Home > horror, science fiction > Mental health, mental illness, science fiction and horror

Mental health, mental illness, science fiction and horror

I haven’t posted stuff for a couple of months because I’ve been writing a course on nutrition, which proved interesting at a number of levels. You may have seen some of the recent media coverage of the processed food industry and the way we’re encouraged to buy fat, sugar, salt and donkey meat – but I’ll leave all that for another blog post.

Then I started the latest project, which revisits an area I’ve worked on periodically since the 1980s – mental illness. This is an introductory course for non-medical people like care workers and hostel staff, so it covers a broad spectrum of conditions.

I got to the bit about schizophrenia, and since I also have an interest in writing various genres of fiction there was a sudden cross-pollination of ideas. I’m sure I’m far from the only person to make this link, but I thought it was worth a ‘note to self’ if nothing else.

There’s a summary of the symptoms of schizophrenia that appears on a general introductory information resource on the web, at www.helpguide.org if you’re interested. Schipohrenia has both positive and negative symptoms. A ‘positive’ symptom is where there is an abnormal mental function; a negative symptom is the lack of a mental function you’d normally expect. The positive symptoms are hallucinations and delusions. The hallucinations are often auditory (hearing voices – there’s a simulation of this on Youtube it you’re interested). The delusions, sets of beliefs about the self, others and the word,  take a wid range of forms but commonly fall into one of four patterns:

  • Delusions of persecution – Belief that others, often with vague identities are out to get the person. These persecutory delusions often involve bizarre ideas and plots (e.g. ‘The CIA is trying to poison me with toxins impregnated into my clothes’).
  • Delusions of reference – Something the person sees in their environment is believed to have a special and personal meaning. For example, a person with schizophrenia might believe a piece of street graffiti or workmen’s marks made by a utility company is sending a message meant specifically for them.
  • Delusions of grandeur – Belief that one is a famous or important figure, such as Jesus Christ or Napoleon. Alternately, delusions of grandeur may involve the belief that one has unusual powers that no one else has (e.g. the ability to fly).
  • Delusions of control – Belief that one’s thoughts or actions are being controlled by others. Common delusions of control include thought broadcasting (‘My private thoughts are being bugged or monitored’), thought insertion (‘Someone is putting thoughts in my head’), and thought withdrawal (‘Aliens are robbing me of my thoughts and preventing me remembering things’).

Just in case you’re wondering, the idea of impregnating clothes with toxins isn’t fictional – it was developed in South Africa in the 1970s as a means of killing opponents of apartheid, and the daughter of one activist, Donald Woods, was injured by an acid-laced T-shirt. Nor is the idea of graffiti or other signs of the street being used to communicate with individuals unusual. Intelligence services used such techniques from at least World War II onwards while traveller folklore records gypsies, American hobos and others developing discreet graffiti to provide information on places and people that ‘outsiders’ wouldn’t understand. As to unusual powers and thought-manipulation – there’s always the American MK Ultra intelligence programme, which did some pretty strange things and is often used to lend credence to almost any weirdness you can imagine.

At this point some mental cogwheels began to move, because my sense of a lot of SF, fantasy and horror stories is that they too revolve around one of these four ideas.

As it happens I’m also reading The Air Loom Gang at the moment, which deals with James Tilley Matthews. He was a ‘lunatic’ held in the Bethlem Hospital in London in the late 1700s and ealy 1800s, though by today’s standards he would probably be diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.

His highly elaborate delusions concerned the clandestine siting of Air Looms around London – devices that could control people by directing currents of gases at them that could change their thought patterns and influence their health. Matthews thought they were controlled by criminal gangs in the employ of French revolutionaries and, as is often the case in such delusions, there were small elements of truth embedded in the delusion. For one thing he had spent time in France acting in an unofficial capacity (or perhaps we should say seeking to act as an unofficial negotiator) in talks to make peace between England and revolutionary France; he had been imprisoned by the revolutionaries as a potential spy while in France; and his experiences took place at the time mesmerism, pneumatic chemistry, and experiments on the effects electricity were all in vogue.

Matthews’ delusions of the Air Loom are consistent with what we have come to describe as ‘influencing machines’ – devices that the delusional person believes has an effect on their own mind and possibly on others, such as the hospital staff. But in his discussion of Matthews’ delusions, the author (Mike Jay) comments that the delusions may have some broader social underpinning:

‘Delusional subjects often unsettle those who encounter them not just by the form of their condition but its content: they can reflect back a disturbing, often nightmarish certainty about free-floating anxieties in the broader culture’ (p181)

Which is what much science fiction, fantasy and horror is also intended to do. The genres often explore elaborate nightmare situations that could come about from seeds in current society.

So next time you read a story in which: (a) someone is being persecuted or chased by unknown, shadowy figures who are trying to capture or kill them (b) someone has a sudden revelation by means of seeing something that’s in a public place or being broadcast, but is meant for them alone (c) an ‘ordinary’ person suddenly discovers they have a much grander and more important role in the world (or the universe) or (d) someone discovers they’re missing parts of their memory, have false memories implanted, or are being remotely controlled – remember that you’re reading something that draws on our understandings of mental illness and probably also draws on wider cultural anxieties, principally about the way power and authority are exercised.

At the same time, remember that despite the off-the-wall accounts you can find in some conspiracy theories, technologies have been developed often by intelligence services for use against ‘enemies of the state’, in the knowledge that anyone who says they’ve experienced them is likely to be discounted as mad. That’s not to say any given individual with delusions will have been targeted, of course. Just that the nature of the ‘influencing machines’ and covert weapons that are out there have probably outstripped even the imaginations of many SF and horror writers – and indeed many people with mental illness. Though if you do happen to think you’re Jesus or Napoleon, please seek help…

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