COMMENT:

Two things are happening in New Zealand right now that suddenly converged in the most unexpected of ways this past week.

First, Halloween is on the horizon and it is peak time for the horror genre.

As such, we've seen a lot of hype around the likes of Netflix's hit new series The Haunting of Hill House and of course, the rebooted Halloween starring Jamie Lee Curtis, which has been breaking box office records in America.

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At the same time, New Zealand is talking about mental health more than usual thanks to Mental Health Week having recently taken place, and of course, Jami-Lee Ross' mental health struggles and news the now former National MP has been taken into mental health care.

What do these two things have to do with each other?

Well as an avid horror fan who makes it her business to marathon the year's most-hyped horror every October, it hit me recently how heavily the genre goes hand in hand with mental health.

For decades, the horror genre has been either depicting (see: misrepresenting) mental health, or metaphorically turning it into ghouls or monsters for scare-value.

One of the year's biggest horrors - the Toni Collette led Hereditary - played on depression, grief and anxiety and in particular, an unwillingness to face them.

And Netflix's Hill House sees five siblings each battling their own demons from depression to anxiety to OCD to addiction, and a storyline which plays on hallucinations, psychosis and depression.

The crossover really hit me during a monologue by a character called Theo, in which she describes a paranormal experience in a way which will be all too relatable for many. She said: "It was just this dark, empty black hole. And I'm just floating in this ocean of nothing, and I wonder if this is what death is ... just darkness and numbness and alone."

Modern horror, it seems, is taking a more nuanced approach to mental health - it's more about acknowledging what's happening and seeking help, understanding and support.

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Take Aussie horror The Babadook which, while satisfyingly scary, was also a weirdly comforting take on depression, in which the protagonist eventually learned to live with her demon and accepted it as a part of her life.

But this hasn't always been the case. Traditionally, horror has portrayed mental illness sufferers as psychopaths and demons, and its metaphors have treated it as something to be vanquished or escaped at all costs.

Certainly, being sectioned (or forcibly put into mental health care) was the worst thing that could happen to you because that meant the demons would definitely get you, and suicide - or some other kind of self-sacrifice - is often portrayed as the only way out.

Look at classics like Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho, The Shining, The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, Halloween and Friday the 13th - all of them deal with iterations of or metaphors for mental health, and all of them poorly.

What's especially interesting to me is the treatment of gender in these instances. In horror, male protagonists become monsters and murderers while female protagonists are often haunted, terrorised and usually left questioning their sanity.

My question now is: What does this say about society's views on mental health? Do we fear people who suffer mental illness? Do we see them as dangerous and "possessed"? Do we think men can only cope through violence, and why is female "hysteria" still a thing?

What I really have to wonder is if this keeps popping up in the genre, is it because mental illness is the thing we fear the most? The idea of being misunderstood and feeling lost, alone and out of control?

What I do know is while for many their illness is a daily horror, equating it to something unholy or supernatural gives it more power than it deserves.

The direction horror is taking and the conversations we're having now give me hope that we're on the right track to treating mental illness as what it is: An illness which is treatable and manageable, not something to be locked in the basement, mythicised or feared.

WHERE TO GET HELP:

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:

DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland (24/7)
NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (24/7)
SAMARITANS – 0800 726 666
SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLINE: 0508 828 865 (24/7)
WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz

There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here.