In the upcoming Mental Health and Horror: A Documentary, writer/director Jonathan Barkan (The Horror Collective, DREAD, Bloody-Disgusting) and producer Andrew Hawkins (Jan Švankmajer’s Insect, In Search of Darkness: Part II) look to explore the positive impact horror movies can have on our mental health. The project looks to be a very exciting opportunity to demystify the genre’s appeal for people who don’t consider themselves horror fans while also providing validation for those who may feel weird about finding comfort in these types of films.

I had an opportunity to chat with Hawkins about the documentary, and we took some time to discuss its origins and goals, the crew’s approach to interviewing subjects, and even some of Hawkins’ own relationship with horror and mental health. (Disclosure: Daily Dead’s Editor-in-Chief Jonathan James is credited in this project as an associate producer.)

Where did the idea to do a documentary on mental health come from?

I have to give all the credit for that to Jonathan Barkan. His idea of doing a documentary on the subject is something that I'm very thankful he brought to me to executive produce. Since we went into development, it's just been one fantastic conversation after another about what we're going to be discussing, how we're going to achieve this project, who we're going to get involved, what kind of questions we’re going to be giving to our interview cast, etc. The development of the idea from the initial core outline has gone through a few iterations, but what I think is the best aspect is how we are going to be letting all of our speakers talk about how horror movies relate to mental health and how horror movies can benefit people. 

That comes from a lot of insights for people who work in the horror industry talking about their formative years and what they worked on, what fans talk to them about, but also for people who are outside of the horror film world who grew up loving horror and have channeled that into their lives. And of course [we interview] mental health professionals themselves, so it all really comes from this core idea of how can horror help people? And where that goes, we're really leaving up to everyone who joins us for an interview to guide us going forward.

There are a lot of names attached to this documentary from a wide range of backgrounds. What went into selecting who you would ask to participate?

It all stemmed from wanting to have everything broken into three categories: film industry people from the horror world, fans of horror, and then mental health professionals. Because we want to emphasize having individuals who are from the medical world and the mental health world talk on the subject from a professional aspect with an educated insight. They can give their thoughts on how this helps people who might seek counseling, mental health care, or anything that they need. And that's also part of the discussion in that there have been a lot of people who've been stigmatized about loving horror movies when they speak to a care provider, their peers, or their loved ones. And that's something we want to have be part of the conversation as it gets brought up, and it's really interesting for the interviews that we've shot so far to have that be discussed. People talk about their histories and talk about how if someone goes to a health care provider and says, “I just watched A Nightmare on Elm Street and it's helped me with a serious issue I'm having,” they should be helped with that, not shunned. It's one of those things where you want people to know that they're not alone when it comes to this, so we have a very diverse cast of individuals from those three worldviews.

Where do you think the stigma about horror comes from?

You know, I grew up in the Satanic Panic era so I have my thoughts on that. It's a mixture of what people don't understand and what they look down on, and then outside influences of things like media personalities sensationalizing incidents and blaming things like horror movies, heavy metal music, and video games. To me that part of the conversation is very necessary, where we say, “OK, put all that stuff to the side, and don't have that be something that makes you biased against this conversation.” Because even though it might not be something that's openly discussed around the water cooler or in gym class...it's something that in a good environment should be talked about for people who need to talk about it, and who want to talk about it. 

To have that foundation of professionals who have PhDs, practicing counselors, and therapists, that's necessary and it's an absolute must for even bringing this topic up. Because when you have individuals who might want to say, “Well all you have are just horror actors and fans talking about this, there's no real grounding to it,” we have an answer to that. And it's coming from people who use horror films in their practices and have actual real perspective that they can bring to the table for this.

How has horror positively impacted you in terms of your own mental health?

I look at some of the most iconic figures of horror, who've survived horrible incidents in horror films...you have Nancy [Thompson, from A Nightmare on Elm Street], of course, but also Kirsty [Cotton] for me is someone that I greatly look up to, from Hellraiser and from Hellraiser II. And I think about growing up really loving Hellbound: Hellraiser II, and having that be kind of a comfort film. To me it's a mixture of escapism and a morality play, that is also very much a horror film with very fascinating characters and just an incredible story and everything that makes a film great. That's one of my ten-out-of-ten favorites. But at the same time what Kirsty goes through, everything with the conflict with Julia, a lot of what has sort of come over from the first Hellraiser film, it's to me very much a family drama.

