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A PSYCHOLOGICAL REVIEW OF “THE VISIT"

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

A 2015 HORROR THRILLER BY M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN


Author : Kavya Suresh

Editor : Jasmeen Kaur, Arnab Ghosh


Always unexpected but quite plausible villains of the most famous horror stories; the unassuming grandparents are the focus of M. Night Shyamalan's 2015 thriller "The Visit." The movie begins with the introduction to a happy family of three, Becca (daughter), Tyler (Son) and Loretta (Mother) who, due to her marrying and being left by her high school teacher, a relationship which her parents never approved, which resulted in an estranged relationship between them. The movie opens with significant efforts made by the grandparents who after 15 years wish to connect with their grandchildren who they have never met or seen before. After getting the green signal from Loretta, the two young souls, Becca and Tyler travel to the countryside to visit them for a week.



The reunion seems exactly as the audience would envision. The grandparents receive the children at the station, hugging them and exchanging greetings of joy and love. Loretta on the other hand is pleased by hearing about this encounter and happily goes away on a cruise vacation with her boyfriend believing that the children were under good care with family. As the evening progresses, things start to appear eerie with the grandfather posing a 9.30 pm curfew and warning the children not to leave their rooms with no explanation. The children being their young, curious selves as the age of adolescence comes with a higher rush of adrenaline and a whole host of adventure-seeking behavior, decide to ignore the curfew, and step out. They end up discovering something that further cements the idea in their minds that everything is not as assuming as it seems. In the pitch dark, they see their grandmother making strange noises, running on all fours, acting as if she was possessed, and witnessing her scratching the walls.


The entire situation is scarcely plausible right from the start, the children, who want to make a film about their mother’s childhood house are conveniently filming everything even in the most terrifying situations. Becca, who wants their film to be an “elixir” to take back home to their mom, does her homework about filmmaking and instructs her brother about frames as well as hands him a camera to record everything he sees and experiences. As soon as they arrive at their grandparents' rural property, the two siblings immediately begin to record the entire place under the artistic direction of Becca, like the swing their mother used to play in as a kid and the big clock in the living room that their mother told them about. The day goes by quickly with them bonding with their “Nana” and “Pop-pop” but as the sun sets down and the time ticks past 9:30 pm, they begin to observe their grandparents' peculiar behavior. On the very first night, Becca captures footage of her “Nana” pacing the house in the wee hours of the morning while projectile vomiting. Each night after that, at the same time the kids see their “Nana” acting feral and animalistic i.e., crawling and skipping around the house on her arms and legs or growling and banging cabinets and doors. The grandmother's condition is explained away by the grandfather as "Sundowning" an actual medical complication seen in patients suffering from advanced Alzheimer's and Dementia in which a state of confusion, hallucination, and odd behavior are brought on by the absence of sunlight or in isolation where there is no discernible day or night cycles. But as time passes, their “Pop-pop” also displays odd behaviors. He initially exhibits signs of paranoia and fights a random man on the road who he believes was following him. Later, Tyler finds filled diapers in the shed he sees his “pop-pop” coming out of he also finds Pop Pop with a rifle in his mouth and confronts him which he claims is his manner to clean them properly. Additionally, he also confesses to having a white ghost with yellow eyes follow him since the days of him working in a mine as a younger man. However, when the kids share this with their mother during a Skype call, she claims that this is normal and that they are simply seeming strange because of their age.


The grandmother's behavior tends to worsen as the days go by as she starts laughing hysterically while facing a fall and then proceeds to nearly choke herself after having to talk about children. She also coaxes Becca into the oven under the premise of cleaning it from the inside and not being able to reach the corners herself and shuts the oven door, and later attempts to murder the kids while they are sleeping after she finds their video camera filming her during the night. By now, the kids are terrified and disturbed by their grandparents' behavior and phone their mother again and again, begging her to come sooner and pick them up immediately. This is where the quintessential “M Night” moment happens and the audience is given the big reveal which is when both the kids and we as viewers are shocked to find out from Loretta that the elderly people the kids were staying with all this while are not her real parents but strangers who are pretending to be their grandparents. The truth is that the imposters were actually escaped mental patients from the nearby Maple Shade Psychiatric Hospital who killed their actual grandparents who were volunteers at the institution, because they were envious of the happiness the grandparents exhibited over the impending visit of their grandchildren and the jealousy over not having their own real family. This is where the plot starts to fall apart. The concept that the great revelation in a horror film is that the bizarre, creepy, violent characters covertly escaped psychiatric patients is worrisome, to say the least.

Additionally, the showcasing of a woman who stopped by the house to check up on the grandparents, later found hanging outside the house after she confronted imposters, in a manner suggests that people with mental illnesses are more prone to commit violent acts than people without such conditions.


The moment the great shock ending was unveiled, it caused disappointment and extreme frustration. In addition to getting most of the facts concerning schizophrenia inaccurate, the filmmakers also instilled in future generations a fear of the "mentally ill." Now, anyone who views the film without any prior knowledge of psychological problems will assume that people with schizophrenia have homicidal intentions. It is an obvious fact that schizophrenia does not automatically make a person dangerous and that bizarre behavior, hallucinations, and paranoia are not the most difficult symptoms of the condition. In fact, how schizophrenia alters cognition is its most crippling feature. It can be challenging to focus for longer periods of time or remember events that have recently transpired. Someone with the level of delusions and hallucinations that these two characters in the film do would not be able to plan their thoughts in such a way as to carry out their homicidal plans and continue doing so for over a week.


