A couple days ago I posted an In Brightest Day about how pop culture likes to present mental hospitals as horrible, abusive institutions. Very rarely do I ever see them represented in a positive light, and I think there’s a reason for that. It’s easy to demonize mental hospitals for the sake of horror, and since mental hospitals have a bad reputation in the public consciousness, that horror can sink deep. After all, what’s scarier than a place that can hurt you under the false pretense of healing? Especially when no one else will believe anything you say because they also think you’re insane?
This idea, presented over and over again, discourages people with actual mental disorders from seeking help, and even more upsetting, many of these narratives are not even about people with mental disabilities. While this isn’t true for all of these stories—the villains in Batman do need help, and Niki from Heroes suffered from dissociative identity disorder—it’s certainly true for enough of them. Refusing to give the titular characters mental disabilities increases the horror aspect of mental hospitals. After all, it’s bad enough these hospitals can hurt you and no one will believe anything you say, but what if you don’t even belong there? What if you’re institutionalized against your will? Or for the wrong reasons? As such, the characters who actually are mentally disabled end up being erased from their own narrative.
Once again, Teen Wolf did this as well. Though Stiles was there of his free will, he did not commit himself for true psychiatric reasons. Additionally, the other big character in the episode “Echo House”, Malia, also doesn’t have a mental disability. Both Stiles and Malia are dealing with the supernatural—Stiles is possessed, and Malia was a coyote for eight years—and are not themselves mentally disabled. Though Malia should have a few disabilities from her time as a coyote, the narrative refuses to give her any, and though Stiles suffers from insomnia and sleepwalking, we in the audience are still supposed to view both these characters as not belonging in the hospital. After all, Malia was a coyote and Stiles is possessed.
We later meet another patient named Meredith Walker, and like Lydia, she’s a banshee who can sense when people are about to die. Because of this, we as the audience can once again view this character as yet another person who shouldn’t be inside a mental hospital. Our outside perspective allows us to know that she has supernatural powers and that she’s not suffering from something like schizophrenia.
While at the hospital, these three characters—especially Stiles and Meredith—experience abuse at the hands of one of the orderlies. Additionally, both Stiles and Malia are released at some point, and as they never have to go back, they never again have to deal with that orderly or the facility’s improper care. Though Meredith remains stuck at the hospital, once her plotline is resolved, she never appears again. And while it was nice to see the abusive orderly Tasered at a later point in the season, we never actually learn what happens thereafter. Did he continue working at the hospital? Did he learn his lesson? Is the hospital ever going to start taking better care of its patients? These issues are never resolved, because the characters who actually matter to the plot no longer have to deal with them. As such, the patients who are actually in the hospital for care end up marginalized. Making matters even worse, one of the patients we do meet, Oliver, actually has a disability—though the show neglects to expand on what it is—but he is made out to be a villain.
Supernatural does something similar in the episode “Sam, Interrupted”. Sam and Dean commit themselves to a mental hospital, because another hunter who’s gone there for help is rightfully concerned that there’s a monster preying on the patients. Thankfully, in this particular case, the conflict is resolved, and Sam and Dean don’t leave the hospital until the monster—a wraith that was eating the patients’ brains after drugging them to insanity, because really, Supernatural?—is killed. However, though Dean and Sam have their fair share of issues, they are once again people that the audience will not view as having any mental disabilities.
Additionally, though this episode features numerous side characters with disorders, all of those characters are either used as comedic relief or are killed by the wraith. One of those characters literally serves no purpose other than to be jailbait to the brothers. She randomly walks up to both of them at different points in the episode and kisses them. Sam actually has to tell Dean after his kiss that “he cannot tap that”. What she suffers from is never properly explained. Instead, her disorder, like all the other patients’ disorders, appears to manifest however the narrative dictates for the full comedic effect.
Furthermore, the hospital is somewhat neglectful of their patients, and that’s not an issue that is resolved at the episode’s end. When the episode opens, one of the patients is screaming for help as the wraith comes to kill her. Another patient sees what’s happening and also calls for help. The staff do nothing, don’t even take the whole twenty steps it would take to walk down the hall and just check what’s going on. First of all, the staff in this scene act as though just because the patients have mental disabilities, those disabilities are manifesting in a way that makes them scream. On top of that, even if that were the case, one would think they would send someone to go sedate the patient, so as to not disturb everyone else. Either way, the minute the patient started screaming for help, someone should have gone to check on her.
But alas, that woman merely existed to be killed so the episode’s plot could commence.
And of course, because this is Supernatural, the show takes extra steps to really be offensive. Sam and Dean—especially Dean, it should come as no surprise—are incredibly insensitive. Dean even refers to the hospital as the “loony bin”.
Everything in these and similar narratives others people with mental disabilities. They merely exist as stereotyped props for the plot’s convenience so the real heroes, the people without mental disorders, the ones we were told to relate to, can move on through the story. It tells us that people with mental disorders don’t matter, that we shouldn’t give them our support, and that’s a horrible message for a story to teach.