For our Mental Health Awareness series, Ghouls discuss the Psychological bromance film, They Look Like People. Gabe talks about the horrors in phenomenal sound design and what it means to be a good friend. Kat shares the real experiences of someone who suffered from psychosis and how they got through it.
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They Look Like People (2015) Creators: Perry Blackshear
Summary by IMDB: Suspecting that people around him are turning into evil creatures, a troubled man questions whether to protect his only friend from an impending war, or from himself.
They Look Like People: An Inspiring Psychological Bromance Tale
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Just a BIG SIGH OF RELIEF needed after watching this film. I am so thankful for the portrayal of mental illness in this film. We’ve mentioned many times and will continue to do so in this series that horror has an incredibly unkind relationship with folx with mental illness. Often villainizing them with vague diagnosis. One of the reasons I greatly dislike High Tension is the flimsy mental illness explanation in the end that honestly felt like they were saying that being a lesbian is enough to make you a murderer. We haven’t talked about it here, but Split got some really harsh reviews for it’s portrayal of DID (dissociative identity disorder), something I’ve always found fascinating and totally understand where the anger comes from. You can hear us rant about Midsommar’s poor representation of mental illness in our Mental Illness Representation episode. Kat has also talked at length about how in reality it is often people with mental illnesses that are at risk of being harmed by others or themselves. There are some truly scary moments in this film where I was greatly worried that they would turn our protagonist into a villain or instill fear into the audience towards people with schizophrenia or other mental illnesses that feature psychosis and delusions and I am elated to say this film does not do that.
Here there be spoilers:
The film shows a really authentic friendship. It was awkward, intimate, and honest. The director, Perry Blackshear has even heard it referred to as a “Psychological Bromance” film which is perfect. Following a pair of friends, Wyatt and Christian, we get to see the different viewpoints surrounding a mental break. Whenever we are spending time with Wyatt, we get to experience his delusions and psychosis firsthand. We hear the awful insect-like buzzing that preludes the arrival of the beings that look like people. We feel the suffocating darkness that skews the faces of the ones we care about. And we listen to the phone calls from the mysterious voice that encourages us, inviting us to believe we are special - the chosen one and we have been tasked with protecting mankind. We also see Wyatt waver in this reality. In a conversation with his therapist (that may or may not have actually happened - who has therapy sessions in the middle of nowhere?), he brushes off his symptoms and says, “I don’t think I have schizophrenia. I researched it and it doesn’t fit.” only to then follow this up with sharing his delusions that he isn’t 100% certain he should believe but what if it’s real?
In an interview with Scream Magazine THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE: An Interview with Perry Blackshear - THE HORROR ENTERTAINMENT MAGAZINE, talked about the dichotomous relationship between knowing something may not be real but preparing for it anyway, just in case, I took a lot of inspiration from the movie Take Shelter which is a wonderful film...He goes and gets checked out at a psychiatrist’s office with his daughter I believe because he knows that he might be in trouble but then at the same time on the way back home he goes and buys canned goods for his bunker. It is those simultaneously knowing that he might be crazy but still doing the things he has to do because what if he was not. I thought this was so complicated and confusing.
The film is a bit voyeuristic. It’s not an outright found footage film but the lack of non-diegetic music or odd camera techniques gives the viewer a deeper understanding of the events. Audio plays an important role in livening up this film. It was the first thing I noticed when watching, there was no music to push me forward or to tell me what to feel. I had to dwell in the moments alongside the characters and feel my own feelings. We spend time with friend Christian, listening to his motivational ASMR recordings. These are his crutch. We even have an uncomfortable yet charming crispy whisper conversation between him and his boss/crush, Mara. On the other hand, with Wyatt the buzzing and the whispers indicate uncertainty, fear and impending danger.
