As Ryan Murphy tweeted, sanity is a central theme in Season Two of American Horror Story. Like ‘Cuckoo’s Nest, Asylum explores the idea of insanity and sin, and who gets to define it.
Insanity, like “good” or “bad,” can be seen as a relative term. Whether or not someone is insane is up to the observer; someone who I deem is insane can be perfectly sane in the eyes of another. But who gets to decide?
Though there are many visibly “insane” patients in Briarcliff– those that have real mental or emotional problems that need to be dealt with medically– there are others that are only there because they are outcasts of society, and are thus considered insane when they really are perfectly straight in the head.
Lana Winters, for example, has been committed for her homosexuality, which was viewed as a treatable sin back in the 1960’s. At the asylum, she is forced to go through “conversion therapy” to try to change her into a straight woman. But like Lana herself says, there is no way to fix the “problem”– she was always born that way, and society just can’t seem to accept that.
Insanity, and the condemnation of it, also prompts conformity. No one wants to be seen as insane; otherwise, you’d get thrown into a filthy mental institution. People hide themselves in an attempt to belong. Lana and her girlfriend, along with their lesbian friends Lois and Barbara, are forced to keep their relationships secret. After her release, Lana reveals her sexuality, and becomes the “sapphic writer”– but Lois and Barbara, caring and kind as they are, are hesitant to be seen in public together with Lana, fearing that people will quickly assume them to be homosexuals as well (which they are). Briarcliff, as a microcosm, demonstrates this tyrannic, oppressive rule of society.
Digressing slightly from the idea of sanity, but along the lines of conformity, we come to Sister Mary Eunice. Mary Eunice, before her possession, spent her entire life being a people-pleaser. As she herself comments, “All I wanted was for people to like me.” And when she is horribly humiliated at a pool party, she joins the Church out of shame. She spends her time at Briarcliff trying to appease Sister Jude and taking care of the patients, happy to spend her time as a obedient staff member at the asylum. Nervous and skittish, we can’t help but feel sorry for her, as if she is a small child only yearning to be accepted– don’t we all have that wish? Many people at the ward come to like her, such as Sister Jude herself and Dr. Arden. However, when she is possessed by the Devil, her demeanor changes drastically, and this causes people to begin to shied away from her in disgust, while the human within the body cries for her fall. Mary Eunice becomes a promiscuous, smoking, lipstick-wearing church-condemning character. She is no longer pure, no longer innocent, no longer the ideal image of a good girl.
Though Mary Eunice’s new lifestyle as a more free person is depicted as the Devil’s work, it begs the question, is nonconformity truly a sin? Is it considered “insane” for a woman to have a strong spirit? (see my discussion on this theme here.)
To the society of the 1960’s, it looks like it is.
Although the view on women has changed considerably today, conformity is still very prevalent in our community. Though Asylum can be seen as a horror movie purely for fun and screams, it stands alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Orwell’s timeless novels The Great Gatsby and 1984, with a story and themes that very much apply to the present. Murphy reminds us that no one has a right to demand that others submit to anyone’s rules. It should not be considered insane if someone has aspirations and qualities besides those that are expected of them. No one should be committed into an asylum just because they are different. People should be free to be themselves, whatever they choose to be.