Scary Stories for Darkened Theaters: Asylums and Halloween

Two new movies use old asylum scares.

Posted Sep 26, 2019

Two films in theaters now are frightening audiences just in time for Halloween. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and It: Chapter Two both have all the elements needed to jolt us out of our seats. They have jump scares, creepy shots of dark places, haunted houses, inhuman creatures chasing innocent victims—and asylums too.

For well over one hundred years, mental hospitals have been settings for screen horror. From the breakouts of demented sociopaths in silent films like Maniac Chase (1904) and Dr. Dippy’s Sanitarium (1906) to the horror mansions of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and The Monster (1925), Hollywood has been cranking out scary mental institutions to frighten audiences.

The trend continues with Scary Stories and It: Chapter Two. The first movie is an anthology that connects frightening tales with the narrative thread that bad things are happening to a group of kids who have awakened a ghost. The hospital itself is active, and quite unsettling in the movie. The film’s director does not need to warn us of its dangers—we know, from deep cultural conditioning, that horrors aplenty are to be found here.

In It: Chapter Two, the asylum is home to an evil psychopath, who is released by a demonic clown, who helps the psychopath escape in order to attack the heroes.

Asylums as plot movers tell us much about how we, as a society, envision institutional mental health. Since their emergence on the American landscape in the nineteenth century, large state hospitals have been viewed with suspicion, or worse.

The world of pop culture is often a reflection of broader societal stigma and mistreatment of those suffering from mental illness. As a society, we often discard those we are unwilling to deal with, and then we make their institutional residences into horror-houses to excuse underfunding and neglect. We impose upon the sufferers the burden of monstrosity. Movie asylums have long been shown as scary castles, haunted places, and/or torture chambers. When hospitals began shutting down in the 1960s and 1970s, films started depicting them as worthless holding tanks. When the abandoned structures began rotting on the landscape, they became tourist attractions and settings for film ghosts. 

The asylum in It is less a torture chamber than an ineffective holding tank for a convenient villain. We find protagonist Henry in a stupor in the day room, a dimly lit place filled with the type of misfit characters directors have stocked these rooms with since at least 1946’s The Snake Pit. This is a common use of the celluloid mental hospital. In the wake of deinstitutionalization, movies have shown us that mental hospitals often neither cure nor torture, but rather exist as unsuccessful prisons for the evil mad, who then break out to wreak vengeance.

The most famous of these failed institutions is to be found in the Halloween series. In the first movie from 1978, we learn that Michael Myers, after butchering his sister and her boyfriend as a child, is sent to live in the Illinois State Hospital at Smith’s Grove. He escapes as an adult, unhealed and ready to resume his carnage. In later films, we get interior flashback shots of this worthless place.

We make our own monsters, literally, in the case of movies. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and It: Chapter Two are just two new volumes in an ongoing series.