The human mind is a complex thing that can really mess you up on a physical level, especially when forced to cope with extreme situations over an extended period of time. Try as you might to keep a cool composure, when under heavy mental duress, it’s only a matter of time before you lose physical control, forcing your body to react to what’s plaguing you—such as inner anguish, distress, despair and fear—in overly intense, sometimes unnatural ways.
Call them what you will—mental breakdowns, meltdowns, freak outs, yelling fits, extreme temper tantrums—these moments can sometimes be cathartic (after the utter insanity ends), but, in worst case scenarios, are only the beginning, the tipping point before the mind falls into complete madness.
The following scenes are key moments in both film and television when a character’s mind, usually after wrestling with a plethora of unpleasant things for an elongated amount of time, starts unraveling uncontrollably before the sufferer erupts into an all-out explosion of anguish. They all demonstrate the very edge of the brain’s ability to “keep it cool.”
15. The Twilight Zone – And When The Sky Was Opened
Probably what makes the many excruciatingly long mental breakdowns so frightening in “And When The Sky Was Opened” (an already chilling title) is that the episode aired in 1959 right before the “boom” of psychological horror films in the 1960s. That decade thoroughly explored the depths of what generated human fear beyond monsters, such as Wolfman, Frankenstein and Dracula. Instead, this new era began illustrating a more disturbing image of what horror could potentially signify, like in Psycho (1960), many of the releases from Hammer Horror and Amicus Productions as well as the creations of filmmaker Mario Bava.
While The Twilight Zone was undoubtedly a pioneer of the avant-garde in popular media, this particular episode (“And When The Sky Was Opened”) really stepped up the series’ game when it came to expressing terror and extreme paranoia.
All of the insanity in “And When The Sky Was Opened” revolves around a brief moment of ambiguity when three astronauts traveling through disappear from our scans. From the craziness that inevitably ensues, everything can be blamed on one simple question: what the heck happened when they “bleeped” off our radar?
14. Little Miss Sunshine – Comfort
Throughout the course of the film, Dwayne stays true to his vow by refusing to speak, resorting to other methods of communication instead. The moment he breaks it, however, is when he realizes he can’t become a pilot and expresses his overwhelming feeling of anguish by yelling at the top of his lungs.
When Dwayne comes to this realization, he’s in a particularly confining area that not only makes it impossible for him to escape, but forces him to hold all of the chaos that wants to break out of him in. He’s surrounded by his family and he’s in a moving vehicle that’s traveling at fast speeds on a highway.
What’s so crushing is that even though he knows he can never become a pilot, he still wishes to uphold his vow of silence as long as his family members are around him. The only way he will emit any form of vocal sound is once he’s run far enough away. Instead of yelling (which he later does once he gets out of the van), Dwayne starts slamming his head against the window of the van, again and again.
13. Breaking Bad – Crawl Space
The meltdown in this episode paints a stunningly disturbing picture of a man who has, up until this point, been able to weasel his way out of seemingly every insurmountable problem through the course of four seasons. It’s one that illustrates the story of someone who’s just now coming to the realization that he might have finally lost everything. And by “lost everything,” we mean E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.
Throughout the course of the show, the main character, Walter White, has wrestled with an alter ego he created, named Heisenberg. This “Heisenberg” is a meth-creating, meth-dealing drug lord that was made to save his real self (Walter) – a science teacher who’s dying of cancer. Heisenberg is capable of saving Walter by supplying the necessary funds for chemo through the allocation of methamphetamine.
The scene where Walter eventually breaks down comes from the culmination of things that have been building up since season one. They’re also the result of immediate, high-risk decisions that were made just mere moments before. And all of them were contingent on a certain amount of money being at a certain place, which just so happens to be the place where Walter freaks out. The fact that Walter doesn’t find the money makes the ramifications of every action, both recent and long-term, suddenly very, very real and immensely terrifying. Life as Walter knows it or, to be more precise, the lives as he knows them, are all about to end.
12. American Psycho – Mr. Bateman
For those who’ve seen this brilliant film, you’ll probably be surprised by what we consider to be the major breakdown in American Psycho. No, it’s not the many … uh … messed up things Patrick Bateman does throughout the course of the movie. While the acts he performs do, in fact, reveal that he’s psychotic, they’re not moments where he “loses” his mind because he’s already lost it. He’s basically “swimming” in his insanity. He hasn’t started drowning yet. (Then, again, there’s also the whole diverging theory about what actually happens in American Psycho, other than the less-complicated, more direct analysis, but that’s neither here nor there.)
