Alert: This article contains spoilers. It would be best to read this when you’re done with the movie.
Who doesn’t like a good M. Night twist? In that respect, The Visit surely delivers. Now here’s my dilemma: You see, on the one hand, I like the movie. The film sits comfortably in the realm of what I call “horror with heart”: genuinely scary movies that also have warm moments and likable characters. My boyfriend, who tracks the nightmares he gets after watching horror movies with me, didn’t lose any sleep – or experience any tumultuous sleep – over this one.
At the same time, there are some genuinely scary moments in the movie. The film is well-made and speckled with humor. In fact, part of me wants to argue that it’s a near-genius mash-up of comedy and fear. Indeed, as I watched it, I thought Atta boy, M.Night, here’s to a fantastic comeback. But there’s one shortcoming to the film, a detail upon which the brilliance of the film rests. Here it is: The film projects a bitterly negative, simultaneously terrifying and comical depiction of mental illness, a depiction that only perpetuates stereotypes already established by the media, in films like Shutter Island, for example. How do I commend a film with this ideological qualm?
So if you’re reading this I’m hoping you saw the film already, and if you saw the film already, then you know that at the end of the film, Becca and Tyler’s mom sees the kids’ grandparents from the other side of the computer screen on Skype, and reveals that the people on the lawn outside who Becca and Tyler have been staying with all week aren’t their grandparents. This is a brilliant moment in the film; the grandparents’ behavior has gone from odd to disturbing to frightening, and suddenly the viewer realizes why everything’s amiss. Real grandma and grandpa are somewhere else. Impostor grandma and grandpa are hosting the kids’ visit on the original grandparent’s farm. Well-played, M. Night. This moment was delicious, and made a second watching absolutely necessary, the way we all had to watch The Sixth Sense again once we learned that Bruce Willis had been dead all along.
But here’s the problem. Becca thumbs around for clues in the basement. There, she discovers her dead real grandparents, and two discarded patient uniforms from the town psychiatric hospital. The impostor grandparents soon reveal that the real grandparents – who counseled psychiatric patients – told them about Becca and Tyler’s visit during a counseling session. Having killed their own children some time ago, the psychiatric patients reveal that they were envious of the visit. So they killed Becca and Tyler’s real grandparents and sat in as grandma and grandpa.
Depicting patients who are, unfortunately, confined to a mental hospital, as murderous, vindictive psychopaths is problematic enough. But let’s not forget the array of erratic, comical, disgusting, disturbing behavior that they exhibit during the movie, behavior that Becca is able to explain away because they’re “old people,” while the younger – and unfailingly hilarious – Tyler suspects something more troubling is going on.
Perhaps the first instance of particularly peculiar behavior happens at night. Becca and Tyler open the door at night and find grandma walking forward robotically as she projectile vomits. She takes a few steps, spews vomit, takes a few more steps, and continues to spew vomit. Now, I hate to build myself up too much, but I know a lot about mental illness, and I’ve never heard of sporadic vomiting as a psychiatric symptom. When we find out that the grandparents are impostors, their mental health status is meant to explain away all their odd behavior. But I don’t know many ill-people who walk around heaving indiscriminately.
Now, to be fair, grandma is super freakin’ creepy. I have identified what I call the “scary old lady” phenomena in horror movies. I think women ghosts are creepier, and thus more frequently used than men ghosts, and I think old women are the creepiest. Now, grandma is not a ghost, but she still satisfies the “creepy old woman” scare factor. The move provides a few good startles and eerie scenes, and she is the face that rests behind them all. I thought her role was excellently executed – grandma is terrifying – but I’m still a bit troubled. What happens when we continue to depict mentally ill people as strange and scary? Could M. Night have pulled this off without making grandma and grandpa escaped patients from a mental hospital? That’s a difficult question to answer, and one he may not be concerned with. But I wonder.
Tyler investigates a shed that grandpa frequently enters and exits. The shed is foul smelling, and when Tyler approaches the “suspicious pile,” it’s a pile of dirty diapers. Grandma says that pop-pop is ashamed of his incontinence, but Tyler is visibly grossed out. If all of these odd occurrences are due to their escaped mental patient status, then I’m a little troubled by the suggestion that mentally ill people are dirty and gross. I’ve never heard of incontinence as a companion to mental illness, nor have I heard of mentally ill people keeping their poopy diapers in a barn. This movie, from one lens of examination, seems like an exercise in making mental patients seem like the creepy, untouchable “others,” the smelly, dangerous pariahs who will shit all over you before they brutally butcher you. After all, it’s scary because we don’t understand it, right? And if we don’t understand it, M. Night is explaining it for us. Troublingly, his explanation is monumentally off base. (By the way, I gagged out loud in the theater during this scene).
Other suspicious behaviors by grandma and grandpa? Well, grandpa is sure that some guy is staring at him when they’re out taking a walk in town one day, and he attacks the guy on the street. Why an escaped mental patient would leave the farm and take a walk in town is a question worth considering in itself, but whether or not mentally ill people are likely to attack random strangers seems like the more important question to raise. In one scene, grandma stares at the wall and laughs maniacally for no other reason than, as she states, to “keep the deep darkies away,” and probably the most abhorrent depiction of mental illness comes when the kids open the door at night and see grandma buck naked, clawing a wall like a deranged tiger. Grandma is funny and scary at the same time, because she is completely crazy. Which begs the question: do we laugh at the mentally ill or run from them?
Here’s my take on the film: for me, it’s a sinfully guilty pleasure. I love M.Night Shamylan’s works – even some of the movies that other people considered busts, like The Village and The Happening – and I mean no ill-will toward him as a director. This is an entertaining movie, and he delves far deeper and more pleasingly into the art of comedy then he has ever done before. Tyler’s rap numbers are probably my favorite part of the movie. But I think what he’s doing here is ideologically problematic, and if we’re going to watch films like these as viewers, or – gulp – if we’re going to really enjoy them, we have to be mindful of a few things: First, the representation of the thing (mental illness) does not accurately reflect the thing itself. Second, if we keep representing this thing the way M. Night does, we foster misunderstanding and risk isolating those with the most serious, debilitating forms of psychiatric disease. And we cause the possessor of the disease to feel shame. Finally, in an indirect way we are laughing at illness that causes difficulty, pain, and sometimes misery to some.
I enjoyed The Visit the first time I watched it. I found some elements of the movie more unsettling during a second movie because I knew the entire time that the grandparents were imposters. From the standpoint of cinema, I think it’s well done. But I like The Visit less after writing this article. I hate to think I’m nitpicking a genre that I love, and some would say that all is fair in love and horror. But I think depictions like this have consequences, and I think stigmatizing mental illness is a dangerous, unsettling media trend.