Archive for January, 2011

Ever since I began teaching writing to mental patients, I’ve become more and more aware of (and uncomfortable around) stories and movies that feature “crazy” people as villainous monsters. That’s no doubt due in part to how familiar I’ve  become with the behavior of schizophrenics and psychotics. Physical and verbal “symptoms” that most New Yorkers would cross the street (or change subway cars) to get away from, now just seem like part of the human landscape to me.

And yet, as a writer (and reader) of psychological horror fiction, I encounter mental illness again and again as a subject of horror and loathing, a source of danger and violence. In short, “good material” for the writer.

In film, mental illness typically occupies two ends of a broad spectrum. On one end, there are the spectacularly dangerous lunatics (Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter); on the other end, there are the tortured, brilliant innocents (John Nash, David Helfgott). You’re either a crazed killer or a misunderstood genius, nothing in-between.

Whenever a film grants a psychotic villain  a little sympathy, we’re usually called upon to empathize with the pain they suffer at the hands of the outside world. Quasimodo and Frankenstein’s monster—two child-like characters who could probably garner an ‘MR diagnosis’ at any mental health clinic—are both misunderstood and tormented by unfeeling mobs who they later violently turn on. The unspoken idea is that if these poor brutes were just left alone, if people simply let them “be themselves,” they’d be perfectly happy and everything would turn out fine.

There’s no doubt that the mentally ill have suffered and still suffer horribly at the hands of  “normal” people. Still, for all the suffering caused by the outside world, I’d argue that it’s the inside world that causes the mentally ill their greatest pain. That’s why my favorite on-screen portrayal of a psychotic villain is not Tony Perkins as Norman Bates, or Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter—it’s Charles A. Post as Iscah Nicholas in the 1924 silent film, Wild Oranges.

The character of Nicholas is described as a “brutish man,” a “homicidal maniac” who has somehow insinuated himself into the household of an old man and his granddaughter. An outsider (the “hero,” John Woolfolk) arrives at the island, falls in love with the girl and decides to rescue her. Nicholas, as you can guess, doesn’t like this, and things turn dramatic pretty fast.

A large man, Post easily communicates the raw physical threat we feel in the presence of aggressive psychotic behavior. What’s so remarkable about Post’s performance is how he handles the character’s more fragile moments. When Nicholas asks Millie for a kiss, for instance, the kind of “child-like innocence” he exudes isn’t endearing or even readily sympathetic—it’s pure, painful awkwardness in it’s rawest form.

Equally raw is the moment when Nicholas later collapses in tears after a confrontation with the hero.  With other actors (or other movies), this would be a signal to “feel sorry” for the villain. When Post does it, it’s not an occasion  for “comfortable” empathy. The pain that this moment elicits is shocking, raw, and real.  We understand immediately that Nicholas isn’t weeping from sorrow or frustration over what someone else has done to him—he’s weeping because he’s being torn apart by the devils inside his own skull. Not even the final scene where Nicholas is mauled to death by a ferocious dog can compete with that.

The mental patients who I teach are not geniuses, nor are they monsters. They are human beings caught in a struggle with something terrible inside of them, and if they are brilliant or sensitive or creative at all, it’s in spite of their illness, not because of it.  We don’t need to demonize the mentally ill or deify them. What we can do is see them for who they are, bear witness to their struggle and honor it. That, I believe, is what Charles A. Post succeeded at doing on the screen all those years ago.


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