We’re in a golden age of television right now, guys. And, while I feel like I’m missing a lot of it because I have to watch it later on the interwebs, I’m still glad that good writing has become a thing that has value to the television watchers of America. I think a switch got flipped in our cultural brains somewhere around Lost. We’ve got Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, and probably tons of other awesome things I’ve never heard of but should have, all at the same time. What’s most interesting is that we’ve acquired, at least in this one little corner of humanity, a taste for patience. An appreciation for good storytelling in a medium that’s become, sadly, a reality show intellect vacuum. I’ve seen more and more stuff lately that forces the audience to wait, absorb, and reflect, but not in a cheap cliffhanger way (see also: The Killing, The Following, and the first three seasons of Fringe). Probably the most interesting of these is American Horror Story.
There’s no good way to sum up American Horror Story, because each season is different. It’s the same cast (mostly) playing different characters, and each season tells a unique story from beginning to end and then they’re done. To my knowledge this is an unprecedented format (please, correct me if I’m wrong on that). But each season takes a particular trope and runs with it as far as the story will allow. Season one was about a haunted house, and most of the characters were ghosts. It’s kinky and sad and some of the best non-gory horror I’ve seen in a long damn time. Seriously, it’s on Netflix. You should watch it posthaste. Because Jessica Lange and Zachary Quinto. Yeah. Awesome.
But I want to talk about season two, Asylum. It’s basically about a woman who is committed to a mental hospital in the 1960s. Which was a horrible era in which to be institutionalized in these here United States. She got busted while trying to report on the awful practices at this particular asylum, then got screwed over and wrongfully put inside just for being a lesbian, which was reason enough in those days to have somebody locked up against their will (what the unholy fuck, America?!?). The first half of the season is a little more horror-y, with whacked out experiments being performed on patients and people getting murdered for knowing things they shouldn’t. The later (latter?) half is more about her trying to right wrongs and figure out how this fuckery was even allowed to go on as long as it did. Oh, and there’s a cool serial killer side story, a demon possession, and some fun alien abduction stuff. That sounds weird, but think it through: who’s going to believe a bunch of nutcases? Let’s just go digging around in their squishy bits and say we’re looking for implants. That’s a real thing that happened in the post-Roswell alien scare. Yuck. Mengele wannabe motherfuckers. Gross.
It’s dark and scary and, at times, kind of icky. But what’s interesting to me is that, to my understanding, it’s not too terribly off the mark (with the day-to-day living condition kinds of stuff, not the aliens and demons – mmm, probably). For example, there’s one episode near the end of the season where the reporter goes back to the hospital to do an exposé on the malpractice and bad conditions there. The footage is, almost shot for shot and line for line, identical to a documentary that Giraldo Rivera did about a New York mental institution in 1972. That shit is disgusting, and that hospital was shut down with a quickness after the documentary aired. Good thing, too, because it was supposed to be for children with disabilities and was pretty much just a kennel. With no lights. Ugh, it makes me ill. So, why is this situation that was reality for millions of people now fodder for a television show about horror stories? How did we get here? It’s a weird disconnect that we have between the actual history of these kinds of institutions (read: a dumping ground for the miserable) and our more modern idea (sanitized, homogenized, litigious as fuck, necessary) of what these places should look like.
I’ve been interested in mental hospitals for as long as I can remember. It started with a fascination with architecture and old buildings and somehow got weirdly specific. The state mental institution for Virginia is in my hometown, squatting at the top of the highest hill on that end of town. We joke that it’s the only place in the mountains where one can be threatened with a hill. Hilarious. But not really. At some point they built a prison adjacent so they could efficiently house the “criminally insane,” a term that I’m pretty sure the rest of the world has since done away with. But you get used to it, being from “there.” When someone would wander off or occasionally escape, the whole town would go on lockdown and they would send out the helicopters with searchlights and blah blah blah. On a less dramatic scale, we used to play on their baseball field when I was in middle school, because it was right across the street. And the patients who weren’t on the locked ward would just wander out and either try to play with us or hang out with us or just stand in the middle of the field and get in our way. That can’t possibly be okay, can it? Thanks, Virginia, for some top-notch looking out. Point is, I think I and others from my town are more aware of the mentally ill than most people are. So, it turned into this weird obsession for me. It went, somehow, hand-in-hand with my love of horror movies and heavy metal. At the beginning. Then it continued because I got really fascinated with why so many of these places are abandoned. It’s an interesting story. There are even circus freaks, which I know for a fact makes every story better.
There was a crazy rash of anti-exploitation laws that got passed in the 1950s, which made it financially impossible for state-run mental institutions to continue to be self-sustaining communities in the same way that they had been for a century and a half. Before the advent of sedatives and rudimentary anti-psychotic medications, the patients had literally run the asylums (“asyla,” if I were being pedantic) – preparing their own food, making their own clothes, keeping the grounds, etc, etc. This may seem shitty on the surface, but consider that routine and some sort of daily purpose, no matter how trivial, can be vital to a person’s mental health. Even more so to a person whose mental health is in jeopardy to begin with. It gives them something to do, something to hold on to, some reason to matter. Circus freaks were, weirdly, effected by these same anti-exploitation laws. This happened for, often (and sadly), valid reasons. If a family had someone who they didn’t know how to deal with, they could dump that person equally as easily at either the asylum or the freakshow, right? On the other hand, even consenting adults who wanted to be in the circus because they legitimately loved being in the circus were suddenly breaking the law by exploiting their deformity (this was covered in a lot of more conservative states by vulgarity or decency laws, with the same results). Therefore, the United States was simultaneously flooded with people with either mental or physical disabilities who had absolutely no way to support themselves. This made the 1960s a very, very weird time. It also gave us a plethora of amazingly beautiful abandoned buildings and a horrifying deficit of traveling freakshows.
This shit is utterly fascinating, and I want to write a book about it. I hope my spilling my guts about this idea here won’t make it difficult for me to get it done. I recently heard somebody say that talking about an idea and getting validation just because it’s a good idea has the same endorphin effect on the brain as actually accomplishing the thing itself. Therefore, I won’t have brainy motivation to do the thing, if I’ve already gotten the thinky rush from someone just saying “Hey, that’s a good idea.” Stupid brain. You guys aren’t going to talk my brain out of this project, are you? Because I really want to write this book. And I shall rain signed copies upon the blog-reading masses. So nobody tell me it’s a good idea? Maybe? Is that how this should go? I’m not sure.
Urm, anyway. I started out with a point. Oh, American Horror Story. It’s amazing and you should watch it. Because shows with decent writing deserve our patronage more than bullshit shows that just go in one eyeball and out the other. I think it’s good that we’ve come to think of episodes of television as teeny tiny movies. That seems healthier, somehow, doesn’t it? A better way to couch our obsessions? I think yes. Yes. Let’s go with that for now.