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Healthy Fears Episode 16 – It’s a Mad, Maddening World

Placing someone in a world that doesn’t make sense to them–that operates on its own, unpredictable form of “logic”–creates ideal conditions for comedy (Looney Tunes), absurdist fantasy (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)… or horror. Which can range from tales as impossible as Octavia Butler’s Kindred, to stories that are more terrifyingly plausible than some may realize, such as Kafka’s absurd nightmare The Trial.

Sources

Matt Robinson Liquefaction videos:

Brown, Joyce Ann, and Jay Gaines. Joyce Ann Brown: Justice Denied. Noble, 1990.

Cohen, Andrew. “The Man Who Spent 35 Years in Prison without a Trial.” The Marshall Project, The Marshall Project, 13 June 2017, https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/06/12/the-man-who-spent-35-years-in-prison-without-a-trial.

Korten, Tristram. “Is This Man Serving a Life Sentence Because of a Mistaken Identity?” GQ, 28 July 2021, https://www.gq.com/story/thomas-james-tragic-murder-case.

Tim Morris, Columnist. “Imprisoning 1,300 People 4 Years without Trial Is a Crime: Opinion.” NOLA.com, 11 Apr. 2018, https://www.nola.com/opinions/article_b23916f2-6a9b-57b1-8174-5a0bbbb06197.html.

WFAA, Against Their Will: Locked Away in a Mental Hospital After Voluntarily Seeking Help – Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSbTBtInUso.

Music Credits

The opening theme for Healthy Fears: “Dark Game Background Loop” by Claudiu D. Moga, licensed through Envato.

The closing theme for Healthy Fears: “Hitchcock Thriller” by JBlanks, licensed through Envato.

Other music for this episode: “Graves” by Arenas, licensed through Shutterstock.

Full Script

One thing that fascinates me–among many things–is when humor is mined from a horrific situation without really playing the situation for laughs, so to speak. Obviously comedy and horror have a history of comingling, to unsurprisingly varied results given the challenge of executing either of them well, to say nothing of the subjectivity of what’s considered scary or funny. Comedy can also complicate horror because, in my view, a horror story that doesn’t scare you can still be considered good, even very good or beyond that; a comedy that doesn’t make you laugh, or at least generally amuse you, however, has a much slimmer chance of being viewed favorably.

My simplified theory for this is, and this just my opinion, is that it’s easier for extended sequences intended to frighten people to be incorporated into important, meaningful story beats. Freddy Krueger terrorizing Tina to open Elm Street certainly unsettled me the first time I saw it, but there surely had to be some people who weren’t the least bit rattled by it. Nevertheless, it’s a crucial moment that establishes the villain and the nature of the threat right away. A moment like it would have to arrive at some point early in the movie to let us know what’s happening and what’s at stake. Even if you’re not scared by it, the idea of it might intrigue or entertain you.

You could also aim to unnerve audiences more so with atmosphere and a sense of foreboding, neither of which need impede the plot. With comedy it can be a little different. You can just spread the jokes throughout the story in a way that doesn’t really stop the action, but a lot of comedies, really good ones, don’t do that. I like the movie Friday, for instance, and it’s full of moments that don’t do anything to advance an ultimately thin plot, so if the jokes don’t work for you, there’s pretty much no chance it’s going to keep your interest. Role Models, another film I find funny, has stretches devoted to comedy that really press pause on advancing anything else; like the five minutes or so spent with the leads watching a video and hearing an introduction about the community service program they’ll be working with. If you’re unfamiliar with the movie, that sounds like it could be important to the plot, but I assure you it’s not.

But I’m a little off path here, so let me make sure I stay on track. The reason I’m even bringing up comedy blended with horror is that I find this to be an interesting, perhaps unexpected entry point to discuss an idea–and fear–that’s going to take considerably grimmer and sadder turns as the episode goes along, so I’m kind of easing myself into it. The aforementioned idea and fear is that of feeling like a sane person dropped into a mad, mad world. A world in which rules that make sense to you not only don’t apply, but the fact that the world is breaking those rules can prove hazardous or even actively hostile to your mental and/or physical health.

