‘Dark’ Batman tells us much about our attitudes to mental health

The Daily Star may win the award for ‘most predictable headline’ in the wake of the killings at the Dark Knight Rises premiere in Colorado – ‘Batman Psycho Kills 12’. Both the Mirror and the Sun referred to James Holmes as a ‘maniac’, as did the Scottish Daily Record. As with Anders Brevik and other mass shooters, the inability to find an explanation for their actions automatically renders them mentally ill in the eyes of the media. However, this ‘diagnosis’ does not remove responsibility in the traditional media narrative around mass killings. Indeed, one of the most interesting features of the Brevik trial has been that the prosecution, rather than the defence, has been pushing for him to be found insane – the defence are keener to demonstrate that he acted rationally as a result of the perceived threats of Islam and socialism.

The desire both to label and so understand shocking events like that in Colorado, and to see ‘proper’ justice done under the auspices of the law, rather than medicine, provides the basic ingredients for the conclusion of any ‘superhero’ story, and is especially prevalent in the Batman universe. Jonathan Jones asked, in the Guardian’s blog ‘On Art’, whether the Batman franchise inflicted a ‘sick universe’ on its fans, and although he clarified ‘I am absolutely not accusing the Batman comics or films of provoking this crime’, the very act of raising the question, and the term ‘inflict’ suggested that somehow the films were bleeding out into the psyches of fans. His conclusion, that the camp Adam West tv series represents the most ‘innocent’ and, by implication, ‘moral’ version of Batman, also implies that the modern iteration is somehow ‘guilty’. Of what, Jones does not say.

However, part of the reason for this change can be found in the more general development of attitudes towards mental illness. If mental health was though of at all in the earlier iterations of the franchise, it was either as an inappropriately medical approach to a failure of personal responsiblity, or as something which was not well understood, but which certainly shouldn’t be treated with inhumane institutionalisation and personality-sapping medication. Even Enoch ‘Rivers of Blood’ Powell supported the closure of asylums in Britain, and the process of deinstitutionalization in the United States occurred at the same time. Mental illness was not seen to be closely connected to criminality, and so the antagonists in series like Batman were ‘crooks’ or ‘villains’ – possibly psychologically ‘different’ to ‘ordinary Americans’, but not yet explicitly ‘mentally ill’.

This was all to change through the 1970s and 1980s (the period over which the Batman franchise became progressively darker). As the treatment of mental illness moved out of secluded hospitals which kept ‘the mad’ away from ‘normal people’, suddenly it became clear that sometimes people with a history of mental illness committed crimes. This led to the establishment in US law of the ‘guilty but mentally ill’ plea (in 12 states), which enables juries to find both criminal responsibility and the influence of a mental illness in the committing of a crime, ending the problems caused when a defendant found ‘not guilty for reasons of mental illness’ was free to go when discharged from hospital. The development of the ‘guilty but mentally ill’ plea occurred in 1975, only one year after the first appearance of ‘Arkham Asylum’ (then ‘Arkham Hospital’) in the Batman comics – even in the early days, the Batman franchise kept pace with, or anticipated, the issues raised by deinstitutionalization for criminal justice.

Arkham became more central to the Batman universe over the course of the 1970s and 80s, as well as closer to Gotham, featuring in a number of stand-alone comics and graphic novels in the late 80s and early 90s. The asylum is depicted as a stereotypical Victorian pile, full of long, narrow corridors, straitjackets and restraints, and is often the setting for exploring questions of how different Batman (troubled childhood, loner, costumed, above the law) is from the insane super-villains he is pitted against. This theme is especially strong in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth and Batman: The Last Arkham.


These twin concerns again echo and reflect broader questions about conformity and mental illness, as well as partly suggesting a nostalgia for the days before deinstitutionalization, when ‘ordinary Americans’ could be sure that mentally ill offenders would find themselves in an institution with a recognizably penitential aspect – in Arkham, there is little evidence of treatments like occupational or art therapy. In addition the continuity of the Batman stories makes it clear that, for characters like the Joker, or Bane, rehabilitation is not even a distant possibility. Medical staff do discuss rehabilitation, but this marks them out as naïve, and possibly soon to become a villain, as in the cases of both Jonathan Crane (Scarecrow) and Dr. Harleen Quinzel (Harley Quinn).


