MENTAL ILLNESS IS THE FASHIONABLE EXPLANATION FOR SIN
– Sister Jude
THROUGHOUT history, we have sought explanation for ‘madness’. From Ancient Greece and the theory of the humours to the rise of psychiatry in more recent times, the reasoning for insanity has been one of contention and depending on socio-medical trends.
As we see in AHS: Asylum, the Catholic church purchase Briarcliffe following its closure as a TB hospital in 1950s, and from then on, it was in the Church’s duties to care for ‘lost souls’ as Sister Jude puts it.
We are going to concentrate on the impact religion had on beliefs of mental illness and lunacy, and for this, we need to return to the European Middle Ages, when Christians believed in possession by demonic forces (consequentially ending in madness), for which required ritual exorcism. In fact, it was believed that more deeply embedded demons (usually found in elderly or eccentric women!?) required torture or in fact death to be cast out.
We initially see this belief in progress as young Jed is brought into Briarcliffe following devastatingly creepy and evil acts he has committed. Drawing inspiration from The Exorcist film, producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk believed this to be an important feature to include, after all, this was a common belief and treatment in Church-run insane asylums.
Christianity’s influence on mental health lasted centuries, and saw madness in terms of divine punishment- that required for the act of sin. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, when ‘insane asylums’ were coming into their own, the Christian Church had much to do with all humanitarian efforts throughout the world.
Mental health facilities were regularly funded, staffed and run by the Catholic clergy, in which their main recommendation for the cure and relief of mental illness was to pray and seek God’s forgiveness; attendance at church was deemed the most effective treatment.
Many stories in the Bible talked of ‘madness’, mainly explained by the Devil’s doing, such as the story of Saul, whom was calmed when he heard music being played. Moral treatment was seen as the way forward, and in this respect, meant that repenting and seeking to be a better Christian would assist in banishing those mental health problems. Well, let’s just say that wasn’t always the case!
As seen in AHS: Asylum, the ‘stairway to heaven’ as Sister Jude calls it, leads not to simple religious cures, but a whole lot more, that doesn’t seem to work too efficiently as treatment! In episode 1, she refers to madness as a ‘spiritual crisis’; a someone classical Christian thought pattern back in the 1960s and centuries prior, and that psychiatrists were no more than ‘charlatans’.
There are many religious reference and quotes throughout the series (too many to go through now), but it is clear in the production that producers wanted the religious element to be clear; reflecting realistic behaviour and beliefs in mental health at the time.
You could be my miracle, Leigh. If I could turn a man like you towards Christ… imagine the reforms I could make on a national scale. Not just mental health… Believe me, if I ascend to the highest ranks of the Church, I won’t back down from the fight…
– Monsignor Timothy Howard
There is much more to the historical, winding relationship between madness and religion, of all denominations- not just Catholicism, but AHS: Asylum gives an easy to swallow chunk of the important role Christianity played in the timeline and development from madness, to insanity to mental illness.