Who gets to be the hero? Mental illness & recovery in The Twilight Zone

The portrayal of mental illness in horror goes way back, back to arguably the first ever horror film. It makes some sense: most people think about mental illness as the loss of control of one’s mind, which can be a terrifying thought. Mental illness and how we treat those with mental illness, as portrayed in horror films and media, serve so many purposes: as an explanation or scapegoat for something paranormal happening (see: Hereditary); as a means to control or torture a protagonist (see: Get Out); or as simply a setting that is an easy shorthand to convey eeriness or a sense of being haunted (i.e., a psychiatric hospital). Perhaps the most prevalent way that horror utilizes mental illness is in the creation of some of the most indelible villains in all of cinema: Buffalo Bill, Carrie, Norman Bates, Freddy Krueger… too many to name. Their trauma and psychological instability are the core features of what makes them so scary.

However, when was the last time you saw a horror film where someone with mental illness was the hero? Have you ever seen one?

While I love horror stories, I often have to contend with stories that weaponize mental illness in ways that are uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst. Films portray people with mental illness as violent and unstable, even though time and again research has shown that they are not. Other media simply uses mental illness as a shallow plot device rather than a legitimate concern that more people than not will experience in their lifetimes. Historic psychiatric hospitals are treated like horror amusement parks in movies and in real life, equating the idea of seeking treatment for a mental health care crisis with torture and terror. People with mental illness are real people with real struggles, not just irrational, murderous caricatures. When we reduce mental health concerns to these stereotypes, it can lead to prejudice and stigma.

I was thinking a lot about these concerns recently when I engaged with my longest standing holiday tradition: watching the 1959-1964 TV series The Twilight Zone every new year’s. This started by watching the SyFy channel’s marathon they have every new year, but it has moved on to simply watching a classic episode or two sometime before or after the clock strikes midnight.

This year I watched arguably the series’ most famous episode: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Written by Richard Matheson, it tells the story of Robert Wilson (portrayed by a young William Shatner), a seemingly normal-looking man who urgently tries to warn his fellow airplane passengers about the monster wrecking havoc on the wing in mid-air. However, no one believes him, because 1) no one else sees the monster, and 2) he’s recovering from a “nervous breakdown” that put him in a psychiatric hospital for 6 months.

Throughout the episode, William Shatner portrays Robert as someone who, like anyone with experience with mental illness, is acutely aware of how others perceive him. He struggles at every turn whether to share what he’s seen with others, fully knowing that they already view him as “crazy.” He knows he doesn’t even need to share anything as outrageous as the idea of a gremlin on the side of the plane for others to perceive him as weak or unstable – watch the judgmental glance the flight attendance throws his way when he takes a sleeping pill. His frustration and pain only grows as others increasingly patronize or infantilize him when he tries to warn them about the impending danger.

Early on during the flight, Robert’s wife reassures him that everything at home is left intact the way it was before he went to the hospital. “Everything except me,” he says wearily. Robert’s biggest fear after recovering from his “breakdown” is that he can’t trust himself – he can’t trust his own mind. We, the viewer, know that Robert is right. We see the monster, too. The episode never makes us question whether or not the monster is real. Instead, it’s most interested in putting us in Robert’s shoes, making us fear that others won’t believe him, or feel the shame and frustration when others are condescending towards or frightened of him. It puts us squarely in the perspective of this man who is just trying to do the right thing – save himself and others from harm. Robert does what any reasonable person would do in this situation, albeit with the added barrier that no one believes him due to his psychiatric history.

This story is special because rather than using Robert’s mental health concerns as a means of making us fear or misunderstand him, we empathize with Robert because of these concerns. He’s not the villain in this story. He’s the hero.

The reason I love The Twilight Zone is because of how deeply empathetic it is. Rod Serling, the creator and writer of over 2/3 of the original series, made dignity, respect, and humanity the core features for his show. He once said, “I happen to think that the singular evil of our time is prejudice. It is from this evil that all other evils grow and multiply. In almost everything I’ve written there is a thread of this: a man’s seemingly palpable need to dislike someone other than himself.

I don’t think Mr. Serling was specifically thinking about mental illness when he said these words or wrote some of the most famous stories that dealt with the perils of prejudice, but it definitely applies. It’s an incredibly upsetting experience, to not be believed based on others’ prejudices towards us, and we feel every second of that through Robert. It’s an experience not only all too familiar with people with mental illness, but from any marginalized group. Robert is a married, heterosexual white man in the early 1960s, so he’s far from marginalized in many ways, but the desire to be taken seriously is one that many people who experience mental illness can relate to.*

Robert becomes the hero by learning to trust himself again. He sacrifices his safety and security to save others. By the end of the episode, he’s killed the monster, but he’s being taken out of the aircraft on a stretcher to an ambulance. People think he’s “crazier” than ever. His wife tells him that everything is all right, and he replies, “I know, but I’m the only one who does know. Right now.” The camera pans back and you see the damaged wing of the plane. Rod Serling’s classic narration returns:

The flight of Mr. Robert Wilson has ended now, a flight not only from point A to point B, but also from the fear of recurring mental breakdown. Mr. Wilson has that fear no longer, though, for the moment, he is, as he said, alone in this assurance. Happily, his conviction will not remain isolated too much longer, for happily, tangible manifestation is very often left as evidence of trespass, even from such an intangible quarter as the Twilight Zone.

While many who live with mental illness (or any chronic health condition, for that matter) will never be completely “free” from a recurrence, they can be in recovery. They can be believed, respected, loved. They can trust themselves, even when others don’t. More stories, horror or otherwise, should include them as the heroes of their own stories.

*If you are interested in seeing this story tackled in a way that (to me) is directly about race and about whom some of us decide to place our trust in and why, I highly recommend the 2019 version of this episode, starring Adam Scott and produced by Jordan Peele.

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