I’ve written about this a few times before, but I tried to kill myself when I was fifteen. I didn’t succeed, so I had to go to a juvenile mental institution for observation. I was admitted for something like ten days and had to prove that I was mentally capable of handling the “real world” once I left. If I hadn’t proven myself, I would have been there for at least a year.
It was a co-ed place, but the patients were mostly boys with anger issues. There was one boy in particular who had a gigantic meltdown during my first night. As a newbie, I was forced to sleep with my bedroom door open for the first twenty-four hours I was there, lest I break a window to slit my wrists with or hang myself with a bed sheet, but I digress. I heard him screaming down the hall for at least two hours before they put him in one of the padded rooms. I got up to go to the bathroom and remember seeing his eyes through the tiny window. I was quickly ushered back into my room, but the screaming didn’t stop until they took him away. Where, I don’t know. I found out from another patient that he had managed to yank two nails out of the padded room walls and stabbed himself all over his body.
Ten or so years later I started working at Whole Foods. Customer service is its own form of hell and madness, but one of the most infuriating aspects of the job, as a woman, is your vulnerability to the people around you. You are always expected to be ready and available to the needs of your customers, even if they’re telling you horrible, harassing things or even requesting something as personal as a smile from you. I can’t tell you how many times male customers (and random men on the street) would ask “Why don’t you smile? Can’t you smile for me?” There’s this sickening expectation of women to always be social, always be happy, always ready to please. When they’re not, they should be out of sight and out of mind. In cinema, sad women are usually shuffled off to quiet, remote places like mental institutions so they can be groomed for society’s watchful eye yet again.
I think about that boy and my brief stay at the hospital every time I watch John Carpenter’s The Ward. It’s impossible for me not to. Many movies have been made about personal experiences inside mental institutions, but I think The Ward captures what I lived through best. Most of the time it’s eerily still and quiet inside the hospital. Everybody is generally too involved in their own problems to really interact with the other patients. However, the sterility can be overwhelming – it’s a blanket of white when the space inside your head is filled with color and drama. They clash terribly. Sometimes you can’t help flying off the handle and screaming at another patient. Anything to make the snow seem more colorful and alive.
In The Ward, Alice (Mika Boorem) wants to escape, but not from the hospital in which she’s housed. She wants to be inside that cold, lifeless environment. She’s had enough color and drama for one lifetime, so she separates herself and her mind into fragmented pieces, different women, who can manage the difficulties and feelings for her. Their names are Emily (Mamie Gummer), Zoey (Laura-Leigh), Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), and Kristen (Amber Heard). Kristen is the new gal on the block, the fighter and survivor of the group. She doesn’t know about Alice’s intentions and tries to battle her ghost to protect the other girls from the mysterious presence that’s out to destroy them.
One of the greatest things about John Carpenter is that he’s a filmmaker who believes in equality. He’s known for being a horror and action guy, but he’s not known for making only movies about dudes or only movies about women. It’s pretty much 50/50. He’s made quite a few women’s pictures in his day – Halloween, Someone’s Watching Me, The Fog, Starman, Village of the Damned, and Ghosts of Mars all contain some of the traditional tropes of classic women’s pictures. Halloween is about a young woman struggling to find her identity and sexuality, The Fog looks at the complex power dynamics between women in a small coastal town, and Village of the Damned outright questions the fundamentals of motherhood. The bottom line is John Carpenter is careful with, and respectful of, women. He would never put his female characters in a position, either narratively or aesthetically, to be senselessly victimized or fetishized. That’s just not his style. He uses his all-important 2.35:1 to empower his cinematic ladies.
Classic women’s pictures (Now, Voyager, Mildred Pierce, Stella Dallas) rarely had the luxury of space. They had to empower their female characters through delicate and considerate body framing and positioning in the full-screen format, which usually occurred indoors, and through dialogue and fucking great storytelling. Carpenter, on the other hand, does have the advantage of space, does have the advantage of showing full bodies in wide open places (in addition to good dialogue and storytelling). When we think of Carpenter, we might typically think of Kurt Russell walking around the vast openness of Antarctica in The Thing or maybe James Woods strutting through one of the desert landscapes in Vampires. But his female characters are also granted the same privilege. How amazing is it to see Natasha Henstridge dominate the Martian frontier in Ghosts of Mars or watch Karen Allen trek through the hot Arizona sands in Starman? Carpenter’s women are the cowboys and heroes of their narratives. They’re allowed to explore, conquer and save the day because they have the cinematic space and freedom to do their jobs and complete their tasks.
This is very important in understanding why The Ward is such a special movie. Many other films about women in psychiatric hospitals are either ambivalent about the use of space inside their movies (Girl, Interrupted, Sucker Punch) or try to make the environment seem as claustrophobic and maddening as possible (The Snake Pit, Bedlam). It seems natural to want to escape. The hospital in The Ward, however, never feels constricting in its non-horror moments. The camera moves and glides along the corridors and lobbies to make the space feel as open and clear as possible. It suggests freedom when there’s really none to be found. It’s still an icy and bland place with eyes watching you all the time, but it’s the safe and secure locale Alice’s personalities have designed to thrive in. The movie’s heroine, Kristen, only tries to escape because she wants to protect herself and the other personalities from being terminated.
The first time I saw The Ward I was a little perturbed at the ending. The split personalities make sense, but why would anyone try to eliminate them from Alice’s brain? They’re the natural safeguards she invented to protect herself from the trauma she survived. If she’s not hurting anyone, including herself, then what’s the harm in trying to let her sort out what happened alone? In her own way? Surely burning down an abandoned house full of terrible memories can’t be such a bad thing if it offers her some of the closure she needs to become a stronger person. Can it?
By forcing Alice to face reality through the use of horrible drugs and inhumane shock therapy, her doctors, nurses, and parents are pushing and squishing her psyche into doing something completely unnatural. Why try to normalize Alice when she’ll never, and I mean, never be normal again? Even with drugs and psychiatric help for the rest of her life? It’s impossible. When the clear-headed Alice appears, it’s the first time in the movie she really seems boxed-in and engulfed by her environment and the demons around her. She’s pushed down against her hospital bed, the bars from the windows close in and tighten while her parents and the doctor and nurse look down on her. Alice has finally been captured, captured by prescription pills and society’s desire for her to be another one of those cheerful, plucky girls with no problems again.
This imprisonment is short-lived, however, When Kristen jumps out of the medicine cabinet during the last shot of the movie, it means Alice hasn’t given up on herself yet. She still wants Kristen and her imagination to fight on her behalf. To slay the dragons of normalcy and western medicine. She’ll smile when she’s ready to smile.