Checking into the Bates Motel: How Movies Get Mental Illness Wrong

Checking into the Bates Motel: How Movies Get Mental Illness Wrong

We see Leigh enter the bathroom and shower without a care in the world as the motel’s warm water rains down on her. The screen pans out so we see the door open behind the shower curtain. Through the mist and opaque curtain, we see a shadow emerge behind Leigh, growing in size as it comes closer. All we hear is the water raining down and draining through the pipes until suddenly, the curtains are drawn back, the music gets deafeningly loud. We see Leigh turn around only just in time to reveal a shadowed figure with its arm raised, holding a knife before it repeatedly comes down, resulting in terrified screams. All we’re left with is again the sound of water sinking into the pipes.

When we hear “psycho,” we automatically pair the word to someone who is unstable or “crazy,” more often than not in a menacing way. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho evokes fear in all of us – we’re afraid to meet the wrong person when we walk down that dark alley, scared we’ll get someone unhinged as our Uber driver, or, God forbid, check into a hotel where the owner is a little too close with his mother. Unfortunately, the media portrays mental illnesses in an unhealthy and violent way; schizophrenia’s association with Psycho is no exception. These negative images have planted themselves into our subconscious, as we are unable to disassociate the term “psycho” with “mental health patient,” more notably, associating violence with patients with schizophrenia (Byrne 1998).

Unfortunately, this seems to be the case for much of the daily entertainment we witness on television screens. Depictions of schizophrenia are not only stereotypical, but also create a caricature for those living with schizophrenia. These misrepresentations are due to the lack of awareness of schizophrenia in terms of its symptoms, cause, and treatment amongst the general public, including producers of media and viewers (Hyler 1988). Furthermore, the inaccurate portrayal of schizophrenia is not only damaging to patients, but also pervades society by creating “typical” tropes of those with schizophrenia. For example, in a study analyzing English-language movies with at least one lead with schizophrenia, the majority of characters were Caucasian males who exhibited violent, and almost homicidal, behavior (Owen 2012). Alongside the perpetual negative portrayal of schizophrenia is the lack of treatment options on television. Only a few movies actually depicted any means of treatment, which were more commonly in the form of psychotropic drugs. Instead, characters were either forced into institutions or committed suicide (Owen 2012). This gives off the impression that there are only bleak endings for those living with schizophrenia.

This negative portrayal of treatment options in film may contribute to feelings of despair within patients with schizophrenia because films are failing to offer more positive outcomes for those with mental illnesses. From the lack of hope or recovery in the media, specifically in movies, patients living with schizophrenia (and other mental illnesses) may start to relate to these images and believe that these negative outcomes will happen to them, as well. In addition to how patients react, moviegoers also have negative reactions to negative portrayals of schizophrenia. In fact, people who receive their knowledge of mental illnesses from the media tend to be more hostile and intolerant towards those with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, thereby ostracizing those with mental illnesses (Beachum 2010).

However, not all hope is lost. Filmmakers are beginning to see the error in their ways and are showing mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, in a more realistic and positive light. In 2001, the award-winning moving A Beautiful Mind showed various symptoms of schizophrenia, not only violent delusions and behaviors as Psycho and previous movies had done. Russell Crowe’s portrayal of renowned mathematician John Nash showed another side of schizophrenia: a more realistic one. Nash was an intelligent young man who was starting a family – something almost everyone could relate to. Finally, we see the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia develop in Nash’s life, but only after we are given his character development; in other words, his mental illness didn’t define him. We also see how Nash is angry with his antipsychotic medication, something many patients with schizophrenia deal with, as they feel they are losing autonomy over their bodies. At the end of the movie, Nash is seen teaching again at Princeton and winning the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, with his family and “schizophrenic symptoms” side by side (the movie ends with him walking out with his family and the characters in his imagination standing beside them). The movie gave families and patients with schizophrenia hope for recovery (Rosenstock 2003).

Film then, when used correctly, can be a tool for education surrounding schizophrenia for the larger masses. In fact, it was shown that knowledge surrounding schizophrenia improved when college students viewed informational videos versus lectures based around schizophrenia (Owen 2007). If this is the case, we should incorporate film and video about schizophrenia and other mental illnesses into our educational system, especially in places like New York, where it is now required to incorporate mental health education into the school curriculum. By mandating the incorporation of mental health into student education, stereotypes and misinformation can hopefully be eliminated, or at least dispelled, within our communities. We know how to handle physical cases of illness – if we see someone sneeze, we hand them a tissue; if we see someone look faint, we carefully escort them to the nurse’s office. Now we can apply this same empathetic attitude in identifying how to react when we see unexpected emotional reactions and how to lend a hand to those living with mental illnesses, instead of just turning a blind eye.


Beachum, L. (2010). The psychopathology of cinema: how mental illness and psychotherapy are portrayed in film. Accessed 7 Oct. 2018.

Byrne, P. (1998). Fall and rise of the movie ‘psycho-killer’. Psychiatric Bulletin22(3), 174-176. Accessed 28 Sept. 2018.

Hyler, S. E. (1988). DSM-III at the cinema: Madness in the movies. Comprehensive psychiatry29(2), 195-206. Accessed 28 Sept. 2018.

Owen, P. (2007). Dispelling myths about schizophrenia using film. Journal of Applied Social Psychology37(1), 60-75. Accessed 28 Sept. 2018.

Owen, P. R. (2012). Portrayals of schizophrenia by entertainment media: a content analysis of contemporary movies. Psychiatric Services63(7), 655-659. Accessed 28 Sept. 2018.

Rosenstock, J. (2003). Beyond a beautiful mind: film choices for teaching schizophrenia. Academic Psychiatry27(2), 117-122. Accessed 28 Sept. 2018.

Nicole Olakkengil

Science impacts our everyday life – we see it manifest in culture, society, and most clear to us, medicine and our own bodies. It was this curiosity to further learn about what makes us us: our internal makeup and our societal and cultural influences. Because of this, I’ve pursued an education in both biology and sociology as an undergraduate student here at Stony Brook University. More specific, mental health is a subject that is the result of the marriage between biology, sociology, and psychology. After taking courses and reading studies that focus on mental well-being, I realized that yes, we have learned so much but at the same time, we only scratched the surface of the brain and the mind; we still have a long way to go. As long as I have these three things, I can brave the unknown: hot chocolate with extra whipped cream, a good book, and let’s be real – my laptop (with that good Wi-Fi).

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