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We're All Mad Here: Case Studies of "Crazy Bitches" in Cinema

This post includes spoilers for the movies Single White Female, The Craft, and Perfect Blue. These three movies have several things in common:

  • The main point-of-view character in each one is what I've called "fake-out crazy." Each one exhibits some sort of behavior within the movie that could be viewed as "insane," but unlike the villains, these women end up being "strong enough" to overcome this. (Earlier in the film, the "crazy" character always accuses the "sane" one of being "too weak" or "pathetic".)
  • None of the characters are actually diagnosed with anything within the films, although psychiatrists are contacted in all cases. The Internet has provided the "crazy" characters with a variety of diagnoses.
  • Two of the movies have a red herring character who is "crazy" and is obsessed with the main character.
  • Each movie uses sexual behavior as a way of showing how "out of control" one of the characters has gotten.

Single White Female: Be careful, she's crazy!

Plot synopsis: Having recently broken up with her boyfriend, Allie decides to find a new roommate to share her huge New York apartment. She settles on Heddy, a meek girl who seems to hero-worship Allie. However, as their relationship becomes closer, Heddy seems to become increasingly obsessed with Allie, going so far as to copy her sense of style and cutting and dying her hair to match Allie's. When Allie gets back together with her ex-boyfriend, Heddy seems to become increasingly unstable. Murder ensues.

"Crazy" character: Heddy, although it turns out this is a pseudonym.

Terrorized "sane" character: Allie

Fake-out crazy: Allie's inability to be alone, her crying jags, and her difficulties in standing up for herself are all presented as being a sign of her instability.

Crazy behavior: Heddy's early crazy behavior includes such ridiculous activities as being worried/upset when her new roommate disappears without leaving a note or message, being angry that she's being kicked out because Allie got back together with her cheating boyfriend, and masturbating alone in her room at night. Also, there are early hints that Heddy's low self-esteem is leading to her adopting/stealing Allie's more "New York" sense of style.

Later crazy behavior is, of course, when Heddy impersonates Allie by stealing her clothes and copying her hairstyle, and murdering a bunch of people who get in her way. As one does. Oh, and she goes to an "underground sex club" that is actually underground. It's unclear to me whether you're supposed to be creeped out by the sex club, or if the whole point is that Heddy is now going out and calling herself Allie while doing it. I think they should have stuck with the murders.

Diagnosis in film: Heddy is never officially diagnosed in the film. There's an early "scary" scene when Allie, snooping in Heddy's room without permission, finds some unnamed pills, and a later scene where Allie's friend is discussing Heddy's behavior with someone and says "I know you can't diagnose over the phone. I don't even know what hyper-vigilant means... I've never even met the woman, she could be paranoid or infantile, I don't know." Also, her parents call, saying,"We promise, no doctors this time."

Diagnosis on Wikipedia: Borderline Personality Disorder

Diagnosis on TV Tropes: Ax Crazy

Ultimate fate: Stabbed to death by Allie in the basement with a screw driver

The Craft: Scary bitch alert!

Synopsis: Sarah, a new girl in school, joins a trio of witches: Nancy, Rochelle, and Bonnie. Each girl wants power for her own reasons: Rochelle is tormented by racist bullies, Bonnie has scars all over her body, Nancy 's household is both poor and abusive, and Sarah wants the boy who trash-talked her to fall in love with her. As the girls grow in power, their spells get out of control. When people start to die, Sarah wants out, but Nancy won't let her leave except through death. After a climactic battle of wills, Sarah ends up with all the power while Nancy ends up strapped down in an insane asylum. Screaming ensues.

This film also plays into the trope of women who have "power(s)" being driven mad by them, which we'll be returning to later in the series.

"Crazy" character: Nancy

Terrorized "sane" character: Sarah

Fake-out crazy: It's revealed early on that Sarah attempted suicide at some point before the movie's beginning. Later on she reveals it was because she was seeing snakes, spiders, and other creepy crawlies.

Crazy behavior: Nancy's shown right from the beginning as being a bitter, angry person, and throughout the film her behavior becomes increasingly reckless. She screams and hits herself repeatedly when she loses control of her temper, and screams insults at people when using her powers to kill them. It's pretty strongly implied that her home life made her do it.

Diagnosis in film: None. It's implied that losing her powers is what drove her "insane."

Diagnosis on Wikipedia: None, but describes the final scene as Nancy screaming "hysterically" in an insane asylum.

Diagnosis on TV Tropes: Ax Crazy

Ultimate fate: Ends up tied to her bed screaming about the power she's lost, giggling to herself, and then being sedated by a nurse in an insane asylum. She's completely alone, with no friends, no family, and no one else in the room, abandoned even by her deity.

Perfect Blue: Excuse me, who are you?

Synopsis: Mima has decided to leave her pop idol career to become an actress, much to the chagrin of her fans, her manager, and her new stalker, Me-Mania. However, being an actress isn't as easy as Mima had hoped it would be. Her job is intense, including having to perform in a terrifying rape scene and being encouraged to do a nude photo spread. She discovers a blog that seems to be written by her, since it has details of her life that only she could know. Increasingly unstable from the difficulties in her new job, feeling jealous of the success of her former pop-group, and being stalked by Me-Mania, Mima becomes more and more isolated, seemingly losing touch with reality. When several people related to her career end up dead, she begins to wonder if she actually killed them herself. But no, it turns out that her manager, Rumi, is the one behind the murders. Rumi decided that Mima wasn't pure enough anymore, so decided to kill the people who damaged her, then kill Mima and replace her. As one does.

