Netflix's 'Bird Box' Is Another Horror Story Stigmatizing Mental Illness

Featured on Mashable. Author: Jess Joho

At first blush, Bird Box's flaws seem inoffensive, if plentiful: A poorly written script, half-baked world-building, paper-thin characters, and the waste of the talents of an Oscar-winning actress on five-year-old screen partners.But under closer scrutiny, a more sinister byproduct emerges from the failures of Netflix's Sandra Bullock-starring post-apocalyptic thriller. 

The villainization of people with mental illness in Hollywood is far from new. But Bird Boxseems to wear this stigmatization and its sensationalization of suicide like a badge of gritty honor.

Centered around an end-of-day reckoning, Bird Box imagines a world stalked by monsters that drive people to commit suicide at the mere sight of them. Everyone, that is, except those with mental illnesses. Instead of killing themselves in gratuitously gory ways like all the "normal" characters, people with mental illnesses become literal agents of evil, obsessed with carrying out the monsters' mission to destroy humanity. 

The examples of this effect are seen in characters explicitly established dealing with mental illness: former patients from a mental hospital, plus a grocery store clerk described as having gone "to prison and always a bit crazy."

So Bird Box is evidently trying to say something about mental illness through its ill-defined monsters, brought forth as biblical judges for our moral punishment. Exactly what they mean as a metaphor, however, remains frustratingly unclear. 

What is clear is that Bird Box joins a long-standing tradition of mass media perpetuating the myth that people with mental illness are dangerously deranged villains of ultra-violence, rather than the reality that they're actually more likely to be victims of violence.

This portrayal is everywhere. Aside from being the first topic of speculation about every mass shooter, horror movies as far back as Psycho are built on it, TV shows like Hannibal further embed the myth into our culture, and video games like Outlast dehumanize psychiatric patients in asylums into spooky enemies to be killed for fun.

The effect of this accumulatively terrible representation of mental illness has a demonstrable effect. People who suffer from these illnesses would rather stay silent than seek help and be seen as "crazy" social pariahs.

Then there's Bird Box's rather cavalier attitude toward depicting gleefully violent suicides. 

Arguably, these are so far removed from real-world suicides that this sensationalist approach can be seen as more responsible than the more graphically true-to-life ones in shows like 13 Reasons Why. But turning that trauma into cheap, bloody thrills for entertainment certainly leaves a bad taste in the mouths of people who are survivors or who wrestle with suicidal thoughts.

It's obvious that the creators of Bird Box did not set out to create a film villainizing mental illness or sensationalizing suicide. If you squint at its woefully confused metaphors, there might be an allegory in the monsters as a darkness that perhaps only people who've struggled with depression, psychological disorders, etc., would be familiar with.

Yet a lack of awareness does not excuse the harm caused by Bird Box's flagrant carelessness in handling extremely sensitive subject matter.

In all fairness, the film does make attempts to right some wrongs in the portrayal of people with one kind of physical disability. At the end, Malorie (Bullock) and the kids find a safe haven in a community run by the blind, showing people with a physical disability not only as capable citizens but as strong leaders, guiding the able-bodied into a new world. 

It's a rare, refreshingly positive reflection of a real-world truth: That what society often views as a pitiable weakness can in so many other ways be a strength. It's not unlike A Quiet Place's laudable representation of deaf character Regan, played beautifully by Millicent Simmonds.

But this destigmatization of disability only goes as far as the physical. Because in Bird Box's vision of Eden for survivors of the rapture, there's no place for people with psychological disabilities.

For one, the tone of the film encourages us to view those who fight to survive that darkness in the real world with abject horror rather than any sort of empathy.

Unlike blindness, mental illness is characterized as seemingly the most unconquerable weakness, rendering those who suffer from it more susceptible rather than more resilient to the darkness that the monsters represent. If anything, the world rules set up by Bird Box should mean they're more adept at surviving a world cloaked in that unending darkness.

For another, Bird Box makes the egregious mistake of depicting these characters as one-dimensional caricatures defined exclusively by their mental illnesses. Sure, everyone "normal" who looks at the monsters becomes a brainless zombie. But turning people with mental illnesses into the exact opposite — zealots who survive only as extensions of a monstrous evil — has the incredibly othering effect of denying them even the humanity afforded to all the other characters.

None of this is to say that every "negative" depiction of mental illness, particularly those in horror movies, should not be allowed. In the same year as Bird Box's release, Hereditary addressed mental illness and trauma through the lens of horror to increase the audience's empathy for that internal and generational struggle.

What it comes down to is Bird Box's lack of care toward almost every element of its filmmaking. And when it comes how it tackles a real problem through its fantastical premise, it's a movie that keeps its eyes stubbornly shut.

If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts you can text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Alternatively, a further list of international resources is available here. 


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