That this representation of Arkham has remained to the present, or at least the 2009 video game, suggests that attitudes towards mental illness have changed similarly little. If anything, the interest in Batman’s own psyche, emphasised in Nolan’s recent trilogy, suggests greater suspicion about possible mental illness even in those who seem to be ‘good’, such as the successful business man and philanthropist Bruce Wayne. While it is easy to blame mental illness, or the ‘sick’ influence of media for events like those in Colorado, it is more productive to realise that these influences do not go only one way – society is reflected in media far more strongly than media has the power the change society. We like to think that perpetrators of mass killings fit a nice narrative pattern, like Batman’s Joker, but the truth is that human beings are complex, and the line between ‘crook’ and ‘ordinary American’, between ‘nice guy’ and ‘psycho killer’ are so indistinct as to sometimes be invisible. Media can help us understand how our societies think, and influence some actions in combination with a plethora of other factors, but it can’t turn life into an easy narrative with superheroes and supervillains – a realisation the Batman franchise suggests may be dawning.


Diagram of the House at Charenton

Below is a plan of Charenton, the setting of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, as it was in 1836. Since the site was apparently redesigned in 1845, it seems likely that this plan represents the hospital as it was known to the historical de Sade and Coulmier.

I have also translated the key to the diagram, to make it clearer (and show how many ‘bathhouses’ there were). My French isn’t fantastic, so I’m sure some of this is inaccurate, and the major problem is the attempt to render Nineteenth century French terms for madness into idiomatic English for the Twenty-first. I’ve tried to get some sense of what these terms imply, but have provided the original in square brackets afterwards, so that people better at French than I am can come to their own conclusions, and tell me in the comments.

Many thanks to @miss_sobriety on twitter for bouncing ideas around about possible translations.

The hospital at Charenton

Plan of the house at Charenton [Charenton Hospital]

1. Main Gate

2. Porter’s lodge

3, 3, 3. Front courtyard.

3’. Passage from front courtyard to courtyard 10.

4’. Parlour above store rooms.

4. Four story building. On the ground floor, store rooms: on the first, a large hall, occupied by placid madwomen [aliénées tranquilles]: on the second, the director’s rooms, and a lounge for convalescents of both sexes: on the third, the bursar’s offices and some employees’ lodgings: the top floor is taken up with the big clock.

5. Four story building. On the ground floor, store rooms: on the first, the kitchens: on the second, the offices of the director, and those of the treasurer, and a room for the head doctor: on the third, the bursar’s lodgings (with a view of the gardens): on the fourth floor, lodgings for the employees.

6. Gallery which runs under the eaves of the third floor, connecting the director’s apartment to the dining room.

7. Stairs to the chapel.

8. Enclosed courtyard for the women, leading to garden 18.

9. Stairs by which one descends to courtyard 10.

10. Courtyard for madwomen who are scabrous, with a tendency to clamour [ordinairement agitées et galeuses].

11. Four story building. On the ground floor, a gallery which runs the whole length of the building, and onto which open the rooms occupied by agitated women: on the first floor, a corridor with rooms for women who are far out of their reason, yet calm [très déraisonnables, mais tranquilles].

12. On the first floor, a warm-room for agitated women: on the first floor, a warm-room which also serves as a work-room.

13. Courtyard for very disturbed women

13’. Courtyard related to the baths.

14. Isolation building for very disturbed women [très agitées].

15. Six dressing rooms [loges] and a gallery: above, a sick bay for suicidal patients [or attempted suicides – les suicides].

16. Bathhouse.

17. Dressing rooms [loges] for disturbed [agitées] women and a gallery overlooking the courtyard.

17’’. Warm-room.

18. Garden for placid madwomen [aliénées tranquilles].

19. Four story building. On the ground floor, a large hall for lunatics [les aliénées]: on the first and second floors, lodgings for the medical inspector, the chaplain, the warder, and some residents: on the third, a sick bay which, due to the uneven ground, is no more than one floor above the terrace: on the fourth floor, under the roof, is the women’s laundry.

