Last week, I wrote about a horror movie that I interpreted as a positive commentary on mental illness. This time, I’m covering a horror movie that is the exact opposite.
The Visit is a 2015 found-footage style horror film directed by horror legend M. Night Shyamalan. It centers around a brother and sister who are sent upstate to spend a week with their mother’s estranged parents. Notably, the working title for this movie was Sundowning, a reference to the phenomenon in dementia where individuals become more confused and agitated in the evenings.
From the beginning, the kids can tell there is something off about Nana and Pop Pop. The grandmother chases the two kids in the space beneath the house, and we see an outdoor shed completely filled with used adult diapers. There are also scenes of the grandmother wandering the halls of the house at night, completely naked, scratching at the walls and vomiting. Creepy stuff.
And it just gets weirder. The boy finds the grandfather with a rifle in his mouth in the shed. The grandmother tells the girl that she has to laugh to keep the “deep darkies in a cave” before attempting to strangle herself with a scarf. But when the kids Skype their mother, she insists they’re just old and “weird” and that this is normal.
Here comes the plot twist! Because it wouldn’t be an M. Night movies without one. Once the kids have been sufficiently scared out of their minds, they call their mom again and — SPOILER ALERT — she tells them that these old people aren’t her parents. It turns out that they are escaped mental patients who murdered their real grandparents who were volunteers at the hospital, just so they could have a “vacation.”
This is where I take issue with the plot. As I mentioned last week, horror and mental illness often go hand-in-hand in pop culture. And, at this time of the year, there are many haunted houses that have a theme related to mental illness. Clinical psychologist Andrew Solomon wrote about the dangers of equating mental illness with violence and horror in The New York Times this week, and he makes an important point:
Sanity and mental illness lie on a spectrum, and most people occasionally cross over from one side to the other. It’s the proximity of mental illness rather than its obscurity that makes it so scary. But it should be scary in a “fix the broken care system” way or in a “figure out the brain’s biology” way, and not in a “scream for laughs” kind of way.
While no one in The Visit screams for laughs, the idea that the big twist for a horror movie is that the weird, creepy, violent people were secretly escaped psychiatric patients is troubling in a similar way. Upsettingly, this movie does a lot of things to make itself funnier than most horror films — though I cringed every single time the boy did his comic-relief rapping.
I will emphasize my point from last week: those with mental illness are not any more likely to be violent than those without mental illness. And, more likely, they will be victims of violence than perpetrators. And a plot twist that partially relies on some of the least creative tropes and most dangerous stereotypes is not a plot twist that is very effective.
We all know M. Night is king of the plot twist. I was genuinely shocked and terrified when the film reveals that the grandparents are imposters! I didn’t see it coming at all, and I love it when a movie can throw me off. But there is so much else you can do with a twist like that! Have they been possessed by a supernatural force? Have they been faking these weird symptoms for some kind of gain? Were the real grandparents in on the plot the whole time? If they are psychiatric patients, maybe they escaped to take a break from the horrors they’re being subjected to inside the walls?
But no. They’re just crazy, murderous, demented old folks. Yawn. Not to mention, before the twist, many of the behaviors the fake-grandparents exhibit are just amplified versions of very real symptoms of dementia (wandering, inability to care for self, problems with memory — NOT murderous rages). No wonder the working title was Sundowning!
I like a suggestion made by Martin Jensen in his review about a direction the film could have gone (emphasis mine):
The horror itself is predicated around fear and distrust of old people which, if treated with slightly more self-awareness, could have become a more interesting, introspective, and challenging theme about our own fears of aging and death; as it is, the primary message is that old bodies and minds are gross.
The Visit has received largely positive feedback by reviewers, many of them citing the shocking nature of the plot twist as its best feature. As an advocate for mental health and the reduction of stigma against mental illness, that disturbs me. Mental illness is more than a plot twist.