One place where I find this fear frequently exploited for comedic purposes despite the scenarios portrayed typically being terrifying circumstances, is on the YouTube channel CalebCity, featuring comedy sketches performed by YouTube personality Caleb Glass. I’m far from alone in thinking he’s funny, his videos routinely reach well over a million views. And judging by the comments–and I generally never recommend venturing into YouTube comments–but judging by some of the ones I have read on some of his videos, to see if anyone else was thinking what I’m thinking, I’m not quite alone in finding much of his material just a bit disturbing, even when it’s frivolous.

For instance, he has a simple, short, sketch that’s all about how bad it feels when you stub your toes. He overdramatizes it for comedic effect, making it seem like the character who stubbed a few of the toes on their right foot is going to die, before having them realize after a bit of time that it’s actually not all that painful after all. Again, simple idea, fairly relatable as we’ve all probably stubbed our toe at some point and felt that jolt of pain that makes it hard to think for a few seconds before it subsides. But then Caleb adds the odd twist that alters what is realistic and sensible. That relies on what we know is true about minor injuries and anatomy being suddenly, inexplicably altered. The character who stubbed his toes takes off his shoes and socks just to make sure his foot is okay…and finds that all the toes have come off. The fact that a close up shot from earlier showed that only a three of the five toes were even impacted doesn’t seem to matter. But actually it does matter because that’s the point. It’s looney tunes logic; or for a more classical and literary reference, Wonderland logic. The Cheshire cat warns Alice that that everyone in Wonderland is mad, including her or else she wouldn’t be there. It’s less an assessment of her mental condition, and more warning of what Wonderland invariably does to you.

Back to Caleb’s video, it’s meant to be humorous, yet isn’t really presented as humorous. Caleb’s character and the friend that’s with him are appropriately horrified when they see the toes on the floor. Okay, the toes are very obviously a sliced up hot dog and ketchup, so that element is going for laughs, but it’s not like the camera lingers on that nearly as much as it captures the anguish on the face of the injured, and horror on the face of the witness. And the root of that horror is that what they reasonably expect to happen is far removed from what actually happened.

As far as strange turns go, that sketch is relatively tame by Caleb’s standards. In another sketch, when he pulls a prank that accidentally results in a friend spraining their ankle, that friend’s foot seems to come alive, twisting all the way around and moving autonomously, stepping forward like it’s trying to escape the pain residing in the rest of the body, dragging its screaming, helpless owner along with it. In another, Caleb buys a wonder-cream being sold by via late night informercial. When he applies as instructed to his ankle, his foot unexpectedly falls off. Then his other foot, on the leg that he didn’t even apply the cream to, also falls off.

Stranger still is one sketch where a man sneaks into a rapper’s house to rob him, only to listen from his hiding space in a closet as the rapper recites a recently written verse… about torturing and killing a man who snuck into his house to rob him. The man in the verse has the same name as the robber. The man in the verse was found hiding in a closet, where the robber currently is. The man in the verse is said to have been left for dead behind the rapper’s couch. As the robber attempts to escape, he sees a body behind the couch… Wearing clothes that look a bit like his from what we’ve seen.

A commenter pointed out that the sketch plays out a bit like a ghost story in which a murder victim is reliving their death. As much as I like that idea, I still prefer to think of it as yet another example of Caleb’s characters encountering a horrifying, nonsensical situation they couldn’t have possibly prepared for. Again, his worlds often operate on Looney Tunes logic.

Which probably accounts for why I like the videos. Growing up, I was fond of a lot of the cartoons that often featured tormented, comparative “straight men” characters being foiled, terrorized and nearly killed by an illogical world. One character can quickly paint a tunnel into  the side of a hill and run through it to escape, but their pursuer will run into solid rock and crush their face if they try to do the same. A parachute cord gets pulled and an anvil impossibly comes out of the backpack. If you’re Wile E. Coyote, every product you buy not only malfunctions, but does so in a way that will defy logic, physics, or both in order to hurt you.

