by Nadeem Akhtar, Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, McMaster University
Over the last decade there has been a change in societal viewing habits. As a result of easy access to the internet, quicker download speeds and the advent of smart-devices capable of playing video content, there has been an increasing shift towards non-broadcast content, including the streaming of media. In OFCOM’s 2018 report,1 Netflix and YouTube were cited as two of the main suppliers of such content.
In 2016, Netflix assumed production rights for the British series, Black Mirror. Created by Charlie Brooker, the show was designed to tell cautionary tales in futuristic environments. It presents ethical / moral dilemmas relating to societal biases. On 28th December 2018, Netflix released a first of its kind episode of Black Mirror, entitled “Bandersnatch,” where the viewer has to make narrative decisions, and by doing so can be more intensely involved. In redirecting poor decisions, we are enticed to explore all decisive possibilities in a somewhat addictive fashion.
Whether intentional or not, “Bandersnatch” provides valuable insight into the psychotic experience. It tells the story of Stefan Butler, a hobbyist programmer in the emerging video games scene of early 1980s Britain. After reading an adventure book named Bandersnatch, he is determined to create a revolutionary video-game. Stefan then meets his programming idol, Colin Ritman, and the owner of a videogame company, Mohan Thakur. Viewers are then given their first choice in deciding for Stefan whether to accept help from Thakur, or to refuse and work on his own. If the former is chosen the viewer fast forwards to the future, charting the release of the game, which becomes a total failure. The viewer is then re-directed to change their initial choice.
As the narrative progresses, several elements of “Bandersnatch” are arguably representative of emerging Schizophreniform psychosis. At the onset, Stefan is seen as an isolated individual with no meaningful help from his father. He has little structure to his day other than programming and appears disengaged from his psychiatrist. We are also introduced to a backstory about the traumatic loss of his mother. A flashback reveals that at age 5, Stefan’s mother was unsuccessful at persuading him to accompany her on a train journey. She then takes a later train which derails, and dies. Stefan feels responsible for her death; he is driven to complete his adaptation of “Bandersnatch,” a book which she had owned, to atone for her death.
Mid-narrative, Stefan is offered Cannabis and LSD by Ritman (both notable risk factors for psychosis), to help him through “programmers block.” This leads to an escalation in visual perceptual disturbance and incongruity of emotion. Ritman then delivers a conspiratorial rant, reminiscent of paranoid persecutory delusions followed by the shocking suggestion that one of them should commit suicide, over which the viewer is given a choice. If Ritman is chosen, the suicidal act is depicted; if Stefan chooses himself, there is a cut to him contemplating overdose. This juncture is particularly disturbing. Although sensationalist, it touches on a dire reality; that suicide rates in those with psychosis are incredibly high.2 The scene also compels the viewer to feel the fear, confusion and loss of control that encompasses the chaotic onset of psychosis.
Moving on, Stefan becomes more alienated; he develops a fixation with the author of Bandersnatch and reads his biography. He comes across a symbol which he believes (self-referentially) to be critical of his progress. He sits alone, disinterested in food or interacting with his father. His walls are plastered with sketches, programming algorithms and Davies’ symbol. His mood becomes labile, he has insomnia and in one segment passes through a mirror to become his five-year-old self; a stark depiction of the blurring of reality which can accompany psychosis.
Stefan eventually develops an awareness that his actions, thoughts and emotions are not his own but controlled by an external force, in this case, the viewer. This segment serves as a metaphor for delusions of thought interference and passivity. Shortly thereafter, the viewer sees Stefan suffering more intense delusions of reference, delusional atmosphere, auditory and visual perceptual anomalies. Stefan fights against the breakdown of his reality. He attempts to understand his experience by rationalising it and he protects others from his unpredictable actions.
Although “Bandersnatch” is framed primarily as entertainment, such media may be used for meaningful psycho- and public education about linked psychosocial and substance related vulnerabilities as well as for highlighting the value of social inclusion as a protective factor in mental health. An interactive viewing mechanism amplifies viewer engagement, and a directed narrative with the illusion of choice can show the viewer the undesirable consequences of poor decisions with the benefit of just enough emotional distance. Such an approach could also be incredibly powerful in encouraging the public to be vocal and seek help early in mental illness.
2. Nordentoft M et al. Suicidal behaviour and mortality in first-episode psychosis. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2015.