Why Asylums Make Great Locations

Posted: August 12, 2013 in ideas, Reflections, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The other day I was daydreaming, brainstorming, and reflecting on a number of subjects (one of the lovely things about me is that my head is in the clouds about half the time). During this particular brainstorming session, I thought up an idea for a novel where half the story is set in an insane asylum. As I wrote the idea down, i thought to myself, “Asylums are great places to set a horror story”.

And that’s when my head exploded with an idea for a blog post. And after the mess was partially cleaned up, I started thinking of all the reasons why someone would want to use an asylum for the setting of a story, especially a horror story. I realized that asylums can add many layers and aspects to a single story in terms of character development, plot points, build-up and suspense, and a variety of other reasons.

I will try to list as many of these aspects and layers as possible in this post without boring you. If I help anyone come up with an idea for a story, then I’m happy to be of service.

Okay, reasons why an asylum is a great location for a story. Here we go:

(The following post will use the terms “asylum” and “mental hosptials” or “mental wards” interchangeably. We apologize for any confusion regarding this flexibility.)

American Horror Story: Asylum’s own Briarcliff Manor. You go in…but you never come out.

1. It’s closed off to the outside world. Asylums and mental hospitals–heck, even menal wards–are like their own little words. No one can get out without express permission from someone in power or without a daring escape plan involving car chases, guns, and possibly a hidden underground tunnel from when the asylum was a TB hospital. Within the hospital itself, there is a set life that cannot be interrupted by outside forces. It’s a little claustrophobic, if you think about it. Especially when it’s a ward that occupies only one-fifth of a hospital floor.
And the intimacy of such a space–everyone’s problems, neuroses, delusions, paranoias–are apparent in such a small space. The amount of openness and lack of privacy can increase the sense of claustrophobia, almost filling up the area of the asylum with its glaring lack of privacy. Talk about terrifying!

2. Everybody who’s there has something. I hesitate to use the words “crazy” or “insane”, because labels can be damaging. But you get the idea. Everyone put in an asylum has some sort of problem that needs addressing through a combination of drugs and talk-therapy.  It can be difficult to live in such an environment, whether or not you actually are suffering from a mental illness (both have been known to happen). And if weird stuff like demons or magic or whatever starts appearing around you, you can’t be sure if you’re really seeing what you’re seeing, if this is a result of your own mental illness, or if you’re being influenced by someone else’s delusions. It can get pretty freaky, which adds to the terror and mystery.

3. The people in authority aren’t always good or wise. This is true on many points. Sometimes guards and orderlies can be overly rough with patients or take certain liberties with them that can be downright illegal. Doctors may believe that someone is sick when they are not (there have been studies that show that if a normal person went into an asylum complaining of voices, they would be instantly committed and nothing they could do to convince people they were sane afterwards worked, passed off as stubbornness or as a result of the illness). And there have been cases when doctors, management, and owners of asylums have deliberately mistreated patients in order to make the most money from the states and the family of those committed. It’s very sick, but unfortunately all these and more have been known to happen.

The voices in your head. Do they confuse you…or help you?

4. Underfunding can make things difficult. There have been state hospitals for the mentally ill and for those with physical and mental disabilities in the past and today that, due to underfunding, have seriously hurt the people those facilities are trying to protect. There was a hospital in Pennsylvania for the mentally and physically disabled, where they had maybe two nurses for two hundred patients, and believe me there was a lot more patients than that. Because the nurses, bless them for the work they did and with so little pay or help or compensation, were so busy cleaning and getting food to these patients, they never had the time to help some of the younger patients with basic activities, such as learning how to walk. Instead, some of them just stayed in bed 24/7, until they died or became adults.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Imagine how those sorts of problems could shape someone forced to live or work in such a place.

5. Perfect place to do a little reflection. If you want to get your head shrunk at an asylum, then by all means do so. Despite the problems with asylums then and now, they are founded with the purpose to help people sort their problems. I’m pretty sure the movie It’s Kind of a Funny Story was about a kid who used a mental ward to help sort through his problems and combat his depression. Who’s to say your character can’t do the same while s/he has been committed? Surely they could use a little character development while they’re locked up with all the time in the world to examine their minds.

That’s really all I have at this point. If I think of any others, I’ll do a second post. Until then, happy brainstorming. Don’t come up with anything that might cause a mess later.

  1. I would say the best Asylum is your own mind…
    we are prisoners of our own minds after all…but only for so long.

    Once you made the decision to take control of your mind
    the world is yours.

    -Isaiah Jackson

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