'Nightmare Factories' Explores The Role Of Mental Asylums In Pop Culture

Oct 30, 2019

A new book from a Southern Connecticut State University professor explores the history of mental asylums and psychiatric hospitals in American culture. WSHU’s Davis Dunavin spoke with history professor Troy Rondinone about why asylums continue to have a hold on the American imagination.

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

The asylums are actually a product of a reform movement in the United States. The word asylum means place of refuge, and they were considered to be very progressive and a vast improvement over how the insane were treated before then.

Did people think when they were sending family members off to these asylums that they were sending them off to something akin to a comfortable resting period in the woods?

Absolutely. They were designed to look like large homes with beautiful grassy areas. The cures the doctors were advocating were things like walking in the park, fishing, just taking it easy, getting air.

Rondinone says by the Civil War, every state had a tax-funded asylum. Connecticut had a few, including Fairfield Hills in Newtown and the Norwich State Hospital for the Insane. By the turn of the 20th century, books and magazines were filled with accounts that showed these asylums were far from paradise.

They were becoming too crowded. They were heavily occupied by recent immigrants, especially in urban areas, by the progressive years. And so this is when we begin to see some of the more drastic treatments, ways of shocking patients back into reality. It gets pretty scary there for a while.

Is this the same time as lobotomies and electroshock therapy?

Lobotomies were designed, again, with crowded hospitals in mind. How to get patients out of these crowded, often very filthy institutions, state-funded institutions. And so the idea was it would cure schizophrenics and get them back to their family. So it was designed to be very optimistic.

The 1948 film “The Snake Pit” depicts an institutionalized woman who recovers with help from a psychiatrist and treatments that were seen as progressive at the time.

Although the electro-convulsive therapy scene is pretty scary, in the movie it actually helps her. "Snake Pit" is a combination of a critique of the overworked, overcrowded mental hospital with the Freudian hero coming in and rescuing this woman.

Rondinone says that optimism started to run out by the 1970s as states began to cut budgets, and institutions started to close.

And so there’s a huge wave of criticism of psychiatry, mental hospital treatments…

It’s the central subject of one of the most highly regarded films ever made – 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” A troublemaker enters a mental hospital and upsets the balance of power between doctors, nurses and patients.

With "Cuckoo’s Nest," you get the mental hospital as a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with America. Stifling conformity, bureaucratic control, the rising women’s movement. Nurse Ratched is just an evil character.

McMurphy’s fights against Ratched put him on the receiving end of some of the most extreme psychiatric treatments of the day.

So the end of the mental hospital was a product of Americans being very upset with their government, essentially. Mental hospitals were becoming very expensive for states to keep up, and as patients lived longer and longer, the amount of care required became more and more. The money that went into it, higher and higher. And so the hospitals closed, patients found themselves on the street.

Your book uses “Halloween” as an example of how that kind of manifests itself in the American psyche. “Halloween,” the 1978 horror movie with Michael Myers and his white death mask as kind of a manifestation of this fear, right?

When “Halloween” came out, this was the time when you can read in the newspapers a lot of fears about the consequences of deinstitutionalization. Patients on the streets committing horrible acts of violence. This is the way that the media is playing this up. And so Halloween comes out, and here’s the story of a deranged monster, the boogeyman, who erupts from a failing asylum in a breakout, and goes back into his community to wreak havoc, being chased by a psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis, whose idea of treatment is shooting Michael Myers because he is untreatable.

Where do we get the trope, say, in horror movies, for instance? The big, scary, water-dripping, light-swinging-around mental asylum?

Well, the dungeon in the asylum is an old trope. But you have to put everything into context. The dripping-dungeon asylums, you begin to see those in the 1980s. And this is when what we call ruin porn – tourists are going into the old hospitals and what they see looks ghastly. And they begin to project that back into the history. They assume they were always kind of ghastly haunted places.

You can find a lot of these videos on YouTube of people sneaking into closed asylums, like this one of Fairfield Hills in Newtown, Connecticut. The video’s makers use flashlights to explore decrepit hallways and find places where ceilings have collapsed.

These are readymade sets for the low-budget filmmaker that are very frightening to look at and require no added effects. Just walking through these institutions at night is especially scary.

Troy Rondinone is a professor at Southern Connecticut State University, and he’s the author of “Nightmare Factories: The Asylum in American Imagination.”