Monday, December 23, 2013

"I Am A freak": The Sixth Sense And Why Hollywood Can't Portray The Mentally Ill Right

For those who somehow don't know, The Sixth Sense, directed by M. Night Shymalan, is one of the most famous thrillers of the modern era. Hailed for its performances and its now widely-known twist ending, people very often forget to discuss the opening of the film, and next to no one discusses what it implies about the mentally ill.

For those who need a refresher, the opening is below. The sequence I will be discussing occurs between 2:42 and  10:00 in the video.

The film begins with the doctor, played by Bruce Willis, and his wife celebrating his winning of what I shall so blithely call the "Best Psychiatrist Award". After a few monologues and celebratory activities around his winning the Best Psychiatrist Award, we learn there was a time he was not the Best Psychiatrist, when a former patient of his breaks into the house and confronts him wearing only his underwear and carrying a gun.

"I am a freak" the man says. Throughout the scene the man is crying and prone to sudden fits of shouting and violent outbursts. "You failed me!" the patient shouts at Bruce Willis, accusing him of treating him incorrectly, and that the incorrect treatment resulted in him becoming the tormented, violent person he is today. Despite Bruce Willis's attempts to reason with him, the man shoots Bruce Willis and then himself.

Now later in the film, we learn this former patient may not have been mentally ill, but may in fact have been seeing real ghosts. However, when the film starts, we don't know that. What we do know is that there a frightening nearly-naked man in Bruce Willis's bathroom with a gun, who was a former patient of Bruce Willis, and accuses Bruce Willis of "failing him." The person we see in those first few minutes we believe to be mentally ill.

It is films like this which are part of the reason why the mentally ill are feared today.

Hollywood is not a medium for subtlety. Forced to keep its films around a two-hour run time, filmmakers have to work to keep the content of the film conveyed clearly and concisely, which means it often has to convey that content in the most explicit and explosive manner possible. To establish Bruce Willis's haunted* past, the film resorts to having a violent and mentally ill former patient say Bruce Willis failed him and then shoot him. The time requirement in conveying that content in a more nuanced and realistic manner (say by showing the former patient in a constant cycle between mental institutions, prisons, and homelessness) is far more risky with keeping the audience's attention than having the patient break into the house half-naked and shoot his psychiatrist. And yet because of that need for efficiency, the mentally ill are further exaggerated and stereotyped.

The Sixth Sense is not an isolated example. The media constantly stigmatizes the mentally ill in television and film, portraying them as violent or otherwise dramatically distanced from society, and while I intend to go into more detail about this later, for now I recommend consulting this and this, among numerous other articles available online, for more exhaustive examinations of mental illness stigmatization in the media. Needless to say, the state of things is far from ideal, and films like The Sixth Sense serve only to further isolate the mentally ill from society and consequently from treatment.


*No pun intended

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