Disturbed Psychology as Portrayed on Film

The theme Disturbed Psychology refers to portraits of abnormal psychology as depicted in fantastic cinema. This is separate from the topic Psychos and Serial Killers concerning those who exhibit psychopathic behaviour, which is so populous it has been propagated into its own topic. Depictions of Multiple Personality Disorder are also so common they get their own topic under Split Personality. For depictions of the practice of psychiatry and psychology see Psychiatry; for its malevolent practitioners see Sinister Psychiatrists; for psychiatric institutions see Asylums.

In the choice of the term ‘Disturbed Psychology’, no slur is meant against those who suffer real world mental health issues. It should be made clear that the melodramatic depictions of mental health on screen are in most cases a fiction that rarely approximate the way these issues affect people in the real world. Even celebrated films based on real-life individuals with mental illness – Shine (1996), A Beautiful Mind (2001) – adopt absurdly melodramatic treatments that have little resemblance to reality.

Depictions of Disturbed Psychology fall into roughly three categories:-

  • Depictions of Madness – works concerned with portraits of the mentally ill
  • Subjective Portraits of Mental Illness – works that come from the point-of-view of a mentally ill person and show their distorted view of the world
  • Ambiguously Fantastic Portraits of Mental Illness – works in which we cannot be certain that the appearance of fantastical elements is due to the protagonist’s mental health issues.

Depictions of Madness

The 1930s and 40s were not exactly known as sympathetic in their treatments of mental illness. Usually, as in films like Among the Living (1941), Hangover Square (1945) and Beware, My Lovely (1952), the mentally ill were creepy and wide-eyed and likely to be easily triggered to snap. A notable example was A Double Life (1947) with Ronald Colman as a Shakespearean actor who becomes so absorbed in playing the role of Othello on stage that he develops murderous tendencies.

One of the more distinctive early works about madness is Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) whose central character Roderick Usher is driven mad by an over-acuteness of senses. This has been subject to a number of film adaptations, the most noted being The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) and The House of Usher (1960).

A number of works concern themselves with individuals and their descent into obsessions of various types – as in John Turturro’s screenwriter suffering from writer’s block in Barton Fink (1991); Bullet Ballet (1998) where a man becomes obsessed with obtaining a gun; In My Skin (2002) in which a woman is obsessed with self-mutilation; Ab-Normal Beauty (2004) about a woman obsessed with photographing death; Toby Jones’s descent into paranoia in Berberian Sound Studio (2012); and Swallow (2019) where a woman becomes obsessed with eating objects. In other works, we see that broodingly obsessive states of mind will frequently tip over into murder – as in Alyce (2011), 1922 (2017), Tilt (2017) and Censor (2021).

One of the most disturbing works here is David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), which concerns twin gynaecologists and charts their descent into drug addiction, obsession and madness. Of note also is the descent into madness we see in Antichrist (2009), which director Lars von Trier claims to have made to deal with his own state of depression.

Robert De Niro practices his gun draws in Taxi Driver (1976)
Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) – descent into obsession as the underdog snaps

A powerful work was Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) where Robert De Niro’s title character descends into obsession and begins arming himself with guns to shoot a target seemingly as a reaction against the corrupt world around him or his inability to find a place in it. Falling Down (1993) features Michael Douglas as a regular guy who abruptly snaps and goes on a shooting rampage over the petty injustices of everyday life. Joker (2019) reinvents the DC Comics super-villain as a downtrodden failure suffering untreated mental illness who snaps and finally finds himself by taking on the role of a killer clown.

Other works such as Killer Nerd (1991), The Butcher Boy (1997), Excision (2012) and Excess Flesh (2015) concern downtrodden individuals who snap as a result of abuse and ill treatment in their lives. Both Heart of America: Home Room (2002) and Elephant (2003) concern themselves with the build-up to school shootings, while Exhibit A (2007) is a Found Footage film about the disintegration of a family. Well worthwhile was Bellflower (2011) concerning itself with Mad Max fans where the latter half of the film makes a descent into disturbed psychology as one character attempts to deal with a breakup.

There are a number of works that offer day-to-day portraits of highly disturbed individuals as in Crawlspace (1972), Combat Shock (1986), Schramm (1993), My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2007), Sick Girl (2007), Child of God (2013) and The Eyes of My Mother (2016).

One cannot go without mentioning Anna M. (2007) with Isabelle Carré giving the single most disturbing portrait of unhinged stalker behaviour ever put on screen. A close second might be the performance given by Rebecca Hall as the woman falling apart in Resurrection (2022).

Subjective Portraits of Madness

This is concerned with works in which what we see on screen is subjectively taking place inside the mind of a mentally disturbed individual. In many cases, the dividing line between what is real and imagined in not clear.

The key film here was the German Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), which takes place in a realm of distorted and angular sets with stark and exaggerated lighting schemes. The eventual twist ending reveals this to be taking place inside the mind of a patient in an asylum where the sinister title doctor turns out to be the psychiatrist. This was remade as Dr Caligari (1989) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (2005). Similar and possibly influenced by Dr Caligari was the Japanese film A Page of Madness (1926).