On a surface level this may well seem like an unrelatable fear. And in cartoons or comedy vignettes the situation is exaggerated to absurd degrees that make it far funnier than it is frightful. But it is something that many of us have felt at some time, on a more grounded level. Dare I say most of us. The concern that your basic, common sense understanding of how the world should work does not apply.

This can be a product of unusual or extreme natural phenomena. One thing we learn from the simple experience of walking and often falling when we’re very young, for instance, is that the ground is solid. Yet, a severe enough earthquake can make the ground move in waves, like it’s fluid. Under the right circumstances it can bring about soil liquefaction, a phenomenon in which the sturdiness of previously firm ground can be reduced to a sort of spongy, springy surface that’s a bit like a waterbed threatening to turn into quicksand. What this looks like in action can be observed on a much smaller scale in two videos posted by Matt Robinson, which I’ll link to in the show notes. When you get a chance to watch those videos, seeing Matt literally bounce on the strange, muddy, earthen trampoline he’s made, imagine trying to run through a field of such terrain. What happens when you fall? Partially sink into it? What do you do when the thing that we all walk on, that is considered synonymous with stability, without warning becomes almost as unstable as a body of water?

There are less directly threatening examples of naturally occurring anomalies that can nonetheless make one question their sanity or reality. The oddity of so-called “gravity hills” for instance. These are documented places where it appears that gravity flows backwards, in defiance of known science. There are videos online you can find of this, as well, employing no camera tricks or any misrepresentation, showing objects such as bowling balls or even cars rolling uphill from a still position at the bottom of the hill.  The reason for this being an optical illusion; for different potential reasons depending on where the hill is situated, what appears to be downhill from a certain perspective is actually uphill, and vice versa. Gravity is operating as it does anywhere else, but in the observer’s mind, it appears to be doing the opposite of what it should.

Despite the illusory nature of this being easy to look up and probably somewhat well-known at this point, many of these spots are still the subjects of local lore. Some are referred to as mystery spots; strange locations where other assorted aberrations of physics can be found. Others have ghost stories attached to them, as is the case with Richfield Road in Richfield, North Carolina, or in my city, San Antonio, at the railroad crossing on Shane Road. In both stories, your car will allegedly be pushed to safety by the ghosts of victims of a tragic accident. The invention of these stories and others highlight how strange things can get when we attempt to explain things that don’t make sense to us.

The idea of the reality becoming too bizarre to comprehend has been explored in fiction. In the short story “Something Passed By,” by Robert R. McCammon, as alluded to by the title, an unknowable force of the cosmos passes the Earth, and in its wake the laws of nature have been scrambled. Think of if the world were indeed a computer simulation and the code got irreparably corrupted. That might give you an idea of what happens in the story, but it’s possibly more bizarre than you imagine. Water becomes a volatile explosive while gasoline becomes safe to drink. Rocks fall from clouds instead of raindrops. Spontaneous human combustion isn’t uncommon, sometimes invisible forces called “gravity howitzer’s” crush entire hills, and the story’s protagonist lost his son when the boy’s bedroom became a pocket vacuum that found air abhorrent. He, his wife, some friends and neighbors, after some time, try to live life as sanely as possible when they can, having a poker night for instance. Anything to regain a fragment of normalcy, but the aggressive deterioration of reality refuses to allow this. Eventually the sun changes color, summer rules the world, and aging reverses for some people while accelerating for others. And what’s most unsettling about the story isn’t the chaos itself, but that people remain aware of just how chaotic things have become, and how much more chaotic they can get.

In some stories, the madness does not come to the character. Instead the character is unexpectedly brought into a situation where rules of reality are cast aside in various ways. In the short story “Adventures in Further Education,” written by Peter Atkins, a man cavalierly taps his pen on a desk for the 17,445th time, testing a “New Physics” theory first introduced to him years ago, when he was in sixth grade. He just wants to see if the solid pen will slip through the solid desk, as the teacher told him was, theoretically, a possibility with enough repeated tapping. It does, but it also does much more, ushering him into a world where the office he was just in has disappeared, and where, “Lightning in colors he couldn’t name seared across the infinite and multihued sky in jagged shards the size of which he couldn’t conceive.” Worse still, he is somehow seeing this despite having no eyes, which have disappeared along with the rest of his body.

