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Unfollow Me: Understanding Stalking Through the Movie ‘Unsane’

Unsane is a movie that follows the struggles of a stalking victim after she finds herself involuntarily committed to a mental institution.

What are you going to do? Are you going to live in the dark, locked in here? Afraid to look out, answer the door, leave? Yes, he’s out there, and he’s clearly not going to leave you alone until one of three things happens: he hurts you and gets arrested, or he makes a mistake and gets arrested, or you stop him.” —Rachel Caine. 

Stalking victimization has for a long time, been ignored and minimized, and it has been traditionally regarded as a rare and mostly ‘celebrity-related’ phenomenon. However,  research shows that stalking is far more common, and its impact can be serious and far-reaching. Stalking is defined as a pattern of unwanted behaviour and attention, or obsessive behaviour, which is directed at a specific person. Not only is it unwanted attention, but it also causes quite a bit of fear and anxiety to the person (i.e. victim)  who is being stalked. The media and movies have traditionally depicted stalking as a crime mainly perpetrated by mentally disturbed individuals and obsessed fans against celebrities due to a series of high-profile cases.   

Image: Claire Foy as Sawyer Valentini in ‘Unsane

It has also been found that the incessant and threatening nature of stalkers’  behaviour(s) often scars and changes life forever and can cause significant mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress disorder and feelings of fear, terror, helplessness, distress, anger and distrust that often last many years even after stalkers have disappeared.

Stalking is so mentally disturbing that the victims face debilitating disruptions in their everyday lives as a result of being stalked. They are often forced to change their driving and walking routines to and/or from their work, and they have to alter or refrain from doing their usual activities to avoid their pursuers. Basically, they’re refrained from “being themselves.” 

A classic example of stalking is portrayed in Steven Soderbergh’s 2018 film Unsane, where we meet Sawyer Valentini as she struggles to cope with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) after being stalked by a man named David Strine to the point of having to move and restart her life in a new city. She seeks a support group to join, and visits a counsellor to decide how to proceed, where she admits to feeling scared, alone and even suffering from hallucinations and the occasional “suicidal ideation.” But, instead, she’s thrust into a residential psychiatric ward (at Highland Creek) and drugged to the gills after admitting to thoughts of “suicidal ideation.”

The first symptom Sawyer exhibits is sexual dysfunction when she goes on a date with a man from a dating website. She becomes overwhelmed and likely triggered, unable to perform sexually and throws herself to the ground, sobbing and apologizing. These are two common after-effects of stalking in one scene: dysfunction in her sexual and emotional life and how she partially blames herself for the things that have happened to her. Portraying these two symptoms says a lot about how a stalker has affected her life– she lacks trust and also she’s questioning her own self. 

Another prevalent effect of stalking on mental health is suicidal ideation. Sawyer expresses to her psychiatrist that she sometimes considers suicide, and this conversation is what places her in Highland Creek. The depression and other emotions that lead Sawyer to express these feelings are very common with victims of stalking. While the hospitalization at Highland Creek is, indeed, an insurance scam, it does show that she has a level of suicidal ideation, probably because she just wants the anxiety and the paranoia to end. This is also the cause of her irritability and overt aggression, as she is more than likely not getting enough sleep due to these feelings.  All of her actions and smaller, more subtle symptoms, come back to her past experiences and could also be considered PTSD. 

Image: Claire Foy as Sawyer Valentini in ‘Unsane’ via Popmove

Sawyer’s emotions are amplified when she realizes that her stalker, David, has been employed by Highland Creek under a different name. This is when things get strangled. When she addresses this, she is ignored. Also, her addressal to the presence of her stalker is considered delusionary by the hospital staff. Although in this case, the stalker was actually present there, in several other cases, the victim actually starts having delusions about their stalker, which affects their mental well-being. The fact that Sawyer’s concerns are ignored (even though her hospitalization is part of an insurance scam and not due to her symptoms) is a huge addition to the paranoia and helplessness that a victim of stalking experiences. 

Another major yet often ignored issue tapped in Unsane is the phenomenon of gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of manipulation in which victims are targeted in a way that makes them doubt themselves, their own perceptions, sometimes their own sanity. This is exactly what David’s motive was, he wanted to gaslight Sawyer somehow to bring her to him. Although everyone around Sawyer constantly makes her believe that she is insane, she never gets trapped though. And this is exactly what every victim of gaslighting should do. In such a situation, they should only listen to their inner voice and believe in their own self. 

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Image: Unsane via Dailydead

The film also talks about the idea of involuntary commitment and how it taps deep into many of humanity’s greatest fears. Wrongful imprisonment not only robs Sawyer of her freedom, but also of her status, her credibility, and her very humanity. It is heartbreaking to see how Sawyer is trapped in there with no one listening to her, and this makes her even more aggressive in turn affecting her mental peace. 

The only thing scarier than losing your mind is everyone else believing you’ve lost it. 

Image: Director Steven Soderbergh via Getty Images

Soderbergh, through Sawyer Valentini’s story, poses a lot of thought-provoking questions ahead of us. It questions our awareness regarding the menacing act of stalking and how it scars one’s whole life forever. How a victim constantly lives with the thought within that someone is keeping an eye on them every second of the day.  Also, how can you trust anyone, when the institutions meant for looking after your well-being are the ones actually tampering with your mind? To sum it up, these are the words of a victim of stalking, “No matter how open the sky is, every second I feel caged. ”

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A curious mind looking to explore stories around the world.

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