The impactful depictions of mental health and illness in The Snake Pit and Gaslight / by J Simpson

Please note: This piece contains spoilers as well as discussion of abusive relationships, institutions, and psychiatric treatment of mental illness. 

Adapted from the novel by Mary Jane Ward, based on her 8-month treatment at Rockland Psychiatric Center in Orangeburg, NY, The Snake Pit (1948) tells the story of Virginia Cunningham, played by Olivia de Havilland.

Virginia is a lively, talented, and creative woman, who suffers from occasional fugue states. She floated through life, untethered and unmoored, as a kind of Bohemian free spirit. No one was able to get close enough to notice anything unusual. It is not until she meets Robert, played by Mark Stevens - a book publisher who had seen Virginia's writing - that someone is able to notice anything amiss.

Not long into their marriage, Robert becomes aware that something is happening with Virginia. She suffers from occasional bouts of disassociation. She seems to experience manic episodes, followed by a fugue state. She threatens to harm herself and others, only to have no recollection of it afterward. After a particular episode, Robert reluctantly has Virginia committed.

The Snake Pit's depiction of how mental illness was treated in the 1940s is a bleak, brutal, and chilling slice of reality. Many of the treatments were inhumane, such as strapping patients into freezing cold baths, locked into place with canvas tarps, or using electroconvulsive therapy, more commonly known as 'electro-shock therapy’.

‘The Snake Pit’ became shorthand for the horrors of how mental illness was treated, used most notably by the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in 1965, when referring to the Willowbrook State School on New York's Staten Island. This use, in reference to a cinematic adaptation of a popular novel, had profound implications on the treatment of mental illness in the United States.

Kennedy's investigation into this treatment, alongside an exposé in 1972 by investigative reporter Geraldo Rivera, would lead towards a movement of deinstitutionalisation. Unfortunately this was more like transinstitutionalisation, however, as many patients found themselves in the legal system, due to lack of adequate resources for those suffering with mental illness. 

The Snake Pit is just one, if perhaps one of the most famous, instances where cinematic depictions of mental illness and its treatment would go on to impact popular culture, but one can hardly go a day without hearing the term 'gaslighting' in 2018.

'Gaslighting' is a common technique employed to make someone doubt themselves, or discredit someone’s views. The term is in reference to another grim, black and white cinematic depiction of affected mental health; 1944’s Gaslight.

Gaslight is also an adaptation, a noir take on the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, and was the second time the play was adapted for the big screen. Gaslight is the story of Paula Alquist, played by Ingrid Bergman in one of her most mesmerising performances. She meets Gregory Anton, depicted by the sinisterly beguiling Charles Boyer, while studying music in Italy in the wake of her Aunt's murder. 

Paula's Aunt was one of the world's leading opera singers, so beloved she received royal attention, and was gifted with lavish crown jewels. These jewels would prove to be her undoing, as well as the cause in setting Paula on a path towards misery.

Gregory convinces Paula to move back to the house in Thornton Square, and what follows is an abusive relationship. Gregory cloisters Paula away from the world in her Aunt's house. He then begins to manipulate her into doubting herself, and making her think she is losing her mind. Gregory's plan would most likely have worked if it was not for the intervention of the canny Inspector Brian Camerone (Joseph Cotten) of the Scotland Yard.

Both Gaslight and The Snake Pit showcase how cinematic depictions of poor mental health and mental illness, as well as their treatment, can create real change in the world. The term ‘The Snake Pit’ became synonymous with overcrowded institutions and inhumane conditions, whilst gaslighting is noted more and more frequently in the present day.

They both also illustrate the complications in caring for mental health and treating mental illness. They showcase how far we've come, whilst indicating how far we still have to go, as well as pointing out a few missteps at the same time. If there is any prayer of things improving, we must all educate ourselves on mental illness, how to treat it, and the current state of the psychiatric institution, to ensure progress.


This piece was written by J Simpson. You can find out more about J via their Twitter and website!