In addition to this, during the film, we see the grandmother respond to auditory hallucinations, hurt herself, become catatonic, accidentally reveal secrets about her past as a psychiatric patient, and then go back to behaving as the "nana" of the two teenagers. Mental illness doesn't operate in this way. Schizophrenia patients do not frequently switch between different symptomatic behaviours that quickly and easily. However since the grandmother was an escaped patient who most likely stopped taking her medications, there is a possibility that she is unaware about when she is acting sane and when she is reacting to her symptom as her behaviour could be a result of raging withdrawal symptoms. The same scenario could also explain the behaviour of the grandfather who had hallucinations and paranoia followed by fear and distrust towards others which is a possible implication of withdrawing from antipsychotics used for treating schizophrenia.


The only elements in "The Visit" that humanised the two escaped patients' was their intent to spend time with these kids. The female patient drowned her children in a pond in the mistaken belief that aliens would provide them eternal life. On the contrary, when the male patient acknowledged seeing things that weren't really there, he was rejected by everyone he knew because of the lack of knowledge about paranoid schizophrenia which is a subtype of schizophrenia, characterised by constant suspicions about others actions followed by delusions and hallucinations. It appears that both have spent many years, if not decades, residing in a mental health facility. To have the family that mental illness had prevented the grandmother from having and gain the acceptance that the grandfather was denied as well as make the grandmother happy, they both desired this one week with these two kids. This is the one piece of accurate information about mental illness that this film was able to convey, that is stigma, confinement, and long-term institutionalisation do not always aid in recovery. Despite the fact that this section humanises the two freed patients, the movie immediately returns to depicting these disturbed individuals wandering around killing or attempting to kill people.


Now for some time if we leave aside the plot that was shown to us and think of some of the elements in the movie that were underdeveloped, it could be the family dynamics in the plot, the absence of the father figure in the family and the mother being the only sole dependent figure who herself had a rough relationship with her parents after she decided to get married against their will. The element of an absent father and the witnessing of the mother’s relationship with her parents may have influenced Becca and Tyler’s resentment and anger towards their father which is probably why they refused to add a part about him in their film. However other than mentioning him in one or two instances, nothing more about the father was visible in the plot.


Furthermore, while the film depicted the kids killing the imposters in self-defence and fleeing the house, it failed to depict the trauma that both children could experience as a result of nearly being killed. In the start of the movie, we come to know that Tyler developed OCD as a result of his father's departure, and the rap song at the end said that he had to wash his face several times to feel better, yet these two verticals remained underdeveloped. If his ocd is actual, it's possible that it was exacerbated by the end of the movie, especially after the grandfather smeared an used adult diaper on his face. Alternatively, both Becca and Tyler witnessed a woman hanging outside their house, which may predispose them to developing PTSD at a young age, hampering their functioning in multiple other domains of life. It may also instil fear and anxiety in them when they are left alone by their mother on any other occasion. Aside from that, the film's ending gives a peek of the fight-flight-freeze reflex that humans have when confronted with dangerous situations. Becca, who is trapped in a room with the grandmother, who begins attacking her immediately, gains the strength to fight her and stab her to death, which could be induced by a rapid adrenaline rush in her body. Tyler, on the other hand, is manipulated by the grandfather, causing him to completely freeze up as a result of his fear; he is only able to return to reality after Becca yells and tries to stop the grandfather from injuring him. The fight-flight-freeze response is a type of physiological reaction to stress that is activated during the alarm reaction stage, which refers to the symptoms that the body experiences when stressed. When this response is activated, an elevated heart rate is observed, followed by an adrenaline surge, which may explain Becca and Tyler's reaction when they were attacked. This is however only a possible explanation of what could have happened since the film didn’t explore these verticals in detail.


Another aspect that the film should have addressed more effectively was the inherent need for mentally ill people to feel accepted. The imposter in this case, the grandmother, lost her family due to a mental illness, which made her envious of the actual grandparents when they expressed joy over the children's visit. On the contrary, the grandfather believed he wasn't accepted or understood when he told others about his hallucinations and paranoia, which could have fueled his resentment and prompted him to attack and murder the children. Also on multiple scenes in the film, people went by to check on the actual grandparents, implying that they were respected volunteers at the psychiatric facility. This could have been a source of jealousy as well because the actual grandparents received affection and acceptance that the imposters did not.


M. Night is renowned for his mastery of plot twists. But with a twist like that, he could have done so much more. Rather than have an ending with multiple loopholes, he could have used an alternative explanation, such as the patients being possessed by a supernatural force, fabricating their symptoms in order to gain advantage, or, if they are psychiatric patients, perhaps they escaped in order to escape the horrors they are experiencing inside the walls. However, the movie simply portrayed them as insane, homicidal, and deranged old people. Not to mention that many of the behaviours the false grandparents display before the twist are simply exaggerated versions of schizophrenia's very genuine symptoms. Overall the movie portrays mental illness inaccurately that could create a new set of stigmas surrounding the matter. The movie perpetuated more fear than understanding of what it feels like to live with a mental illness.

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