American Horror Story: Asylum Inspirations

Being no stranger to mental health issues, I have always been fascinated by how the treatment of patients has changed. This season of American Horror Story took us inside the happenings of Briar Cliff Asylum.

BRIAR CLIFF ASYLUM. Image from Briar Cliff Mental Institution.


The inspiration for the asylum was in fact Willowbrook State School, a state-supported institution for children with intellectual disabilities. The school was located on Staten Island in New York City, running from 1947 to 1987.

Though meant to be a saving grace for struggling families to send their family members; for the ones institutionalised, it soon became a place of horrors.

The facility, which was the biggest of its type in the United States, was only designed for 4,000 students; however, by 1965 it had a population of 6,000.

Throughout Willowbrook’s history, it was plagued with questionable conditions and even more questionable medical practices and experiments. Upon a tour of the facility in 1965, Senator Robert F. Kennedy called it a ‘snake pit’. He described that individuals in the overcrowded facility were “living in filth and dirt, their clothing in rags, in rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages in which we put animals in a zoo” and offered a series of recommendations for improving conditions.

After an expose ‘Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace’ in which Geraldo Rivera showed America the deplorable living conditions. A class-action lawsuit was filed and finally, the process had begun to shut the institute down though it would take many more years.

Beneath the story of neglect and abuse; however, there was one even more horrific. In 1955, New York University Dr Saul Krugman began using patients as human experiments for the treatment of hepatitis, as he would continue to do for about 20 years. The students would repeatedly be infected with hepatitis by putting the sample into patients’ food and chocolate milk.

The Inspirations For The Show

Lana Winters

Before Lana in American Horror Story, there was Elizabeth Cochran who was more commonly known by her pen name, Nellie Bly. In 2014, I wrote an article about her in lip magazine celebrating 150 years since her birth. It was in 1887 that she was given the assignment by Joseph Pulitzer to get committed to the Blackwell Island Asylum under the guise of insanity. Her investigation was published as 10 Days In The Asylum and resulted in a $1,000,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections as well as their recommendation of changes proposed by Nellie. Ultimately, this report brought about the end of the Asylum Blackwell’s Island.

DR. Oliver Threadson

Dr Oliver Threadson is another in a long line of characters that have been inspired by the crimes of Ed Gein. He was also known as the Butcher of Plainfield. Though he is only said to have murdered two people, it was what the police found in his home that was most disturbing. It was while looking for Bernice Worden’s body that they discovered that he had filled his house with human body parts, and even furniture made from human skin. When questioned, Ed Gein folded immediately. He told police that he had made at least 40 different visits to the three local graveyards to exhume bodies. He claimed that he had done so in a daze-like state.

Dr. Arthur Arden

Ripped straight from the headlines Dr Arthur Arden could be mistaken for Josef Mengele, also known as The Angel of Death. While Dr Arden was concerned with fighting TB, his real-life inspiration had a fascination with twins. The experiments he performed on twins included unnecessary amputation of limbs, intentionally infecting one twin with typhus or some other disease, and transfusing the blood of one twin into the other. Many of the victims died while undergoing these procedures, and those who survived the experiments were sometimes killed and their bodies dissected once Mengele had no further use for them. He would also sent thousands more to the gas chamber.

Kit and Alma Walker

Bringing the supernatural into the story, Kit and Alma Walker were based on Barney and Betty Hill, a real-life couple who claimed to be abducted by aliens in New Hampshire from 19 September to 20 September 1961. This was the first widely publicised report of alien abduction in America.

Grace Bertrand

Lizzie Borden took an axe
and gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
she gave her father forty-one.

Skipping Rope Folk Rhyme

Thus, the comparison between Lizzie and Grace cannot be ignored. On 4 August 1892, Andrew Borden and Abby Borden were both discovered dead in separate parts of the house. Lizzie ended up being charged with the murder, but unlike Grace, she was acquitted and lived out her life as a free woman.

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