I grew up in a very dysfunctional environment. One of the first things I ever did in front of a camera was playing myself in an episode of Rescue 911 after I'd had just a devastating house fire that took everything from me as an 8-year-old. The only thing I had was my support system, and for me I'm very thankful that I had very loving grandparents, and also my grandmother’s sister was someone who always seemed to care for me when I was growing up as a latchkey kid. I would go over to her side of the duplex and she would always have Roger Corman, Charles Band movies, and classic Universal monsters on. I would even get to watch late night Cinemax in the early ‘90s, and that was something that was very comforting for me on a very real, literal level. Because I would be terrified watching the remake of The Blob, and then she would be right there with me just making sure I knew it was going to all be OK. I kind of really equate horror to family and my personal experience, and I know there are many others out there who had the same thing and I want this documentary to very much be for them as well. 

Is there going to be any discussion about the depiction of mental health within horror movies?

When we're talking about “what do you think about how mental health is represented in horror films,” it's very open to interpretation. And this is for the entire documentary. We're not targeting any specific topics, we're not skewing the narrative into any kind of false framework, and we're not asking anything that would be exploitative. What we're doing is, we're just asking that question and seeing what that leads to. And as we have done that with quite a few of our interviews so far...we have had wonderful interviews with Janina Gavankar, with Spinestealer (who is also known as Spooky Jack in Los Angeles), just an amazing dark artist and horror performer and someone who does incredible work. We've also talked with Michael Kennedy, who wrote Freaky. We also sat down with Chet Zar, who worked on The Blob, Darkman, and Hocus Pocus, Tom McLaughlin, who did Sometimes They Come Back, Jason Lives, and of course One Dark Night, one of my all time favorites. A great deep cut there. And we chatted with Aborah from Dragula, the Boulet Brothers.

Everyone has different ideas of what that question means, so we have gotten some amazing thoughts on how mental health is represented in horror and some of it is very negative. And that's the reality of it. Some movies, some screenwriters, and some creative teams have really stigmatized horror in different ways where mental health is represented in a very negative way. And then there's the other side of that where you get films... like, one that immediately comes to mind that's incredibly tough movie but just amazing in how it unfolds is Let's Scare Jessica to Death. That film shows and highlights a really incredible struggle. And there are moments where it seems like it could be perceived in a negative way, and it's a very tough film to analyze, but one that's also that for me, I'm personally a fan of horror that treads the line on drama. And I have my favorite filmmakers, I’m a great fan of Hertzog. I love Zulawski. Possession is one of my all time favorites and that one is just a complete destruction of the relationship and the core dynamic between two people who are dealing with just the worst kind of thing imaginable when it comes to their mental health and wellness. 

Ultimately, what would you like to accomplish with this documentary?

We'd actually like this to be something that can be used in the education system. We want this to be something that professionals can reflect on even as they're going through the process of becoming certified or going through their learning. It's a document that we want to be able to have help shape the discussion, and again that goes back to how we want people to be treated with care and be given the support that they need when they go to a counselor, therapist, or caregiver and they say, “This film has been there for me when I needed it.” We don't want that caregiver or that mental health provider to say something like, “You're watching horror movies and that's a negative thing, and now we're going to have to do extra work to be able to get you taken care of.” We don't want people to be mistreated or to be given a hard time from loving this genre and getting something out of it. 

Some movies are just there for the thrill of it, to excite and entertain, but some films that are part of the horror genre have really deep meaning to different people for different reasons. And that's to include anything. I mean, there are some people who really connect with Freddy and Jason on multiple levels, and have lessons learned from those movies. Dream Warriors, for me, has a lot that I carry and reflect back on from the different characters, like Taryn just being as great as she was in her dream sequences. It's something that if a horror fan really connects with the film, or connects with the character, or connects with the theme that's brought up in a story, and they get something rewarding out of it and it gives them something positive and something that they can carry with them, we want them to feel like that's absolutely OK and appropriate. They should never feel stigmatized, or feel like outcasts or anything because of that. 

And that's one of the biggest things about having all of these individuals in our interview cast come together to talk, is that it's almost like a panel of experts. Because you have everyone from the industry, you have everyone from the mental health world, then you have the fans who are telling their stories and how this genre has really affected them in positive ways.

Mental Health and Horror: A Documentary is currently in production with an anticipated release in early 2022.

  • Bryan Christopher
    About the Author - Bryan Christopher

    Horror movies have been a part of Bryan’s life as far back as he can remember. While families were watching E.T. and going to Disneyland, Bryan and his mom were watching Nightmare on Elm Street and he was dragging his dad to go to the local haunted hayride.

    He loves everything about the horror community, particularly his fellow fans. He’s just as happy listening to someone talk about their favorite horror flick as he is watching his own, which include Hellraiser, Phantasm, Stir of Echoes, and just about every Friday the 13th movie ever made, which the exception of part VIII because that movie is terrible.