Horror movies ain’t what they used to be, as Jason Zinoman has chronicled this week in Slate. But while grisly movies may be in a slump, certain parts of the genre are going strong—specifically, some trusty old story lines. Today, John Carpenter’s new horror movie The Ward opens in theaters. The premise: After a traumatic event, a girl enters a psychiatric hospital, where she is tormented by a ghost.
The “haunted asylum” has been a horror staple for years. (And, more recently, has been a de rigueur stop for the numerous ghost-hunting reality shows.) The trope comes in two basic flavors. In the first, a psychiatric patient—someone who insists that she is sane, but who has been committed after perpetrating some violent act—begins to see ghosts. Her doctors may medicate her heavily, force her to undergo electroconvulsive therapy, throw her in a padded room, lace her in a straitjacket, but she remains convinced that the haunting is real. As she is tormented by the spirits, she begins to seem more and more insane.
The Ward appears to fall into this category, as did 2003’s Gothika, in which Halle Berry plays a prison psychologist who ends up a patient herself after being accused of murder. Convinced that a ghost is possessing her, Berry’s doctor loses her privileged status completely. (A former patient, played by Penelope Cruz, tells her, “You are not a doctor in here. And even if you tell the truth ... no one will listen. You know why? Because you're crazy.”) A similar scenario plays out in Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, the franchise’s 1987 release. The “last of the Elm Street children”—the kids who killed Freddy Krueger—all find themselves in a psychiatric hospital, where their sleep is tormented by Freddy, who was born in the facility. No one believes them, of course. When you’re trapped in a haunted loony bin, the only way to regain “sane” status and evade the supernatural is to take matters into your own hands. These movies feed off our distrust of the mental health care system in general and mental health facilities in particular.
In the second type of haunted-asylum film, sane people wind up in a creepy, old abandoned mental hospital. There, they are harassed by the vengeful ghosts of the mentally ill, crazy and dangerous even in the afterlife. In the 1999 remake of the classic horror movie House on Haunted Hill, a group of people has to make it through one night in an old asylum to win a fortune. Two years later, Session 9 presented a variation on that theme, as a team of asbestos removal workers at the site of an abandoned hospital find themselves deeply affected—yes, haunted—after uncovering recordings of therapy sessions with a woman suffering from multiple personalities. But former patients aren’t the only ones with vengeful spirits: In 2008’s Asylum, modern-day college students learn that their campus housed mental patients in the ‘30s. When the students stumble onto one of the facility’s buildings, they awaken a mad doctor’s spirit, who torments the students the way he once tortured his patients.
Most of these films involve the spirits of the mentally ill. Without the forcible restraint of a strait jacket or Thorazine, the ghosts are free to indulge in the mad rampages they were held back from during their living years. This strange conception of mental illness highlights the slipshod ways in which Hollywood conceives of what the dead can and cannot take with them. Just as ghosts are depicted wearing the clothes they were clad in upon death (do clothes have souls?), we have decided that some decidedly un-otherworldly characteristics stay with us even in the afterlife. Why would a mental illness like schizophrenia still plague someone after death? Would we expect a diabetic ghost to require insulin? A paraplegic ghost to require a wheelchair? Somehow, we’ve decided, the mentally ill are terrifying and threatening even when they’re dead. That seems unfair, given the stigma that they have to endure in life as well.
But the most interesting things about these films—and the source of their sturdy, time-tested appeal—are the way they play on our own fears of being mistaken for crazy. Once someone receives that label, it can be impossible to shake. That’s the really scary thing about these movies—that they suppose the sane cannot reliably be distinguished from the insane.