The friendship is the best part of this film. We get to see the care and compassion between these two. How easily Christian rearranges his life to make room for a friend he hasn’t seen or talked to in so long. He works diligently to ensure Wyatt feels comfortable, included and not like a burden. Even inviting him on his date so he wouldn’t be alone. They face similar life challenges, both having separated from their fiances, working at jobs that don’t bring them joy, and navigating the complex relationship between them and their mental health. Whenever Wyatt explains what's happening or hints at his own uncertainty with reality, Christian takes it well. He digests and processes the information not jumping to conclusions or lashing out. He never tells Wyatt he’s crazy and when he looks to get him help, he offers his own personal experiences with instability as a reason for his understanding and why he should be trusted. Christian is also going through things. His fiance left him and he had been working to be the perfect father. He is incredibly obsessed with what it means to be masculine and he needs constant petting via the ASMR mentioned to motivate him to continue. He even admits to a suicide attempt that led to him seeking help. His approach to Wyatt is the most beautiful part and I was so thankful for it.
Does it appropriately represent the horrors of a mental illness? And does it inspire empathy & compassion towards an individual with this mental illness?
In that same interview with Scream Magazine, THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE: An Interview with Perry Blackshear - THE HORROR ENTERTAINMENT MAGAZINE, director Perry Blackshear talks about his inspiration for creating the film,
I did a lot of research into schizophrenia after being inspired by this video … about a virtual reality simulator that you could put on and feel what it would be like to be schizophrenic. I saw it when I was younger and it was the scariest thing by far that I have ever seen…. The fact that you could never know when it would be on or off. The waking nightmare part of it was so frightening and the more research I did the more people went through was more scary than anything that I could ever come up with.
I think some movies use mental instability a lot and it is treated differently across the different genres. I wanted to make it as right as I could and really respect where people were coming from and how frightening it actually is for the person going through it.
Similar to Undone, we have a protagonist who is told they are chosen, special and given a monumental task. For Alma in Undone, she was no longer bound by time and space, allowing her to navigate through time to try and prevent her father’s death and ultimately get to the bottom of his demise. For Wyatt, he is informed there is an alien race that has been infecting and possessing people since the beginning of time with the intention of starting a war. He is one of the few warriors who can save those he loves. Unlike Alma, who clung to the superhero explanation due to her fear of inheriting schizophrenia and so, wholeheartedly believed the delusions; Wyatt is aware that to others it may sound crazy and at times, he is reluctant to believe but he is seeing something, isn’t he?
This film does a wonderful job of subverting our expectations instilled in us from the horror genre and using those expectations to build on the tension. In any other horror film, Wyatt would be the monster we are forced to sympathize with not the victim we should care for. There’s a particularly stressful scene that finds Wyatt on the roof of Christian’s apartment complex. He is equipped with a nail gun, having gathered a plethora of tools and gadgets (sketchily on eBay) in an effort to prepare for the war. It’s unsettling enough, having seen him play with the settings earlier and knowing that he may use this for violence against innocent people. We then hear the buzzing, which means one of them is near. He looks down and sees a couple, random people walking along and the buzzing is there, looming and suffocating. He takes aim and my body tensed. It is here that I expected the worst, that gruesome turn so often used in horror. The moment they take a life, realize it’s not too hard, that they were really chosen and that this is a war. Leaving us with a film, a tale as old as cinematic time, with a mentally ill villain. Wyatt doesn’t shoot those people below. A sigh of relief and absolute appreciation for not doing it. I can’t explain how worried I was this entire film. Waiting for the sickening message, the lesson to be learned that you can’t trust someone having a mental break. And this film surprised me each time by avoiding that completely and instead, playing on those exact fears and expectations. Later, we find Wyatt vulnerable and losing the thread. In this very long and quiet scene, Wyatt aims the nail gun at his own head, representing the real threat that those with mental illness and schizophrenia face - suicide. According to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, up to 40% of the premature deaths of those with schizophrenia could be attributed to suicide, and that experiencing auditory or visual hallucinations increases that risk substantially.
