“Asylum Movies:” Session 9

I’m pretty sure that everyone has a category of things that they hate – country music, procedural cop shows, romance novels – but in which there is one specific example which they somewhat irrationally like and will defend as being not like the others. Session 9 is my Chosen Asylum Movie.

Session 9 was recommended to me by a person I no longer speak to (not for that reason) as being an unwatchably bad movie, but with one solitary great moment in it. That great moment, oddly, is David Caruso delivering the line “fuck youuuuuuu” in a very stilted and awkward way. However, 18-year-old me was very starved for entertainment, and Session 9 was on Netflix.

Session 9 is not a great movie. It might not even be a good movie. However, it managed to happen upon two things which I found very creepy, and combined them with acting worthy of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room and pacing that would make an editor weep. This was a winning combination for me somehow, and I have seen the subsequent jumble of nonsense probably 6 times.

This masterpiece took a known creepy thing in the form of Danvers State Hospital (the actual one) and a previously unknown creepy thing in the form of asbestos and combined them to make a strangely haunting movie. I am the first person to rail against using asylums as creepy backdrops, but I liked that this movie didn’t make up a fictional asylum and a bunch of fictional atrocities that happened there. Yeah, there were a whole bunch of human rights violations in asylums, largely due to the overcrowding that occurred when the state cut funding and the number of patients quickly overtook the number of beds and available staff. Yeah, the transorbital lobotomy was a thing that happened (even though it was an attempt to legitimately help.) Are those not atrocities enough? Why do you have to invent some massacre or weird surgical trauma? That was the first thing I liked, was that they used the actual Danvers and its actual history – they shot it there, too. It’s a very creepy building, even without knowing its history. The whole thing is bat-shaped, extending outward from a central building into wings on the sides where the patients lived.

(Quick history lesson – Danvers, and many asylums just like it, were built in America in the late 1800s as part of the ‘moral care’ movement. They were designed around the idea that patients would live as a family, contributing to the everyday operation of the facility (helping garden, launder, cook and clean in exchange for compensation or reward) and keeping themselves busy, while building relationships with their doctor and the staff. There was very little emphasis on surgical intervention or medication – these would largely come later. Only when the government realized that comparatively few patients were being served for the money that was being invested did they defund the hospitals, and overpopulation skyrocketed, leading to the horrifying conditions often depicted in movies. In my personal opinion, the height of the moral care movement was the closest the West has ever come to humane and beneficial mental health care. )

The second cool thing is asbestos-as-antagonist. I’ve seen a whole lot of viruses and plagues and other weird invisible villains in horror movies, but none of them latched onto me the way that asbestos did. The thought of those tiny shards, floating through the air, waiting to be breathed into my lungs to puncture the individual cells…eurch. Asbestos is the perfect villain for a movie that crawls along at a snail’s pace while the protagonists bicker aimlessly – they work in the removal industry, and live every day with the knowledge that they will probably die from it. The only question is how quickly.


The plot is actually surprisingly complicated, and I didn’t totally understand it until my second or third viewing. I imagine many people never get that far, which is a tragedy. If I had to condense it to bullet points:

  • Group of men with various interpersonal conflicts work as an asbestos removal team (this movie doesn’t even live in the post code of the Bechdel test – there are no women on screen at any time)
  • They get a contract with the abandoned Danvers State Hospital to remove all the asbestos in the building, which is going to be made into apartments. The boss, Gordon, says they’ll do it in a week, which is just a ludicrously short amount of time. He needs the money because he and his wife have a new baby.
  • One guy finds these tapes in the basement labeled “Session 1, Session 2, etc” and starts listening to them. They are therapy sessions with a patient who has Dissociative Identity Disorder (Oh boy oh boy!) She experienced some sort of trauma and will only talk through one of 3 alters. There is a fourth alter they all reference, but it won’t talk.
  • Weird stuff starts happening. One guy doesn’t show up for work. Gordon hasn’t slept in weeks because of the baby.
  • They find the guy who didn’t show up wandering around the facility basement, with a lobotomy pick through his eye.
  • Gordon maybe kills everyone
  • The last Session tape plays – Session 9. The last alter finally talks, revealing that it killed the woman’s family, and that it’s been alive forever – it travels
  • Gordon remembers that he killed his wife and baby
  • Fade to black

So that’s what (probably) happened – Gordon was possessed by the evil personality when he entered the patient’s former room, and compelled to murder his family that night. He then forgot (?) and proceeded as normal, forgetting when he was doing horrible stuff.

