Keynote Address

Dr Bernice Murphy (Trinity College Dublin)

“Cities of the Insane”: The Asylum as Ruin in American Horror Narratives.

In recent years, the depiction of the ‘insane asylum’ as a dilapidated ruin that is both metaphorically and literally haunted by the ghosts of the past is one that has become an ever more frequent trope in recent American horror narratives. In this paper I will outline the factors which gave rise to the development of these so-called “Cities of the Insane” – some of which housed many thousands of patients and staff members, and which essentially functioned as entirely self-sufficient communities in and of themselves – and the changes in both public policy and in the treatment and perception of mental health disorders which meant that almost all of these institutions had been closed down by the mid-1980s. With reference to films and TV shows such as the supernatural horror film Session 9 (2009), the documentary Cropsey, and the television series American Horror Story: Asylum (FX 2012-13) I will argue that the ruined asylum functions in these narratives as an archetypal “Landscape of Fear” (to use human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan’s resonant phrase) dramatising profound unease about both the controversial legacy of these institutions and the treatment of those considered to be mentally ill in American society more generally. I will also be briefly discussing the work of photographer Christopher Payne, whose book Asylum (2009) serves as an eerily compelling testament to the remarkable power of these places and our continuing fascination with the people who once inhabited them.