Horror Writers Association
Email us.
Slasher TV
HWA on Instagram
Visit Us
Follow Me



By Lee Murray

Trigger Warning: This article addresses mental illness. 

For this panel, held in the virtual space, I had the honour to be joined by panellists L.E. (Lauren Elise) Daniels, Lauren McMenemy, John Palisano, and Angela Yuriko Smith to discuss tools and techniques for addressing mental illness in horror, including fresh approaches for depictions that are authentic and affective.

The discussion was guided by the tenets of the HWA Mental Health Initiative Charter. For information, the charter appears on the dedicated webpage on the HWA website, via a link at the end of this article, and is also printed in the StokerCon souvenir booklet.

To begin, I asked the panel why they were here. What was their interest in this panel? 

Angela Yuriko Smith said it is important to build new concepts / give new language to the way people perceive mental illness in fiction, and in particular to throw out harmful stereotypical depictions. 

Lauren McMenemy said she has both personal and professional stakes in the topic. As the editor of horror site Trembling with Fear, she sees a lot of ‘bad takes’ on mental illness in horror but doesn’t have time to give individual support to each writer, so sessions like these help educate and inform. She also suffers from depression, anxiety, and is neurodiverse, so approaches the topic from a personal angle. 

As an editor, L.E. Daniels said she also sees a lot of poor depictions or old tropes in literature. She believes horror, and especially psychological horror, has a role to play in provoking change, noting that she has seen an increase in characters with neurodiversity and mental challenges as protagonists. 

John Palisano said mental illness is something that touches everyone, and horror has a unique power in this space, providing a canvas to explain things. We are the trailblazers: horror can blast stereotypes and negative connotations to bits. He also noted the trend towards protagonists with mental illness who are able to take down the monster. It’s interesting to note that as a former HWA president, the current HWA Wellness Committee / Mental Health Initiative were championed by Palisano, so he is somewhat of a trailblazer himself.

What do ‘authentic’ depictions of mental illness mean in this context? 

Daniels said her work in this area includes lived experience, exploring ancestry and generational trauma, and deep diving into a subject rather than providing mental illness as window dressing. “Horror can tell the truth in ways that other genres can’t,” she said. Honestly allows us to break open the stories, and if done authentically, we can move mountains and generate a response from readers. 

McMenemy said during a retreat, while creating her protagonist, she concentrated on the mood and internal monologue of someone stuck in a depressive cycle, but her tutor said it was too much, that an authentic depiction doesn’t have to be absolutely true to life. We need to consider flow and pacing and the reader experience, and we don’t need to go all the way in—give readers a rope so they can pull themselves out. 

Smith said authenticity depends on ‘where and who you are’ and that doesn’t have to be reduced to a classification or a label. She gave the example of Malerman’s Birdbox (not specifically mental illness) where blindness insulated characters from danger. Neurodivergent characters sometimes have a delayed emotional response, which can be an advantage, for example. 

Palisano said mental illness is not all you are and not is it everything you are. In some former depictions there has been little or no nuance in character, but Palisano pointed out there is a lot more to a person that just their mental illness. He gave the example of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, where (despite a wonderful performance by Nicholson) mental illness is used as a crutch, whereas in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the depiction is more nuanced and layered and revealed in an emotional way. 

I noted that the blurb for the panel asks about affective depictions, which means depictions that make us feel something and since we are talking about horror, the feeling we are looking for is fear. Can depictions of mental illness be both authentic and affective or are the terms mutually exclusive?

Palisano reminded us that years ago, people who were gay were considered mentally ill, but we have moved on from there. He noted that difference can be a benefit, offering new perspectives on a situation and revealing things that are scary. Smith agreed, claiming that an alternate viewpoint means we can see things in different ways, and that allows us to highlight fears that haven’t been considered before. Fear is individual, Smith said, explaining that she scared of wet band-aids and not demons, for example. A new perspective means we can mine new forms of horror. 