20. The director’s personal garden.

21. Greenhouse.

22. Courtyard of the new building for placid madwomen [aliénées tranquilles].

23. Gallery.

24. Three story building. On the ground floor, a dining room, a meeting and work room, a dormitory: on the first floor, dormitories and bedrooms: on the second, two large dormitories.

25. Three stories, the ground floor with a gallery, divided into bedrooms: the same on the two higher floors.

26. Bathhouse, with a semi-circular dormitory above.

28. Terraces and gardens.

29. Courtyard used to store wood.

30. Four story building. On the ground floor, offices: on the first, the chapel: on the second, the dining room: on the third, a sick bay for placid madmen [aliénés tranquilles]: on the fourth, a dormitory.

31. Kitchen courtyard, separated from the garden by a terraced wall.

32. Bridge leading from the third floor of building 5 into the garden.

32. Billiards room at the height of the small bridge 32.

33. Bath courtyard.

[3]4. Four story building. On the ground floor, store rooms; on the first floor you find, at the same level as courtyard 33, a sick bay for lunatics, both those who are disturbed and those who are catatonic [les aliénés paralytiques et agitées]: on the second, a sick bay for those who are placid or only slightly disturbed [tranquilles ou peu agités]: on the third, rooms with one or two beds.

35 & 38. Buildings connected at right angles, with four stories. Along the middle of each floor, a corridor, on each side of which open rooms of one and two beds: heated meeting rooms.

36. Bathhouse.

37. Courtyard for maniacs/those in a frenzy [furieux].

39. Courtyard for those who are disturbed and incurable [agités et incurables].

40. Dovecote.

41. Building containing the pump which provides water for the whole house.

42, 42, 42, 42. Courtyard and promenade.

43. One story building: On the ground floor, dressing rooms and a gallery: on the floor above, corridor and bedrooms.

44. Heater for the first floor.

45. Heater for the ground floor.

47. One story building. On the ground floor, the bakery: on the first floor, which is at the same level as the courtyard no. 42, three dressing rooms for the most disturbed lunatics [les aliénés les plus agités].

48. Hayloft.

49. One story building. On the ground floor, the cowshed: on the first floor, a large sick bay.

50. One story building. On the ground floor, the pharmacy, and a room for four sick paupers who are not insane: on the first floor, the lodgings of the medical assistant, and the laundry.

51. Stairs connecting the medical assistant to the large sick bay [49].

52. Store rooms and workshops.

53. Farmyard.

54. Autopsy room.

55. Gardener’s lodge.

56. Sloping path leading from the front courtyard, under building no. 49, to garden 57.

57. Garden.

58. Lodgings for several employees.

59. A small pond.

P. Bridge crossing a branch of the Marne, leading to an island owned by the institution.

E. General sewer.

I. Island.

M. Isolated house belonging to the institution.

Figure 2 – New female quarters.

1. Gallery open to the country air.

2. Meeting room.

3. Two dormitories, each with a single row of beds.

4. Galleries.

5. Servery.

6. Room, furnace and apparatus for the baths.

7. Round pathway.

8. Corridor, onto which open the bedroom doors.

9. Bedrooms.

10. Lounge and dining-room.

11. Dormitory.

12. Lodgings for nurses, and passages.

In the middle of the courtyard, a fountain and a lamppost.

Source: Esquirol, Etienne. 1836. Des Maladies Mentales Considérées Sous Les Rapports Médical, Hygiénique Et Médico-légal, Volume 2, pp. 702-6.
Available here.

Bethlem Hospital Archives

I’ve recently discovered this excellent resource for the history of madness, or just for general interest – the online archive for the Bethlem Royal Hospital, otherwise known as Bedlam.

I came across it while attempting to verify the existence of a document called a ‘Petition of the Poor Distracted Folk of Bedlam’, supposedly composed by patients and submitted to the House of Lords. Although widely reported (including a reference in the book Personal Development and Clinical Psychology), the document does not appear in Bethlem’s archives, and as far as the archivist, Colin Gale, knows, it is a ‘phantom reference’.

However, even if the first genuine patient perspective of Bedlam dates from as late as 1818, as Gale suggests, the other materials in the Bethlem archives include case notes from the early twentieth century, and a list of admissions from the late 1600s, as well as other materials, many of which have been scanned with the support of the Wellcome Trust and are free to view online.