How to Punk Your Steam Part 9.2: Make it Scary (Straight Jacket not Included)
I’m going to share with you my greatest fear. It’s not ghosts or spiders, heights or public speaking. It isn’t the call coming from inside the house or the zombie apocalypse. I have no problem with snakes, no stranger would brave the garbage heap of my back seat, and I get my best sleep during thunder storms. I am afraid of something that is sometimes insidious and slow-moving, or can strike without warning.
I fear madness.
Even though we have been studying the brain for centuries, there are still untold depths to plumb. Our realities are shaped by the chemicals, structures, and electrical currents going through our minds, and even a tiny imbalance can cause a person to tip toe over the edge. This has been on my mind a lot lately because I have been re-watching Dollhouse, where they stress that the “actives” (who have had their brains reprogrammed to be whoever the programmer makes them) experience everything as acutely and realistically as anyone else. They exist in a realm of total fantasy, yet they fall in love, suffer loss, and perform actions according to how their brains tell them to respond.
During the steam era, neuroscience wasn’t even a word. Though some reforms in the treatment of the mentally ill occurred at the end of the 1700’s, the rising tide of “undesirables” in later decades saw a return to poor conditions for patients (read more). Insane people were shut away from the rest of society when they weren’t put on display to be harassed by normal people. These mockeries of modern hospitals were the sites of abuse and even torture for the inmates, which was often carried out in the name of science. As much as I fear madness in my own lifetime, I wouldn’t wish a Victorian-era asylum on anyone. “Lunatic asylums” are also a popular place for ghost hunters to visit due to the volume of tortured souls (and high mortality rate), making it a great setting for a horror story.
As scary as Dracula is, I have always been more creeped out by his bug-eating sidekick, Renfield. Sure, the Count will suck your blood, but at least he is consistent (not to mention polite). Renfield is by turns raving, endearing, violent, accommodating and suicidal. It is one thing to be an undead monster, but to aspire to be an undead monster? That’s messed up.
Causes and “Treatments”
Keep in mind, we are talking about an era where people thought bad smells caused disease, so the pathology of mental problems was not well understood. People on the margins of society, such as the old and female, were especially at risk as being labeled “insane.” Many people believed that women had a smaller mental capacity than men to begin with because their skulls are generally a bit smaller, leaving less space for the brain.For instance, women were thought to become “hysterical” because their womb was wandering around their bodies. They could be driven mad by childbirth, or by not giving birth. They could become crazy as a direct consequence of having a job (perish the thought!), or for having loose morals. One source I found said as many as 1/3 of mental patients were admitted due to nymphomania, or the “excessive excitement of the genitals.”
Before the middle of the 19th century, mental illness was generally thought to stem from a sickness of the soul, not a physical ailment of the body. Mental health problems were akin to possession by a demon, and to the people suffering from these ailments were treated no better than animals. This changed in large part because of a bizarre event in 1848. Phineas Gage, an American railroad worker, miraculously survived when a railroad spike was driven all the way through his head. The injury destroyed much of his left frontal lobe, but he went on to live for another 12 years after the accident. But, his friends would tell you that the the Gage they knew didn’t really survive at all. His whole demeanor and pattern of behavior changed due to the physical destruction of a specific part of his brain, and this discovery lead to a new theory of cognition. As a result, the first recorded “psychosurgery” took place in Germany in 1888. Dr. Gottlieb Burckhardt performed surgery on six of his patients, only one of which showed any signs of improvement. The others saw no change, new symptoms, or died shortly after the procedure.
All those chemicals and structures I mentioned before were totally unknown to practitioners, but they did have a notion of the electrical activity in the brain. As early as the 1500’s, people saw that some types of mental illness could be cured by “resetting” the brain through the chemical inducement of a seizure. By the 1800’s, electroshock therapy was a fairly common treatment for a variety of mental conditions, many of which did not actually benefit from the treatment. But, this was a time when it was okay to experiment freely on human patients, and as gruesome as it was, the research did lead to a better understanding of the role of electricity in the brain. In most cases, the strength of the current was not very high and the patient was sedated during the treatment and did not suffer any pain as a result, but there was always someone somewhere pushing the envelope.
There were also different types of infections that could cause people to act insane. For instance, we now know that Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by a bacterium, but the paralysis that can sometimes result from it were thought to be a separate mental disorder and in the 1910’s was treated by giving the patient Malaria. Yes, you read right, they gave people Malaria. Though fevers were attributed to abberrant behavior, some treatments of mental illness required the inducement of fever as the cure, which (unsurprisingly) could lead to more symptoms.
So What Does This Have to do With Fear?
During much of the 19th century, being labeled as mentally ill was akin to a prison sentence. Inmates were chained to walls, physically restrained, drugged, beaten, and kept away from their families. It is no wonder that people worked so hard to conform to the dictates of Victorian-era society and were careful not to stray too far from the norm. Very few patients ever made it out of an asylum once the were admitted, and there was little regulation of what went on inside the walls. For a person living in the steam era, being “diagnosed” with any type of mental disorder too to their aberrant behavior would be a real and justifiable fear.
And unfortunately, the system is still broken and marginalized people are still vulnerable. I remember reading a story lately about a black woman who was forcibly sedated and kept in a mental ward for days because she told an officer that Barack Obama followed her Twitter account. This successful, college-educated businesswoman was thought to be insane, though if anyone had checked they would have found that she was telling the truth. And you can bet the story would have unfolded different if she had been white.
For me, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is easily the scariest movie I have ever seen. There are no monsters, no blood or gore, none of the things that are traditionally at the center of a horror movie, but the notion of being trapped inside an asylum sends shivers up my spine. You don’t need things that go bump in the night to create a tale of terror, human ignorance and the actions that spring from it are just as frightening.