Madness, Mayhem & Monsters

The literary concept of madness is not exactly the same as the medical definitions of mental illness. In fiction, “madness” is most often vague. I go directly to Jane Eyre’s rival — Mr. Rochester’s wife — living out her tortured life in the attic of their home. I’m not blaming Charlotte Bronte for the lack of diagnosis. 1847 is a long time before Freud.

After the rise of psychoanalysis, “madness” was defined, but it was often just as unrealistic as Bronte’s madwoman. Domineering mothers, people with split personalities and crazy geniuses all became stock characters in general and genre fiction. Even the descendents of Freud, Jung and Adler became familiar stereotypes. The beard, the sofa, the cigar, answering every question with a question…

In horror, and to a considerable extent in suspense, thrillers and mysteries, madness figures in many plots. Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Louis Stevenson, all utilized madness. In one form or another, characters who might be described as having narcissistic personality disorder, bi-polar disorder with delusional and suicidal ideation, or paranoid schizophrenia pop up throughout their stories.

If you add the relatively new understanding that many behavioral disorders, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, are neurological and not caused by the icy parenting styles of “refrigerator Moms” than the use of madness in fiction is due for a major shift in mindset. Even if you’re not familiar with the “refrigerator Mom,” you’ve probably met her in dozens of books and movies, where her withholding of love creates “monstrous” children.

A few years ago I stumbled on an old dictionary of psychological terms in my mother’s library. It was from the mid 1960s and, yes, OCD was blamed on Moms. This 1960s point-of-view still lingers in a lot of simplistic stories. It’s a disservice to people who suffer from real disorders and it’s usually a cheap shot, shortcut for the writers.

But getting back to MADNESS and the mayhem that monsters cause, the very real genetic disorder porphyria is often sited as the “vampire” disease. It’s often sited as the cause of King George III’s erratic behavior. I’ve also read that his madness might have been arsenic poisoning. Arsenic, mercury and other deadly ingredients were used in cosmetics and patent medicines for generations. This was terrible for the physical and mental health of the people of the past — but it’s kind of great for writers.

I haven’t checked out the newly published edition of the DSM (official diagnostic manual) that is used by mental health caregivers and insurance companies, but I’ve heard some that some of the revisions will have a lasting impact on mental healthcare. I’m also betting that the new DSM will be a source for making a new brand of fictional monsters.



  1. Advancements in technology and understanding of the world bring so much change in how we view sickness. Kinda makes you wonder if all we are really doing is changing the names of the problems. As always give it any name you desire, writers will still find a way to fuel their own personal demons with it.

    • Candy

      A lot of things get new names — sometimes the new names come from new disciplines (like neuro-imaging). But one thing is for sure, the perceptions of the same diseases and disorders continue to change. The bio-chemicl aspects of depression might surprise Freud, but we know it’s a genuine contributing factor. The first recorded cases of Tourette Syndrome (a genetic, neurological disorder) were considered “demonic possession” and, unfortunately, that mistake is still made in some corners of the world.

      Of course for writers, even the mistaken conclusions are ripe sources. So everybody out there enjoy the buffet of sanity/insanity as sources for great stories!

  2. It’s a delight to know that most writers won’t refer to the official diagnoses of the DSM so they can continue to blur the lines of whatever ‘Madness’ their character has. Where a hard and fast trait is required as with bi-polar cases they can download all the symptoms easily enough should they need to. The ‘interweb’ has been a boon for those who want to commit to realism in their tales but as always there will be those who want to infuse their characters with something indefinable like Mr. Rochester’s wife.

    • Candy

      I just wish that some of the discredited causes weren’t so often credited in fiction (movies & TV as well as books). It’s as if psychiatry and neurology are decades behind in fiction.

  3. Syphilis in its later stages was also supposed to have caused madness, I think. The whole spectrum of mental disorders is fascinating to anyone interested in the psychology of mind. And sadly we still know very little about it. Psychiatry has found drugs to alleviate some of the symptoms [ some of the time], and psychology has found behaviour modification techniques that also work [some of the time], but most of what we know is still just scraping the surface.

    Just as well or we’d have less to write about. 😀

  4. I commend you for your writing with the monsters. The DSM was actually trying to include those of us who are chronically ill into the somatoform disorder. Just what we need another diagnosis.

    • Candy

      I think the wide range of human experiences — of sanity and insanity and everything in-between — is fertile ground for storytellers. Sometimes I wish that fewer writers wrapped it all up in neat, little packages. As creatures, we human are very complicated. Maybe not as focused as the creatures of Vokhtah, but… hahaha… maybe we are crazier?

  5. As the daughter of a woman who can truly be considered mad, I’ve spent years trying to sort out my feelings on the nature of this term, and still have yet to do so. What really weighs heavily on my mind is how medications are so often touted as the cure-all, when they most definitely are not. Now medication… that’s where some real monsters are made…

    • Candy

      I know what you mean. It’s true that anti-depressants have saved more than a few lives, but some of the medications given to treat mental illness are monstrous. When one of my friends spun into abject despair in a post-partum psychosis (yes, not a case of the baby blues, the entire enchilada) the pills lifted the basement floor just enough for her to make her way back, but they were not the “solution” on their own. So many people are running from their feelings (problems, challenges) and pills “touted as cure-alls” are definitely not the solutions. I just read an article in the New York Times about the increasing number of women abusing and dying from pain killers. It was astonishing.

      I think you’re focus is on the medications given to for the “treatment” of what once simply called madness. You’re right. Sometimes the “crazy monsters” are the meds.