The Price of Crazy: What Hollywood’s ‘stalker’ genre says about mental health stigma

Is Hollywood progressive? There seems to be a pervasive gap between what is preached and what is portrayed, and that's perhaps no more true than in the industry's historically shoddy treatment of mental illness on the silver screen.

When it comes to humanizing sufferers of mental illness in films and on television, Tinseltown has for the most part come up woefully short; indeed, for every “Silver Linings Playbook” there are 10 “Single White Females.” One of the most persistent offending traditions is the “stalker” film, a sub-genre jumpstarted by Clint Eastwood's hit 1971 thriller “Play Misty for Me” that continues to go strong more than 40 years later. The most recent example of this ongoing trend is Universal's “The Boy Next Door,” an upcoming thriller that stars Jennifer Lopez as a high school teacher targeted by a dangerously obsessive student (Ryan Guzman).

Important note: I haven't seen “The Boy Next Door” and won't be commenting on it directly. While the silly trailer suggests all the subtlety you might expect from a J-Lo thriller, this piece isn't meant as a criticism of that film but rather a look back at previous “stalker” movies that, whether diagnosing their main antagonists or not (they usually don't), have nevertheless helped to buttress longstanding myths about mental illness.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have watched and heartily enjoyed a number of the films in question, from Adrian Lyne's “Fatal Attraction” to 1993's “The Crush.” The latter of those, incidentally, boasts at least two cinematic moments I will forever hold dear: Alicia Silverstone's frantic lemon brutality and that very necessary shot of a young Cary Elwes' butt.

So why do we gravitate towards these films? Like most Hollywood product, there is an element of titillation at play; the stalking scenarios on film are undoubtedly more glamorous, sensational and sexy than they ever would be in real life. The problem here lies in one undeniable fact: the dearth of films that deal with mental illness in a sympathetic and/or realistic manner makes movies like “Swimfan” the rule rather than the exception, giving audiences a stereotypical view of mental illness and increasing the already brutal stigma around those who are affected.

In advance of “The Boy Next Door's” Friday release, below I've listed five of the biggest myths perpetuated by these films, from “Play Misty for Me” to “Fear” to “Obsessed.”

Myth #1: People suffering from mental illness are violently unhinged.

We can thank “Fatal Attraction” for the derogatory term “bunny boiler” entering the lexicon, but the act in question is just the most famous example of Alex Forrest's (Glenn Close) murderous behavior, which also includes leaping at Michael Douglas with a butcher knife and attempting to murder his wife in the film's jump-from-your-seat climax. Though “Play Misty for Me” preceded it by 16 years, “Attraction” is the film that set the template for a horde of imitators that presented their main antagonists as murderous psychos nearly void of other distinguishing factors.

Myth #2: People suffering from mental illness are their pathology.

In the 2009 hit “Obsessed,” Ali Larter stars as an office temp who develops – are you ready? – a dangerous obsession with a well-heeled business exec played by Idris Elba. So why does she do it? No idea! We literally learn nothing else about her. It's a pattern that stretches back decades: Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) in “Fatal Attraction,” Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter) in “Play Misty for Me,” Madison Bell (Erika Christensen) in “Swimfan” and Adrian Forrester (Alicia Silverstone) in “The Crush” are similarly blank slates – less human beings than walking pathologies. This gives the audience license to root for their destruction – which can be fun! – but doesn't contribute much in the way of humanizing real-life sufferers.

Myth #3: People with mental illness are manipulative and deceitful.

Remember “Poison Ivy”? The 1992 film starred Drew Barrymore as a teenage girl who worms her way into an upper-class family by seducing the father, murdering the mother and generally wreaking havoc on the life of Darlene from “Roseanne.” Her manipulative nature is accented by a vixen-ish quality that sees her parading around in a variety of skimpy outfits – a related (sexist) trope we've seen represented in practically every film that features a female stalker, from “The Crush” to “Swimfan” to “The Roommate” to “Obsessed.”

While physical attractiveness-as-manipulation-tool is less common among male movie stalkers – notable exceptions including a Calvin Klein-era Mark Wahlberg in “Fear” (1996) and “Step Up” hottie Guzman in “The Boy Next Door” – they are also almost universally presented as skilled manipulators who will use any deceitful means necessary to get what they want. These depictions unfortunately only embolden societal mistrust of anyone deemed eccentric or unbalanced.

Myth #4: People with mental illness are hopeless and irredeemable.

This plays into a commonly-held belief that there is “no hope” for people with severe mental illness – a mindset that at one time saw many otherwise treatable individuals confined to psychiatric institutions. I am hard-pressed to find a single example of a “stalker” character who didn't end up either dead or behind bars by the final reel – and while I don't blame the filmmakers given the tonal demands of the genre, sadly these representations are given far too much weight in a marketplace woefully short on more redemptive depictions.

Myth #5: People with mental illness are more likely to hurt others than themselves.

In the original ending of “Fatal Attraction,” Glenn Close's Alex slits her own throat – a climax that didn't test well with audiences despite the fact that those suffering from mental illness are in fact more likely to self-harm than to harm others. The ensuing reshoots resulted in what Roger Ebert deemed the film's “horror-movie conclusion,” which sees a deranged Alex attacking Dan (Michael Douglas) and his wife in their home before being shot to death.

Close's Oscar-nominated performance is admittedly excellent, but the re-shot ending turns her character into a monstrous, one-dimensional figure that plays on the stereotype of the mental illness sufferer as a deranged lunatic whose inner torment is expressed homicidally. Not only is suicide a more realistic outcome, they are also far more likely to become the victims of a violent crime themselves.

What are your thoughts on the “stalker” genre? Let us know in the comments.