In Octavia Butler’s classic novel Kindred, the lead character, a black woman named Dana Franklin, suddenly find herself transported back in time to the era of slavery in the United States, connected inexplicably to a seemingly innocent white child, who grows to be a slaveholder who is also her ancestor. Her travel is linked to the many times the man finds his life in jeopardy, or in other circumstances where she can influence fate to ensure her continued existence, but this tether only facilitates the kind of temporal predestination and paradox that, by its very nature, isn’t intended to make complete sense. What’s more interesting is that as much as this seems capable of driving someone insane if they dwelled on it too long, the story shows how much more taxing it is to one’s sanity to be thrown into a world where the standards of human rights you are accustomed to–that seem rational and reasonable–are not followed, and are even outright abhorred by those who dominate society.

A cartoonish yet threatening type of absurdity is one thing. A more science-fiction or supernaturally based irrationality is another. But these kinds of stories can be parallels or parables for more practical situations where someone is thrust into a ridiculous, seemingly unresolvable predicament. And even stories with plots that deliberately eschew reason, or plain and rational motives for its antagonists, can have terrifying similarities to real world events. It can be scary and disheartening to see how Franz Kafka’s story The Trial can reflect reality.

An ordinary man is accused of a crime and told to appear in court. He’s not told what his crime is. He’s given a date, but not the exact time of day to appear. He’s given an address, but the building isn’t recognizable as a courthouse. It looks like every other building on the street, in fact it appears to be occupied tenement housing, and when he goes inside he has to figure out which room is the courtroom on his own. After searching the building on he eventually happens upon the right room on the fifth floor. The first thing he’s told is that he’s an hour and five minutes late; again, he was never provided a time to appear in the first place.

This is just the beginning of the ordeal that Josef K. suffers through in Kafka’s The Trial. At this first “hearing,” which really shouldn’t be called anything of the sort, K identifies that a “huge organization” is behind his mysterious arrest, investigation and prosecution, and that it is rife with corruption and incompetence. He is nonetheless fooled, while speaking in his defense, into thinking that a number of attendees might be on his side and aren’t part of the organization. It’s not until he’s done with his speech declaring his innocence–for a charge he’s never made aware of–and admonishing the court for its persecution that he realizes he has no supporters in the room. Before he’s allowed to make his exit, a magistrate tells him that, somehow, K has now “deprived [himself] of all the advantages a hearing invariably affords a person under arrest.”

Related:  Healthy Fears Episode 13: Dead and Unburied

Even if you weren’t familiar with the general plotline and gist of The Trial before reading it–or if you weren’t familiar with Kafka’s namesake style–it wouldn’t take long for you to realize that Josef K is the target of a bizarre, meaningless conspiracy, which is uniquely evil because of how pointless and relatively mundane it is. Nothing extraordinary is at stake. K is not a man who knows too much, who accidentally witnessed the wrong thing, or who is even distantly related personally or professionally to someone who is a player on the larger political stage.

Nor is he a man who is particularly loathed by a wealthy, powerful individual, like Yamashita–far better known as Oh Dae-su–from the manga and more popular film, Oldboy. That character can at least eventually trace their unexplained, sadistic treatment to one individual from their past nursing an unusual and enormous grudge. No such nemesis exists in K’s life. His situation is possibly surreal enough to befit the kind of story that ends with the revelation that everything preceding it was a dying dream. But even that kind of far out, unforeseeable explanation is denied the character and the reader.

The Trial is not designed to provide a traditional satisfactory conclusion, not even a tragic one. It leaves us to draw our own conclusions and interpretations. When it was adapted for the big screen, for instance, the great Orson Welles envisioned it as a very dark comedy–and also an allegory about a man discovering his homosexuality. The latter is far too much for me to unpack right now without completely diverging from this episode’s topic, while the former harkens back to the comedic elements I covered in the beginning of this episode. Unfortunately, what I take from the story isn’t anywhere near amusing. I think it can be seen–in a much less allegorical, much more literal viewing–as a frightening example of authorities who refuse at every level to admit to a mistake, or even consider the possibility that they have made a mistake, or to care one iota about the devastating impact such a mistake could have on an individual’s life.

