First of all, a disclaimer: in many ways, American Horror Story is not Nursing Clio material. For starters, the show features haunted houses, alien abduction, demonic possession, and an angel of death; it does not, in short, aim for realism or historical accuracy. The first season offered very little content related to Nursing Clio’s focus on gender and medicine in a historical context, and after just a few episodes, I found it uneven and disappointing. There were, at least, some interesting (and purposefully horrifying) highlights – part of the back story involved an unscrupulous 1920s abortionist, and Jessica Lange did an amazing job playing a very, very, very bad mother – but in general, that season quickly lost its scariness and became ridiculous and repetitive.
But oh, the second season! This past October the show returned as American Horror Story: Asylum, with a brand new plot, completely different characters, and a much creepier setting – Briarcliff Manor, a nightmarish 1960s insane asylum run by the Catholic Church. And while the new season continues to make supernatural occurrences central to the story, it also features more realistic themes and plot developments that may resonate with viewers interested in the history of gender, sexuality, and medicine.
Most of the second season takes place in 1964, but Briarcliff is behind the times. The institution is controlled by Sister Jude (played by Jessica Lange, who again deserves basically every existing acting award), a nun who still favors treatments like electroshock therapy, lobotomy, sterilization, and exorcism (yes, exorcism). These treatments are contrasted with those suggested by a court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Oliver Thredson (played by the consistently awesome Zachary Quinto). Dr. Thredson arrives at Briarcliff to evaluate a patient and chastises Jude for her failure to adopt more current standards of treatment, including new medications and aversion therapy. Viewers familiar with medical history will recognize that procedures like electroshock therapy and compulsory sterilization were indeed very real components of mid-twentieth-century medical care, especially in psychiatric institutions. The fact that American Horror Story: Asylum weaves them into a plot that also includes aliens and the devil does not diminish their impact. Two main characters have been forced into shock therapy so far this season, and these scenes are gut-wrenching; similarly, the fear and sadness that two other characters feel when they are threatened with sterilization come across as haunting, awful, and real.
Many of Briarcliff’s patients are incarcerated for some form of purported sexual deviancy. Men are treated for “chronic masturbation.” Shelley (played by Chloe Sevigney) has been committed for nymphomania, a diagnosis she finds grossly unjust. She despises the double standard that, she says, allows men to do whatever they want while women are judged socially and medically abnormal just because they “like sex.”
Lana (played by Sarah Paulson) has been committed for homosexuality. She believes that her lesbianism is an integral part of her identity; she tells Dr. Thredson that “there is no cure.” Nevertheless, at Briarcliff, her “disease” requires a number of horrifying treatments, including shock and aversion therapy. As other bloggers have pointed out, many of these treatments are historically accurate. Moreover, the underlying themes are compelling as well: the medicalization of sexuality (especially female sexuality), the gendered perceptions of sexual behavior (Briarcliff’s Dr. Arden, played by James Cromwell, seems to call someone a “whore” in every episode), and the relationship between morality (which categorizes behavior in terms of “good” and “evil”) and medicine (which categorizes behavior in terms of “healthy” and “unhealthy,” “normal” and “deviant”).
The show might scare the hell out of you. It scares the hell out of me. But watch it anyway! There is a great deal here to appeal to Nursing Clio readers.