Like I said, it’s not the best movie. But there’s something about it that makes me watch it again and again. I justify it to myself that “it’s not a DID movie, the alter is a supernatural thing that possesses people. It’s not perpetuating stigma.” But that’s honestly an excuse. If it looks like DID and quacks like DID… But I will continue to justify this movie as being the least-bad of all the asylum movies because it doesn’t use torture porn of patients and it is actually full of historically accurate information. And asbestos.

“Asylum Movies:” Shutter Island

I remember, for some reason, Shutter Island being another “banned movie,” much like Black Swan. However, when I talked to my mother about it, she said she had no memory of it and she didn’t think she would have banned me from seeing it. Regardless, I saw the Scorsese-directed DiCaprio vehicle for the first time the other day.

My initial thought is that the score wants you to know that this is a DRAMATIC MOVIE where THINGS HAPPEN. (Its repeating, droning brass sound was the first of several similarities to the movie Inception, also starring DiCaprio, which came out the same year.) If you’re not familiar with the plot, it concerns DiCaprio as a Government Marshal investigating the escape of a patient/inmate on the Shutter Island facility for the criminally insane. Mark Ruffalo plays his investigative partner, and Sir Ben Kingsley plays the head psychiatrist.


The Shutter Island facility (for the “criminally insane”)  is nice and well-maintained – by the inmates. I shan’t call them “patients,” as Dr. Ben Kingsley prefers, because they’re kept in literal chains. “They used to be shackled and left in their own filth,” he says pompously to DiCaprio’s unsympathetic Marshal. Great – now they’re shackled and pruning bushes. You fixed it! Although I should point out that at least they’re getting some outdoor time – the facility I was in twice boasted on its website about its “wellness garden,” but I never met anyone who’d ever been allowed in it.

Leo’s character (whose name quite honestly escapes me, even though I can remember minor characters’ perfectly) is completely unsympathetic, regarding the inmates as common or garden criminals and treating everyone at the facility as though they were somehow contaminated. “Sanity’s not a choice, Marshal. You can’t just choose to get over it,” opines Kingsley, in the first line I’ve felt resonate among the excuses and platitudes. Between Kingsley and the other primary psychologist, the whole profession is played true to the Hollywood stereotype – that of the smug, psychoanalzying Freudian who responds to every sentence with a knowing comment about your defense mechanisms or penis envy. Movies like this are why people hate psychologists.  Leo later reveals his wife was killed in a fire set by a mentally ill man, and he longs for revenge. Some pretty healthy stuff.

Basically the movie is a solid 3 hours long with ads, and has a convoluted and winding plot, which all negates itself in a massive plot twist at the end: Leo was never a Marshal, and is himself a ‘patient’ at Shutter Island. The whole thing has been a massive roleplay therapy designed to force him to come to terms with the fact that

a.) his wife drowned their children in a river for no reason

b.) he subsequently killed his wife.

There was never any fire and he made up the revenge plot in his delusional mind. I have problems with this plot twist for a bunch of reasons, the first being that the moment you examine it with any scrutiny it collapses like a flan in a cupboard, but I’ll focus on my other reasons which are:

1.) Mental illness doesn’t work this way. Diagnoses are conspicuously left out of this movie; they talk about inmates only in terms of what crimes they committed. Leo’s actual diagnosis is never discussed but they repeatedly say he has “delusions,” as though that were itself a diagnosis. Delusions are a symptom, not an illness. They also don’t account for the complete amnesia his character has, making him forget his entire identity in favor of the assumed Marshal forgery. There’s a thing called ‘dissociative fugue’, in which people can become amnesiac and even commit crimes (it’s a popular legal defense strategy), but they would not assume a new identity – they usually are found hours or days later, wandering and dazed. Taking liberties with how mental illness actually works seems harmless, but it can contribute in many ways to society’s misunderstanding and subsequent stigmatization of mental disorders.