McMenemy cautions that it’s a delicate dance, but authenticity and affectiveness can be achieved through personal experience and research. She recommended that writers consider intersectionality, as Palisano mentioned, also noting that mental illness does not represent everything about that person. She suggested taking a contemplative approach, stating that fear exists in a hierarchy, and the ebb and the flow of different levels of fear allows for the interplay of authentic and affective. 

Daniels said that as writers we are creating an experience of an alternate perspective. We are writing an iceberg, and a lot of our experience is underneath the surface—people are not simply their diagnosis, since sometimes we don’t know the diagnosis when we are in it. She claimed that readers turn up to read the story, and it is that gentle movement into the human experience first before we understand what we might be dealing with that is key. She gave the example of “The Flannagan Cure” by EV Knight (addiction horror), where this occurred. Daniels also suggested drawing on the uniqueness and difference of people to create real dimensional characters. She conceded that labels have their uses, since once you have named something, you can gain some power over it, but noted that she loved stories where you don’t know what is happening, but clarity comes as the story progresses and where the writing elicits an emotional experience. “Melding technique with tone, experience and insight; that is the craft / artform,” she said. 

I asked the panellists how might achieve this heady melange? What techniques and strategies did they recommend for writing depictions that both inspire fear while also being authentic?

McMenemy suggested that writers take their time and be considered in their writing. Research, especially where it is an illness you don’t really know, is important. She urged writers to understand the condition in question and consider the actual motivations associated with that condition rather than relying on popular notions such as those seen in films. Flip the lid on psychotic serial killer schizophrenic monsters, she said, and don’t always make the character with mental illness the antagonist. Beware of info dumps and look to be subtle as you can while hammering the reader over the head. 

Palisano notes there are two key pillars to writing: character and plot. He recommends working in particular on character development to ensure characters are dimensional, real, and nuanced, rather than caricatures. Coming from an acting background, he highlighted the fifty questions employed by actors. These start with simple questions and get deeper as a means of exploring character. Also consider the physicality of a character. Do they have a limp, for example? Ask what gives your character comfort—Palisano explained that he tends to hold a guitar pick to counter his anxiety. The Coen brothers and Jordan Peele are masters of this technique, and Poppy Z. Brite and Elmore Leonard provide strong examples in fiction. 

Daniels agreed with Palisano’s point. She said Australian colleague Geneve Flynn suggests thinking about what your character wants versus what they need. If the character gets what they want, then maybe the story is a tragedy.

Smith said to avoid stereotypes and biases we need to be open and to not let our egos get in the way of the message, since we may not know all we need to about our character. What do our characters really want to tell us? 

At this point I called for examples of texts panellists had read which exemplify these techniques / approaches and which they would recommend to writers looking to inform their work. 

Panellists gave the following examples:

Robert Bloch’s Psycho (not film), for internal thought. 

Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, also layered and rich. 

Scott J Moses, Our Own Unique Affliction. Uses the immortality of vampires to dig deep into ennui, existential crises, suicidal thoughts, grief, trauma.  

Cassandra Khaw’s The Salt Grows Heavy in its exploration of grief, trauma, and identity. 

Alison Rumfitt’s Tell Me I’m Worthless, a transgressive queer horror, mining trauma and identity, but also depression, isolation, gender expression.

Catriona Ward’s Last House on Needless Street is well-informed, well-researched, and well-executed in terms of mental health representation.

Sarah Jackson’s short stories for explorations of hauntings as trauma. 

CL Hellison’s recent piece for Strange Horizons, “Godskin”, reflecting their experiences of RSD and outsiderness and trauma. 

“And Sweetest in the Gale is Heard” by Christa Carmen in Not All Monsters (Strangehouse) (trauma).

“Nothing to See Here” by Kristi Peterson Schoonover in Generation X-ed (Dark Ink) (trauma, grief, loss).

“The Flannagan Cure” by EV Knight (addiction) and “And the Window Was Boarded Shut” by Elizabeth Massie (trauma) in American Cannibal (Maenad)

“When the Girls Began to Fall” by Geneve Flynn in Tortured Willows (cultural and generational trauma) (Yuriko).

