As the song goes, I don’t know much about history, but I know – especially after reading W. Scott Poole’s Monsters in America – that the 1960’s were a turbulent era: America was 15-20 years past WWII, but still dealing with the anxieties that accompany the use and proliferation of nuclear arms as the Cold War mounted. Vietnam had started, and according to Poole, American soldiers were often times literally getting rewards for how many Vietnamese citizens they could kill. Of course, this was the era of Civil Rights, and second wave feminism was also in full swing. Birth control was invented in 1960, making sex less formidable, and the Black Arts Movement started around 1965. Despite a struggle for rights by many groups, racism, sexism, and homophobia were pretty rampant. In the horror world, Psycho launched the interest in “maniac” killers in 1960, and The Exorcist was released in 1973. Serial killer lore and urban legends were on the rise. In 1968, censorship ended in Hollywood, making the modern horror fare we watch today possible.
What makes the first episode of American Horror Story 2: Asylum so interesting is in part that most of it takes place in 1964, and the “flavor” of the sixties permeates the work. I sat down to re-watch episode one today, as it’s on my list for my comprehensive examinations, and I thought, in the spirit of getting back to the business of writing, that I’d write a little bit about it before moving onto more reading for the night. I jotted down a lot that interested me as I watched. While I’m studying “madness depicted as monstrosity” for my narrow area, I think there are myriad elements of episode one alone that are worth considering, especially from a socio-historical lens.
The beginning of American Horror Story features a young, vibrant couple exploring an old, abandoned Asylum with noted irreverence, when the husband gets attacked by someone we don’t see and loses an arm. The episode then flashes back to 1964, when the asylum was an operating institution headed by the seemingly indomitable Sister Jude, played by Jessica Lange. Sister Jude is smart and a little scrappy with a strong belief in the religious values that she is trying to pass on to the inmates of the institution. She appears rather ascetic, though we soon learn that she has a pleasure-seeking, indulgent side that she represses. The doctor of the institution is a corrupt murderer who operates and experiments on patients haphazardly in the name of science and feeds their remains to individuals that he keeps locked away; Sister Jude suspects his fowl play, but is silenced by a priest who promises her a mother superior position when he’s become cardinal because of his institution’s stellar reputation. Meanwhile, we meet Kit Walker, deemed “Bloody Face” by the press and accused of the brutal slaying of multiple women, including his own fiancée, whom the diegetic narrative would have us believe he loved very much. The asylum, overall, is a dismal den of abuse and madness, a place where the same song is played in the rec room over and over again, a place with an invisible set of rules that only become apparent to inmates when they’re punished for their transgressions.
Sister Jude frankly states her belief that mental illness is just a sorry excuse for sin, and she discards the diagnoses that her patients receive in favor of a religion-based program of reformation including “prayer” and “productivity” (along with another “p” that I forget right now). Over dinner with the priest who runs the asylum, she notes that they share the belief in “madness as a spiritual crisis, an absence of God.” Of course, her beliefs are highly antiquated and likely to have serious ramifications for her patients. Her only thread of admirability perhaps comes from the fact that she genuinely thinks she’s doing the right thing and prompts a serious personal investigation when she suspects that the doctor is killing patients haphazardly. While she wants to keep the life of patients in the institution a secret for fear that society would reprimand her for the way she runs the institution, she seems, at the same time, to genuinely believe that religion will help its denizens. She is, however, ultimately conniving and ruthless, especially when she decides to blackmail journalist Lana Winters’ partner, Wendy – a school teacher in a conservative town – into signing Lana into the asylum, where she plans on “curing” Lana’s homosexuality, after trapping Lana’s physical body in the asylum one night after Lana tried to sneak in and investigate the premises.
Indeed, the power structures in place in 1964 American society shape and determine many of the characters’ fates. Kit Walker is mocked and threatened by other men in the town for is decision to marry a black woman, and his wife, Alma urges him to keep their marriage a secret instead of telling family and friends, reassuring him that the times will change eventually. When Lana is slain and Sister Jude believes Kit did it, she makes a crass racist joke about the incident to Kit, sending him spiraling into a rage. Wendy’s entire career is threatened when sister Jude suggests that she’ll tell the town about the women’s relationship if Lana isn’t signed into the institution. Thus, power structures in the town that are severely homophobic shape Lana and Wendy’s fate for the worst. Meanwhile, a young woman, Shelley, is hospitalized in the horrendous asylum for nymphomania, simply because she’s a woman who wants to sleep with many men. While the sexual revolution was happening in the 60’s, Shelley represents the backlash to that revolution – white male America’s fear of their women becoming too promiscuous and the American tendency to punish female sexuality. Ironically, one of the characters in the story naively states (I think it’s Wendy) that “these are amazing times…this is a time when anything can happen if someone wants it enough.” Clearly, as power structures shape Wendy and Lana’s lives, along with Kit’s and Alma’s, and other characters in the narrative, we realize that this vision, sadly, is far from the case in 1960’s America. Old categories are critiqued but all too diegetically reified in the first episode of this series.
