Hello! Since this is the first Mind Over Pop Culture blog entry, I’d like to start by introducing myself. My name is Taylor Rhodes, and I’ve been a staff member here at Mental Health America for almost four years. I have a degree in psychology from The George Washington University, with a minor in English literature. I’m also a pop culture junkie who watches way too much TV and way too many movies. All of this makes me uniquely qualified to discuss the intersection of mental health and pop culture, both good and bad. This column is the first of an ongoing series, and we’re going to start with the new season of American Horror Story, subtitled Asylum.
For those of you who haven’t seen the show, American Horror Story is a horror anthology show by Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee. The show tells one long story per season; last season, the show was set in a suburban home. This season, Murphy and his team have decided to mine the continuingly fertile soil of mental health and mental illness and set the show in an asylum run by the Catholic Church. The show is set in the 1960s, with a frame story set in the current day. (If you are sensitive to horror or sexuality, you might not want to watch.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAwFXPhSzNg
To quickly recap, the main story of the show is set in Briarcliff Manor in 1964, a large mental hospital for people remanded by the court, somewhere near Boston. The hospital is run by Father Timothy, played by Joseph Fiennes, and Sister Jude, a nun played by Season 1 MVP Jessica Lange. The rest of the consists of Dr. Arden, played by James Cromwell, and Sister Eunice, played by Lily Rabe. During the first show (aired last night), we are introduced to a few of the patients, including Kit Walker, a young man accused of being Bloody Face, a serial killer who mutilates young women, including his new African American bride; Shelly, a nymphomaniac played by Chloë Sevigny; Nina, played by Sarah Paulson, a lesbian journalist who goes to investigate Briarcliff and winds up a patient there; and the enigmatic Grace, played by Lizzie Brocheré, as “the only sane one in here.” The frame story consists of a newlywed couple on their honeymoon in the present day, visiting the top 12 haunted places in America.
Because the show is a horror show, it uses the language of horror movies. Everything on the show has to be viewed through the long history of horror in pop culture. The types of things people do, the way topics are discussed, and even down to the set design, are all going to reflect this history. These shortcuts tell the viewer that they are watching a horror show, and what they can expect. This language differs from the way mental health would be discussed on a science fiction show like Fringe or a medical show like Grey’s Anatomy. For example, I wouldn’t expect American Horror Story to explain that ECT is currently used as a treatment for severe depression, where I would expect it from Grey’s Anatomy. Where this ingrained language of mental health in horror came from, and why in persists, is something to discuss further.
The major theme of the show seems to be Science vs. Religion. Religion is represented by Father Joseph Fiennes, who seems oblivious to a lot of what’s going on (or is he?), and the lusty, sadistic Sister Jude. They believe that “mental illness is just a fashionable explanation for sin.” Science is currently represented by Dr. Arden, who believes that evil resides in the frontal lobes of the brain (he’ll be joined by another Doctor, played by Zachary Quinto, in the next episode). This conflict, well represented in horror, is heightened by the 1960s setting. They also introduced a discussion on sexuality, its “deviances,” and how those are defined. What does not seem to be on the table is a discussion of patient’s rights or the mental health civil rights movement, which began around this time. And that’s all without discussing the alien abduction, the experiments, the mysterious creatures in the woods that eat raw meat, the torture and the caning. The first season of AHS was full of as much ridiculous plotting as Murphy could get in, and this season is set up the same way.
There is a lot to discuss about American Horror Story: Asylum this season. I’ll do my best to cover everything, but please let me know in the comments if there’s something I missed, or something you want to talk about. Through this blog, I want to open the doors to discussion about mental health and pop culture, so please discuss!
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