Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Asylum packs a whole lot in only thirteen hour-long episodes, featuring a myriad of different horrors, including mad scientists, human experimentation, aliens, serial killers, and all sorts of inhumane practices dealt by a typical asylum one would expect to see in a horror show.
Frankly, the second season of AHS vastly outshines the first season (fan-dubbed “Murder House”) in terms of scariness. The dark themes of Asylum was what made the season so fantastic, despite its so-so plot.
Religion is a huge theme in the season: firstly, the mental institution for the criminally-insane is run by nuns, with Sister Jude (played wonderfully by Jessica Lange) as its head, who rules with an iron fist and an array of wooden canes. Briarcliff is owned by the Church, and it would seem as if it were using the asylum to promote itself and make Christianity more appealing through “saving” and “caring for” the various mental patients of the institution. The Monsignor, Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), is certainly using this tactic to elevate his own role and to boost his own reputation, which eventually leads to his appointment as the Cardinal of New York (feel good about all the horrors you’ve turned a blind eye to, Howard).
The nuns, especially Sister Jude, seem to use religion as an excuse to execute painful punishments upon the patients. Barbaric practices such as solitary confinement, electroshock therapy, and lobotomies are allowed in the institution, despite the fact that the Church should very much be alarmed at the inhumanity of such things. However, their justification is that they are helping the patients from their insanity– but would God really allow such cruel and forceful refinements of people if He was the one who created them as crazy? Here, is Murphy subtly pointing out the hypocrisy of the Church?
The Devil does a good job of summarizing this idea:
Insanity, in the Church’s eyes, was often seen as the work of the Devil (and ironically, the Devil makes its appearance in the asylum), and victims of mental illness were frequently subjected to the aforementioned operations as means of curing (or rather, “purifying”) them. As Sister Jude put it in the show, “Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin.” The staff of Briarcliff, particularly Sister Jude and Monsignor Howard (due to their shared ambitions of becoming leaders of the Church in Rome), are seemingly blinded by their duties to help the “lost souls” that are the patients, and overlook the fact that the techniques they use to force these patients into the definition of sanity are simply horrifying. This fact is, once again, exposed by Sister Jude (as Judy Martin), when she herself is stripped of her power and is committed as a patient of the asylum. She then rejects Timothy Howard and his ambitions, commenting, “I am more sane now as a mad woman than I ever was as the head of Briarcliff.” From her new perspective as a victim of the Church, rather than a member of it, she is able to see that its proclamations of “helping the mentally ill” is all cant.
Murphy does a wonderful job of exploring the role Christianity played in the history of mental illness and insanity and also exposes the indecency of the procedures used by the Church’s asylums to treat their patients– who, in the eyes of the Church and the rest of society, are sinners from birth. As Sister Jude put it, “All monsters are human.”
To the Church, however, not all humans are monsters.