It is not difficult to appreciate why insane asylums are such a commonly used Gothic motif in both written and filmed narratives. While many have been demolished, the few asylums that remain in the western world today, whether derelict or repurposed for such uses as hotels, apartments, aged care homes, educational facilities, galleries, museums, or other affable purposes, still convey a powerful sense of foreboding. Their size alone is daunting and it is unsettling to remember how many people have raved, suffered, lived, and died there. These places are also sites of secrets including the torment endured by many who were therein incarcerated. Although once a common feature of cities and the surrounding countryside, only a few physical examples of past asylums still stand and, although their functions have changed, they remain haunted and haunting places. Many are, indeed, the locus for such activities as ghost tours, and ghost hunting.
Many of the monolithic structures that housed asylums were built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and were located on the outskirts of towns, often in heavily wooded acreage. Asylum architecture was modelled after the prison, and seen as a way of protecting the interests of “normal society.” Thousands of those classified as “mad” or “lunatic” were locked away, reflecting society’s fear of the Other. Madness was thought to involve demonic possession, or result from a criminal, despotic mind, and the prominent view was that the madman was a beast. Engaging with these supposedly dangerous individuals engendered a pleasure in visitors that came from a mixture of both fear and fascination. As French philosopher Michel Foucault (born on October 15th, 1926 and died on June 25th, 1985) describes, “madness had become a thing to look at: no longer a monster inside oneself, but an animal with strange mechanisms, a bestiality from which man had long since been repressed.” Engaging at a close distance with this fearful Other, visitors to the asylum could be, at the same time, frightened, but cocooned from the danger the mad represented.
As industrialisation saw urban populations soar, and diseases that affect the mind such as syphilis reach epidemic proportions, these already poorly funded institutions became overcrowded, and inmates suffered desperately deprived conditions. Rather than being treated and then discharged, once interred, most patients were destined to live out their lives separated from their families and society. There were few medications, and treatments such as hot or cold baths, and spinning chairs, were used to supposedly shock the brain back to normal. Straitjackets, padded rooms, and isolation wards, were used to manage and contain those who were imaged as unruly and, therefore, even more, dangerous than the withdrawn. The rules controlling everyday life in these institutions were strict, patients laboured for little payment, and the system of care was closed and, largely, unaccountable to society more widely. Patients lost hope, became apathetic and helpless, whilst overworked staff were controlling, rigid and, sometimes, cruel. This led to an incarceration which was, by today’s standards, barbaric and dehumanising. As a result, in the mid-twentieth-century, most asylums in the developed world were closed in response to a policy known as deinstitutionalization.
Even though contemporary mental health services operate out of mainstream hospitals and do not resemble the imposing asylums from the past, creative imaginings of past asylums and their practices remain well and truly alive — teddy bears are sold in straitjackets on Valentine’s Day with the tag line “crazy for you,” ghost tours and other dark tourism excursions are conducted around both derelict and repurposed sites, and a haunted house based on the horrors of a seventeenth-century mental asylum, complete with actors pretending to be somnambulistic inmates, is billed as family entertainment. Viewing these practices through the lens of the contemporary Gothic helps to explain why the remnants of these long-dead institutions, and particularly those which have been reanimated in the form of psychiatric museums, evoke feelings of fear, horror, and terror.
According to William Archibald Spooner, the Gothic provides a powerful lens to illuminate aspects of the irrational social world that often rest just below the surface of awareness. Sigmund Freud’s concept of the uncanny is important in this view. The uncanny involves a conjunction between that which is familiar (homely or heimlich) and unfamiliar (unhomely or unhemlich). In an asylum from the past, for example, there may have been many semblances of comfort and domestic life, such as sunrooms, gardens, and bathhouses, but these have become indelibly associated in present consciousness with enforced and confining treatments, mad doctors, and crazed inmates. Becoming aware that everyday objects such as these are imbued with — or haunted by — a past of struggle and powerlessness is what makes them uncanny, frightening, and Gothic.
In a classic paper on paradox and the Gothic novel, Mark Dawson describes how Gothic texts often emphasise dichotomies and paradoxes. Innocence, beauty, and composure, for instance, may be paired with guilt, the grotesque, and disarray, as is the case in texts such as William Wilkie Collins’ novel ‘The Woman in White,’ Mary Jane Ward’s autobiographical novel ‘The Snake Pit,’ and Russian filmmaker Anatole Litvak’s film of the same title. Reason and rationality have long been used to characterise modernity, progress, and enlightenment. In such a schema, asylums become the embodiment of unreason. When a state of unreason proliferates, as it appears to do in an asylum, social anxieties about what is normal and reasonable are exacerbated and we fear what may happen should the inmates break free, or if the norms of the asylum take over. This is a commonly used Gothic trope in films from ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1920) to contemporary examples such as ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991), as well as in novels.
