Conference Summary

Madness, Mental Illness and Mind Doctors in 20th and 21st Century Popular Culture, University of Edinburgh, 3rd-4th May 2018

Sarah Spence (University of Glasgow)

The ‘Madness, Mental Illness and Mind Doctors in 20th and 21st Century Popular Culture’ conference brought together academics, artists and activists at the University of Edinburgh, in the heart of Scotland’s capital city. The range of texts discussed across the two days was impressively broad, with papers on television, film, fiction, memoir, video games and graphic novels. Similarly, the speakers explored a wide spectrum of contexts, from early twentieth-century anxieties over modernity’s supposedly schizophrenic condition (James Whitehead, Liverpool John Moores University), to portrayals of mental illness and Holocaust survivorship in Israeli cinema (Liat Steir-Livny, Sapir Academic College/The Open University) and unreliable narration in contemporary video games (Sarah E. Beyver, University of Passau). This drew out multiple cultural meanings of madness, including its associations with innocence, genius, rebirth, the Gothic and the supernatural. A key strand was the interrogation of the relationship between psychiatry and popular culture itself. In his paper on censorship and reception, Tim Snelson (University of East Anglia) discussed the use of psychiatric expertise in media production in the long 1960s. In contrast, Gavin Miller (University of Glasgow) and Wendy Kline (Purdue University) each examined the use of popular media, mass-market publishing and television respectively, in disseminating psychiatric ideas.

Bernice Murphy (Trinity College Dublin) delivered the engaging and often funny keynote address, titled ‘“Cities of the Insane”: The Asylum as Ruin in American Horror Narratives’. It spoke directly to what became one of the most prominent themes of the conference — that of space. Murphy explained the strong connection between mental health and the built environment in nineteenth-century thought: if chaotic environments drove people mad, could the orderly, rationally-designed asylum cure? Once associated with humane treatment, asylums came to represent fear and oppression due to overcrowding and their eventual abandonment. Horror films like Session 9 (2009) play on this fear: they stage a sense of trespass into the forbidden and imagine the asylum space itself as capable of triggering madness. Murphy suggested that these spaces continue to hold a special attraction as American society has not yet come to terms with the asylum’s legacy, both positive and negative.

The importance of space in relation to madness was explored in various ways across the two days. Jessica Gross’s (St. Louis College of Pharmacy) work on comics examined how the usually invisible internal experience of madness may be mapped onto external landscapes in visual art. Gina Maya Roberts (University of Edinburgh) discussed the myth of the ‘transgender psycho’, highlighting links between the shower murder scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film Psycho (1960) and transphobic fears over public bathrooms today. Space was also approached figuratively through the contested notion of outsider art. Filmmaker Alice Evans (Chelsea College of Art) argued that, as a ‘mad artist’, her work is a form of resistance and critique. Olivia Sagan (Queen Margaret University) spoke of her work alongside art makers with histories of mental illness; she highlighted their preference for online rather than traditional gallery spaces and questioned the effectiveness of mad voices inside the art establishment.

A roundtable or breakout session might also have offered a stimulating alternative to the panel format. However, the organisers provided some innovative and stimulating additional events. Taking advantage of the city’s colourful medical history, a small group took a guided tour of the University’s Anatomical Museum, viewing such curiosities as the skeleton of William Burke, one half of Edinburgh’s infamous murdering duo Burke and Hare. The first day concluded with a free public screening of Girl, Interrupted (1999) at independent cinema the Filmhouse. This was followed by a Q&A session with a thoughtfully-chosen panel, representing academic, artistic, health professional and service user perspectives. Discussion revolved around the film’s representation of the contested diagnosis Borderline Personality Disorder, as well as the issues around adapting an experimental memoir into a Hollywood film. This was one of the key events of the conference and effectively engaged with a public audience outside academia. The conference’s penultimate event was a performance by actor and creative producer Garth Williams titled ‘From the Bird of Paradise to The Ward Round’. Williams’s monologue was candid, dryly humorous and elusive: a ‘Faustian trip through the Psychiatric Underworld’ reflecting on his experiences of hospitalisation and the work of R. D. Laing. The packed programme showed that there is much to be said on madness and popular culture. The conference had an impressive international reach, drawing presenters from across the UK, Europe and the United States — testament to the relevance and timeliness of the topic.