The moment Patrick reaches his mental limit occurs after the scene where, interestingly, most people draw their main argument from that everything in the movie might not be what it seems. Regardless, what Patrick experiences during that time is not only highly disturbing (we’re talking about the cat-ATM scenario) but frightening for anybody. He’s being chased by the law.
Once the breakdown begins, Patrick has finally made it into his room. Believing he’s about to be caught, he grabs his phone and calls his lawyer while nervously pulling back his already slicked-back hair (slicked back by the copious amount of gel he uses and the sweat generated from the earlier chase).
11. Boss – Listen
There are many forces at play during this show’s particular “freak out” scene that later give way to Mayor Tom Kane succumbing to fury. What’s so intense about this rather ridiculously insane outburst is that it occurs during the series’ debut episode. It’s not in a later season or, at least, at the end of the first episode. It’s about halfway through with plenty of time left for more crap to happen. Within the first 20 or so minutes of the premier, there’s already more than enough reasons for him to lose it completely. And we’re more than convinced. That’s one jam-packed 20 minutes.
The most pressing issue that started loosening Tom’s grip on reality was something he discovered during the first minutes of the episode: he’s diagnosed with a rather gruesome degenerative neurological disorder, dementia with Lewy bodies, the side effects of which are less than pleasant. After a great deal of suffering (including hallucinations, loss of overall control of physical movements and verbal utterances), it ends in death. In other words, before Tom’s inevitable passing, he will experience a slew of symptoms that will negatively affect his judgement and his role as mayor (which he holds most dear), all of which have the potential of creating a scandal if found out or, in Tom’s eyes, force him to resign in disgrace. He is not a happy (or sane) camper.
Even before episode one hits the halfway mark, the life of Tom Kane is already shown to be riddled with problems. But he’s not an innocent victim. Far from it. If he’s able to circumvent them in anyway, he does so by any means necessary, most often shadily. Eventually, when presented with yet another dilemma, Tom soon descends into a state of complete anger, causing him to do some rather inappropriate acts that should’ve led to a lawsuit, complete with charges of aggravated assault and probably a few others tagged onto it.
10. Bad Lieutenant – Go To Church
There’s a reason why the film Bad Lieutenant is called Bad Lieutenant. Lieutenant Harvey Keitel is a bad person. Like, really bad. Throughout the movie, he does horrifically bad things. A lot of these bad life choices revolve around drug use and gambling, which would be “acceptable,” to a degree, if Harvey didn’t have two kids. (In fact, the movie opens with this bad father dropping them off at Catholic school before partaking in unacceptably bad behavior, bad not just for a cop, but for a dad. Oh, the irony!) Okay. We’re going to stop using the word “bad” now.
The guy’s mental breakdown is one continual scene of sheer torment, with little to no cuts. It begins with him wailing out in utter anguish before falling to the church floors, where he stays for the four-plus-minute ordeal. The few cuts that do take the camera away from Harvey are only done so the viewer can see what Harvey ostensibly sees, which just makes the whole situation all the more ridiculously insane … a crucified Jesus standing before him in silence.
Seeing such a monumental figure ends up having a profound effect on Harvey (soon leading to a confession), forcing all sorts of emotions to spill from his trembling lips. The first is unadulterated anger, where he yells obscenities at the big J.C., before Harvey becomes frustrated, asking or, to be more precise, demanding what He wants of him.
9. Zandalee – More Paint
In this movie, we see Nicolas Cage’s character, Johnny Collins, dealing with the death of an old friend, a death that was not only prompted by Johnny’s own actions, but that transpired before his very eyes. While Johnny didn’t kill the man directly, it’s the fact that he greatly hurt this character on so many levels before dying that fills Johnny with overwhelming guilt, especially now that he’s gone.
