American Horror Story’s second season ended last week, but I had some final thoughts about the show and one topic that I never got a chance to discuss before the blog moves on.
When I started thinking about this blog and using American Horror Story in particular, I thought the show was going to focus more on the well-documented abuses of the mental health system, and I wanted this column to address those issues directly. I assumed that we would see more of topics like Lana’s exposé or lobotomies and studies like Milgram’s obedience study or the Stanford Prison Study (which is the topic of two horror movies in its own right). Despite the fact that the history of psychology is no more tawdry or evil than any other medical field, the ugly side is certainly more well-known than the positive side and I really thought that was what the show would be about.
Instead, we got an incoherent mess of a show that tossed plots around (and then away) with no purpose. What was the point of the devil and the aliens and the Nazi doctor? Did the fact that the asylum was religious ultimately matter? Sadly, no, and the show was much weaker for it. The cruelty people treat each other with is horrible enough that aliens and the devil are redundant. Worse of all, it continued making people in mental hospitals props. The named characters in the hospital were all sure to point out that “they didn’t belong” or that “they needed to get out of this place” artificially separating themselves from the other people in the hospital who evidently did deserve the abuse and cruelty. I would say this was done intentionally, but I don’t think it was. I think it’s just another example of how people with mental illnesses are marginalized everywhere, even on a show about them. To me, it’s just sloppier storytelling that shouldn’t get as much attention as it does.
The one thing topic that I didn’t get to address about the show was the language that the reviewers used to discuss the show. The headlines announced “American Horror Story: Asylum is Insane!” “New Season of American Horror Story is Nuts.” These headlines just reinforce the stereotypes that exist in society about people with mental illnesses. Language matters and seeing these headlines about a show underscore the lack of responsibility that the media takes about this topic. For individuals who are struggling with mental illness this type of negative messaging could be detrimental. It certainly doesn’t help anyone else reading these messages either. The worst part was that they were everywhere. TV by The Numbers announced “American Horror Story: Asylum Premieres to Insane Ratings” (http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2012/10/18/american-horror-story-asylum-premieres-to-insane-ratings/153845/). Entertainment Weekly ran a headline “This Was the Year That TV Went Insane.” A New York Post reviewer declared her need to enter an asylum after watching the premier.
The biggest disappointment to me was the AV Club’s recaps of the show, which are a great discussion of its plots, themes and characters (and the message boards are hilarious). They ignored the mental health topic through the season until this quote in the review of the episode “Madness Ends”: “Anyone who’s had mental illness in their life at any point can absolutely understand what’s happening here: Jude was driven mad, and now, she gets a respite of six months to be herself again, before the aliens or death or whoever takes her away. Mental illness is a cancer that eats away at lives; wouldn’t you cut any deal you could to be rid of it for a while, to be whole?” (http://www.avclub.com/articles/madness-ends,90911/.)
I was amazed at how stereotypical, and let’s face it ignorant, this was. She gets a respite to be herself again? Connecting mental illness to cancer eating away a life? Get to be whole again? The people with mental illnesses that I’ve had the pleasure to know are whole people who have relapses of their illnesses, not incomplete creatures fighting for a chance to live. They have whole lives, families and careers, and they also have a chronic disease. Language like this and sentiments coming from well-respected places like the AV Club, means that a whole group of people who don’t think about mental health or mental illness in their day-to-day lives just got this message. Stopping messages like this has to be paramount, because it makes mental illness appear as though it is something that is untreatable or unable to recover from when the fact is clear that mental illness can be a debilitating disease but it still makes the person whole.
I hope you enjoyed the American Horror Story: Asylum discussions. I tried to find topics that perhaps weren’t very well known, which admittedly got harder to do as the show got weirder and less coherent. For now, I plan to use the blog to discuss other places in pop culture that mental health and mental illness appear.
If you have suggestions or topics you want to talk about, please feel free to email me at email@example.com, or leave a comment on the blog or on Facebook. I want to talk about lots of different topics from lots of different perspectives, and I need your help to find them. The first AHS free blog next week will be about the new TV show Do No Harm and Dissociative Identity Disorder, which you may probably know as Multiple Personality Disorder.