Whether or not K is guilty or innocent of the crime is immaterial to them. What the crime even is doesn’t matter to them. He’s been accused and they’ve set the wheels in motion to punish him, and this can’t be undone lest they appear too fallible for their own liking. Even when it comes to minor issues such as neglecting to tell him when to arrive, and where exactly the courtroom is, they can’t admit that they might have missed something, and instead blame K for being late.

A less surreal, but no less frustrating and frightening version of this shows up briefly in another story. In season 3 of Fargo, we see representatives of a totalitarian government, officers within East Germany under the Iron Curtain, arrest a man in his home for murder. His name is Jakob. The man they accuse him of being is named Yuri. Despite Jakob clearly not being the same person, something easily proven, the officer in charge insists on relying on the records available to him. A man named Yuri lives at this address, according to the records. Jakob is only man currently living at that address. Therefore, Jakob must be Yuri, and he is now under arrest, surely to be found guilty for the charge of murder. The film Fargo, of course, was made by the Cohen brothers, who are not strangers to the Kafkaesque horror–so absurd it can be seen as comedic–of an ordinary person plagued by the arbitrary harmful decisions of people surrounding them. Barton Fink is a terrific example of this. So it stands to reason that the series inspired by their film would also contain a moment that is a not-so-distant cousin to Kafka’s Trial. But my view of Kafka’s story is not only related to other works of fiction.

In the fifth episode of this podcast, titled “Fear of Being the Outsider,” I talked a little about the miscarriage of justice Joyce Ann Brown, of Dallas, Texas, suffered through. Much of what happened to her also fits the fear of feeling like the only person talking sense and not being listened to. Police latched onto her as a suspect due to her sharing the same name as the infinitely more likely culprit. Far more evidence pointed to the other Joyce Ann Brown who actually committed the crime. The identified getaway car used during the robbery and murder, for instance, could be traced back to her. When questioned by police, she admitted to having rented the car, then said she loaned the car to another woman, whose residence, when searched, contained a gun matching the type used during the crime, and even more incriminating, some of the stolen merchandise from the store that was robbed.

Nothing close to this was found at the innocent Joyce Ann Brown’s home. Not only that, she had an airtight alibi that her coworkers could vouch for, and that would have made it physically impossible for her to be at the scene when the crime occurred. Nevertheless, she was prosecuted and convicted, and as one of her defense attorneys put it while describing the possible mindset and motivation of the prosecution: “Criminal cases sometimes acquire a momentum of their own, and sometimes there’s an attitude that we find: ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts. I’ve got my mind made up.’“

Don’t confuse me with the facts? I’ve got my mind made up? I find it terrifying to imagine having my fate being in the hands of someone who has this train of thought. Unfortunately, Joyce Brown is far from the only victim of a system run by people who hate the idea of being wrong more than they care about actually getting it right. Or by people who don’t care about how ruinous a corrupt or broken justice system can be to the individual. People who are more beholden to inaccurate documents or grossly inefficient and deleterious processes than to simple reason.

I did warn earlier that this episode gets sadder and grimmer, and this is where I bring up the tragedy of Kalief Browder, held without trial for three years in one of the nation’s most notorious and violent prisons for allegedly stealing a backpack with some valuables in it. Something he was, again, never even tried for, much less convicted of doing. Nonetheless, he served that time, most while still a teenager, in the brutal environment of Riker’s Island. Less than five years after his release, unable to live with what he experienced while unjustly–unlawfully–incarcerated, Kalief took his own life.