"Crazy" character: Rumi

Terrorized "sane" character: Mima

Fake-out crazy: It's increasingly obvious that Mima is having difficulties coping with everything going on in her life throughout the film. She has vivid dreams about her work, often confusing herself about what has actually happened. One scene that's really stuck with me since the first time I saw this film in theaters was Mima reading her supposed blog and saying "Oh, is that what I did today? I forgot."

Crazy behavior: Rumi murders several people over the course of the film, then dresses up as Mima before attempting to kill her and replace her.

Diagnosis in film: Unfortunately I was unable to re-watch this film this week (this was mostly lack of availability, but I admit that the rape scenes disturbed me for months both times I watched it, so I didn't look very hard.)

Diagnosis on Wikipedia: A folie à deux, which Wiki tells me is a form of shared delusion between Mima and Rumi. Later, Wiki describes Rumi as "delusional" when institutionalized at the end.

Diagnosis on TV Tropes: Ax Crazy, Napolean-Delusion, Split Personality

Ultimate fate: Rumi ends up in what seems like a very nice hospital at the end, quietly convinced she's pop idol Mima.

Analysis:

Each of these films focuses on a time that it's normal for a woman to be uncertain or even afraid. Allie's got a stranger moving into her home, and it's not uncommon for people to worry about what their roommate is going to be like long-term. Sarah is moving to a new school and going through adolescence, both stressful times in and of themselves. Mima is making a major career change that will be life-altering and may or may not lead to the success she wants. Fear in these cases is normal.

Each of these films chooses to make that fear manifest in a Crazy Scary Psycho Bitch. They play explicitly into the stigma around mental health conditions in order to make their premise truly terrifying. While other stories might instead make that fear manifest through roomies that are actually soul-sucking demons (as happens in Buffy), or having your high school crushes turn out to be vampires or werewolves, these stories take something that's real—people with mental health conditions—and turn them into terrors.

Further Reading:

Previously: We're All Mad Here: Race, Gender and Mental Illness in Pop Culture, We're All Mad Here: Fighting Stigma Through Humor

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Comments

9 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Yes!

Nice work! I just saw The Craft recently—random, I know—and was dismayed by how hateful it was to a variety of groups (not to mention tokenistic. Characters whose problems and desires revolve entirely around being poor, black, or scarred? Seriously? And then there was the attempted rape, depicted as a logical conclusion of love and an envy-worthy experience...)

The Nancy-in-an-asylum scene was so gratuitous and insulting, not to mention a cop-out. As you indicate, it ties into a larger tradition of using mental illness as a catch-all in cinematic conflicts. Unclear motivations or threatening behavior? No problem, we'll just make her "crazy." I had never thought, though, about the "fake-out" trope in which the protagonist overcomes symptoms of pseudo-mental illness. It's an interesting one, for sure.

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Thriller/Slashers

I don't watch a lot of these types of movies, so I don't know - is the "fake out crazy" a thing in movies where the protagonist is male? The only one I can think of right now is "The Game" with Michael Douglas, and I think you're supposed to see Douglas' character as pathetic rather than potentially a "crazy" person who might be imagining everything.

Safe House starring Patrick Stewart

The arc of that movie is something..

I've not seen that. Is it

I've not seen that. Is it worth watching?

Maybe?

It is a one shot gimmick deal of a movie that was made for tv. If you like Patrick Stewart I would give it a go. I don't want to spoil it too much.

The reverse

I've seen the opposite a lot more often in films with male protagonists, eg. Deepwater, Fight Club: Surprise! They're mentally ill and imagining stuff! I like to call it the I Am the Cheese ending. It's something with which I don't have much patience.

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Oh! That's an interesting

Oh! That's an interesting observation. I had been considering talking about Fight Club at some point in this but I'm not a fan of the film and thus have only watched it the once.

I think we were actually

I think we were actually supposed to think that Nancy was always "insane", and that losing her power (and the horrifying glamour/delusion Nancy put on her) just pushed her over the edge into total delusion. There's that scene where they're discussing letting their god (Menoh--sic?) inside of them, which Nancy insists will make everything "all better again", which horrifies and scares Sarah because it's plainly irrational--"Nothing can make everything 'all better again'." (I apologize if you see irrational as an ableist term--I couldn't think of another word that would fill its purpose. Anti-reality?) Nancy starts hysterically crying and dancing around the whale corpses on the beach when she recieves Menoh inside of her, while Sarah's infusion of Menoh fills her with calm. The difference is that Sarah started out "sane" and thus could handle the power, while Nancy started out "crazy" and couldn't, instead immediately turning it to use harming others and improving her own situation (narcissism?).

I laughed so hard in The Roommate when the sane protaganist discovers her roommate's medication, looks it up on wikipedia, finds a laundry list of mental illnesses that it could be addressing (so that it's as broad as possible--schizophrenia is just like bipolar is just like depression!), and then immediately concludes that she must get out of there! Her roommate definitely has a vague mental illness, and may or may not be taking medication! Talking to her roommate about it is never brought up--it's immediately danger level one, and she must go. And of course she's perfectly justified, because the audience knows (although the protaganist doesn't) that her roommate has been busy killing kittens and people and faking rape in order to emotionally manipulate her.

Pills! Oh noes!

I haaaate that "Person takes pills! Fear them!" trope. Medication isn't a magic bullet, but with the lack of nuance these movies have, shouldn't people be reading the existence of a pill bottle as "Oh good, she's seeing someone"? (This is just a comment on movies, not on real life.) But no, let's make the pills be Proof! that someone is ax-murderer crazy. *sigh*

I think you're right about Nancy. I recently watched Nostalgia Chick's review of the film and she views Nancy as being "crazy" right from the beginning. I more see her as reckless, but I think that's a matter of interpretation.