Exploring Mental Health Through the Lens of the Gothic

Margaret McAllister

Margaret McAllister

To investigate this assertion, we explore three texts in which mental health is represented in order to foreground the Gothic images and tropes they contain, proposing that this can help viewers to be more aware of how a sense of fear and stigma can be developed and established in such representation.

This focuses on the dark elements of the psychiatric experience including: terrifying periods of isolation; threatening institutions set in eerie landscapes; a sense of foreboding, claustrophobia and/or entrapment; and horrifying treatments. In this, we are not criticising Gothic narratives for their content or how mental illness is represented in these texts as works of art and imagination, but are, instead, proposing that the Gothic is a powerful tool in the quest to destabilise influential prevailing fears and stigmatising behaviours.

This is, at least in part, due to the vividness and compelling nature of Gothic narratives, which explore enduring cultural anxieties (Picart and Greek 2007). This is also because such Gothic narratives can be read as cautionary tales — offering a social observation, reflection and warnings about what can happen when disorder, chaos and inhumanity are given free rein in the world (Picart and Greek 2007).

As Fred Botting (2002) argues, the Gothic offers a powerful commentary, as central “Gothic figures” in such narratives represent anxieties associated with turning points in cultural-historical progress and, thus, “Gothic conventions” can, as Anne Williams suggests, identify “possible fissures in the system of the symbolic as a whole” (1995, 67).

Mental illness — usually expressed as “madness” or “insanity” is, as many commentators state, a common theme in Gothic literature (see, for instance, McGrath and Morrow 1993, xii, xiv). Punter and Byron, for instance, use madness as one of the key characteristics of the Southern Gothic subgenre, describing it as that literature which “is characterised by an emphasis on the grotesque, the macabre and, very often, the violent, investigating madness, decay and despair, and the continuing pressures of the past upon the present” (Punter and Byron 2004, 116-17).

Boyd continues this linkage of the grotesque and fearful and insanity — similarly finding that Southern Gothic fiction is “characterised by grotesque characters and scenes, explorations of abnormal psychological states, dark humour, violence, and a sense of alienation or futility” (Boyd 2002, 311).

In many cases, as Punter and Byron suggest above, dark pasts of mental instability — personal or generational — haunt the present in these narratives, such as in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (see, Beattie 1996) and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (see, Thormahlen 1997), while another characteristic of mental illness, “hyperbole and excess” (Becker 1999, 121) drive many Gothic dramas.

Another Gothic trope, alienation, that “sense of abjection, the suspension between connectedness and separation” (Becker 1999, 121), is also a characteristic of mental illness. The mistreatment of the insane, and the desolate locations where the deranged are incarcerated (and there, hidden, can be neglected and abused) also often appear in Gothic texts whether in classic or modern incarnations.

These depictions are so powerful that the horrors of the insane asylum in Gothic fiction echo across the collective imagining and into contemporary renditions (as in the Royal Perth Show example with which we opened this discussion), and it is easy to summon up images of tortured, despairing and desperate inmates suffering the cruelties of staff who are supposed to be tending to, and caring for, them.

Contemporary mental health settings, however, as they are represented both in this Gothic literature and in contemporary films, bear little physical resemblance to their fictional counterparts and this cognitive dissonance is, therefore, a good starting point in order to investigate whether there is there any connection in the settings represented in these works of Gothic fiction, with the settings that operate in real life. Also, if so, we ask, what is the nature of that connection, and what significance does it have for the public, patients and mental health clinicians? In considering this topic, we also ask, therefore, what can be learned by a closer examination of the embedded Gothic tropes?

In this investigation, we focus on three popular contemporary films that image mental illness and treatment using recognisably identifiable Gothic images, themes and tropes. These works represent three different filmic genres: ‘Shutter Island’ (2010) (a thriller), ‘The Ward’ (2010) (a horror film) and ‘Girl, Interrupted’ (1999) (a psychological drama). This small selection — while certainly not representative of filmic representations of mental disorder and treatment — can, however, function indicatively in terms of the way the Gothic operates in such filmed narratives.

Alshatti noted, for example, that when, in 1765, Horace Walpole subtitled his novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ “a gothic story or romance”, the elements Walpole used in this text — the “gothic castle, Catholic feudal society, damsel in distress, tyrannical patriarchal figure, labyrinthine and subterranean passages, live burials, doubles or doppelgangers” — were identified by other writers as useful and “were appropriated and deployed in multifarious ways” (2008, 11), resulting in the Gothic becoming defined as a genre.

In her book Fashioning Gothic Bodies, Catherine Spooner notes “a range of characteristic Gothic themes: sensibility, imprisonment, spectrality, haunting, madness, monstrosity, the grotesque” (2004, 5). We can see all of these Gothic themes at work in these films, even the one that would be seem to be the most distant from these modern depictions of mental health care — the hierarchies of feudal society operating in the asylums presented.

While other narratives could certainly be analysed in this way, these films are, moreover, highly useful in this context as each explores and imagines what happens in many contemporary situations of mental illness; when individuals reach the limits of their reason, when family and group structures are no longer able to function with the stressors confronting them, and the individual “cracks” and moves into a world which is Gothic in the way it is described and experienced. These stories obviously, therefore, although fitting into different overall filmic genres (as above), can also, we propose, be described as Gothic in their approach to mental illness (Picart and Greek 2007).

While obviously not representative of all imaging of mental health treatment in contemporary popular culture, these particular narratives have also been chosen for the ways they deal with narratives of decay and chaos on both the individual and social level. This involves the loss of personal autonomy and maintenance of well-being, a loss of trust in the caring function of medicine/nursing, and a loss of faith that modernity (or the State) can ease personal burdens and solve problems — and each of these are highly instructive for our purpose.

These films are also riveting contemporary popular culture narratives that are worthy of scholarly consideration that adds to that already in place.

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