Jerry Hartfield–bringing us back to Dallas yet again–spent 35 years in prison for a crime he swore he did not commit. What makes his case extraordinary, and a situation that fits this episode, is that for 32 of those years, he was awaiting a retrial ordered by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. They had determined that prosecutors had improperly dismissed a juror in his original trial, and required that Mr. Hartfield be retried. Bizarre bureaucratic miscommunications, inattentiveness, and an appalling lack of concern or urgency on the part of people who should have made sure the retrial happened, resulted in three decades passing before the state even acknowledged its error, and that Hartfield shouldn’t be incarcerated, and even then they refused to release him. The deciding judge, much like the magistrate in Kafka’s Trial, blamed Hartfield for the state’s own mistake. It wasn’t until later that the Court of Appeals finally admitted that Hartfield’s rights to a speedy trial had been violated–a massive understatement–and that the state was beyond negligent. He was granted his release.

The same is not true of Thomas Raynard James, convicted of murder in Florida in 1990. Thomas Raynard James did have a criminal past, but no murders, and regardless, there was no real evidence linking him to the crime. In court, while one witness ID’d him, another said it wasn’t him, while a third admitted she hadn’t gotten a good look. What should truly exonerate him, however, is that like Joyce Brown, Mr. James just happened to share the same first and last name of the man the police were actually looking for. That other man, who goes by Tommy James, has openly admitted that he’s the man police meant to arrest and investigate. This admission, along with other, considerable evidence James has cobbled together on his own through his two decades of imprisonment, hasn’t helped. He can tell this seemingly insane system what it got wrong, how it got it wrong, and how it can fix the issue in his case. He can shout that they got the wrong man and point out that the right man is willing to corroborate this truth, and it nonetheless gets him nowhere in the face of unmoving irrationality. As journalist Tristram Korten writes of Thomas James’ situation: “The singularity of this tragedy is that he found a way to discover an improbable truth and it wasn’t enough to get anybody’s attention.”

There are more stories like this that you could find. I would say there are a shocking number of them but it’s actually scary how little it shocked me to read one after another after another. There are over a thousand men in Louisiana alone who have waited up to 4 years for their trial dates. An estimated seventy or more have waited even longer. In Chicago, between 2010 and 2016, police  missed over 11,000 court dates, resulting in the right to a speedy trial being denied to some inmates for several months and, as we’ve established is all too possible, even years. Just for reference purposes, the number of calendar days in that 2010 to 2016 time frame: 2,556. 11,000 is more than four times that number.

Among the positives of the film Gothika–not exactly well-regarded cinema, but one that I’ll defend some here–is that it doesn’t spend much time misleading its audience into believing that the patients at the psychiatric hospital it is largely set within are the villains, or pose much threat at all. Not to single out my beloved horror genre too much, but it doesn’t have a terrific track record with respect to depictions of mental illness, often portraying any kind of mental illness, or neurodivergent quality, as a cause for or gateway to homicidal behavior. Gothika, starring Halle Berry as Doctor Miranda Grey, is imperfect in its depiction of the mentally ill, but it doesn’t try to get any real mileage out of presenting the patients as scary or menacing.

Distantly reminiscent of the infamous and momentous real world Nellie Bly investigation from 1887, Ten Days in a Mad House, the story here is more about the frightening flaws to be found within the institution. The situations aren’t strictly comparable, of course; Bly’s report found the patients in appalling conditions, living among rats and waste, enduring beatings from the staff, subsisting on spoiled beef and filthy water, bathed with buckets of ice water in unwashed tubs. So on and so forth. Bly stated she believed even a woman diagnosed as “sane” wouldn’t be able to maintain her mental state for long under such conditions. Reminiscent of the Cheshire Cat’s statement to Alice about Wonderland. You cannot come here and not be mad, the environment will not allow it. By comparison, the mental hospital in Gothika is positively pristine. Its issues aren’t visibly evident, but are nonetheless heinous

Abuses are taking place within the hospital, and the primary patient trying to communicate this, played by Penelope Cruz, has Doctor Grey’s sympathies, but not her trust or understanding. While Cruz’s character, Chloe, speaks of an abuser of supernatural origin, her attacker is far too human. Grey, however, soon finds herself confined to the asylum and followed by an angry spirit that used her to slaughter someone. The question, immediately, is why?

