Narrative Portraits of Asylums: The Contested Authorship of Mental Illness and Psychiatric Healthcare in Contemporary Legend

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Date
2019-07
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[Bloomington, Ind.] : Indiana University
Abstract
Contemporary legends portraying brutal medical treatments, inhumane living conditions, abusive caretakers, and dangerous patients surround numerous derelict psychiatric institutions. These narratives illuminate, reinforce, and sometimes challenge mainstream conceptions of mental illness and mental health care, thus providing insight into the role of narrative in the construction, maintenance, and negotiation of stigmas and stereotypes. My dissertation examines contemporary legends—narratives set in the world as we know it that chronicle plausible, yet improbable events—presently circulating about abandoned psychiatric hospitals that have closed as the result of deinstitutionalization, a movement which saw the gradual transition away from long-term institutional health care for the mentally ill to short-term outpatient care. From January 2014 to November 2017, I conducted more than thirty interviews with individuals who have knowledge of asylum legend traditions; engaged in participant-observation on numerous supernatural-themed events that market and employ contemporary legends at six different abandoned asylums in the United Kingdom and United States; consulted media reports, hospital records, and oral histories from the former staff and patients of those same six institutions; and collected an abundant corpus of legend texts from university archives, websites, blogs, forums, social media sites, and published collections of ghostlore about abandoned hospitals. Drawing from this ethnographic and archival research, I argue that asylum legends provide a medium for publics to collectively engage in a dynamic process of (re)living asylums in order to discursively negotiate what mental illness is, how mental illness is caused, and how it should be treated. Further, by analyzing the contestation and reconstruction of asylum history through contemporary legend, I advance an understanding of how individuals and communities cope with the challenges of mental illness and the uncertain future of mental health care.
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Thesis (Ph.D.) - Indiana University, Department of Folklore & Ethnomusicology, 2019
Keywords
folklore, contemporary legend, mental illness, madness, psychiatric institutions, deinstitutionalization
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Doctoral Dissertation