2.) This “treatment” is wildly unethical. The therapy they’re giving Leo is a combination of highly dangerous (fictional) drugs combined with completely rewriting his entire identity and forcing him into traumatic situations. IRBs didn’t exist for these places, not in the 50s, so the lack of ethical oversight isn’t a mistake; it’s just weird that it’s treated as a good thing. This movie has a lot to say about asylums – Shutter Island is clearly not a nice place and definitely skews ‘prison’ more than ‘hospital.’ They repeatedly clarify that it’s for the ‘criminally insane’ and that all of the patients there have committed crimes, but never give any of the patients’ diagnoses or rationales behind their crimes. One man ripped a woman’s face off – reason unknown.  A woman killed her husband, because he beat her and cheated on her – no diagnosis. This movie didn’t even really need to be set in an asylum, they only needed Leo to be “crazy” at the end. They’re just banking on the fact that people think asylums are creepy. That’s my issue, in general, with “asylum movies” –  everybody falls all over themselves to portray how horrible asylums were, but they don’t really care about mentally ill people – they just want to use them for their historical torture porn.

Random notes I took as I watched:

  • This is by far a better role for Ben Kingsley than Guru Tugginmapudha, but I’m still disappointed in him
  • Leo’s pronunciation of “excaped” is killing me slowly
  • I am really not a fan of concentration camps being used as props in movies even more so than mental hospitals, and this is no exception
  • Leo’s German is deplorable – I assume on purpose, since he’s done good accents when coached before
  • Because of the presence of Leo DiCaprio and continual flashbacks to a dead wife, there are a lot of similarities to Inception, which is a much better movie even though it was made after this one
  • The presence of people of color exclusively as staff is one of those great examples  of filmmakers casting POC when they think it’s “historically accurate”, but actually just when it gives them an excuse to not cast any as leads. For the record, there were actually a disproportionate number of black Americans diagnosed as schizophrenic, so they could easily have been cast as patients.
  • Kingsley’s description of the ‘war’ in psychology is very accurate
  • The word ‘zombie’ was not common parlance in the ’50s – the book ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow” hadn’t come out yet to spread tales of Haitian voodoo to the West
  • The Andrew Breene character is a weird combination of tropes of mental illness and traits that will make the audience hate him – it’s like Scorsese wanted to have Leo psychologically torture a mental patient, but didn’t want him to seem like a bad person for it, so he made him a racist so we’d be cool with it
  • There are no televisions in the facility? What an odd thing to specifically mention. It’s the 50s – TVs are pretty common in households; you’d think they could spring for at least one to keep the inmates occupied.
  • The dreams Leo has (technicolor, surreal, full of metaphor and layered meaning) are not the kinds of dreams schizophrenic people (or any people) have, by and large. My most interesting dream this week was about going to pay for an expensive meal and finding my wallet was full of $97 bills
  • I feel bad but I laughed at an orderly saying to a patient in the background “why is it you every time?”
  • That’s an inaccurate description of a transorbital lobotomy – there’s no ‘electroshock’ involved, just regular anesthesia

Ingrid Reviews “Mental Illness Movies” Pt.1- Black Swan


When Black Swan first came out, my mother outright banned me from seeing it. Our family friend who works as a rent-a-cop for a cinema had seen bits and pieces of it while strolling in and out checking for theater-hopping teenagers, and he told my mother it was “freaky” and that I shouldn’t be allowed to watch it.

