‘Daniel Isn’t Real’ and the Difference Between Demon-izing and Demonizing Mental Health

There’s a big difference between using mental illness as a shorthand for scares and bringing a literal demon to a psychological horror party.
Daniel Isn't Real

Horror is all about transgression. It’s about crossing boundaries, unsettling safe spaces, and reviling in taboo. Whether profoundly ridiculous or ridiculously profound, horror films make their home in the dark, disturbing corners banished from polite society. Daniel Isn’t Real, the second feature from Adam Egypt Mortimer and the latest offering from the genre-hounds at SpectreVision, is no different, boasting a bounty of upsetting visuals, body horror, and supernatural shenanigans. It also literally demon-izes mental illness.

The film concerns a troubled college freshman named Luke (Miles Robbins), who sees demonic figures and faints when he’s stressed. Luke makes regular visits home to check on his mom, who suffers from an unspecified mental illness and exhibits signs of paranoia, refusing to see doctors or take her medication. During one of Luke’s visits, his mom attempts suicide and the stress resurrects Luke’s childhood imaginary friend, Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), who helps Luke cope. What starts off as a hijinks-filled reunion quickly spirals into something more dangerous as Daniel vies for control of Luke’s mind, body, and spirit. Because of his family history with mental illness, Luke assumes that Daniel is a projection of his deteriorating mental health. He immediately seeks help and receives a schizophrenia diagnosis and medication. But none of it works. Because Daniel is an actual, honest to god, demon.

The idea of someone’s inner demons being, well, demons was a widely accepted explanation for aberrant behavior from antiquity through to the mid-19th century. And while mainstream medicine no longer attributes psychological disorders to supernatural causes, the confluence of demonic activity and mental illness lives on in horror films. Oh, and in the many modern-day faith healers keeping up the grand tradition of denying medical treatment to the mentally ill in favor of submitting them to physical abuse. But back to horror movies.

I say “back to horror movies,” not to hand-wave, but because Daniel Isn’t Real isn’t all that interested in allying, let alone dabbling, with faith-based explanations for psychological disorders. In fact, even within its own contained narrative, the film is barely interested in suggesting that there might be broader demonic activity outside of Daniel. We know that Daniel is a notorious body-hopper who’s been around the block, historically speaking, and after revealing his true sinewy form, he readily boasts of all the people he’s “helped” over the years.

A resemblance to a man-munching Hieronymus Bosch beasty backs up Daniel’s claim that Luke is only one victim of many, a fact corroborated by the other characters’ drawings of Daniel’s likeness. In theory, while a big ole leap on the audience’s part is required, the Bosch connection could imply a wider demonic world given how well-populated The Garden of Earthly Delights is. But, ultimately, the evidence of a larger demonic conspiracy is as hard as half-melted burrata, with any demonic shenanigans outside of Daniel left to speculation. It’s a move that side-steps the implication that all mental disorders are actually the work of demons while leaving the door of possibility open a crack.

At the end of the day, Daniel Isn’t Real isn’t really a story about a young man struggling with mental illness. It’s the story of a young man struggling with an actual, real-deal demon who loves hair gel and Ray-Bans.

Imagine, if you will, a sliding scale. We’ll call it the “How Supernatural is Your Evil Imaginary Friend?” scale. On the one side, you’ve got things like Fight Club and Mr. Brooks, films about mentally unwell characters who hallucinate alter egos. In the middle-ish of the scale, you’ve got your Black Swans and your Donnie Darkos, where the line between a character’s mental health and supernatural shenanigans is fuzzier. And finally, on the far side, you’ve got stuff like The Exorcist where Captain Howdy is absolutely a demon damned Pazuzu and he would like you to kindly undo these straps.

Daniel Isn’t Real is firmly in the Exorcist camp. Luke pulls off certain feats with Daniel’s help (cheating on the test, reciting books from memory, etc.) that are difficult to explain-away without entering into pretty convoluted territory. Even Daniel’s more gaslight-y antics (like texting people while Luke is asleep, or Luke’s behavioral changes when possessed) are presented to us with a sincere cinematic language that doesn’t share in Luke’s doubts about his own sanity. More compellingly, other characters — Cassie and Dr. Braun — react, see, and affirm Daniel for what he is: a gross, toothy demon with a face like a broken barstool. The horror of these moments is not in Luke’s slipping grip on reality or the possibility that he is showing signs of his mother’s illness, but in the threat that Daniel poses as a bonafide demonic entity.

From asylums to deranged killers, there are many examples from horror history of mental illnesses being used as a shorthand for scares. It’s a trope that often equates mental illness to violence and doesn’t do wonders for the stigmatization of real-world sufferers. But if you’re looking for Daniel Isn’t Real to say anything profound or scandalous about mental health, you’ve come to the wrong party. And that isn’t a bad thing. To my delight, for all the portent of its heavy contextual drapery, Daniel Isn’t Real has a goofy gait that, I must admit, won me the hell over. This is a film with a demon who, after finally gaining control of a body, immediately slicks his hair back and buys a power suit like a 1980s coke fiend (a move that I, of course, respect immensely). Daniel Isn’t Real is a really fun possession movie. But I’m not so sure that it mobilizes its demon-ization for anything more than that.

Ostensibly, Daniel Isn’t Real is trying to say something about Luke, this tortured, fragile boy whose life has been derailed by a demon doing a lopsided Patrick Bateman impression. The performance Robbins delivers is off the charts endearing, and you want him to prevail, ideally, in a way that indicates that he has overcome not only Daniel but some personal hindrance. Because you know: storytelling.

I won’t spoil the specifics, but in essence, Luke’s Big Character Moment hinges on him “having the guts” to do something pivotal. Sure, Daniel helps Luke be more assertive, but describing Luke as whipped or incapable of independent action betrays what we’ve already seen him do. He’s confident with Cassie and capable of resisting Daniel, so much so that it pisses Daniel off. All to say: the problem is not any moral failure on Luke’s part, but the fact that he’s being bullied by a manic demon with cocaine energy. “Failing to take charge” isn’t really what’s bogging Luke down, and as a result, his grand assertive gesture has little emotional payoff. Instead, it feels clumsy and disconnected from the rest of the film.

Is there something gauche about using mental illness as a sound stage for a demon romp? Sure. But as far as demon-izing mental health, Daniel Isn’t Real isn’t really clever enough for any would-be subtext to pack enough of a punch to offend. It lacks connective tissue between its demonic and psychological elements, which avoids the pitfalls of bad taste at the cost of dulling the impact of its own message. Is it still enjoyable? Hell yeah. My advice: decide for yourself what to take and what to leave. For my part, I’m taking this goofy, imperfect Patrick Batedemon to the bank.

Meg Shields: Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.