‘They Look Like People’ and the Horror of Schizophrenia [Unveiling The Mind] – Bloody Disgusting

Posted: October 28, 2020 at 6:54 pm


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Welcome toUnveiling The Mind. This bi-monthly column explores psychological horror and representations of mental illness within the genre.

Along with Dissociative Identity Disorder, Schizophrenia is another mental illness that finds itself popping up in many horror films. The disorder involves hallucinations, delusions, and other cognitive problems which can all lead to depression, substance abuse and even push one to suicide. Yet, in horror films and thrillers, Schizophrenia can often be played up for suspense. With particular attention to hallucinations and delusions, many filmmakers have used the disorder to highlight characters spiraling into manic violence (e.g. Michael Shannons character in Bug). Theres a hell of a lot more to Schizophrenia of course having the disorder is not a one way to ticket to becoming a movie villain.

They Look Like People, written and directed by Perry Blackshear and released in 2005, is a film that heavily focuses on Schizophrenia. Though it involves minimal fantastical elements, They Look Like People offers a grounded, heartbreaking view of the illness and it makes for one of the most intriguing psychological films Ive ever seen. Spoilers ahead.

They Look Like People follows Wyatt, a young man who believes there are demons planning an attack. The first scene shows Wyatt lying in bed; its late in the evening and there is only a little moonlight making its way into the room. There is a woman in the bed facing away from him. He stares at the back of her heard, watching as she rolls over. As his facial expression becomes more anxious, the camera then shifts and rests on the womans face; given how dark the room is, its impossible to see if her eyes are open or what she looks like. This opening scene establishes the sense of tension that Wyatt displays throughout the film. His belief is that the demons look like regular people at first, but that their true face is mutated and monstrous.

After this, Wyatt makes his way to meet up with an old friend named Christian. Upon connecting with one another, Christian offers for Wyatt to stay at his place. While Christian is preparing for a date, Wyatt makes his way to the building basement and tapes a knife under a table. The two eventually head out for a double date that involves Christians supervisor Mara. From there, They Look Like People follows the day to day life of Wyatt and Christian.

What won me over with this film was the depiction of Wyatts Schizophrenia. Though his beliefs and actions do help to bring about suspense and unease throughout the film, they are represented in a realistic fashion. Very little is over hyped, and instead, the audience is given a stark look at the horrors of this illness.

An element Ive picked up in numerous films involving some sort of delusional character is the immediate cry of denial Im not Schizophrenic! or I know the truth, you cant tell me Im wrong! Theres a scene where Wyatt goes to meet up with a psychiatrist, and within their conversation, he expresses how he does not think hes schizophrenic and how he has researched stuff online. This may not be much, but it is a different kind of denial than what the audience may be used to. Wyatt is not out right saying I dont have this, instead, hes making an effort to learn and speak to someone about his issues (even if his fears end up getting the best of him). This quality is further extended when we see Christian later confront Wyatt about the illogic behind a demonic presence and attack. Though Wyatt initially shoots down Christian for being ignorant, he eventually does realize his beliefs are not rational.

It should go without saying, but those who have Schizophrenia arent entirely devoid of self-awareness and reality. Though the scenes are brief, the audience does see Wyatt openly acknowledge the irrationality of his beliefs. Some may see this as a small detail, but I really thought it was significant to include. Throughout movie history, so many characters with mental illness are made to look incompetent like they cant tell what is real or not, or that they cant take care of themselves. Are there disorders that do render people into that sort of state? Yes there are, but psychology is extremely far more nuanced with specific situations and brain chemistry needing to be considered. Showing that Wyatt can address this aspect of himself displays a sense of self-awareness and adds depth to his character.

Along with his consistent anxiety, the audience primarily experiences Wyatts Schizophrenia through his visual and auditory hallucinations. The auditory stuff takes place via random phone calls he will get late at night. A muddled voice will speak to him, talking about the looming threat to come, or how he was chosen to see the demons, or how he cant trust anyone. Theres also a consistent ringing sound that appears throughout the film whenever his nervousness intensifies.

