Mental illness goes hand in hand with the horror genre. As someone who suffers from trauma and PTSD, I can almost always find a piece of myself on screen. Scream’s Sidney Prescott survives and thrives over and over again throughout the franchise. In Antlers, Julia Meadows has violent flashbacks to her abusive past.
But as someone who also suffers from borderline personality disorder (BPD), I don’t really ever see myself represented. Borderline personality disorder, sometimes known as emotional dysregulation disorder, is characterized by unstable moods, behaviors and relationships. But that’s putting it lightly. BPD is its own real-life horror, and perhaps too intense or complicated to accurately portray over the course of a 90-minute runtime. I found Daniel Isn’t Real one evening after browsing through Shudder, and was stunned to see the darkest parts of myself accurately characterized by a toxic relationship: One between a boy and his imaginary friend.
Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer, 2019’s Daniel Isn’t Real follows college freshman Luke (Miles Robbins) who is reunited with his imaginary best friend Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) after his schizophrenic mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) attempts suicide. At first, Luke is thrilled to have the comfort of his old pal back, but this quickly deteriorates as Daniel begins to take control of Luke’s mind and lead him down a violent path of self-destruction.
During my initial watch, I was surprised to recognize myself in both characters. Even though Daniel is supposed to be a metaphor for Luke’s seemingly inherited schizophrenia, he’s also the perfect allegory for BPD. The disconnect and conflict between Luke and Daniel works to represent the split between your “real” self and your disordered self. When looking at it through this lens, the film as a whole becomes an allegory for how ugly, isolating and maddening the disorder can be.
BPD can sometimes develop from trauma, and Daniel initially appears to Luke after he witnesses a murder as a young boy. He emerges again when Luke is older, and in the middle of stopping his mother from taking her own life. Daniel instructs Luke to take the scissors from Claire’s hand and put them to his own throat, something Luke wouldn’t have had the courage to do on his own.
This is because Daniel is the hotter, cooler and smarter version of Luke. He’s fearless and overconfident, a stark contrast to Luke’s timid and hesitant nature. In terms of BPD, he’s the God complex personified: The “better,” manic version that takes over. Some Borderlines see things in black and white: Either we’re at our highest, most confident peak and believe that we can do no wrong or we’re sad, pathetic, incompetent and nothing we do matters. The God complex pops up during the former and tells us we’re hot, desirable and can have whatever we want. When Luke begins talking to a girl named Cassie for the first time, Daniel tells him what to say and instructs him how to seem more vulnerable and sympathetic. Luke is both attracted to Cassie and starved for social interaction, but doesn’t know how to get his needs met. Daniel does.
At first, it seems great. Daniel helps Luke cheat on his test, recites passages from books to make Luke appear smarter, tells him what to say in order to impress a pretty girl at a party—all things Luke was unable to do on his own. Claire even describes the beginning of her own illness as both “wonderful and terrible.” There’s a feeling of euphoria that comes along with the God complex: A heightened sense of self, the belief that nothing could go wrong. But this doesn’t last for very long. After the comedown from the high, everything becomes dark.
When Luke is propositioned for sex by another girl, his first instinct is to turn her down because of his feelings for Cassie. Daniel steps in and asks if he can take over. “It’s not cheating if it’s me,” he tells Luke. This struck me. I don’t recognize myself during a BPD episode. I often find myself saying that it wasn’t me who did that or said that, and that I don’t even know who that person was. I succumb to my disorder and let it take over. It’s a mangled, distorted version of me—something further illustrated when Luke decides to give in and give up control. When the two merge into one, the visuals are reminiscent of a David Cronenberg body horror or a Junji Ito illustration. Their faces melt into one another, grotesquely fusing together and pulling apart. Another time, Daniel unhinges Luke’s jaw and climbs in whole. For me, these scenes offer an accurate look at how ugly and unbecoming an episode can be, how we become something else entirely. They also speak to the self-mutilation that comes along with BPD, and how many of us turn to some form of self-harm looking for a release.
Eventually, Daniel ruins all of Luke’s relationships, gets him kicked out of school, and even takes away Cassie, the last person on Earth who he felt truly understood him. Luke goes from having everything he ever wanted—love, acceptance and a sense of belonging—to having everything ripped away. Suddenly, he’s alone. It’s just him and Daniel, who he can’t seem to get rid of no matter how hard he tries. People with BPD often cycle through relationships, ruin opportunities and feel isolated from the world as a result. I find myself sitting alone with my own madness, wishing it would disappear.
Towards the end of Daniel Isn’t Real, the allegory intensifies. At the end of his rope, Luke returns to his therapist and is prescribed medication. The medication doesn’t work, and that’s because—spoiler alert—Daniel isn’t a manifestation of Luke’s schizophrenia after all: He’s a demon.
For centuries, mental illness has been mistaken for demonic possession. This has resulted in countless family members tying their loved ones to a cross and starving them to death in an attempt to free them of the supposed evil inside of them. Mental illness is still, to this day, demonized, but Daniel Isn’t Real takes this to its most literal extreme. Luke doesn’t have schizophrenia, he has an ancient demon attached to him hellbent on taking over his body and soul. While reciting a Bible verse, Daniel furiously tells Luke, “You shall have no other God before me.” That’s a metaphor in and of itself. Possession is a great way to describe what happens when our mental illness takes over, when it does things we don’t want to do, no matter how hard we try. There’s no medication proven to effectively treat BPD and the disorder has been largely deemed as untreatable, so comparing it to a demon we can’t get rid of isn’t far off at all.
While BPD doesn’t cause hallucinations or cause the afflicted to create multiple identities, I still believe Daniel is a characterization of the illness as a whole. He is BPD. He is every nasty (and sometimes great, as we see in the first half of the film) thing that the disorder represents. He’s unhinged and chaotic and vicious. He wants to reduce Luke down to nothing, and ultimately take over his body so he has a human form to carry out his incessant need for violence and destruction. I don’t think BPD is violent to that extent, if at all, but I do think that Borderlines—in their worst moments—have the potential to harm others emotionally or harm themselves emotionally and physically, the latter being a vain attempt to control the pain. Daniel, as demon and as allegory, is all of this and more.
The film doesn’t bother with faith, however. Instead, the only way Luke can rid himself of Daniel, once and for all, is by killing himself. Luke pulls both himself and Daniel over the edge of a rooftop, but only Luke’s body remains. One in 10 people with borderline personality disorder take their own lives, and the disorder is known for driving people to suicide. Many believe that this is the only way out because they can’t stand to be in their own body anymore. The film ends with an angry Daniel looking down at Luke’s body from above. Luke is dead, but Daniel will find another host. Someone can take their own life, but the disorder will still rage on.
Daniel Isn’t Real doesn’t have a moral. It doesn’t offer any hope. It’s a dark tale with a grim ending, and it’s important. I’ve never been able to show anyone what my disorder looks or feels like, but now whenever someone asks, I think of the scene where Luke and Daniel’s faces melt together, fusing to become something terrible, all while a helpless Luke cries and begs for his body back. There’s something terribly important about seeing yourself on screen, about having a filmmaker breathe life into your monsters. It’s a special kind of validation, the kind that lets us know we aren’t sitting all alone in the darkness.
Lauren Milici is a Jersey-born, Florida-raised poet and writer currently based in the Midwest. She is the author of FINAL GIRL from Big Lucks Books. When she isn’t crafting sad poems about sex, she’s either writing or shouting into the void about film, TV, and all things pop culture. @motelsiren.