Should asylums be the host for horror?

Jamie Donnelly March 8, 2013 - 4:00 pm

Speaking to Agustin Cordes, creator of Asylum, and Red Barrel Games, creators of Outlast, I investigate what makes an asylum setting so appealing to the horror genre, and why that’s so very troubling.

asylum outlast feature 1

Bedlam. An institution so horrific, so archaic in ‘treatment’ procedures and so completely unempathetic in their approach to psychiatric disorder, it is no longer just an institution made of bricks and mortar, but a literary institution. Bedlam means chaos. Bedlam means confusion and uproar. Bedlam, a place that was supposed to help people, became so synonymous with anarchic adjectives its very name came to be used as an umbrella term for all of them.

From its inception, Bedlam was intended as a hospital; a place of healing. The problem, though, was that 600 years ago, we had very little understanding of what mental disorder even was, let alone how to treat it. The evolution of psychiatric treatment was a long and arduous one, involving many experimental methods that should never have ever been considered, let alone practised en masse.

When many people talk of psychiatric institutions in the modern age, it still feels like these are the images they conjure in their minds. There is still a stigma that surrounds psychiatric disorder and anything associated with it, and the establishments that are now a far cry from those of 600 years ago are still tainted by history’s unforgiving brush.

It’s not really surprising that people hold this view, considering it’s this stigma that is taken advantage of whenever a horror game or movie utilises the setting of an asylum; not allowing people to move beyond those historic images, forever painting mental institutions as places of terror, not of healing.

Poor treatment

Setting your game – or book, or movie, or cave etching – in an asylum lets your audience immediately know what to expect. This creation will feature moments of horror and terror inside dark, tight corridors that lead to empty, bare rooms that are filled with decrepit, worn-down medical equipment, all of which is punctuated by haunting screams that wail throughout. These are the conventions people cling to, creating that oh-so-familiar picture of an asylum that already exists within their minds, and that is never really challenged such is the insistence to tick off these generic checklists.

Which brings me to my issue. How able are people to separate the fiction from the reality, when all they’ve got to base the reality on is the fiction? The fiction may have been historically true, but if people are using it to shape their views on the current reality, there’s a dissonance being created that needs to be addressed.

Psychiatric treatment facilities are no longer archaic; the emphasis is now genuinely on helping those in need, and not using them as guinea pigs. But, by continually leaning on the trope of asylums-as-horror, are developers complicit in allowing negative stereotypes of psychiatric institutions, and of those who suffer from psychiatric disorders, to continue?

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Agustín Cordes, creator of the upcoming adventure game Asylum, doesn’t see any issues with setting his game in an asylum, largely because he makes it clear that the practices outlined are historical ones. “It’s obviously a fictional asylum and it’s set in the past,” says Cordes. “It’s very true that asylums in the past tended to be very inhuman places, they treated crazy people like animals. Yes, this is an angle of the story that we’re going to use, but I don’t believe in anyway that people will become afraid of modern mental institutes. The distinction is very clear.”

Cordes highlights the oppressive and sinister nature of asylums in the past, but also believes “that going crazy, you know crazy crazy people, is one of the most scariest things in life.”

“I think that the randomness of the acts, you know, the unexpected things that they can do, it’s what creeps out most people,” adds Cordes. “You can never tell what they are going to do next, or how they are going to react, and I think that’s really, at least in my case, what scares me about crazy people.”

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It’s at this point during our interview that everything gets a bit muddled and confusing; I was attempting to challenge these ideas – that ‘crazy’ people should be feared – but was greeted with Augustin enthusiastically agreeing with me, not realising I was taking a contrarian stance. Scaling back my enquiry, I shifted my line of questioning from people to the establishment itself, allowing Cordes to clarify his position.

The idea isn’t that you fear people with psychiatric disorders, says Cordes, but that you fear the historical implications that an asylum carries: you fear what happened there, and the people who were responsible for making it happen. “The antagonist in the game is the asylum itself, and some of the staff – as you will find in the story – not the inmates themselves.”

The clarification – a viewpoint that, perhaps, I was fishing to hear just to halt the increasingly different frequencies of both our wavelengths – just leaves the point more confused, though, with Cordes claiming that we shouldn’t fear the inmates themselves in one breath, while also positing that ‘crazy people’ are a source of personal fear to him.

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