“Uneasy Threshold”: The Snake Pit (1948), Shock Treatment and a Straitjacket for Female Aspiration

I had misgivings about screening The Snake Pit (1948) as part of a festival of gothic films that included chestnuts such as The Cat and the Canary and The Old Dark House, many of which, for all their darkness, make light of mental health.  Aside from the plot to deprive Annabelle West of her millions by robbing her of her senses (The Cat and the Canary) and the miasmic madness of the Femms (The Old Dark House), there is cuckoo Miss Bird, in The Uninvited, collecting pebbles like eggs in a basket.  There are the convalescent servicemen in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, whose nervous breakdowns are trivialised as ticks and foibles.  And there is psychoanalysis surrealised in the romance of Secret beyond the Door.  

By comparison, The Snake Pit, which is set in a mental institution, aims to deal seriously with mental disorder and health practitioners’ at times disorderly approaches to it.  To call such a film “gothic” – or to place it in the context of the modally gothic – may seem insensitive and insulting.  After all, ever since Vasari called medieval architecture “gothic,” the term has generally been used pejoratively, denoting products of culture that are beyond, and thus beneath, the grand narrative of the Enlightenment – beyond truth, beauty, and “all ye need to know.”

And yet, by choosing The Snake Pit as the concluding entry in my festival Uneasy Threshold – which explored non-genre gothic films that prominently feature houses as contested territories – I aimed to explore just how far that term may be stretched until it loses whatever elastic usefulness it might have when defining and describing certain or uncertain aspects of narrative film (such as imagery, cinematography or costume design) and film narrative.

Different treatment, same old story

Academics engaging with the gothic tend to draw attention to the challenges and perils of such an engagement, in part to cast themselves in the role of intrepid explorer by insisting on the treacherousness of the path they do not fear to tread.  It is a postmodern move as well to create a scholarly persona only to tear it off and examine it as if it were some uncanny other.  

Ushering us into her study Gothic Contemporaries (2012), for example, Joanne Watkiss performs the part of an educator who is taught by a student asking her “is there such a thing as the contemporary Gothic?” to question her subject:

I hesitated before I answered, because I realized this was an impossible question to answer.  For starters, there is no such thing, entity or body of work, delineated as the contemporary Gothic.  So his question raised all kinds of other interesting questions: was there such a thing as the Gothic in the first place? If so, where and when was the Gothic? Has it been and gone? Can it be located within a specific time frame? Impossible.  How can limits be place upon concepts that frustrate those very limits?

Her “convoluted answer” to the student’s question was “that the Gothic has never been a genre to define,” and that that is “certainly the current critical consensus – a move, as outlined by Catherine Spooner, ‘towards understanding Gothic as a set of discourses rather than simply as a genre.’”

As Watkiss acknowledges, that conclusion, such as it is, has already been reached, which raises the question: why claim having been challenged or perplexed when the answer is argued to be so obvious? Besides, the student’s question has not been answered, as the question was not whether the gothic is a genre but whether it is “a thing” – meaning, I presume, a subject, something to go on about.

My response to the student, fictive or otherwise, would have been: what is your understanding of “gothic”? And would you prefer I use lower case for that word, being that it is not a genre? Undeterred by the copyeditors of a book chapter on the “Gothic of Audition” who insisted I use upper case consistently, I am making a case for the modality of gothic by using lower case.

The gothic mode is a questioning of the conventionalising of purported wisdom, of classifications, of the tyranny of systems, and of the false sense of clarity achieved by staying clear of – disregarding, discarding, or else deforming and reforming – whatever does not fit the picture as framed.  In The Snake Pit, the pendulum swings from realism to romance, from therapy to terror, from civilisation to barbarism; but, to those receptive to its weight, its trajectory is the equilibrium-defying gothic.

The snake pit metaphor in Ward’s novel and the screen adaptation by Frank Partos

As Lindsay Hallam observes in her notes on the film, The Snake Pit shows the “grim reality” of therapy by “employing techniques more commonly associated with Gothic horror.” For instance, in the scene in which Virginia Cunningham, played by Olivia de Havilland, receives her

first electro-shock treatment the hospital becomes akin to a torture chamber or a Gothic pile, full of evil villains and threatening devices.  This is further emphasised through the prevalence of high-angle shots looking down on Virginia and the other patients, accentuating their powerlessness and vulnerability and making the medical staff and the hospital itself into menacing figures.

Aside from the visualisation of the titular Pit, a teeming abyss in which women are locked up, as Virginia remarks, like “animals” in a “zoo,” and in which authority figures such as a jealous, vindictive nurse and a repugnant doctor, stand in for the monks and sisters encountered in the fictions of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, what makes Anatole Litvak’s film a candidate for the gothic – as experienced by me – is its insistence on its own allegedly good intentions: it is gothic in spite of itself.

Virginia Cunningham, a writer who suffered a nervous breakdown, endures shock treatment and straitjacket so that, upon release, she may once again function as wife to a husband she has quite forgotten.  “I have no husband,” she insists, remembering only the name she had before marriage, and the system is devoted to disabusing her of that notion.  “Let me go. Don’t touch me,” Virginia screams when her husband, visiting her in the Pit, tries to take hold of her.  “No, you can’t make me love you! You can’t make me belong to you! You can’t!”

Women can be doctors in 1940s Hollywood movies: provided they cure the emasculated male

The Snake Pit, like so many Hollywood films, aims to convince us that he not only can but must, for her own good.  Post-Second World War Hollywood, with its codes and prejudices, its blacklist and censorship, its narrative straitjackets and Christian cover stories is as gothic a structure as any house capable of haunting us with our pasts.

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