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Top 10 Harrowing Depictions of Insanity In Movies

by Estelle
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Sometimes movies get it right and sometimes they don’t. When it comes to depicting controversial life scenarios such as terrorism, tragedy or mental disturbance, there is an especially fine line between accurate and ridiculous. On this list are much talked-about movies that set the tone for depicting mental disorders. [WARNING: This list contains spoilers]

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10 Matchstick Men—2003

Matchstick Men (2003) Official Trailer #1 – Nicolas Cage Movie HD

Nicolas Cage has some truly terrific films under his belt. One of these is the fantastic black comedy Matchstick Men, in which Cage plays Roy Waller, a con artist suffering from OCD and Tourette syndrome. Roy and his partner Frank swindle people out of their hard-earned cash by selling marked-up water filtration systems. When Roy unexpectedly suffers a severe panic attack, Frank convinces him to go to a psychiatrist.

Roy’s obsessive rituals include compulsive vacuuming and opening and closing a door three times before walking through it. He experiences extreme anxiety when people walk through doors without performing the ritual. Bright sunlight also exacerbates his Tourette’s symptoms. Pile on top of this extreme agoraphobia and you have an unforgettable performance by a theatrical actor. He embodies the personality of someone with extremely conflicted emotions, such as when he stares at his hand after a phone number has been written on it, or when his fourteen-year old daughter opens a beer and slugs it.

Nicolas Cage immerses himself in the role of Roy Waller, complete with facial tics and loud exclamations, virtually radiating anxiety and paranoia.[1]

9 Betty Blue—1986

Betty Blue – Trailer

Betty Blue begins with an erotic, red-hot love affair between a man in his thirties named Zorg and 19-year-old Betty. Everything is great for a while until the two get into a heated argument and Betty smashes up their love shack.

She eventually burns it down after which the couple move to the outskirts of Paris. Betty’s temper keeps flaring and she even stabs a pizzeria patron with a fork. Meanwhile, Zorg is trying to get published but keeps getting rejected by publishers. He hides the rejection letters from Betty, but she finds one and slashes the face of the publisher.

Betty’s mental health continues to deteriorate throughout the film as she starts hearing voices, hacking off her hair, lures a young boy away from his mother and eventually gouges out her own eye. Then Zorg receives a phone call from a publisher who tells him he loved his manuscript and wants to publish his book. In a very dark twist, Zorg smothers Betty with a pillow, after which he returns home to finish the soon-to-be-published book.[2]

8 We Need To Talk About Kevin—2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) – US Trailer – HD Movie

When We Need To Talk About Kevin was released in 2011, it had the desired effect of getting people to talk about the movie. Based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, the film sets out to highlight the symptoms of Antisocial Personality Disorder and make people very uncomfortable at the same time.

It is clear right from the get-go that Kevin hates his mother, Eve, and it seems to be a reaction towards her resentment of him. She used to travel for work but now must stay home to be mother to a son that can’t stand her. Kevin continually acts out, notably when he pours drain cleaner onto his sister’s face, causing the six-year-old Celia to lose an eye.

The movie takes a dark turn when Kevin, at the age of fifteen, murders both his sister and father with a crossbow. He then proceeds to lock several students into his high school’s gym and murders them as well. Kevin is locked up in juvenile prison and diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder. Although the movie never explicitly uses the term ‘psychopath’, it is clear that Kevin’s behavior is psychotic with a violent outlet.[3]

7 Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte—1964

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a psychological thriller that stars Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. Davis plays Charlotte Hollis who plans to marry her already married lover, John Mayhew. John is brutally murdered shortly after a confrontation with her father and Charlotte discovers his body in the summerhouse. Everyone assumes Charlotte is the murderer while she is convinced it was her father.

Skipping to 1964, Charlotte is a wealthy old maid whose mental health is failing her. She displays all the characteristics of a person slowly losing their mind. She drifts between sanity and insanity, including hallucinations, based on her immediate surroundings and it is fascinating to watch.

After her cousin, Miriam (played by Havilland), moves in with her, Charlotte starts hearing a harpsicord playing a song John wrote for her and is haunted by John’s severed head. When Charlotte discovers Miriam has known all along that John’s wife murdered him and has been blackmailing her for years, she kills her. At the end of the film, when Charlotte is being driven away to an asylum, an envelope is handed to her containing John’s wife’s confession to his murder.[4]

6 Gaslight—1944

Gaslight (1944) Official Trailer – Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman Movie HD

Gaslighting is not a new term in 2020. It was coined when the movie Gaslight first graced the silver screen in 1944. In the movie, a husband cunningly manipulates his wife to the extent that she starts believing she is going insane. After charming her into marrying him, he slowly isolates her from the world, sets up situations where the lighting is unexpectedly dimmed, and objects disappear and reappear. He eventually succeeds in convincing his wife of her own insanity.

The twist to this story is that the wife, Paula, is not the one with the mental disorder. Her husband, Gregory, is and displays many of the characteristics of a psychopath. The movie intensely and accurately depicts the lingering effects of gaslighting when in its final moments Paula still isn’t sure of what is real and what isn’t and suspects that the knife in her hand might just be a figment of her imagination.[5]

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5 Black Swan—2010

BLACK SWAN | Official Trailer | FOX Searchlight

Black Swan follows the life of a ballerina named Nina, played by Natalie Portman, who finds herself having to compete for a part in a production of Swan Lake. Her competition comes in the form of Lily, a newcomer played by Mila Kunis.

