Darkness, tentacles and the monstrous double: the cultural motifs of “heroic” insanity

Grimwood, Tom ORCID logo ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8099-6191 and Miller, Paul K. ORCID logo ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-5611-1354 (2013) Darkness, tentacles and the monstrous double: the cultural motifs of “heroic” insanity. In: 6th Global Conference, Making Sense of Madness, 17-19 September 2013, Oxford University, UK. (Unpublished) Full text not available from this repository.

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Research has often noted that a common description of mental health suffering is ‘something from the inside crushing from the outside’. Such contradictory accounts go some way in explaining why representing mental health problems within wider culture has historically been problematic, given that the social imaginary of Western culture is so steeped in models of autonomy and atomistic identity. However, while this accounts for the construction of ‘madness’ as abnormal and stigmatised, there exists within Western culture a simultaneous tradition of madness as a trope of heroism: an embracing of the contradictions of madness within figures of tragic creative geniuses and counter-cultural renegades. But the linguistic, figurative and conceptual vocabulary available between the experience of mental health and wider cultural norms of heroism often renders this ‘heroic insanity’ a complex and ambiguous trope, embodied in specific and recurring motifs.
This paper examines the key cultural motifs commonly invoked to capture such a tension, in terms of a medium hitherto under-explored in terms of its cultural expressions of heroism and deviance: the video game. Video games routinely employ ‘madness’ as a narrative trope, a plot device or, in some cases, a condition of play. Whilst always limited and fallible as representations of ‘genuine’ madness, they nevertheless provide a significant space for analysing how madness and heroism are associated, and, indeed, the possibilities they offer for reclaiming experiences of madness from its wider cultural representation. Far from being a minority past time, video gaming exerts a key influence on the contemporary cultural sphere, superseding the film and print media industries in sales since 2009.
The paper analyses two particular recurrent motifs in particular. The first is the representation of madness through the ‘monstrous double’. With this motif, players are confronted with madness as a ‘dark side’ to a character’s personality, an uncontrollable ‘other’ whose relation to the player is usually embedded within a wider moral choice within the game’s plot. Rooted in 19th century literary accounts of madness, we argue that this motif essentially casts madness as a demonic ‘other’ to the hero, which is rendered purposeful only when ultimately overcome by a principle of normality. The second motif is the ‘tentacle’. Whether attached to an enemy or the player themselves, the tentacle expresses an unpredictable, uncontrollable and contagious force which defies conventional gameplay strategy. As such, the tentacle offers a more complex motif of madness and its disempowering relation to heroism. However, if the monstrous double under-states the subversion of heroism through madness, the tentacle over-states this by its wider cultural association with otherwise unrelated threats – sea monsters, aliens, and sexual predation. Both motifs are, therefore, always inadequate to represent madness, but in exploring its inadequacy, the paper shows how such attempts to represent the heroism of madness reveals particular assumptions about the nature, first, of heroism, and second, the debilitation of madness.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Speech)
Departments: Institute of Health > Medical Sciences
Institute of Health > Psychology and Psychological Therapies
Depositing User: Paul Miller
Date Deposited: 02 Apr 2014 10:04
Last Modified: 12 Jan 2024 11:47
URI: https://insight.cumbria.ac.uk/id/eprint/1534
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