Sister Jude is well aware of her situation as a woman in the 1960s, but claims that she refuses to accept it. She states to the sadistic Doctor Arden “I’ll always win against the patriarchal male” before turning around and acquiescing to Monsignor Howard’s every demand when he tells her to keep the institution’s corruption a secret. Sister Jude has feelings for Monsignor Howard, and she sacrifices her usually pugnacious resolve for his desires and promises. Thus, while Sister Jude is a strong, compelling character, she doesn’t seem to fully know herself, and she’s wrong about many things. When Kit is forced into the hospital to see if he’s fit to stand trial as “Bloodyface,” Sister Jude tells him that “all monsters are human.” But when we see Doctor Arden extract a microchip that grows legs and walks out of Kit’s neck, we know that Sister Jude’s contention is flawed; indeed, there may exist some monstrous humans, but likely not the ones she’s locked up. Meanwhile, we suspect that actual monsters, signified by the walking microchip, exist somewhere in the narrative. Having not finished the narrative myself, I’m not sure how this part of the plot unfolds yet.
Michael Foucault writes about the three ways of viewing madness, historically, in Western society: in the medieval period, it was viewed as a state of frenzied transcendence. In the classical period, it was deemed unproductive, idol, and dirty – an absence or a negation of reason and capability that warranted shame and confinement away from society. While madness was medicalized in the 20th century, we see how dangerous that medicalization can be through the character of Dr. Arden, and we still see the confinement and some of the torturous practices of the classical period in the AHS Asylum plot. Indeed, patients who appear perfectly healthy in the narrative state their medical diagnoses, suggesting that medicalizing psychiatry isn’t always beneficial; it can, instead, be an excuse to label individuals as “sick” and to shut them away needlessly, disrupting their lives completely.
Of course, the narrative is very aware of the dangers that medicalizing mental illness brings to these patients. Indeed, the narrative is quite aware of itself as a whole. W. Scott Poole credits Hitchcock’s Psycho with provoking American interest in the “murdering maniac,” an interest that would turn into a fascination with serial killers in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. If the narrative of Asylum takes place in 1964, it takes place just as this American obsession was beginning to unfurl. The film subtly mocks the American obsession with the serial killer – the sensationalism of the serial killer – and its own serial killer creation – “Bloodyface.” First of all, the name Bloodyface is laughably childish, more the parody of a sensationalized serial killer name than an actual serial killer name. Secondly, Lana can’t wait to see him and muses that she’s heard he has a “mask” made of human flesh. But when we see blonde, angelic Kit Walker, we’re as astonished as Lana, because Kit looks nothing like the “Bloody Face” we imagine. Incidentally, Bloody Face, like Norman Bates in Psycho and like the characters in Texas Chainsaw Massacre is probably a character based off 1950’s serial killer Ed Gein, who skinned his victims and kept their body parts in his apartment. But he is interestingly prescient of Texas Chainsaw Massacre killer “Leathface,” who comes well before the creation of American Horror story but 10 years after Bloody Face in the diegetic narrative.
In any case, the episode definitely comments on the hype surrounding the serial killer and is acutely aware of its own, self-created hype in doing so. Rick Worland details Thomas Schatz’s four stages of a genre – stages that he contends any genre goes through. In the experimental phase, (the beginning of the 20th century, for the horror genre) experimentation occurs and the genre begins to define itself through that experimentation. In the classical phase, norms and genre components (images, tropes, stock characters) that everyone recognizes are employed. In the refinement stage, more experimentation happens as filmmakers seek to “embellish the form” by experimenting with existing structures and altering them slightly, while remaining otherwise faithful to the genre. In the last phase, the baroque phase, the genre is characterized by “increasing stylistic adornment and self-consciousness in which the genre’s classic conventions are sharply revised or inverted” (19). American Horror Story Asylum, which is conscious of itself both through its fetishization of serial killers and through its own fetishization of the horror genre (as parodied by the opening couple who explores the abandoned asylum with glee), is clearly a baroque piece of art. This is appropriate, as Worland suggests that horror has been Baroque for about thirty years now. But he also suggests that periods overlap and that horror may be entering a “neoclassical” stage in which we’re returning to original conventions.
Despite all its self-reflexiveness, despite its suggestion that serial killers are sensationalized, at the end of the episode, when the young couple is fleeing in terror from the mysterious monster who rips off arms (back in present day), we see a character bumbling toward them in mask made out of human skin. True to the legend that Lana shared almost fifty years prior, Bloody face – if we assume that is indeed bloody face—wears a mask cobbled together from human skin. Of course, this unsettling end to the first episode makes the viewer want to watch more. As for myself, I decided to write and read more, so I haven’t gotten around to re-watching episode two yet. It is likely, however, that I will blog about it when I do. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and may you use these cold early January days to catch up on the horror or re-watch the classics that you missed during the busy Holiday season!