Nina has a dysfunctional relationship with her narcissistic mother and has psychological problems causing her to self-harm. However, the movie’s portrayal of Nina’s psychotic breakdown makes it difficult to ascertain which of her injuries are real and which are imaginary.

Nina is terrified all the time and as she suffers hallucinations that threaten the line between reality and delusion, it becomes apparent that she also suffers from obsessive compulsive behavior and an eating disorder. Natalie Portman does a fantastic drawing the viewer into her world and keeps them on the edge of their seats as she fights to maintain her sanity. Portman won the Oscar for best actress for her role in this gripping film.[6]

4 A Beautiful Mind—2001

A Beautiful Mind – Trailer

A Beautiful Mind is based on the life of John Nash, Princeton mathematician and Nobel Laureate, and was inspired by the bestselling novel by Sylvia Nasar.

Nash displayed symptoms of schizophrenia around thirty, suffering from delusions and paranoia. He was in and out of hospital as the years went by and didn’t always stay on his anti-psychotic medication.

In the movie, Nash is brought to life by Russell Crowe who does a great job portraying a character that is not always in control of his own mind and suffers paranoid schizophrenic hallucinations. He stops taking his meds because of the severe side effects and suffers a relapse which causes him to leave his infant son in the bathtub with the water running. His wife, Alicia, gets to the baby in time but realizes Nash has relapsed when he tells her his friend “Charles” was watching their child. Nash realizes at this point that the three people he keeps seeing do not actually exist. Yet he refuses to restart his medication regime and simply ignores the hallucinations. This seems to work and after being allowed to teach again, he finally wins a Nobel Prize in 1994. As he accepts his prize inside a Stockholm auditorium, his hallucinations appear again, and he sees three figures watching him. He refuses to let his illness win and just briefly glances at them before leaving the auditorium.[7]

3 Psycho—1960

Psycho Official Trailer 1960 HD

Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was one of the most influential directors in film history. He gave the world memorable films such as The Birds, Dial M For Murder, Mr & Mrs Smith and of course Psycho.

While Psycho will always be remembered for the infamous shower scene, it is also considered to be one of the earliest slasher films and one of Hitchcock’s best efforts. Most critics agree that the Norman Bates character, played by Anthony Perkins, accurately and chillingly displays the symptoms of a person diagnosed with Dissociative Personality Disorder (DID).

Bates is unable to deal with his childhood trauma that saw him lose his father and killing his own mother, Norma. He develops DID so that he doesn’t have to deal with his extreme feeling of guilt.

He carries on conversations between his mother’s corpse and himself. His Norma personality is extremely jealous of any woman that Norman feels an attraction to and becomes violent enough to kill. When Norma completely takes over Norman’s mind, he dresses as her and satisfies her blood lust.[8]

2 Joker—2019

JOKER Final Trailer (2019)

Set in 1981, Joker takes the life of Arthur Fleck and turns it into a spiral of darkness and insanity. Joaquin Phoenix took on the role of Fleck and portrays a character who failed at being a stand-up comedian and eventually becomes a criminal struggling with mental illness.

Fleck lives with his mother in Gotham City and suffers from Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA) which causes him to laugh at inappropriate times. He is assaulted by three rich men who work for Wayne Enterprises and shoots them all. When the murders are condemned by mayoral candidate, Thomas Wayne, protests erupt in the city leading to social funding cuts. This causes Fleck to have to make do without his much-needed medication.

After learning that his mother lied about his adoption, he murders her and then proceeds to murder his co-worker, Randall. He also kills a talk show host for mocking his laughing disorder and comedy routine. Towards the end of the film rioters bust Fleck out of the police car he is riding in after being arrested and Fleck dances for the crowds while they cheer him on.

Joker earned itself 11 Oscar nominations and Joaquin Phoenix won the Best Actor award at the 2020 ceremony.[9]

1 One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest—1962

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Official Trailer #1 – Jack Nicholson Movie HD

The late Kirk Douglas turned Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest into a Broadway play. Kirk played the main character, RP McMurphy. His son, Michael Douglas, later produced the film along with Saul Zaentz. The movie was shot in an actual mental hospital in Oregon and Douglas roped in some excellent actors including Louise Fletcher, Danny DeVito and Jack Nicholson.

The place is a melting pot of mental disorders, but it soon becomes apparent to the viewer that RP McMurphy is faking his insanity and instigates mayhem in the hospital to avoid being handed a custodial sentence. When he assaults a staff member, however, he receives electroconvulsive therapy as punishment. McMurphy’s arch enemy, Nurse Ratched, is eventually revealed to be conniving and manipulative.

The other ‘inmates’ include ‘Chief’ Bromden who seems to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia and believes that Ratched is a machine and Billy Bibbet who has psychological issues stemming from his relationship with his mother and can’t stop stuttering. George Sorenson has an extreme dirt phobia, while Martini sees hallucinations all the time.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest won five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress.[10]

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fact checked by Jamie Frater

Estelle is a regular writer for Listverse.