The Tug-of-War Between Religion and Science in American Horror Story: Asylum

As previously mentioned, there are a lot of observations made about religion and its influences in Asylum. For the duration of the season, it is constantly locked in a headbutt against science, whether we are aware of it or not. While the Church officially rules Briarcliff, science keeps making a return and interferes with their operations. Though this theme may not be as obvious as the other ones present in Season Two, it’s definitely worth talking about.

The bitter contention between Big Nun Sister Jude and resident mad scientist Dr. Arthur Arden at Briarcliff of the second season of American Horror Story represents the bigger picture of the quarrel between religion and science. However, neither person are shown to be more principled than the other; while Arden honors purity and innocence, he himself is very much lacking in those traits: he uses his role as doctor to experiment on the helpless patients of the ward, attempting to create “superhumans” who have heightened survival rates. So far, his creations have resulted in “Raspers,” deformed former patients who lurk as horrifying zombie-like monsters in the forest around the manor. Likewise, Sister Jude, though outwardly declares that she follows in the morals of the Church, mercilessly canes patients with bloody wooden sticks as a form of punishment, in addition to commending the other barbaric practices of the asylum, such as electroshock therapy and frontal lobotomy, claiming that they are only to help cure the patients.

Another examination of this theme of religion versus science is present in the cryptic, recurring appearance of the aliens. Both of Kit’s lovers, Alma and then Grace, are abducted by them while they are pregnant (due to their connection to Kit, whom the aliens continuously experiment on). However, the two women have very different responses to their shared experience: while Alma pleads to forget about the aliens and go back to a normal life, Grace is fascinated and attempts to reconnect with them to learn more. When asked about the aliens, Ryan Murphy comments in an interview, “For me, [aliens] were always an obvious metaphor of God. It fit very easily into the world of a Catholic sanitarium asylum.”

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Like God, aliens are feared and revered due to their mysteriousness. Both serve as explanations for the unknown, things that are beyond our scope of knowledge, and people can get feverishly obsessed with either (like Grace), or become utterly terrified (like Alma) of either. Some even claim that fear of aliens and such other areas of mystery is what causes people to turn to religion, and, likewise, that rejection of God and religion can cause people in turn to become obsessed with the other side of the beliefs spectrum. Alma, horrified that Grace might be trying to recall the aliens, kills her, angry that Grace was “acting like it was a religious experience.” While Grace mentions that she wants to look forward to the future, Alma desperately wants to look back towards those times before her abduction. To her, it was not quite an exhilarating trip, and though Alma is not mentioned to be religious the way she refers to Grace’s view of her abduction shows how she does not approve of the fact that it can be counted as something enlightening, along the lines of a “religious experience.” She reflects the show’s portrayal of a religious wish: a desire and need to return and preserve a time when things weren’t so chaotic and dark, and the need to purify those who aren’t (shown in her axe murder of Grace, despite her formerly condemning Grace of the same act– an example of the Church’s hypocrisy). The aliens hurt Alma, and “stuck things within [her],” symbolically stripping her of her own purity.

However, it is obvious that the aliens are harmless; in fact, they are potent beings who have the ability to revive dead people and perform other miracles. While the nuns back in the Church’s asylum do nothing but care for patients that they have no ability to cure, the aliens are able to do so completely, as shown by their treatment of Pepper and resurrection of Grace and her baby. Similarly, though Dr. Arden’s horrible experiments continuously fail, he is also attempting to move forward– to create better humans, stronger lives– rather than continuously stay in the same gray area. He is also fascinated by the aliens themselves, after finding a strange microchip implanted in Kit by them; Kit becomes the link for the aliens.

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And then, there’s Kit Walker and Lana Winters. After both are released from Briarcliff and go their separate ways, Kit chooses to move past his experience at the ward and live his life, going on to raise two successful kids. Lana, however, continuously looks back upon her time in the asylum. Though it is part of her job as a writer and reporter to forcefully return to that dark period in her life, she also mentions Kit’s story over and over again. Kit is seen to still retain his purity despite going through the same experience as Lana; even his name contains religious symbolism (astutely noticed by Alicia Lutes on her Hollywood.com article): the name “Kit” means “carrier of Christ,” with Greek origins, and his last name is Walker. He could very well be seen as the McMurphy of the show, able to walk the patients out of the ward and away from the tyrannic rule of the Church, if it weren’t for his own comment that he could not “lead [the patients]” out of the church “like Moses.” Instead, Lana acts as his apostle, exposing the horrors they experienced at the institution and leading the charge to shut down Briarcliff. At first, Kit is even mad that Lana chooses to write about it, and her time with Thredson:

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To Kit, for all his representation as a religious Christ figure, that’s all in the past. He accepts it and move on. But Lana, who seemingly worships Kit and his strength and story, continuously returns. Both lead successful lives, with one based on the upcoming future and one based on the static past.

It’s clear in the conflict between Jude and Arden that neither science, the pusher, nor religion, the puller, is better than the other in terms of goodness; both can positively motivate people, but can also cause people to throw morals and ethics out the window in order to move in their respective directions. However, the show makes it seem that science is brightening the future more than religion is, as seen with the aliens. Both Kit and the aliens move forward. Here, Ryan Murphy’s idea is ambiguous; with the subtle condemnation of religion, but which is now so prevalent and deeply rooted in society, which one should we begin (or continue) to follow? Should this really be an either-or choice?

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