The attempt Johnny makes to find some sort of solace after such a tragic and mentally scarring event is a noble one. Johnny delves into his paintings, a pastime he pursues by trade. Yes, do what you love and what you’re good at. Great idea. But, it doesn’t work out as much as he hoped it would. All efforts are futile. In fact, Johnny’s overwhelming despair and anger at himself suddenly burst out of him while in his studio, causing him to do the exact opposite of what he first intended to do – create art – by literally destroying them. It’s a “massacre.”
8. Fantastic Mr. Fox – Break Stuff
This particular outburst is similar to Johnny’s assault on inanimate objects, minus the paintings and minus the rather disturbing act of covering oneself in paint. While lacking in the “self-painting” department, this particular freak out makes up on pure shock factor alone.
For people in the middle of watching Fantastic Mr. Fox, this particular meltdown may not be wholly surprising, seeing as there are many instances where the characters either do rather strange things or discuss inappropriate subject matters, which they sometimes cover up by disguising the adult language in amusing, yet highly conspicuous ways. In other words, while based off a wonderful children’s book by Roald Dahl, there’s a reason why the film adaptation was given a PG rating rather than the more innocent G. It’s not really a kid’s film. And the scene that made this list demonstrates that.
During this particular moment in the film, three farmers – Walter Boggis, Nathan Bunce, and Franklin Bean – are trying to get back at Mr. Fox, whose stolen their products numerous times. But it soon becomes apparent that their latest scheme didn’t work. Upon this realization, Franklin Bean loses his cool. Like, he really loses it. It’s lost and can never be found.
7. Stranger Than Fiction – Freakout
Stranger Than Fiction is a masterpiece that delves into tropes that are already highly complex – like characters suffering from deterministic and nihilist forces, feeling as though they have no control of their lives — and expresses them in rather intriguing and highly imaginative ways. Will Ferrell‘s character, an IRS agent named Harold Crick, is portrayed in a way that’s essentially an intense caricature of everything you’d expect from an IRS agent: boring, lame, nerdy about numbers, awkward and immensely OCD about everything.
Things get crazy when Harold Crick starts experiencing some rather strange and disturbing things that would be incredibly frightening for anyone (seeing as he displays symptoms of schizophrenia, and is erroneously diagnosed with it later on in the film). Before he comes to realize the truth behind this disturbing phenomenon, he undergoes a very “Will Ferrellian” freak out. However, the difference here is that there’s nothing funny about it. At all.
6. Brothers – Fight
This particular meltdown is another example of how one can freak the heck out by bashing or destroying various things. But, in Brothers, it’s done in such a way that makes the whole “I’m going to paint myself black until I’m completely blacked out” thing in Zandalee nowhere near as serious. This, however, is troubling. And it doesn’t help that it’s a depiction of a certain form of suffering that is rather tragic and what many people are currently going through, seeing as we’re in a perpetual state of war. It’s the result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
As a result, Sam has a pretty severe case of PTSD that makes life difficult for everyone, especially him. And we mean severe. This severity is off the charts, especially when he experiences extreme paranoia. While already having trouble acclimating to regular life, Sam is soon led to believe that his brother Tommy did things with his wife and high school sweetheart, Grace, while on duty. This realization causes Sam to just explode. In fact, there are numerous things that happen during the overall freak out that allow it to abate before something flares it up again. It’s a seemingly endless wave of extreme anger and pain. The fact that nothing can fully diffuse the meltdown, no matter how comforting these “things” may be, just proves how severe it is.
Sam begins his downward spiral with Grace when he starts destroying his recently remodeled kitchen with a crowbar while yelling at the top of his lungs. When Sam’s brother comes down the stairs, Sam doesn’t threaten him with a crowbar. No, Sam takes it up a notch by whipping out his gun.
5. Orange Is The New Black – People Persons
What’s so heartbreaking about this particular scene is that there are a number of variables that caused the sufferer to eventually breakdown … and they didn’t need to happen. They are all highly cruel and an unusual form of harassment. While the majority of the show takes place in a prison, these facilities are meant to protect those in custody rather than encourage violence, which is what the officers do during this disturbing moment. This is but one of the many factors that causes inmate Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren to fall into a fit of rage.
“Crazy Eyes” has that name for a reason. ‘Dem eyes be cray-cray! While she hasn’t been officially diagnosed with a condition (or, if she has, the identity has yet to be revealed), Crazy Eyes suffers from some sort of mental illness (or multiple illnesses) that causes her to act socially awkward and, when agitated, to fall into fits of uncontrollable emotional outbursts.
