Prisons of the Body, Prisons of the Soul: Containment and Anti-Psychiatry in Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor

Shock Corridor (1963)Continuing our Prisons of the Body, Prisons of the Soul series, Christina Newland looks at the idea of containment in Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963).

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies?”
– Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

Samuel Fuller’s 1963 cult feature Shock Corridor opens with a foreboding quote: “Whom God wishes to destroy… He first makes mad.” It’s an easily forgotten introduction in a film stuffed with theatrical pulp of the highest order. Certainly, it’s ‘ripped -from- the- headlines’ sensibility make the previous decade’s noirs look tame in comparison. The titular corridor, it turns out, is located in a psychiatric institution where a homicide has occurred. Ambitious journalist Johnnie (Peter Breck), desperate to win a Pulitzer Prize, decides to go ‘undercover’ at the asylum to learn the killer’s identity. Against the better judgement of his stripper girlfriend Cathy (an always memorable Constance Towers), Johnnie convinces her to pose as his put-upon sister, who must then claim he is pursuing her with aggressive sexual advances. Labelled a deviant, Johnnie is placed in the psychiatric ward.

Once inside the institution, a frightening place in heavily stylised chiaroscuro where blank-eyed patients wander the corridor, Johnnie encounters a trio of patients, each representing an ailment in wider American society. One, a veteran of the Korean War, was brainwashed by Communists and branded a traitor; he now believes himself to be a heroic Confederate war hero. Another was once an eminent nuclear physicist, so disturbed by his contribution to the bomb that he has reverted to the mental state of a small child. The third, most unsettlingly, is one of the first black students integrated into a white Southern university. Unable to shoulder this burden, he has become a virulent KKK supporter, driving the other patients into a white supremacist frenzy.

As beloved as he was by the French Cahiers critics, Fuller has been re-evaluated and addressed enough for the central metaphor of Shock Corridor to seem clear; America as mental asylum, and the institution as an untenable microcosm of a sick society. Although Fuller often uses psychoanalysis as fashionable justification for some of his more lurid excesses, it proves interesting to look at Shock Corridor through the prism of anti-psychiatry. Two of the leading proponents of the movement were cultural theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who wrote that psychiatry was a tool for the suppression of dissent and the aim of social control. They argue for madness as sort of revolutionary force in their work ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’: ‘As to those who refuse to be oedipalized in one form or another […] the psychoanalyst is there to call the asylum or the police for help. The police on our side! Never did psychoanalysis better display its taste for supporting the movement of social repression, and for participating in it with enthusiasm’.

To some extent, Shock Corridor seems to express the logic of anti-psychiatry. Johnnie’s encroaching madness may imply that in the spiritual and social insanity of American life, the ‘madness’ of the mental patient may be the last bastion of sanity in the nation. Johnnie wins the battle and loses the war; in the end, he gets his Pulitzer Prize, but at the steep cost of his own sanity. As J. Hoberman writes, ‘America 1963 was so sick that […] the hero has to be crazy to solve the mystery, or even want to.’

To return to the film’s opening quote: “Those who God wishes to destroy… he first makes mad.” One is not simply mad, but made to be so, by some vindictive higher power. As Deleuze and Guattari suggest, perhaps madness is merely a label designed to identify subversive behaviour and to then remove it from the body politic. If a nation seeks to destroy its political and social enemies, making them appear insane is an excellent way of doing so.

With the early Sixties atmosphere being one of intensified paranoia, the prevailing political theories involved rooting out and separating recognised threats.  Foremost in America’s Cold War foreign policy were the domino theory and ‘containment’ – designed to contain the spread of Communism from nation to nation across Europe and Asia. The metaphorical link between political ideology and disease was couched in this language frequently, as the very term containment suggests.  Homosexuality – along with other sexual practices and orientations then deemed as mental health disorders – were often linked to political deviancy. If political belief and sexual orientation could be diseases, so too could be war, the nuclear bomb, and racial segregation. Through the men represented in the psychiatric institution, Fuller intelligently invites comparison between the real insanity of Cold War society and the apparent insanity of those locked away from that society.

Although the film seems to hold a mirror to the turmoil of its age, Fuller is much too freewheeling to feel serious-minded or didactic. His madcap sensationalism might seem tough to reconcile with the apparent gravity of Shock Corridor‘s aims. Once a tabloid journalist, Fuller exhibits a love for the bizarre and the lurid, from Constance Towers’ strange feather boa-bedecked striptease to gangs of roving ‘nymphomaniacs’ ready to attack unsuspecting men. With its tight close-ups of anguished faces, Dutch tilts, and eerie lighting courtesy of The Night of the Hunter DP Stanley Cortez, Shock Corridor maintains its foremost status as a pulpy noir melodrama. Nonetheless, it is one with sometimes radical impulses.

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