Hugely influential was Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), which takes place in the decaying mind of Catherine Deneuve and blurs between what is real and what is hallucination without any dividing line. Polanski also returned to the theme in The Tenant (1976) in which he plays a mousy man who is being driven to a state of paranoia and loss of his identity by neighbours.

Other works influenced by Polanski include Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968) with Max Von Sydow as an artist haunted by hallucinations; David Cronenberg’s Spider (2002) with a mentally ill Ralph Fiennes; Saint Maud (2019), a depiction of a nurse’s descent into religious hallucinations in her determination to save a dying patient’s soul; and The Father (2020) with a dementia-ridden Anthony Hopkins caught in a bewildering series of shifting unreliable memories. A fascinating work here is the Finnish Love is a Treasure (2002), which depicts the interior mental spaces of real-life mentally ill people.

Cesare (Conrad Veidt) abducts Lil Dagover in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919)
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) – the distorted depiction of the subjective mental of a mad person

Pink Floyd – The Wall (1982) takes place inside the drug-addled, mentally-decaying mind of a rock star. The subjective portrait still continues in works such as The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976), Track 29 (1988), Lunatics: A Love Story (1991), Heavenly Creatures (1994), The 4th Dimension (2006), The Number 23 (2007), Darling (2015), Goddess of Love (2015), The Evil Within (2017) and The Lighthouse (2019).

A common theme in this section is of works that borrow from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and conduct a left-field pullback at the last minute to reveal the assorted happenings have been the imaginings of someone’s overheated or hallucinating state of mind. [PLOT SPOILERS]. Examples might include Identity (2003), The Machinist (2004), Next Door (2005), Pandorum (2009), Black Swan (2010), Shutter Island (2010), The Ward (2010), Comforting Skin (2011), Dream House (2011), Girl in Woods (2015), Last Girl Standing (2015), Anonymous 616 (2018), Fractured (2019), In the Trap (2019), Encounter (2021) and Monstrous (2022).

We have other works where the dividing line between the real world and disturbed psychology is not clear as in Possession (1981), Pop Skull (2007), Amer (2009), Apparition (2015) and The Ghoul (2016). Films featuring delusionary happenings and imagined companions are so extensive they are dealt with in more detail under their own topic Films Featuring a Mad Person’s Delusion.

The subjective portrait was uniquely turned on its head with The Voices (2014) that takes place in the Day Glo world of Ryan Reynolds’ head, which is abruptly revealed as something more grim when he goes off his meds.

Another interesting entry would be The Cell (2000) in which psychiatrist Jennifer Lopez uses a device by which she can enter the surreal mental terrain of a serial killer’s mind.

Madness and The Ambiguously Fantastic

This is concerned with depictions of the fantastic and supernatural where we cannot be certain if what is happening is real or in the mind of a mentally ill individual. A classic example is The Shining (1980) where we cannot be certain if the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel are real or figments created by the struggling writer’s block of Jack Nicholson. Other good examples include the classic The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (1964) with William Shatner as a man recovering from a nervous breakdown who sees a gremlin on an airplane wing; the struggling mother who cannot be sure if she is imagining the appearances of the boogeyman in The Babadook (2014) and The Wind (2018) concerning a woman alone on the Western frontier who may or may not be seeing demons.

Other entries among these ambiguous films include the appearances of the Jersey Devil in The Barrens (2012), Michael Shannon’s prophecies of the end of the world in Take Shelter (2011), Brian Morvant’s claims of military experiments and a creature in his basement in Pod (2015), MacLeod Andrews’ obsession with demons in the remarkable They Look Like People (2015), Ty Hickson’s maybe having conjured The Devil or just having gone off his meds in The Alchemist’s Cookbook (2016); Sean Harris maybe taunted by an evil puppet in Possum (2018); and a schizophrenic Madison Iseman not sure who around her is in her imagination as she believes her neighbour has abducted a child in Fear of Rain (2021).

It is a standard trope in Hauntings and Ghost Stories where the heroine (usually) has a past history of mental health issues and her husband and authorities dismiss her claims about evidence of the supernatural due to this. This uncertainty plays out at the centre of films such as Full Circle/The Haunting of Julia (1977), Schock/Beyond the Door II (1977), Scared Stiff (1987), Perfect Strangers (2003), Lovely Molly (2011), The Canal (2014), Darling (2015) and The Intruders (2015).

A real world example is Requiem (2006) based on the real-life story of Annelise Michel – whose story was considerably fictionalised in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) – who was in reality a girl suffering from mental illness whose struggles were interpreted as demonic possession.

In the realm of the bizarre must be Vampire’s Kiss (1988) in which Nicolas Cage believes he is a vampire, while Werewolf Woman (1976) concerns a woman who believes she may be a werewolf ancestor.


A full list of titles can be found here Disturbed Psychology