Sunday, October 16, 2011

The unfunny Bedlam post

So here's what I have to say about the show Bedlam that isn't really about the show at all. It's about the way people think about disability and the way this is reflected in and reinforced by pop culture.

Any institution (school, hospital, or prison) is a great setting for horror fiction because a)you can use a huge creepy-looking building with winding halls, b)there are lots of people there hence the potential for lots of ghosts, and c)people are likely to have been abused there.

But mental institutions are such a good setting that they're almost cheating because, even more than abuse or winding halls, people with disabilities are one of the basic units of the horror genre. I'd argue that at least half of villainous humans and ghosts in horror movies could be considered disabled--in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the majority of disabled movie characters appear in horror movies.

I come to praise horror not to bury it though. After all, I like it. I also think that physical and mental "weakness" may be themes that are inherently scary because they threaten our security. The idea of criticizing porn for being offensive always strikes me as really senseless because porn is created to push certain buttons so I don't see how it can be any more offensive than an icemaker can be offensive for making ice--and the same argument can be made about horror.

So I'm not talking about the fact that Bedlam a TV show set in a haunted institution for people with mental health disabilities. I do think it says something interesting, though, that while the idea of the institution (and therefore disability) is used to give the show its spookiness, there are very few disabled characters.

I first found out about Bedlam on the Skins LiveJournal community when someone posted some gifs of Lily Loveless's guest appearance on the show. From the gifs, I could tell that her character was supposed to be ill (she was taking medication) and that she had moved into a new place. The name of the show made me assume that it took place in a psychiatric hospital, so I imagined that she had just been admitted to a hospital for treatment, only to discover it was haunted.

I thought this show was going to be about people with psychiatric disabilities in a haunted hospital. Like, there would be a few main ghost hunters who were either long-term patients or staff, and the guest stars would be various short-term patients who would be menaced by a ghost. After actually looking up the show, I realized that the hospital was no longer a hospital, but I figured the ghosts were going to have psychiatric disabilities since they were the ghosts of patients.

In fact, every single ghost of a patient has been casually mentioned to not actually have been mentally ill--even when this doesn't have anything important to do with the ghost's motivations. I want to make it clear I am not criticizing this particular show for this! But I went through every character in the first five episodes (living or dead) who has been a patient in a psychiatric hospital or is thought to have mental health problems.

There were ten characters like this--four were main character ghosts, three were living characters, and three were part of a ghost or living character's backstory. Only half of the characters who have been institutionalized or said to have MH problems actually have MH problems. Of these five, three are part of someone's backstory--they only appear very briefly and exist to drive the motivation of another character.

Of the four ghosts of patients, not one of them actually has MH problems. They were all institutionalized "wrongly."

The show portrays a lot of abuse against people labeled with psychiatric disabilities. Jed is constantly made fun of, insulted, or feared because of his label. All of the patients, especially the female ones, were treated unfairly or even killed by staff. This abuse is portrayed as wrong, but all the abuse we see against people with disabilities is experienced by characters who don't actually have disabilities.

It would be kind of a heavy accusation (especially against such an awesomely stupid show) if I tried to argue that the writers of the show are trying to say that abuse of people with disabilities is okay, and is only wrong when it happens to people without disabilities who are mistakenly perceived as disabled. I also think it would be wrong to try to read something into the fact that most of the actually-disabled characters are only notable for having killed themselves and/or someone else. That comes with them being backstory characters in a show where every character has a tragic past.

What I'm trying to say is more simple. Definitely a lot of people are institutionalized when they don't actually have a disability, and in the 19th century (which most of the ghosts are from) this was much more true than it is now. But there must have been some patients in the institution who actually had disabilities. Most of them, even.

So, where are the ghosts with disabilities? I think we are probably supposed to imagine they are among the many ghosts in Bedlam Heights. Like the ghosts without disabilities, they probably were abused and had tragic lives. But for some reason, none of the disabled ghosts get to be the ghost of the week, who Jed sees visions of and whose terrible experiences he clucks over with Ryan.

I think this isn't through anyone's decision to ignore the experience of actually crazy people in an institution for crazy people. I think when the writers were coming up with the concept for the ghost of the week, every week they just happened to come up with a ghost who was non-disabled, because main characters--characters whose point of view is show--are almost always non-disabled. Given the premise of this show, it makes absolutely no sense! But I think it's totally, completely ordinary and frankly I would have been surprised if it was any other way.


  1. This one I read. I wonder if they're purposely steering away from actual MH diagnosis characters/experiences out of some larger concern that they'll be seen as vilifying people with MH dx's?

    Alternatively they're pandering to the majority of their viewers who they're afraid will be turned off by discussion of actual insanity.


  2. It's possible but I just don't think it's that self-aware.

  3. I think if they were really worried about making people with mental illness look bad, they wouldn't have so many of them killing other people and themselves. But I also think that if they had a strong bias against people with mental illness, they wouldn't have had Sadie be a viewpoint character who was fairly sympathetic. So my guess is they're pretty normal.