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Sunday 11 October 2015


A look at American Horror Story-Asylum

Posted in: Television
By Craig Young - 9th October 2013

american_horror_story_asylum.jpg

Warning: contains spoilers

The recent series American Horror Story-Asylum is the second season of the award-winning horror franchise, in which the central protagonist, Lana Winters, is a sixties lesbian trapped in a Catholic-run psychiatric institution.

American Horror Story has featured gay characters before- which shouldn't be surprising, considering that it's the work of Ryan Murphy, creator of the long-running plastic surgery drama Nip/Tuck, adolescent musical drama series Glee and the American Horror Story story arcs.

Murphy is a gay man himself and his dramas reflect the lives of realistically rendered LGBT characters. Granted, some of them have human failings, but then so do the straight characters. Ava Moore in Nip/Tuck was a transsexual woman and got her man, Matt MacNamara, at the end of the series- although there was an unfortunate case of professional ethics beforehand.

In American Horror Story-Murder House, a disintegrating nuclear family moved into a haunted house, which eventually took all of their lives. Chad (Zachary Quinto) and Patrick (Teddy Sears), a gay couple, were the previous owners and the house's unquiet spirits took their lives as well. The two of them weren't saints, although they did seem to reconcile at the end. Apart from those two, there was also central casting guy candy- hunky psychiatrist Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermot) and troubled adolescent ghost Tate Langdon (Evan Peters). While that story was equally spellbinding, American Horror Story-Asylum is a quantum leap into even greater darkness.

Asylum centres on Briarcliff, a Catholic-run psychiatric institution in the sixties. This is before any concept of lesbian, gay or psychiatric survivors rights. The US Christian Right threw a temper tantrum at the intensity of abuse at the fictional institution, but then, sadly, transparency, accountability, reparation and honesty have never been their strengths either. Admittedly, it might have initially seemed as if Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), the sadistic woman religious who ran Briarcliff was a stereotypical sadomasochistic nun from far too many lapsed Catholic schoolchildren's nightmares, but the bad sister is hiding her own evil spirits- they reside in a whiskey bottle in a drawer in her office, to be exact. However, unexpectedly, she ends up subverted and overthrown by her protege, Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), who has been demonically possessed and uses the unaccountable institutional structure to her own sinister ends. Worse still, Jude ends up on the receiving end of gruesome non-consensual electro-convulsive therapy after being ejected from her order.

While there aren't any gay men this time, there is a formidable, tough but closeted lesbian journalist, Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), who is forcibly imprisoned in the institution and subjected to violent corporal punishment, solitary confinement and rape- at the hands of serial killer Dr Oliver Thredson (Zach Quinto), one of the doctors at the institution.

The other, Arthur Arden (James Cromwell) was a Nazi medical experimenter, shielded by corrupt Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), who also ignores the routine abuse of inmates that goes on within Briarcliff. As if Lana's ordeal of sexual violence wasn't bad enough, she ends up having to continue the pregnancy, because it's before abortion was decriminalised in the United States after Roe v Wade in 1973. Worse still, Thredson has murdered Lana's lover, Wendy (Clea

DuVall) and skinned her alive.

Lana manages to escape from the institution, but her hatred for what it did to her and others never dies. She gives birth but gives the child, a boy, up for adoption. Eventually, she does get her revenge …

I identified closely with Lana, whose ordeal is an intensified version of what many of us endured at the hands of religious social conservatives, unable to retaliate at the time out of fear of losing everything. Once we are free from their immediate influence, it is then we are able to respond strategically, as Lana finally does after she finally escapes from Briarcliff- but it's the late sixties, and she has to make compromises- like not forming intimate relationships because her vengeance took precedence. At the very end, she kills Thredson's offspring. I'm lucky- I did find a good man to love me and formed a family with him and his daughter. Moreover, there are some lengths to which I wouldn't go for revenge- like driving someone to suicide, or killing.

However, religious social conservatives and their unaccountable, destructive institutions and individuals need to be dragged, kicking and screaming if necessary, to confront the hideousness of their absence of accountability, transparency and responsibility for their actions. Look at the ordeals of Graham Capill's pedophilia victims or Catholic clergy pedophilia, violence against women, or other institutional malignancy. And ask yourself, how fictional is American Horror Story-Asylum? Really?

American Horror Story-Asylum plays on TV Four, at 9.30 pm

 
Craig Young - 9th October 2013

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