Troy Rondinone, Nightmare Factories: The Asylum in the American Imagination. Johns Hopkins, 2019.
Book review by Katherine Allocco (Western Connecticut State University)
Troy Rondinone traces the evolution of the portrayal of mental health institutions in American popular culture from the nineteenth century until today. Beginning with Edgar Allen Poe’s 1845 short story “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether”, he analyzes a diverse collection of stories, film and television shows interweaving his pop culture analysis with medical history and psychological theory. Rondinone concludes that the generally negative and often terrifying depiction of asylums has affected public opinion about those suffering from mental illness in both negative and occasionally positive ways. He observes that popular culture has often offered a “nightmare” vision of mental health facilities to those readers and viewers who have only ever experienced mental health facilities through novels and film thus creating a chasm between the “sane” and those portrayed as “insane” in public discourse and the media.
Rondinone’s book is well organized and flows beautifully. He mainly moves chronologically through 170 years of literature, film and post-Freudian theory, although his book opens with a discussion of the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) in the prologue. He uses this film to help contextualize the shifting images of insane asylums in the American popular imagination. Concise and persuasive, his book argues that pop culture depictions of mental health treatment facilities were inextricably affected by larger historical trends and that by the 1970s film took a noticeable turn as American prosperity began to wane, the Cold War began to heat up and Hollywood film turned toward both realism and slasher films.
As the author explores films and fiction throughout the twentieth century, with particular emphasis on The Snake Pit (1948) and Cuckoo’s Nest, Rondinone analyzes the fictional within the context of developing psychological theory as well as public perception and beliefs about mental illness. For example, the brutal depiction of electroconvulsive therapy in The Snake Pit not only affected the way that other filmmakers portrayed this treatment but also the way that patients’ families discussed and perceived it. (Both were often negative.) Rondinone very convincingly illustrates the interplay between the fictional and the personal as pop culture often exploited an audience’s own fears and nightmares about the frightening and intrusive ways that medical treatment could burrow into our most hidden facets and cause anyone to question their own sanity.
Meticulous and thorough, this book surveys a broad range of fiction and film while concurrently analyzing changing American standards, treatments, and public conversation about mental health. He offers an optimistic look as he argues that the horror and hopelessness depicted by Poe, Gilman, Hitchcock, Farmer, Plath and Kesey have created the space for less voyeuristic and more nuanced and compassionate explorations of mental health. Nonetheless, the author concedes that the images of “loony bins”, “funny farms” and a grinning Hannibal Lecter will haunt the American imagination for ages.
This book would work well in undergraduate or graduate courses in Psychology, Sociology, History, Literature, American Studies, Communication and Media Studies and in Popular Culture. His book is thorough, wide-ranging, well organized and highly analytical. It will prompt great discussions in any class.