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Mind Over Pop Culture: Fatal Attraction

It’s October, so I thought I’d use this month’s blog posts to go back to where we started, with horror. (I’m not reviewing this season’s American Horror Story.) The perfect place to start is with Fatal Attraction, with one of the most obvious villains with mental health conditions in film history.

Fatal Attraction is a 1987 movie starring Michael Douglas as Dan, a seemingly happy family man, Anne Archer as his wife Beth and Glenn Close as Alex, a woman he has an affair with. Dan and Alex have an affair, which Dan believes is a one-time thing, but Alex believes is more. She tries to get him to go to the opera with her, but when he won’t, she gets angry and abusive. She begins stalking him, eventually attempting suicide, kidnapping his daughter and infamously boiling a bunny. In the end, Beth takes violent action to deal with the situation.

This movie is in a weird place in history. It received six Oscar nominations, including best picture, and is generally considered a classic movie. It’s also quite often used in classrooms to illustrate borderline personality disorder, which is what Alex is generally considered having. It’s also one of the highest profiled movies with a person with a mental health condition, and one who is successful and glamorous.

But! Alex is also the villain in the movie, because of her mental health condition. Everything she does seems to stem from it. Her actions are used to illustrate borderline personality disorder because they follow the textbook symptoms so completely. Her story arc mirrors the slasher movie villains of the time, right down to the ‘he’s not dead’ jump at the end. It’s ludicrous and kind of offensive to people with mental health conditions. At no time in the movie does anyone think to get her help, even when she attempts suicide, or even to call the police about her behavior. The movie never mentions mental health, except to call her “a crazy bitch” repeatedly.

The other significant issue is that Dan is supposed to be the hero of the movie. He cheats on his wife, treats both her and his lover terribly, and the audience is supposed to be supportive of him. Knowing how sick Alex is, watching him use, ignore her, abuse her and then try to kill her is hard to watch. If he told anyone about her behavior at any time during the movie, I would have more sympathy for him (and that adorable bunny would be ok!). In hopes of saving his marriage, he doesn't get her help, and because of that, the only inevitable conclusion is her death. That makes Alex another person with a mental health condition who is shown to be so out of control that death is the only option for them. That sounds pretty stigmatizing, don’t you think?

Because of its Oscar nominations, Fatal Attraction is one of the best known illustrations of a person with a mental health condition in pop culture. The problem is that it’s one of the most stigmatizing. By making the villain of the movie a person with a mental health condition (whose behavior is caused by that illness), we’ve enshrined mental illness as a villainous thing, a trait that belongs to people who need to be killed by good people. That sounds like a horror movie to me.

(It should be noted that Glenn Close has been an outspoken advocate for people with mental conditions in the last few years. Her work with Bring Change 2 Mind has been admirable. She still supports Fatal Attraction though.)

Next week, we’ll take a look at Primal Fear, the courtroom thriller with Richard Gere and Ed Norton. Have you seen Fatal Attraction? What do you think of the movie’s portrayal of people with mental health conditions?

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