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'Locke & Key' Makes a Stigmatizing Reference to Borderline Personality Disorder

On February 7, Netflix released “Locke & Key,” a screen adaption of the comic book series that follows the Locke family after Rendell Locke, a guidance counselor for a high school, is murdered by his student Sam Lesser.

After Rendell’s murder, his three children (Tyler, Kinsey and Bode) and their mother (Nina), take residence in Rendell’s family home, called Key House. The three siblings uncover numerous hidden keys throughout the house that can be used to bend reality and unlock magical doors. Nevertheless, a demonic entity named Dodge is also in hunt of the keys.

In pursuit of information about the keys, Sam murders Rendell in front of his family. A few episodes into the season, we learn Sam joined forces with the demonic entity, Dodge, who has successfully manipulated him into doing her bidding. Sam is taken to prison, where he eventually escapes with the help of Dodge and murders prison guards along the way. He then sets out to find the siblings and obtain the keys.

In the seventh episode, “Dissection,” it is revealed that Sam is thought to have borderline personality disorder (BPD), despite no strong evidence of BPD.

The episode begins with flashbacks leading up to Rendell’s murder. While in Rendell’s office, the demonic Dodge ultimately “befriends” Sam by speaking to him through an etching of the Key House. She convinces Sam to peak into his case file, where it reads he has a possible diagnosis of “borderline personality disorder” and cites “lacks determination, self-discipline and sense of responsibility.” Dodge uses this information to persuade Sam. “You’re nothing more than a virus to them,” she says.

After the flashback, and having escaped prison the previous episode, Sam breaks into Key House, wielding a gun. While holding Kinsey, Bode and Nina at gunpoint, Sam shouts, “So tell me where the goddamn key is, or I’m going to make it two for two for dead parents.”

I watched the whole series and reveled in the emotional plot points and mythology themes, genuinely enjoying the mix of supernatural horror and drama (two of my favorite genres combined). That said, I live with BPD, and it is important to remain critical of media depictions that potentially harm an underrepresented and highly stigmatized group. These judgments are not mutually exclusive.

The representation is not an isolated or simplistic incident of a murderer who “so happens” to have BPD. It is a knowing, opportunistic clue to a backstory and a turning point that was needlessly added to the murderer of a TV series. It is a more complicated negative representation that both arises from and contributes to a system of stigma and discrimination.

Here are some reasons this matters:

1. BPD has been long associated with intense stigma and discrimination.

The symptom presentation of BPD is often misunderstood, misinterpreted and “falls outside” the mental illnesses that are deemed more socially acceptable in our culture.

Although all mental illnesses are stigmatized, BPD symptoms tend to be incredibly intense, chronic and interpersonal. BPD has the highest suicide rate. One review estimated up to 80% of people with BPD attempt suicide an average of three times. Another study showed BPD stigma was the most common “crisis trigger.” Multiple studies explain that people with BPD, “may already be disliked before they have even been seen,” demonstrating how clinicians have less empathy for people who meet the diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder.

2. Violent representations reinforce negative associations and outcomes.

Current BPD representation in media is overpoweringly negative, and consists of violence, fear and avoidance. BPD already lacks accurate representation in research and clinical settings, while media and pop culture articles toss in the association of BPD to violent perpetrators, without evidence or confirmation of the diagnosis.

Considering this background of BPD, we should question the necessity of this added information in the series. The plot and characterization would not have changed if “borderline personality disorder” was omitted from the scene. It was not necessary, helpful or a pertinent component of his character, nor was it accurate. Other than a longing for care and acceptance, which are not strictly due to BPD, Sam does not portray any of the symptoms. The random “BPD” mention is not an integral part of his character.

3. The use of disability as a metaphor is widespread in pop culture.

Disabled people are regularly portrayed as objects of pity, a moral lesson, inspirational or childlike devices, or traumatic disabilities that turn someone evil. With psychological disabilities, representations often rely on common tropes such as the “psychotic killer.” The person themselves fades into the background of the story — they are a representation of fear, evil and conflict. Disability studies scholars have coined various theories to reference an assortment of metaphorical devices. For one, scholars Mitchell and Snyder call it “narrative prosthesis,” that is, “disability pervades literary narrative, first, as a stock feature of characterization and, second, as an opportunist metaphorical device.” Disability is often used as a lazy plot device or a crutch to push the film forward.

In this illustration, Sam’s “BPD diagnosis” in his file is used as his “turning point” when he decides to collaborate with the demonic entity, Dodge. At the end of the episode, Sam dies, and his ethereal form separates from his body, bound to Key House. It follows a common metaphorical device, in which the mental illness is used as one of the negative turning points, and the “mentally ill villain” must die at the end for equilibrium to be restored.

The TV show does include a little background information, including an abusive home life, and admittingly has an emotional ending. Yet, I would still question the assumption that either abuse survivors or people with mental illness are more likely to be manipulated by demonic entities who murder people. It may not have been explicitly said that BPD was the reason he killed people, but there are heavy implications and associations. BPD was knowingly and opportunistically added later in the series as a portion of his backstory, and it follows a metaphorical convention and upholds considerable potency.

Remember, for many people, this portrayal will be their first exposure to borderline personality disorder. The character was created to induce fear and pity, and the show makes it clear Sam’s role is to serve as the troubled, dangerous character. On an internal level, these representations hinder acceptance and can make it harder for people to reach out for help. The negative representations of BPD have not only held me back from seeking out services and treatment, but it has horribly triggered my symptoms, justified my abandonment fear, heightened my self-hatred and fueled the painful thoughts and paranoia.

It’s imperative to represent narratives that actively undo, disrupt and contradict harmful literary conventions. The omission of harmful representations is not sufficient in itself. Narratives should comprise complex character development and include people with BPD in the representation process themselves.

Instead of actively perpetuating negative representations of BPD, narratives should actively challenge and dismantle it with sincere, candid, factual depictions and careful intent.

BPD facts to remember:

  • People with mental illnesses are more likely to be survivors of violence, not perpetrators, and this includes BPD.
  • BPD is treatable and has numerous evidence-based treatments, including dialectical behavior therapy, mentalization-based therapy, transference focused therapy, trauma-informed approaches and psychiatric management.
  • Many observations and studies note enhanced empathy in certain contexts among people with BPD. “Borderline empathy” was actually a term coined by Dr. Krohn, in his 1974 paper, “Borderline ‘empathy’ and differentiation of object representations: A contribution to the psychology of object relations.”
  • Additionally, there are some positives and strengths that come with BPDwhich is further described by the community in this piece. Intense emotions also mean intense positive emotions, including passion, euphoria and spontaneity. According to Dr. Marsha Linehan, on the positive side, people with BPD are, “…idealistic and likely to fall in love at the drop of a hat. They may experience joy more easily, and thus may also be more susceptible to spiritual experience.”

This is the kind of information we need to be spreading about BPD — the kind of information that humanizes instead of reducing us to a stereotype. I hope in the future, writers and creators stop using BPD as some plot point, and give us the representation we deserve.