October 23, 2012

American Horror Story

The new season of American Horror Story is set on the grounds of a 1960’s psychiatric hospital and, of course, uses imagery of a hopefully bygone era of psychiatry as practiced in a large, dehumanizing forensic facility. As the title indicates, this show is meant to scare or at least disconcert the viewer. Although there are many themes in the first episode, including the role of women, religion and sexuality, the show also uses classic horror props such as strait jackets, locked rooms, and forced electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

The staff members are generally portrayed as dysfunctional, at best. The clergy in the Catholic-run hospital all have personal issues and one doctor seems to be conducting brutal experiments. When patients “act out” the staff immediately retaliate with heavy-duty tranquilizers, restraints and ECT without any muscle relaxant or consent.

The plot is most concerned with what society considers “normal,” and psychiatry represents society’s control of “abnormal” behavior. As such, the people sent to the hospital for treatment do not seem dangerous, at least in relation to the staff, merely different. For example, a white man in the facility is suspected of murder, but his true “crime” was marrying a black woman. Likewise, a female reporter investigating conditions at the hospital is committed for being a lesbian. While cases like these did occur, to medicine’s shame, there are no characters in the episode being treated for serious mental illness such as depression or schizophrenia.

By some standards, the show could be considered stigmatizing. It does reinforce the image of psychiatric hospitals as using torture and retribution, but little in the way of treatment. While such actions happened, and still occur, the show portrays only examples of cruel and barbaric behavior by clinicians.

One could also consider the use of straitjackets, restraints, and involuntary ECT as offensive and insensitive. These things are typically used to elicit fear in viewers, especially when the characters are wrongly subject to them.

So, is the show stigmatizing? On the whole, it seems so over-the-top that viewers, even in the mental health community, might have trouble taking it seriously. Furthermore, from a consumer standpoint, the patients appear to be the least troubled occupants of the facility. However, the imagery and scenes might be traumatic to anyone who has ever been abused, neglected by the mental health system. For clips of the episode visit the FX channel’s website.  Perhaps the only ones offended might be clinicians, although even their portrayals are exaggerated almost beyond belief.

In short, American Horror Story has an intentionally improbable plot on many levels. While it can strike a nerve with anyone who has been hospitalized or knows someone who has, especially in past decades, it is almost a spoof of life 50 years ago. Even so, it will be nice when psychiatry, even with all its faults, is no longer used as a symbol for all that is wrong in society.

Viewers will likely have a variety of reactions to this show. Some may not be bothered at all, yet others may be greatly offended. If you watch the show, or parts of it from the link above, let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.

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