In Episode 11 of Season 4 (or episode 50 overall) entitled “People Persons,” Crazy Eyes is pushed to her most frightful freak out of the entire show. (And she’s had many.) During her meltdown, Crazy Eyes seemingly reaches a point of no return until she’s physically torn away from the immediate source of violence.
4. Berserk – Time of Eternity
You have to include at least one anime in a list like this, and seeing as Berserk is one of the craziest and most intense of its kind, there’s no question that it belongs here. The name of the character who experiences the immense freak out after being subjected to a rather ridiculous amount of suffering is Guts, yes, Guts (named so by a rather cruel man because the child had been born from a corpse hanged for heresy and found lying in her entrails).
But the most pressing variable in play that allows Guts to absolutely lose his mind comes in the form of ultimate betrayal and the most vilest form of violence that can ever be afflicted to another person (which is being performed on a person Guts cares deeply for by someone who he once deeply cared for), and he’s forced to watch it.
Guts’ desperate need to end what’s unfolding before him allows him to temporarily detach himself mentally (or, at least we hope so) from the undeniable physical pain his efforts of doing so creates. But there’s more.
3. A Clockwork Orange – Poor Alex
Without giving too much away, Alex later finds himself a captive, imprisoned by one of his former victims, whereby he’s forced to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, causing him to endure unthinkable pain. The fact that he’s exposed to the music for a long period of time only augments these adverse effects all the more.
The physical torment is so great that, at one point, Alex ends up banging his head on the ground before resorting to his only salvation — an attempt at committing suicide — by jumping through a window.
2. Mommie Dearest – Wire Hanger
Much of Joan’s insanity can be traced to the overly strict regimens she not only inflicts upon herself, but those around her. They’re also undoubtedly the result of Hollywood’s relentless eye, one that’s always shrewdly analyzing anything and everything stars do. After being subjected to this for so long, she’s become rather obsessive of how she and her things are perceived. If she finds one small mistake, it has the potential of inducing fits of rage.
Apparently, hanging “beautiful dresses” on wire hangers is the same thing as treating “them like they’re some dishrags.” While she’s saying all of these ridiculous accusations, she slowly approaches Christina menacingly (who’s cowering in her bed), before throwing the dress at her. Joan then proceeds to tear Christina’s clothes out of the closet, yelling “Out! Out!” with each violent thrust.
This would be horrific for any child, especially one who’s still quite young like Christina. But it gets must worse after Joan finds another wire hanger. Nervous laughter escapes her. She grabs the outfit on the wire, her body rocking back and forth from both the momentum used to rip it from the closet as well as the the mental anguish she’s undergoing. Soon stifled whining noises escape from Joan’s tormented face, before she throws it on the ground.
1. The Basketball Diaries – Bathroom Break
When it comes to Leonardo DiCaprio, he’s very much like Nicolas Cage in that he’s performed many freak outs during his time on the silver screen (of which he’s finally been awarded an Emmy). The fact that this film, The Basketball Diaries, came out before Leonardo DiCaprio’s big breakthrough (Titanic) means that he had to act with more gusto, more than what we’re used to … and it shows. Why did he have to do this? He still had to make a name for himself, so he had to go completely out of his way to impress the world. And it worked.
Jim goes ballistic, almost growling, as he tries to form words in his current messed up state, before punching the door repeatedly. But these actions aren’t what make this scene so disturbing. Jim’s “growling” voice finally drops to cries before he falls over and starts whining horribly. These whines are truly heart-wrenching, his voice contorted by everything he’s experiencing. All Jim can do is try to get his mother to open the door. His face is pressed up against the door pathetically as he does this, crying, “How could you do this to your son, you $&%^! You $^#%!”
In another scene, Jim crawls over to Reggie and tries to forcibly crawl his way out, but Reggie prevents him. Jim growls as he realizes he can’t get through, with more drool dripping from his face as he reaches up to him. “Reggie, you gotta give me it,” Jim sobs. When Reggie tries to pick Jim up in his arms, Jim starts to laugh disturbingly. They’re forceful sounds that get more intense the more Reggie tries to move him. The scene then ends with Jim grabbing Reggie’s leg who’s seated outside his room, with Jim panting heavily.