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Mind Over Pop Culture: The Snake Pit

The 1948 movie The Snake Pit casts a long shadow in the mental health profession. It’s generally considered one of the worst movies about people with mental health conditions ever made. But how bad is it really? Could it be as terrible as its reputation makes it seem? The answer is yes, sort of.

The Snake Pit stars Olivia de Havilland as Virginia Cunningham, a housewife in New York. When we first meet her, she’s delusional, believing that a woman in the park used to be a man, and she doesn’t recognize her husband when he comes to visit. We learn she’s in a mental hospital, under the care of Dr. Kik, who treats her as a special patient. Through electroshock therapy and her psychoanalytic therapy with Dr. Kik, we learn about her past with a previous boyfriend and her relationship with her father. We learn in flashbacks how she and her husband met, first in Chicago and then New York. She’s at odds with a jealous nurse who sends her up to Floor 12, the restricted ward. Eventually, through her psychoanalytic work with Dr. Kik, she goes into recovery, and is released from the hospital at the end of the movie, complete with a sing-along from the fellow patients.

This movie has a very paternalistic feel to it. Virginia’s relationship with Dr. Kik is very fatherly, and he is the one who decides what “being healthy” is. A large component of her health rests in her willingness to submit to her husband; in fact, her inability to do that is considered a pathological trait. Both the Doctor and her husband spend a lot of time telling her what she feels.  Dr. Kik is primarily concerned with her relationships with the men in her life. This paternalistic feeling extends further, to all of the nurses, who are shown as petty, jealous woman. Only in small flashes are they seen as competent medical health professionals. This fatherly feeling that pervades the movie was common in this era, and persists to this day in terms of therapists in pop culture. It also makes Virginia’s comment at the end, that she knows she’s healthy because she’s not in love with the doctor anymore, much creepier. (de Havilland did a lot of research for the movie, including spending time in mental hospitals and sitting in on therapy sessions when possible. She did a lot of work around the film to help inform people.)

Virginia herself has moments of realism and reflection. She’s a fully realized character, just a very weak one. She’s very kind to all of the other patients, except one she gets into a fight about cigarettes with. She stands up for herself in the restricted Floor 12, encouraging the other patients to stand up for themselves. She even says at one point, “I’m better, but I’m one of them,” when told she wasn’t one of the crazy people in the ward. At the end of the movie, she talks to another patient who has just checked in, reassuring the woman that everything will okay. She’s a compassionate, realistic person, and that helps make the movie more watchable.

So where did the reputation come from? After all, this movie lead to the widespread use of the term “a snake pit,” meaning a mental hospital or situation of chaos. While the term itself comes from ancient European folk stories, this movie popularized the term in the modern era. I didn’t see that in this movie any more than I saw it any other movie about mental health that I’ve watched for this blog. A lot of that has to do with when the movie was made. It is one of the first movies to show a patient in a mental hospital from their perspective (Hitchcock’s Spellbound was set at a mental hospital in 1945, but it was from the perspective of a doctor). The way the hospital is viewed, with the restricted Floor 12 descending into chaos and all of the patients either violent or in an active state of schizophrenia like symptoms, has been repeated throughout all of pop culture. It seems that any mental hospital scene in any movie is basically interchangeable, and most of their imagery comes from this movie. There are also claims that it led to reforms of the mental health system in a few states, but I can’t find any proof of that. In Britain, a warning ran before the movie warned viewers that the mental health system in their country was unlike those in the movie.

The Snake Pit was not as shocking as I thought it would be, but the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. The paternalistic attitude is one still seen by doctors treating people with mental health conditions, and the way that mental hospitals are shown here set the precedent for how the hospitals would forever be shown in pop culture. These are lasting effects from a movie that was trying to say something positive, I think, about mental health conditions. The history makes this movie worth a watch, but I wouldn’t set your expectations too high.

Next week, we’ll take a look at Jacob’s Ladder, a movie that looks at reality and how the mind perceives it. Have you seen The Snake Pit? What did you think?


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