Ghost stories often make for solid metaphorical vehicles for the disbelieved, people who are told that what they claim they have seen or heard cannot be real. They are made to sound and seem confused or mistaken at best, and unhinged at worst by those who tell them their senses and mind have failed them. The skeptic in a ghost story is often placed in an unfair position, objectively, because the audience knows they are reading or watching a ghost story, so they know that this person is wrong, no matter how sound and logical the skeptic’s argument is.

Yet this carries over into reality. Victims of various crimes and abuses have been doubted or disbelieved simply because the people they try to report the abuse to can’t fathom that it’s even possible for the accused to do such a thing. A beloved, trusted teacher surely wouldn’t take advantage of a student. A man of the cloth surely couldn’t take advantage of the youngest, most vulnerable members of his congregation. A surgeon surely wouldn’t maim over thirty patients, or be allowed to keep his medical license for years and bounce from one hospital to another, continuing to cripple patients, despite overwhelming evidence of gross incompetence or malice on his part. Why, that would seem as unlikely as the spirit of the departed lingering to scare the living…

To a strictly logical mind, say that of a psychiatrist like Dr. Grey, the very idea of seeing a ghost would be as bizarre as spontaneously traveling through time, like Dana in Kindred, or living in a world where water is combustible and gasoline is potable, as is the case with the characters in the McCammon short story. Soon, however, her perspective shifts, and it becomes impossible for her to say anything that makes sense to anyone who isn’t experiencing what she is experiencing. She sees firsthand how what is considered sensible can be relative. By the end of the film she’s pushed to the conclusion that “logic is overrated,” a potentially arguable statement, but in the sense that logic is not inherently a substitute for what is just, also potentially valuable. Comparative composure and levelheadedness, especially when it’s just an artifice, does not automatically signal fairness.

In Steve McQueen’s film Mangrove, based on the true story of the attempted sham trial of the Mangrove Nine in London, there is a scene where the volatile Frank Crichlow is thrown in a cell following his latest courtroom outburst. The officers must physically struggle with him, but once they lock him inside the cell they regain a relative semblance of calm, especially compared to Frank, who is still fuming in his cell, screaming insults and demanding the men fight him. Without any context, from a distance, and a perhaps naïve point of view, it might be possible to see Frank as the irrational party here. But he has a right to his ravings. He is on trial for bogus charges that were based on confrontations instigated by racism that targeted him and others. As aforementioned, the trial is decidedly unfair, with biased judgements inhibiting the defendants’ ability to advocate for their innocence. It might have been more logical and sensible for him to remain calm in the face of all of this, but his anger and outbursts are justified. And as he paces his cell and shouts at the men who’ve placed him there, one thing he repeatedly asks them is, “What’s wrong with you?” And at this point, something close to a breaking point for him, he sounds like he’s sincerely asking. What is wrong with you? He cannot understand these men. What motivates them? What makes them do what they do, feel as they feel? How can they be at peace with their actions? What is wrong with them? They genuinely do not make sense to him.

It’s not that their actions or motives are literally incomprehensible. Selfishness, greed, envy, sadism, hate; any or all of these things could potentially answer the question of why they are the way that they are. Simple greed, for instance, is the speculated reason why the real world Millwood Behavioral Center would do what it was accused of doing: holding patients against their will, fraudulently diagnosing them with psychiatric disorders to prolong their stays, purely to increase profits. The more occupied beds they have at their facility, the more money they make. Somehow, though, this standard level of avarice employed by people who are supposed to be helping others with varying neurological impairments or disorders, feels like it must be a product of insanity.

As reflected in the fiction of Gothika, it’s not necessarily the person held captive–given a falsified or exaggerated diagnosis–whose mental health is in question, but the people who concocted or helped execute the plot to make someone feel as though they were losing their mind.

It’s dispiriting to say the least. And I know that trying to end this episode on a slightly less downbeat note is an entirely selfish thing I want to do here that still won’t get these stories out of my mind, or yours, but I’m just not going to feel right leaving it here. I want to look at another a story about this fear, of having a demented, unreasonable environment attack your mental and physical well-being. One that, unlike Kafka’s classic, finds its way to a point where the frightened and aggrieved might survive, and the ultimate sources of fear and injustice might find comeuppance. The 2003 supernatural horror mystery, Gothika.

 

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