I cannot get over the beauty of this friendship which I think is the strength of the film. There’s a scene where Christian explains he used to have nightmares and describes them. He then asks Wyatt what his version of the monsters that had haunted him are. He is so delicate with Wyatt. When the war is fastly approaching and through a stressful interaction with Mara, Christian’s love interest, Wyatt is pushed further along into his delusion. In his panic, he finally admits to Christian what he’s been keeping to himself. He insists he’s not crazy and that this is serious. Christian never calls him crazy. He is calm, though cautious and visibly worried. Later, he says something along the lines of, “I don’t believe in the monsters you are talking about. But I do believe that you believe in them. So let’s handle this.” He signs him up for a therapy session, after disclosing his own struggles and even goes as far as to equip himself for the anticipated war, being very firm in the idea that they cannot harm anyone.
I won’t spoil the ending, only to say that Blackshear’s subverting of horror tropes is phenomenal. I was truly at the edge of my seat and the messages between Kat and I are just a bunch of “Oh God. Oh no. Please don’t. This can’t be.” You should absolutely watch this film. I sat in silence for quite some time while the credits rolled, just sitting in my feelings and confronting my own biases ingrained in me from simply being a horror fan. Honestly, this goes into the top tier favorites for me simply in that it surprised me. And it was actually really frightening! Experiencing Wyatt’s hallucinations (auditory and visual) was stressful and scary. This idea that you can’t trust those in front of you which only makes seeking help that much more challenging. Christian has a line where he says, “It is really scary to trust you right now. But I do. So I need you to trust me too.” and it was a beautiful, delicate moment that I feel we need to keep in mind when helping someone manage their own hallucinations and delusions.
Psychosis Experiences: Advice From Someone Who's Lived It
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
To start today’s facts section I wanted to explicitly state that I do not have a personal experience with Schizophrenia and express that I am presenting information that I don't have personal context for, and hope that nothing I say is inaccurate or damaging. I know that oftentimes with mental illness classifications, or honestly anything that happens with the brain, that the definitions or blanket interpretations of an illness can be damaging or contrary to the feelings or views of individuals who actually have said mental illness. I also grew up within western society, and process daily how much of what has been taught to me is inaccurate or skewed to benefit capitalism and white supremacy, so if there is anyone who has had a different experience with Schizophrenia, either culturally or personally and they want to let us know so we can know better, please don’t hesitate to send us an email at email@example.com
What is Psychosis?
The definition of Psychosis from the National Association of Mental Illness is Psychosis is characterized as disruptions to a person’s thoughts and perceptions that make it difficult for them to recognize what is real and what isn’t. These disruptions are often experienced as seeing, hearing and believing things that aren’t real or having strange, persistent thoughts, behaviors and emotions. While everyone’s experience is different, most people say psychosis is frightening and confusing.
Most people think of psychosis as a break with reality. In a way it is.
Psychosis is a symptom, not an illness, and it is more common than you may think. In the U.S., approximately 100,000 young people experience psychosis each year. As many as 3 in 100 people will have an episode at some point in their lives.
While I have not experienced Psychosis first hand, I have experienced having a loved one go through psychosis as a symptom of an overarching mental illness, specifically Bipolar 1. This experience was unique to us, and may not reflect the experience of others, as everyone has the capacity to experience something different. There are two angles to this, one being my experience trying to help the person experiencing the episode of psychosis and the experience of the person dealing with this first-hand. The experience was an extremely traumatic one for me.. While it was a horrific experience for me, it was also that for them. Out of respect for this person I will be keeping their identity anonymous but with their permission they have offered some first hand perspective to what it was like for them to experience a psychotic break.
What are some of the things someone with psychoses encounters?
