On Being Sane in Unsane Places

On hearing the themes and films that have been seen to inspire, or, in some critic’s opinions, unspire the new horror film Unsane, it seemed to hold lots of potential interest for the Demons of the Mind project. But whilst the story and style of Steven Soderbergh’s latest does evoke 1960s’ films such as Shock Corridor (1963), The Collector (1965) and Repulsion (1965), it reruns and overlays elements of these films rather than updates and innovates. The opening of the film promises insight into the psychology of stalking and its traumatic effects, but the film and its antagonist distort into cliché psychopath territory and, most disturbingly, in doing so pathologises its victim Sawyer (Claire Foy). In this regard the film’s postscript ending is particularly uncredulous and offensive.

In committing a ‘sane’ person into an ‘insane place’ the film appears, initially, to be also raising questions about the efficacy of psychiatric diagnosis and labelling, recalling Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor, Ken Kesey and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962; 1975) even Ken Loach and Tony Garnett’s Family Life (1971), and the ‘antipsychiatric’ writings (Szasz, Goffman, Laing) and studies that inspired them. Specifically, the film recalls the Rosenhan experiment on the reliability of psychiatric diagnosis published as ‘On Being Sane in Insane Places’ in 1973.

Inspired by a lecture by R.D. Laing, Stanford University psychologist David Rosenhan and seven of his colleagues feigned auditory hallucinations in order to get admitted to 12 American psychiatric hospitals. All of the ‘pseudopatients’ were diagnosed with psychiatric disorders (mostly schizophrenia) and admitted to the institutions. Once admitted, they all then acted ‘normal’ and sought to be released, but had to accept their diagnosis and agree to take antipsychotic drugs in order to be released. Their stays ranged from 7 to 52 days, and the average was 19 days. The controversial experiment accelerated the movement for deinstitutionalisation and psychiatric reform in the U.S.

Unsane had the potential to revisit these questions on the validity and effects of diagnosis and labelling in the context of America’s escalated economy of private psychiatric care, medical insurance providers and the psychopharmacology industry, and the complicity therein. However, the film’s clunky dialogue makes clear that Sawyer is the second not first type of patient (those who definitely shouldn’t be in a psychiatric hospital rather than those who definitely should) derailing any more nuanced engagement with the nature and boundaries of ‘madness’ and the wider issues, including gendered issues, of diagnosis and labelling.

Unsane brings to mind the psychopath, female Gothic, and antipsychiatry films of the 1960s, but it didn’t provoke me to critically revisit them and rethink the issues they raised.




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