In these, and other such representations of the asylum in popular culture, the resident lunatics are seen as the embodiment of primal desires that need to be gratified and, therefore, if these individuals are not secured, they may wreak havoc in the community. Common societal anxiety ultimately develops from the idea that the asylum unsteadily and inadequately contains this madness. Even the attendants who live in the asylum, tending to the wretched souls therein incarcerated, can be driven mad by association. But for some, consuming these fictional representations is a tantalisingly intriguing opportunity to feel fear, horror, and terror, albeit from a position of safety. The contemporary ghost tours, hunts, and vigils that attract visitors to discontinued mental asylums can, therefore, be read as satisfying a desire in participants to be simultaneously titillated and terrified.
A negative aesthetic is characteristic of the Gothic, and the negative aesthetic is ubiquitous in representations of asylums. Embedded in its vast, dark, and hidden spaces are stories of ruined lives, lost souls, and ruptured families. Time losing its meaning, long shadows, echoing voices, slamming doors, and no reprieve from personal tragedy, are common tropes about the asylum that come from Gothic literature, and there are many examples where these are repeated in representations of the asylum in popular culture. This includes in films such ‘Girl Interrupted’ (2000), and ‘The Ward’ (2010), and in the ‘Silent Hill’ computer games. As British author Douglas Botting explains, this negative aesthetic mirrors the “dark spaces of the human psyche.”
Evoking a sense of the sublime is another important feature of the Gothic. Asylums, in their original form and as they persist in popular culture, are often in remote, impenetrable geographical locations that are abundant with natural beauty but, at the same time, subject to nature’s often destructive forces. This can be read as mirroring the beauty, fragility, and inevitable decline of the human mind. Thus, despite the very meaning of the word “asylum” denoting rest and comfort, the image evoked is one of dread and unease. The opening scenes from Jan Tomáš Forman’s film, ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ (1975), and Martin Charles Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’ (2010), are clear examples of this.
There are many aspects of asylums that mark them as liminal spaces. Victor Turner explains that liminality refers to space where the usual boundaries are not in effect. Located on the outskirts of cities and towns, away from the watchful eyes of residents, asylums functioned under their own rules, and inmates, once committed, often fell outside the protections of the overarching legal system. The temporal was also warped, with many patients who resided in asylums having understood their stays as in some ways temporary, even if they were never to leave. Any power or authority they may have had in the other world was similarly denied to them, while they were deprived of any connections, relationships, or work that gave their life meaning.
Most asylums had elaborate boundaries setting them apart from the outside world, boundaries which made concrete the separation of the normal from abnormal, the sane from the insane. Kew Lunatic Asylum in Melbourne, Australia, provides physical traces of the dissembling manner in which such borders were sometimes enforced. A description of how the complex was built in the “French Second Empire style which was popular in Victorian Melbourne” appears to suggest the asylum reflected the physical infrastructure outside its walls, but continues on to describe how, nevertheless, the asylum was separated from that outside with what was called “ha-ha walls.” These were constructed to be low on one side, but falling away into a deep ditch on the other, thus deterring and preventing safe escape. Such a wall thus appeared like an everyday, even domestic, low fence when viewed from the asylum, but was in actuality a treacherous impasse, and yet another instrument of confinement, the “ha-ha” joke of which was on the inmate.
Douglas Botting explains that the Gothic emphasises such transgression. In relation to madness and the treatment of the mentally ill in asylums, there are many real-life examples, as well as cultural representations, of boundary transgressions. Philippe Pinel, Henry Scott Tuke, and Paul Dix, famous reformers of the eighteenth-century, exposed the deplorable treatment of inmates in French, English, and North American asylums, revealing how medical staff had violated their duties and harmed their patients. Such reviews of institutions have been repeated with depressing regularity throughout history, and feed into the prevailing way asylums are represented in both literature and popular culture. These representations repeatedly underscore that treatment will not lead to a cure, medicine and science are not to be trusted, and treatments that appear progressive are ultimately barbaric. At the wider systemic level, this criticism of progress has famously been described by Jean-François Lyotard as “the postmodern condition.”