This naturally made it irresistible. I was already deeply interested in it because it was about dance, and dance, albeit not ballet, was the majority of my life for twelve years. I also, I’ll admit with some shame, wanted to see a horror movie about mental illness, as this one was said to be – well, no one ever said “mental illness,” but they said the word “crazy” a lot, and those are the same thing, right? I was still more intrigued by the rumors that there was a lesbian sex scene in the movie. I’d been out to my parents, and close friends, for a few years, but my only attempt at a relationship had resulted in my having to leave a school because the other students spat at me or threw cold water on me. I was desperate for any representation, and at that “unwoke” time in my life, I didn’t know or care about the difference between good and bad representation.

I didn’t watch the movie for easily a whole year after it came out – maybe two; I did genuinely want to respect my mother’s wishes but at the same time I knew I could “handle” a little bit of horror. I don’t remember the time around when I first watched it; I only remember sitting there behind my bed, in case my mother should come in, watching Black Swan in fits and bursts on an illegal streaming website that buffered constantly.

I loved it instantly. I have never, and probably never will, identified more with a character than Nina Sayers. Not because of her hallucinations, although that’s an obvious parallel, but because of her driving, constant need to be perfect, and her absolute knowledge that everyone will hate her if she is not. It’s very easy to look at the beautiful, accomplished, disciplined ballerina character, and then look back at me – fat, mediocre at most things, lazy – and think, “clearly being perfect is not very important to you,” but that’s exactly why it’s so excruciating. My need for perfection is so paralyzing that I rarely manage to accomplish anything – perfection is unachievable, and if I cannot achieve perfection, why try? The difference between me and Nina Sayers is that Nina Sayers hasn’t realized that perfection is out of reach. Nina Sayers tries.

I don’t remember my feelings at the time, but when I watch Black Swan now, I feel strongly that it is not a Mental Illness Movie. I interpret it as a dramatic representation of the perfectionism and extreme stress endemic to careers like ballet which are inherently competitive and allow no room for error. Some people online try to “diagnose” Nina, as though she were a real person. I think it’s funny how people talk about movies as though they exist in some sort of objective reality – as though all questions which were left ambiguous by the filmmaker have a concrete answer somewhere. I don’t care if the light in the suitcase is Marsellus Wallace’s soul, and I don’t think Nina has any diagnosis. She’s a fictional character who has individual symptoms of many separate mental disorders, but ultimately it doesn’t matter to me because that’s not how I interpret the movie.

If Black Swan were a Mental Illness movie, it wouldn’t be amazing representation. There’s a pretty clear message that Nina is a hazard, if not to anyone else then to herself. If she lives through the ambiguous end, she should probably not continue doing ballet, regardless of diagnosis – it’s clearly a massive stressor for her. In my opinion, Nina the barista or Nina the accountant would do pretty well – maybe a little anxious but nothing like the events of the film. A life where there isn’t a competitive and rigorous atmosphere would be great for her, probably – she’s the type of person who would thrive in a 9-5 job.

Ultimately, Aronofsky uses the concepts and ideas surrounding mental illness to make the lead character and the audience deeply uncomfortable, but does so (in my opinion) in order to tell a story about control – the relentless control Nina attempts to have over her dancing and her life (and her eating habits), the control her mother still has over her despite the fact that she’s an adult, and the lack of control that Lily wreaks on everything she touches.

The final minutes of Black Swan make me sob harder than any movie I’ve ever seen. Harder than Schindler’s List. Harder than Das Leben Der Anderen, my favorite film. Harder than A Beautiful Mind. When Nina realizes she’s stabbed herself, and begins slowly crying, I cry with her. When she dances the delicate White Swan, I keep wibbling. As she ascends to the top of the “cliff,” as Odette prepares to throw herself into icy water because her prince has not saved her, I rock back and forth. And as Nina lands on the mattress, and the crowd applauds thunderously, and Tomás showers her with praise, I begin sobbing openly. As blood spreads around her, and the music swells, I cry because Nina Sayers will never get to be perfect again.