“Substitute” by Yi Izzy Yu (cultural and generational trauma) and “100 Livers” by K. P. Kulski (cultural and generational trauma) in Unquiet Spirits (Black Spot)

“Soul Parasite” by Paul Magnan (depression, anxiety) and “Alex’s Tree” by Michael Squid (loss of a child) in We Are Providence (Weird House)

“Head” by Bora Chung in Cursed Bunny, Poe-esque cultural Korean response. 

“The Prepper” by Morgan Talty in Shane Hawk and Theodore Van Alst’s Never Whistle at Night, Native American cultural representation.

Dan Rabarts’ short story “Riptide” in Suspended in Dusk II, Māori perspective on mental illness in western context. 

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, diagnosis is not mentioned, but the narrative provides a wonderful depiction of the splintering of reality. 

“Shadow, Shadow on the Wall”, a short story by Theordore Sturgeon in Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum. Discusses abuse, isolation without labels and also empowerment though difference. 

While presenting her list of recommended reading, L.E. Daniels mentioned the original definition of catharsis, describing it as the moment during a Greek play when the chorus, actors, and audience collectively exorcise some social taboo, where is everyone is moved in some way. It’s a situation which transcends words. This resonated for me as the underlying intent of any horror work addressing mental illness, since, as Palisano noted at the beginning of the session, horror writers are trailblazers. We can make a difference. 

Key Takeaways:

The horror genre is the canvas for demolishing stereotypes and creating new concepts / approaches / vocabulary for addressing mental illness in literature.

Representations of mental illness / neurodivergence are increasing, so opportunities exist for innovative approaches. 

Authentic / affective means: lived experience / deep characterisation (including motivational drivers, physicality, means of comfort) / writing from truth / writing from who and where we are / avoiding info dumps / empowering difference / use of nuance and layering in ways which elicit emotion / embracing alternate perspectives as new sources of fear / rejecting popular notions / labels in favour of research / considering intersectionality (we are not solely our diagnosis) / leaning into the hierarchy of fears / considered contemplative writing / switching the roles so mental illness is not always the antagonist / putting our egos aside as writers / labels can sometimes be used to take back power. 

Writing-character-experience as an iceberg: some of the best stories don’t use labels, but understanding is achieved as the story progresses. 




Lee Murray is a writer, editor, poet, and screenwriter. A Shirley Jackson- and five-time Bram Stoker Award-winner, she holds a New Zealand Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction. Read more at www.leemurray.info

E. Danielsis an American author, poet, and senior editor living in Australia. Her novel, Serpent’s Wake: A Tale for the Bittenis a Notable Work with the HWA’s Mental Health Initiative, written for adults navigating post-traumatic stress disorder. Lauren is an Aurealis Award-winning editor and finalist, editing over 130 published titles, and she an Australian Shadows Award finalist for her poetry. “Silk” is her first Bram Stoker Awards® nomination. 

Lauren McMenemy is Editor-in-Chief at Trembling with Fear for horrortree.com; PR and marketing for the British Fantasy Society; founder of the Society of Ink Slingers; curator of the Writing the Occult virtual events. With 25+ years as a professional writer, Lauren also works as a writing coach and mentor. She writes gothic and folk horror stories and is currently working on a Victorian occult novel. 

John Palisano’s writing has appeared in venues such as Cemetery Dance, Fangoria, Weird Tales, Space & Time, and McFarland Press. He’s been quoted in Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times, and The Writer. He’s been awarded the Bram Stoker Award©, the Yog Soggoth award and more. www.johnpalisano.com

Angela Yuriko Smith is a third-generation Ryukyuan-American, award-winning poet, author, and publisher with 20+ years in newspapers. Publisher of Space & Time magazine (est. 1966), two-time Bram Stoker Awards® Winner, and an HWA Mentor of the Year, she shares Authortunities, a free weekly calendar of author opportunities at authortunities.substack.com.

The Mental Health Initiative Charter is here. https://horror.org/mental-health-initiative-charter/


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial