“A man knows a man. An outsider knows an outsider.”

The same could be said about mental illness. Anxiety recognizes anxiety. Depression acknowledges depression. Pain knows pain.

The Outsider, a new HBO miniseries based on Stephen King’s novel, essentially asks us to question the beliefs that shape our identities. First, we’re presented with the seemingly impossible evidence that a single individual can be in two separate places at one time. Then, we’re challenged with the possibility that an evil entity can exist within our world yet operate outside of scientific law. Finally, broad questions are asked: Is the boogeyman real? Is God or a god real?

Could either exist and would either exist without the other?

In raising these questions and watching each character confront realities that go against their convictions, The Outsider – perhaps unintentionally – makes a broader statement about mental health in our society. Can those in society who don’t suffer from mental illness ever fully understand and accept those whose afflictions label them outsiders?

Throughout the miniseries, the Outsider entity is the personification of man’s inability to cope with trauma. It becomes the grief that eats away at the soul, severing the emotional bonds that an individual has with their family, friends, and community. While it is a fitting metaphor, there’s also a more powerful allegory lurking beneath the story’s theme.

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If we instead look at the Outsider not as an evil entity but as a symbol of mental illness, it highlights an all-too common trend of everyday life – mental illness, though scientifically proven, draws negative assumptions and a skeptical eye from those in our society.

The story pairs Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelson)’s refusal to believe that which he can’t explain with private investigator Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo)’s insistence that something can exist without the need for scientific explanation. As evidence mounts, Anderson continues to find a reasonable excuse for every unreasonable event.

Ben Mendelson as Ralph Anderson and Cynthia Erivo as Holly Gibney in HBO's The Outsider

When a child claims that a mysterious stranger is visiting her at night, Anderson insists that it’s a nightmare. When Anderson’s own wife is visited by the same monster, he still persists that her experience isn’t real. Even though Anderson is shown evidence via video, DNA and witness testimony that a doppelganger, this Outsider, truly does exist, he still searches for an alternate truth that caters to his concept of reality.

Gibney, in contrast, believes in the possibility of a theory that she herself may not believe possible according to her own preconceptions. Eventually, each puzzle piece that she finds uncovers a sinister picture. She regularly concedes the bizarre, unrealistic nature of her evidence, and yet allows the “facts” to mold her beliefs.

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If we approach the Outsider as a symbol for mental illness, it’s tragic how quickly some characters are to wave aside genuine red flags and question claims based on prejudice. Anderson immediately regards the experiences of a child and his wife as nightmares, though they both believe so vehemently that their visits from the monster were real. Gibney, though a talented and proven investigator, not unlike Anderson, still garners skepticism from other characters because of her uniqueness.

There’s a suggestion that Gibney is on the Autism spectrum with her mannerisms and difficulty in social situations being among a few pointed clues. Although she has inexplicable gifts (uncanny memory, instant mathematical calculations, etc.), she is still very much an outsider in any situation because she is more eccentric than the norm.

The fact that many characters, particularly those who are white males, are quick to disregard the unexplainable beliefs of characters with intersectionalites (age, race, gender, etc.) is representative of the challenges those with mental health afflictions struggle to overcome. A stigma still surrounds many mental health diagnoses, especially depression, personality disorders and schizophrenia. Those who live with these ailments often find themselves functioning in society as outsiders, despite their talents and gifts.

Detective Anderson is “normal,” and his talents allow him to be an insider. Holly Gibney, no matter how capable, is “different” and will continue to be labeled an outsider.

In some ways, the ending is positive: Anderson and Gibney understand, accept and overcome the Outsider and move forward in their lives with a much more inclusive perspective of what’s real and what’s “all in your head.” An innocent man is exonerated, and the case is reopened.

But on the flip side of the coin, many other characters meet a dark fate. Some fail to overcome the monster. Others remain haunted and scarred by its presence in their lives and agony it’s caused their loved ones. The town that endured this trauma is left with an unsolved child murder, and the few that know the truth likely will never speak of it again for fear of being labeled outsiders.

What are your thoughts on how The Outsider portrays the concepts of grief, evil and faith? Let us know in the comments! 

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This article was originally published on 7/16/20