Regarding the visuals, there are only ever two instances where the audience sees the demons that Wyatt is so afraid of. When looking through a box in Christians apartment, he comes across a photo of himself with his ex-fiance, her eyes black and face distorted. In a conversation with Mara, her eyes go white and her mouth stretches to inhuman lengths. Another visual aspect comes in the form of the mutations he sees. A moment early in the film calls back to that scene of Wyatt lying in bed with the woman (who the viewer learns is his ex-fiance). When the camera settles on her face, the sound of crackling and stretching begin to play; its difficult to see what is actually taking place, but one can pick out small movements of her face shifting.

On a horror level, each of these hallucinations play into the films overall use of tension and dread. Visually, though the distorted faces are creepy, its the scenes involving the mutations that come across as the most disturbing ironically because one cant see what is taking place. Though there are minor glimpses of the demonic looking faces, one cant picture the exact horror and change taking place in the dark one cant imagine how something that appears human could just change into a monster.

They Look Like People isnt so much a slow burn film as it is a mindful study. Whereas other films may take that set up to explore a characters ever intensifying mania Wyatt remains mostly calm (though he is intensely anxious). However, he does have his moments that spark a sense of physical concern. There is a scene where he unpacks a bunch of weapons he bought from a nearby hardware store; hell, hes later shown standing on a roof top pointing a nail gun at people. Though he does not harm anyone with the nail gun, and has a moment where he contemplates killing himself, there is a moment where it is questioned whether Wyatt has harmed someone (but this is never answered).

Besides a few moments of outwardly aggression, the films focus is on Wyatts day to day paranoia. This progression can stir an anxiety within the viewer. Because of other horror films in the past, one is trained in a sense to keep an eye on an unhinged attitude just how long will it be until he snaps? Wyatts condition is much more drawn out, though.

And with his cautiousness, with all his worries and illogical behavior and beliefs one cant help but feel bad for him. When it comes to the specific horror They Look Like People is going for, the film isnt striving to focus on whether theres an apocalypse or not, but more so highlighting the mental hell that Wyatt is carrying. Through its grounded approach, the film exudes a constant air of heartbreak and worry.

It is by the end of the film that the viewer finds Wyatt in his most riddled state of paranoia. On the day that the war is supposedly to kick off, Wyatt leads Christian down into the building basement, both of them dressing up in hazmat suits. By this point in the film, Christian is in a depressive state; he recently has lost his job and Mara is not interested in him. His narrative has primarily focused on his insecurities; his fear of coming off weak and his efforts to appear macho. It is only by the end of the second act that Christian becomes aware of Wyatts fears. Throughout the film, though there are some rough patches, their friendship becomes strong, with each finding a comfort in the other.

The fear suddenly comes upon Wyatt that Christian may be a demon. Christian calls him out on this and offers for Wyatt to tie him up (as a sign of trust). Wyatt ties Christian up and places a bag over his head. As the lights go out, Wyatt begins to hear one of the voices from an old phone call. The sounds of crackling and shifting bone are heard from under the bag, providing the assumption that Christians transformation is underway. But, in each step that Wyatt takes towards Christian, a realization comes over him this is a delusion. He then stops himself, unties Christian and they both embrace.

Along with the characters, the viewers are dropped into a downright horrifying situation, left on the edge of their seat to see how far Wyatt will go. The decision to have him come to coherent senses is not only a tremendous upswing for the character and the audience, but also a brilliant display of logic and understanding found in individuals struggling with mental illness. Unlike other horror movies, They Look Like People is never trying to convince the viewer that this individual is totally mad or the bad guy but that he needs help (and that, to some degree, knows he needs help).

They Look Like People is a phenomenal experience. Not only does it make for a superb horror film, but it also stands as an incredible display of mental illness representation. For anyone interested in learning how to write characters struggling with mental illness, this is a film to watch. They Look Like People is a type of horror that offers a grim, realistic view of horrendous mental anguish. I cant recommend it enough. If you enjoy psychological horror or films with brilliant psychology to them, then They Look Like People is an absolute must see.

Thank you all for reading this months Unveiling The Mind. See you in December.

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'They Look Like People' and the Horror of Schizophrenia [Unveiling The Mind] - Bloody Disgusting

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October 28th, 2020 at 6:54 pm

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