Tag Archives: mental illness

Review: House of Psychotic Women

As this blog grows, I’ve decided to designate at least one day a month as Scary Scholarly Saturday…or something like that…perhaps a catchier name will come to mind.

Speaking of disturbed minds, this month’s featured academic book is House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films by Kier-La Janisse. This isn’t your typical film criticism book, but rather an analysis of selected films through an autobiographical lens. As the title suggests, it’s an examination of neurotic, psychotic, and otherwise “crazy” women in horror and exploitation films. It’s a book that works my nerves on a number of levels, but also has a lot on its favor. So let’s get the perceived negatives out of the way first.

To foreground this discussion, I must point out that I’ve become so disgusted with people casually using the term “crazy” in reference to women. The term itself is rather lazy, and stigmatizes mental illness, but also tends to be used to silence and discredit women in particular. As discussed in an article by Harris O’Malley, men usually don’t label women as crazy in reference to an actual diagnosis, but usually to delegitimize any behavior or emotion that is merely perceived as inconvenient or annoying. This labeling is also often brilliantly mocked and satirized satirized in the spoof women’s magazine Reductress.

So imagine how irked I was with Kier-La Janisse’s statement in the introduction, “every woman I have ever met in my entire life is completely crazy, in one way or another.” Like so many men who use this label to describe women, she often does not refer to any formal diagnosis. In this book as in common parlance, “crazy” is a catch-all term for anything from mere eccentricity to debilitating psychosis. The rest of the book involves relating her own craziness to the on-screen craziness of various female characters. She never does offer a definition of what constitutes craziness, or its elusive opposite, sanity. Likewise, she never posits whether she views women as crazy in an essentialist sense, or that all women are crazy due to the pressures of patriarchal society. Given her description of her horrifically abusive childhood, I was saddened that she constantly labels herself crazy as well. Most of the evidence she presents for her self-described craziness runs along the lines of maladaptive coping behaviors that seem perfectly understandable given her dysfunctional upbringing.

My final criticism is that while horror films do depict a great deal of ” craziness” of different types and degrees, it isn’t a genre specifically about that nebulous category of women’s “craziness.” While I haven’t done a quantitative analysis of the subject, my viewing of thousands of horror films seems to indicate that depictions of mentally ill men are at least as prevalent as those of women, if not more so. Focusing exclusively on “crazy” women excludes their male equivalents. What about Jack Torrence, Norman Bates, and Michael Myers, not to mention scores of mad scientists, serial killers, and cultists? Male craziness is a staple of horror literature. Just ask any of Lovecraft’s protagonists. Janisse even discusses her affinity for the “neurotic” music of Alice Cooper, who has coopted “craziness” and mental illness as part of his personal brand following his treatment at a psychiatric facility. However, she doesn’t explore representations (or self-representations) of male “craziness.” At some point, I would love to see someone compare and contrast gendered constructs of “craziness” within the horror genre. Furthermore, I would eventually like to see a discussion of the perceived benefit of owning “craziness” as a personal brand or label.

On the positive side, Janisse does provide in-depth and thoughtful commentary on many  overlooked movies, which are presented alongside her autobiography, and separately in  a lengthy appendix. There are also many beautiful black-and-white and full color movie stills and poster reproductions throughout the book. Even though I had issues with the premise, House of Psychotic Women was fun to read. Janisse’s autobiography is interesting in its own right, and it’s fascinating how horror films can resonate with people on so many different levels. Clearly, depictions of  “crazy” women serve a cathartic function for Janisse. I am constantly amazed at how many varied readings arise from the horror genre, and this was an aspect I hadn’t previously considered.

Politics of Insanity in “Bedlam”

bedlam-poster

Boris Karloff month continues with our second film review:Bedlam (1946), a film with some historical basis. “Bedlam” was the nickname for St. Bethlehem Memorial Hospital, England’s oldest mental hospital. Bedlam was known for its barbaric treatment of patients and for raising funds by charging admission so that the public could be entertained by the “lunatics.” It was all too easy to be committed such an institution against one’s will. In fact, it was not uncommon for husbands to commit their wives to insane asylums once becoming tired of their marriages.

bedlam-huh

This is one of a few films in which Karloff’s character is truly villainous, rather than merely misunderstood. Karloff plays George Sims, the sadistic (and a tad lecherous) apothecary general in charge of the asylum in the 1760’s. His patients are not merely abused as part of misguided medical treatments, but deliberately tortured for the amusement of aristocrats. In one scene, Sims paints a patient in gold gilt to perform at a dinner party, and laughs as the poor man suffocates. Film historian Tom Weaver, who provided the commentary track for the DVD release, shared an interesting story that the actor who played the patient was indeed painted from head to toe in gold paint, and did begin to suffocate as a result. Karloff was actually the first to notice the young actor’s plight and was able to procure medical treatment for him in time.

bedlam-gold-paint

The female protagonist Nell is not amused by Sims’ mistreatment of patients. Eventually she poses a threat to Sims’ position, so he arranges a hearing to have her committed to Bedlam. Thank goodness that could never happen today. That would be like, say, threatening to jail one’s political opponent if one wins an election.

Nell’s character seems unusually feisty for a Code-era film. Check out Divas, Damsels, and Smudged Mascara for more about the feminist aspects of this film. Sims believes inmates at Bedlam are all savages and will harm Nell, but because she shows them kindness and tries to ease their suffering, Nell’s actions eventually lead to reforms in the treatment of the mentally ill. Of course, not before Karloff’s nasty character gets his just desserts.

bedlam-boris-karloff-anna-lee-1946

The DVD edition I own is a Karloff double feature including Isle of the Dead, which is also a solid film. Tom Weaver’s commentary track is a treat, as he delves into the history of the real Bedlam hospital as well as fascinating stories about the filmmakers and the film itself.