Oh American Horror Story. This week you gave us a possessed Sister Eunice, a vengeful Dr. Arden, an escape scene, a rape scene and The Sign of the Cross, the great 1932 Cecil B. DeMille movie. More importantly, you also brought to the front the thorny (but evolving) history of religion and mental health.
Where religion and mental health meet is a fascinating topic, and a difficult one. All too often, the two are positioned against each other, both claiming to have the truth. For me, someone who is not religious at all and barely spiritual, it’s easy to fall into that way of thinking. The truth is that both are important parts of one’s health. For a long time, religion took the place of psychiatry and psychology, “treating” people who had issues with everything from depression to severe mental illnesses. The Confession aspect of many Christian denominations was the precursor to the talking cure of Freud. The concepts of community support come from the church, as well as aspects of self-directed care and self-determination. Today, most mental health professionals view the spirituality as a vital part of the overall well-being of an individual (including MHA in our Live Your Life Well program: http://www.liveyourlifewell.org/go/live-your-life-well/spirit). Many in the Church have embraced the importance of mental health education and treatment, and are a key part of the diagnosis and recovery of people with mental illnesses.
But in other aspects, the Catholic Church has been slow to accept psychiatry and psychology, even as clergy members are often the first person someone with a mental illness reaches out to. According to the Red Cross (2007), 43% of people in emotional distress turn to their clergy member first. In some cases, religion makes can make mental illness worse. There are individuals who have been told to “pray harder” and come to believe that mental illnesses are spiritual failings, instead of illnesses. Religious guilt adds to societal pressures. Conversion Therapy for homosexuality uses the language of psychology to promote bigotry and discrimination. This long, thorny history between the two sides goes on. However, the Catholic Church, and the greater religious community, has been working hard to assist their parishioners in getting the help they need, mental health services included.
Watching American Horror Story, though, you would never guess that. In Briarcliff Manor, mental health care and religion are at odds (To be fair, so is physical health). Dr. Thredson, played by Zachary Quinto, is the only psychologist on the show, and he’s not even on the staff. Patients are expected to pray away their illnesses, or at least hide them from Sister Jude. Mental illnesses are seen as the work of literal devils, and last week, there was an exorcism. Catholic based judgments are used as diagnoses, and confession is not seen at all. As a result, in the world of the show, religion has completely subsumed medicine, and no one seems to be helping the actual patients. (In the real world, psychology in the 1960s saw the second edition of the DSM, the rise of child psychology, and the Milgram Study on obedience. To see what else, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_psychology#1960s)
For a great example of mental health religion in movies, check out The Last Exorcism. This 2010 movie follows an evangelical minister as he does his last exorcism of a young woman in Louisiana. The movie showed the healing power of spiritualism, strong discussions of mental health and the limits of religion in diagnosis and treatment, and how the lines between the two aren’t always clear. The ambiguity of whether the young woman is possessed (the norm in horror movies) or mentally ill is really well done.
For all of the supposed influences of religion and mental health on American Horror Story, the show doesn’t reflect the reality of either, not even in the 1960s. What it does reflect, though, is the traditional ways that both are seen in movies, especially horror movies. Both themes loom large in horror, for reasons too numerous to list here. Next week, we’re going to talk about mental health in horror movies. For now, what did you think? Are you enjoying the show? What topics, themes and ideas have you noticed?