can’t stop thinking and/or comparing the “flaws” in your body to others. For most of my life, I had been rather active and small. I played on varsity soccer and tennis teams, as well as recreational teams past college. But with a demanding schedule and little sleep, I soon lost my inner athlete. When I first started therapy, I was convinced the body dysmorphia was all I needed assistance with until about three sessions in when my therapist and I really started to unpack some childhood trauma that was playing a huge role in my declining mental health. Five years later, as I’m writing this, I have a better perspective on what mental health is and I have become an advocate for bringing awareness to it within the Black community.

When I first started watching horror films, it felt like a way to face my fears head-on. I was terrified of scary movies growing up, so much so that an older cousin of mine would lock me in my room with a VHS of a horror film as a cruel joke. Now I use my mental health journey as a tool in my writing, but I’m not the only one. Mental health is to horror what whipped cream is to an ice cream sundae; a perfect fit because, well, you’ve got to be a little crazy to work in this genre. From Psycho to The Babadook, horror filmmakers have used the genre to explore the complexity and sometimes painful truth of mental health over the years. While we grow as a society in our understanding of how to carefully broach the topic of mental health, I still believe we could be slightly more cautious in our depiction of it on the silver screen.

Here are three tips about writing about mental health in your horror script:

Do your research 

This one should come as no surprise. I personally don’t feel like there is anything wrong with someone who has not lived with a certain type of mental illness exploring it in their script, but you have to do the work. For example, with body dysmorphia a lot of the stigma around it is that it revolves solely around weight, but it's much deeper than that; it debilitates what you buy, what you do, what you see. The most severe cases can lead to eating disorders on either end of the spectrum. In The Babadook, the film explores the bottomless pit of depression; something the writer-director had, so her research came through personal experience. Mental health is a juggernaut of a topic to explore and not everyone’s experience is going to be the same. My body dysmorphia is going to be vastly different than someone else’s. So, if you’re interested in exploring a mental health category in your script, make sure to talk to people who have gone through it, read articles about it, and research non-profits actively working to bring awareness to it near you.

Lead with grace

You know someone is in therapy when they use the word grace  it’s a staple in the mental treatment community. When you lead with grace, you lead with empathy. If you don’t suffer from the mental health disorder you’re profiling in your script, keep in mind that someone who has eventually will see it. Think about your worst moment in life. Now imagine having to live through it again through an inaccurate point of view written by someone who was careless in their depiction. You may feel gaslit, slighted, and even bullied. There is a delicate balance between heightening your script and mocking a group of people living with a very real disorder. Tread carefully.

Get feedback as much as you can

I remember working with a writer on a script that featured a trans woman some years ago. We felt very strongly that as two cisgender women, we did not have the fortitude to write for this character. We reached out to an agency owned by a trans woman that represented trans actors. She read the script and gave us invaluable feedback on our trans character. From that point on, I firmly decided if I were to write a character based on an experience I personally have not lived through, I would seek someone within that community for guidance. While you may be used to getting structure and story notes from your peers, make sure you also get a mental health pass from a professional or someone within the community. Not only will it elevate your script, but it may also open you up to some of your own blind spots.

As a society, we’re only at the tip of truly understanding how to combat mental illness. Personally, attending my therapy sessions over the last five years has not only made my life better, but my writing clearer. However, I am aware that I am one of the lucky ones who can afford the insurance to receive the care I need.

If you or someone you know is in need of mental health-related treatment, call the SAMHSA treatment referral helpline at 1-877-SAMHSA 7 (1-877-726-4727). It is a way to get general information on mental health and locate treatment services in your area. Speak to a live person Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

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