There is something darkly fascinating with a story set in a mental institution or told by a narrator with, shall we say, an unstable view of the world.

Some of my favourite books, films and television shows that are set in an asylum or centred around a protagonist with a form of mental illness include:

  • American Horror Story: Asylum
  • Shutter Island
  • Sisters in Sanity by Gayle Forman
  • Girl, Interrupted (book and film versions) by Susanna Keysen
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (book and film versions) by Ken Kesey
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower (book and film versions) by Stephen Chbosky
  • Silver Linings Playbook (book and film versions) by Matthew Quick

Most of these titles have received universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike, so there is obviously an extensive – if somewhat voyeuristic – interest in what goes on in the mind of the unhinged, and behind the doors of the facilities that seek to treat (or exploit) them.

But what, exactly, is so fascinating about insane asylums?

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Perhaps it’s the genre

Insane asylums first became a popular setting for fiction writing during the Victorian era. And for good reason – the real-life tales of strange (and often inhumane) medical experiments, patient abuse by sadistic nurses, suicides, and squalid living conditions are far more frightening than any horror book or film.  

This lingering infamy is why asylums are still such popular settings in horror fiction and thrillers today, half a century after the last such establishment was closed down. But it is arguably in dramatic novels and memoirs that the setting is now utilised for its full emotional impact. 

Since the days when a lobotomy was considered an acceptable medical treatment, our society has developed a more empathetic understanding of mental illness. And of course, our literature has had to evolve to reflect this moral progress.

Perhaps it’s the themes

The examination of some profound concepts can be found occurring within the hallways of an asylum.

Besides the obvious exploration of what it means to be “sane” and “insane”, other themes include faith vs science, humanity, freedom, good vs evil, identity, the validity of some medical treatments, the establishment, the nature of mental health conditions such as depression and recovery processes, power, and inner strength.

Audiences can learn a lot about the human condition from those who have had their humanity conditioned out of them.  

Perhaps it’s the characters, or “patients” 

Being on the fringe of society allows for amazingly perceptive observations about life and the human condition. 

Whether it’s the discrimination associated with their condition or the mechanisms of a diseased mind, these characters are more capable of seeing what others can’t (or won’t) because they are not confined by the same societal restrictions as “normal” people.

Additionally, their vulnerability allows for the reader to make more poignant emotional connections with them.   

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Perhaps it’s a combination of all the above.

Or perhaps we just need to go a little insane from time to time to appreciates what it really means to be sane.

© Tara Jenkinson 2017

What is your favourite book, film or television series set in a mental health institution? Have you discovered any profound life truths in the hallways of an insane asylum? Leave a comment below.