As frightening as the prospect of physical illness or injury may be, my own suspicion is that most of us fear mental illness even more profoundly. The reason has to do with the way mental illness is perceived. Consider the language we use to describe such conditions: although we say that someone "has" a disease, we say that a person "is" mentally ill. We acknowledge that a physical incapacity does not alter the victim's fundamental state of being, and yet our language seems to suggest that the victim of a mental illness has somehow shifted to another plane of existence.
Having reclassified the mentally ill as something fundamentally different from ourselves, we then take the next step by ostracizing them. By shutting them away in a psychiatric ward, we spare ourselves the uncomfortable necessity of interacting with these living reminders of the fragility of the human psyche.
All of these factors, and more, combine to make psychiatric hospitals an ideal setting for dramatic storytelling. With emotions ratcheted to an unnaturally high pitch and conflicts being played out for fearfully high stakes, few settings can offer greater potential for the telling of riveting stories. The currently playing "Girl, Interrupted" uses this emotionally charged environment to examine the life of a young woman who has just attempted suicide. If you were touched by "Girl, Interrupted," you may want to look for these earlier films set in psychiatric hospitals.
"Bedlam" (1946). One of history's most notorious insane asylums, as they were called in earlier times, was the centuries-old London institution called the Priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem. Eventually coming to be known simply as "Bedlam" (a corruption of "Bethlehem"), in the 17th and 18th Centuries it earned a reputation for brutal treatment of its inmates. Producer Val Lewton chose Bedlam as the setting for a disturbing drama about the abuse of power. Boris Karloff stars as the sadistic head of the asylum. When an idealistic woman goes on a crusade to improve the treatment of Bedlam's inmates, political strings are pulled and she finds herself committed to the institution.
"The Snake Pit" (1948). In one of the screen's earliest serious examinations of the methodology of psychiatric treatment, Olivia de Havilland stars as a disturbed woman who is admitted to a psychiatric hospital when her erratic behavior becomes too much for her husband to handle. The film presents her treatment in both a positive and a negative light. Her psychiatrist is caring, compassionate, and helpful, but the institution's overworked staff are often abusive. The film's title refers to the room in which the hospital's most profoundly disturbed patients are confined. The threat of being sent to this room is used by the staff as a means of maintaining discipline among the more rational patients. For her virtuoso performance, de Havilland was nominated for an Academy Award.
"The Caretakers" (1963). There is a standard plot in medical films in which a young, idealistic doctor comes into conflict with an older doctor over some enlightened form of patient care. The older, more conservative physician is usually opposed to anything new on general principles and isn't willing to consider that there might be a better way. This film applies that general idea to a story about the care of mental patients, except that the idealistic young doctor is not opposed by an older doctor, but rather by the institution's head nurse. The nurse, who believes in treating mental patients exclusively with firm discipline and confinement, is played by Joan Crawford. Having just made "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962), Crawford was in the process of trading her glamorous image for a much creepier one, so the effect of casting her in this role was similar in a way to the casting of Boris Karloff in "Bedlam." There's very little subtlety here, but the film's extreme characterizations and broad brush strokes have earned it a small but devoted cult following.
By the early Sixties, the bare assertion that conditions in psychiatric hospitals could be harrowing and inhumane had become a cliché. Later films were more likely to use such hospitals for metaphoric purposes by suggesting, for example, that they aren't so very different from the world outside. Next week we'll take a look at some of these more recent portrayals of the psychiatric ward.