Psychosis includes a range of symptoms but typically involves one of these two major experiences:
Hallucinations are seeing, hearing or feeling things that aren’t there, such as the following:
Hearing voices (auditory hallucinations
Strange sensations or unexplainable feelings
Seeing glimpses of objects or people that are not there or distortions
Delusions are strong beliefs that are not consistent with the person’s culture, are unlikely to be true and may seem irrational to others, such as the following:
Believing external forces are controlling thoughts, feelings and behaviors
Believing that trivial remarks, events or objects have personal meaning or significance
Thinking you have special powers, are on a special mission or even that you are God.
In a reddit post, “Redditors who experience psychosis: What do you do when you feel it coming on? [Serious]”. One response from Reddit user Its_Black_Jesus
“In short there isn't a great deal you can do, if you're in a public situation the best thing you can do is isolate yourself and ride it out. If people experience it more seriously than me, I imagine that can be an issue but for me at least it works.”
In this Reddit thread, a commonly spoken upon thing is feeling out of body, or watching yourself do things but not being in control. My loved one confirmed that this is similar to how they felt, and described it as if they were in a movie and they were the main character. This was the major shift into a period of psychosis. Specifically where they were living, music constantly played over light speakers on the main street of the town, and they said it sounded as if there was a soundtrack playing, which furthered the feeling of being in a movie. The cause was a few different things. They had just become a year sober at this point, and were not diagnosed with anything yet. At the time, they were experiencing an increase in stress, lack of sleep and lack of eating which they say also contributed to the episode, and for my loved one the escalation of Psychosis lasted for about 2-3 months. I’m not going to go into detail over what exactly happened but at the beginning I acted very similarly to the friend in the ‘They look like people’, and really just tried as hard as I could to be there for the person. It wasn’t until things got really intense, and it started to greatly impact my own mental health that I had to take some steps back from the situation, essentially to get myself right again so I could be in a position to help. During this time, my loved one said a few things happened. They spent a lot of time outside, very little time sleeping, or eating, and described it as a gradual escalation of feeling more and more not okay. There were two instances where hospitalization took place, one instance of police interaction, and a lot of high stress encounters. They said the hospitalization period was the most traumatic for them, and while it was necessary to find a diagnosis it was as they described it as horrific, and it was a good hospital but the interactions that they had there were the most traumatic they’ve ever had in all 42 years of existing.
I asked if there was any advice they’d give for someone experiencing a Psychotic break, and they said to tell someone you trust that you don’t feel okay, and to try, if possible in the early stages to sleep, eat, and use a similar technique to avoiding a panic attack. Specifically the five things technique, where you focus on five things to try to calm yourself and center yourself in your body. If you’re past that point they said to make sure you tell the person you trust where your head space is, and if necessary have that person get you somewhere safe, be that with them, a hospital, or somewhere where you can calm yourself.
How do you manage psychosis?
This is not universal for everyone. There are instances where the psychotic break can result in hospitalization, but not everyone experiences hospitalization as a result of psychosis. As psychosis is a symptom of an overarching mental illness, the medications for coping with it are different for different people. My loved one manages their Psychosis with medication for Bipolar 1, medical marijuana, meditation, sticking to a set sleep and eating schedule. The biggest piece of healing and living with psychosis as a symptom is forgiving yourself for what happened during an episode of psychosis. In taking accountability you can also find forgiveness for understanding that what happens during that time isn’t you all the time, and finding humor in some of the situations has also helped them, acknowledging the trauma for what it was.
They also stressed that being an advocate for yourself is super important, and that educating yourself about your diagnosis is essential to making sure you stay okay, and get the right medication. The system is really flawed and there are many stigmas, or misunderstandings, or misrepresentations of mental illness that you have to advocate against. They said the hardest part of having Psychosis as a symptom is having a hard time trusting themselves, and actively questioning their sanity, emotions, and questioning whether or not their happiness is real, or the beginning of an episode. You gotta do whatever you have to do to be okay at the end of the day, and surround yourself with people who love you and have your best interest in mind and at heart.