Illustration by Jaye Elizabeth Johnson.
You don’t have to turn my grandma into a monster! Grandpa’s odd tendencies don’t make him a maniac! Sure, media such as movies, have tapped into society’s gerontophobia, or fear of the elderly, and ageism, but to add ableism into it, too? M. Night Shyamalan, there is another way!
Let me explain myself. I’m sure that you saw somewhere on your social media feeds and on your TV screens ads for this year’s October blockbuster The Visit. It was the long awaited-for return of M. Night Shyamalan, in an attempt to save his dying career after Lady in the Water and After Earth. It was hailed by critics as “…a film that stays with you long after the lights have gone up,” and “Performances that are natural yet weighted with history and frequently heart-wrenching.” You would think that The Visit perhaps offered a suspenseful horror with an unpredictable, artful plot other than just jumpscares, and that it would have a greater message than what its trailer hinted at. As a moviegoer who saw this…disaster myself, I can tell you that it most certainly did not. (The rest of this article contains major spoilers)!
When the movie starts, two children first arrive at their grandparents’ home, and the elder child went downstairs one night for a few more of her grandmother’s cookies. When she opened the door to go downstairs, she saw her grandmother violently throwing up. When she asked her grandfather if he knew about grandma’s illness the next day, he attributed it to sundowning, which actually generally involves only agitation and confusion, and not vomiting or, as we later see in the movie, scratching the walls wildly while naked and crawling on the floor without dignity. This same grandfather also thinks that he has to go to a costume party every night and is paranoid about people following him, all of which point to a schizophrenic mind. We come to find out that they weren’t ever the kids’ real grandparents, and we find their real grandparents’ dead bodies in the forbidden basement. (Of course the elder granddaughter entered). As a bonus, we see a visitor who claimed to have gone to a therapy session with them hanging from a tree outside, all of them victims of the “grandparents.”
So, let’s recap: after attributing these startling behaviors repeatedly to just being old and not giving them the help that they need, the message of the movie is that mentally ill people are scary and they need to be killed if necessary and they’re not to be trusted because they’re going to murder my family. Actually, though, an NC State University study shows that 43.7 percent of mentally ill people surveyed had had violence committed against them repeatedly, while only 23.9 percent had committed a violent act themselves. Overall, the percentage of those that were victims was much higher than the percentage of violent people. This also doesn’t help America’s elderly. With seventy percent of older men and eighty percent of older women portrayed in a negative light by media, don’t you think they should’ve earned a respected position by now?
One in three people between the ages of 52 and 59 experience ageist action against them. Television’s older characters often show symptoms of disease like Alzheimer’s and don’t show positive or neutral ideas about older people. With all of the cries for representation on racial and gender fronts, I say that it’s also about high time that the image of older people be redeemed by realistic characters, too. They have lived for so long and have so much to offer the future that it’s not fair to them, and The Visit does nothing for them. Media such as this prevents teenagers from breaking free of the idea that mentally ill people should be seen without empathy and keeps the idea that they are dangerous alive.
Movies like The Visit don’t let teenagers and young adults realize that help is important, that help actually does work. It teaches that therapy and medication do nothing, and that people with mental illness are capable of awful acts, and should be avoided. This association, this grouping of violence with illness, this perpetuation of stigma, that is the true disease to fear. A closed mind, steadfast in its stereotype, is what more widely afflicts the world than any violent acts performed by schizophrenics. Art should not reflect ideals such as this or perpetuate hatred such as this. Art should change the world. The Visit only reinforces its sick messages. Supporting this movie is not supporting those stigmatized for their suffering.