We’re revisiting the horror/thriller world today with a look at a 2015 indie psychological drama that may just be one of the best portrayals of schizophrenia currently in media.
They Look Like People follows the stories of two young men in New York City over the course of a week. Friends Wyatt and Christian run into each other on the street, and while Wyatt stays in Christian’s apartment, we witness the former man’s decompensation and acute symptoms of schizophrenia, portrayed in a fairly accurate way.
This genre of is not always kind to folks with mental illnesses (I’m looking at you, Split) and tends to show these characters only as villains. Refreshingly, They Look Like People subverts these expectations. All of Wyatt’s scenes are from his perspective, and the audience experiences the same fear and stress that Wyatt does, rather than being scared by his actions.
Throughout the film, Wyatt has periods of time where he hears a loud buzzing, a type of auditory hallucination that many folks with schizophrenia experience. The buzzing is often so loud that we as the audience have a hard time understanding what other characters are saying. It makes us feel disrupted, confused, and even angry — which is groundbreaking because it creates a sense of empathy for Wyatt. In a small way, we are experiencing the same emotions that Wyatt is in the scene, and we get a glimpse of how truly disorienting it can be to hear constant buzzing like this.
At other points, Wyatt hears a distorted voice that tells him to prepare for the apocalypse. We sense his paranoia as he becomes distrustful of those around him — people whom the voice has told him are complicit in this end-of-the-world plot. We also see the grotesque, distorted faces that Wyatt fears. We feel Wyatt’s relief when he shares his experience with an acquaintance whom he believes is on his side and can help him prepare against the end of the world — and then his anguish when the acquaintance becomes terrified of him.
Often, when talk of psychotic disorders comes up, this population’s risk of suicide remains unmentioned. In an abrupt scene change, we see Wyatt put a nail gun into his mouth, reminding the audience that up to 40% of the premature deaths of those with schizophrenia could be attributed to suicide, and that experiencing auditory or visual hallucinations increases that risk substantially. Sobering facts.
There are also points of this film that rub me the wrong way, as a mental health advocate. Towards the middle of the film, Wyatt goes up to the roof of Christian’s building with the same nail gun and contemplates shooting random passers-by whom he believes are a part of the apocalypse conspiracy. Thankfully, he does not end up killing anyone, but this scene perpetuates the myth that those with mental illnesses are more violent than neurotypical people.
The final scene of the film is perhaps the most powerful (I really want y’all to go and watch this, so I’ll keep the details minimal). In this scene, there is another subversion of typical horror tropes, with an emphasis the importance of social and human connections for people who are living with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. This is unprecedented for media! I can’t tell you how excited I was when [REDACTED – watch the movie]! One of my favorite classes during my masters was on the psychosocial treatment of psychotic disorders (check out an overview of this topic here). This class helped me recognize the importance of nonpharmacologic interventions for this particular class of disorders — and the fact that this film reinforced this is phenomenal.
How did this movie get so much about schizophrenia right? The director did his research. In an interview with Scream Magazine in 2015, Perry Blackshear was asked about his preparation for this movie, and he had some incredibly insightful comments:
I did a lot of research into schizophrenia after being inspired by this video … about a virtual reality simulator that you could put on and feel what it would be like to be schizophrenic. I saw it when I was younger and it was the scariest thing by far that I have ever seen…. The fact that you could never know when it would be on or off. The waking nightmare part of it was so frightening and the more research I did the more people went through was more scary than anything that I could ever come up with.
Now, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to focus on only the fearful parts of schizophrenia. I do, however, think it’s incredible that a director chose to look at the scary parts of living with schizophrenia, rather than how scared other people might feel when witnessing someone with schizophrenia. While some films are othering towards mental illness, this film is humanizing. It neither demonizes nor sanitizes Wyatt’s experience — it manages to show the audience depth and complexity, without falling into terrible tropes. There are even moments where other characters acknowledge their own mental health issues (one talks about his suicidal episode, another mentions the “choir” of voices that she hears every so often).
However, I must warn you that it is a scary movie! As someone with a relatively low fright tolerance, there are definitely some jump scares that left me a little anxious. But for a film of this quality? Absolutely worth it.
They Look Like People is (as of November 17th) available to stream on Netflix and Amazon Prime.
They Look Like People: ★★★★½