"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
It may be some quirky ideas
, the meddling of a Corrupt Corporate Executive
or other villain, having noticed something Invisible to Normals
, an attempt to dodge jail by getting a jury to call insanity
, or just a good old fashioned screw-up, but somehow a reasonably sane character undergoes severe therapy, often in an asylum
Despite their relative normality, they struggle to convince the therapists of the fact. And the more they struggle, the closer they get to lunacy itself, sometimes becoming indistinguishable from the others around them.
This can be a one-off, or a background for a villain (and in some cases may cause Motive Decay
), or a normal who's cut through the Masquerade
. If it's a main character, it's a good reason for writers to examine their motives through the critical psychiatrist's eyes, and see what makes them tick.
If a character undergoes this long enough, they may be "cured" of their "delusions" rendering them useless or troublesome
until their friends can bring them back, or they may revel in their madness
while doing what they did before, possibly with psychobabble. Or they may just end up Ax-Crazy
Different from a Cuckoo Nest
plot, as the asylum reality is emphatically real, and not in conflict with anything else that happens. Can be combined with Through the Eyes of Madness
See also Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook
open/close all folders
- Professor Milo from the DCU is supposed to have been committed to Arkham Asylum while under the influence of madness gas, and then failed to convince the wardens he was sane.
- At least two other Batman stories have used the same idea; in Batman Villains: Secret Files And Origins a man accused of murdering his family is locked in Arkham as an excuse for the story to give us a tour of the place, and Dr. Arkham gets the news that he was innocent just as he goes Ax-Crazy. In Arkham Asylum: Living Hell Warren White, a Corrupt Corporate Executive guilty of stock fraud, makes the mistake of pleading insanity in a Gotham court and is sentenced to Arkham Asylum, where the abuse of his fellow inmates drives him over the edge.
- Actually, it's a fairly accepted fact that if you aren't crazy going into Arkham, you're sure as hell crazy coming out.
- Batman has also taken advantage of this. He once put Ra's Al Ghul in Arkham with a prescription for heavy medication to keep him in check. He also did this to a black ops agent who helped frame him (Bruce Wayne) for murder on secret orders from the president. The last time the agent is seen he is ranting that he's not crazy, he's a secret agent who framed Bruce Wayne on confidential orders from the president. The doctors don't believe him.
- Todd Casil, from the Johnny the Homicidal Maniac Spinoff Squee! was sent to an insane asylum by the end of his series, despite being one of the few sane characters ever presented in the comic. It is implied he quickly escaped somehow, however.
- In "Out of My Mind," from the EC Comics title Crime Suspense Stories, a woman feigns episodes of violent insanity so that when she finally kills her husband she's committed to a hospital, where she plans to gradually "get better," and inherit her husband's fortune upon discharge. However, the constant ice-water baths and ravings of her fellow patients soon drive her to the brink of madness for real. When she finally confesses her ruse to her supervising physician, her husband's brother, he reveals that he knew she'd been feigning insanity the whole time and thus intends to keep her there indefinitely.
- In the Tintin book "The Black Island", Dr. J.W. Müller plots to send him to an insane asylum he works at, and inflict him a "special treatment" that will make him genuinely insane. And he implies it's not the first time.
- In the earlier book "The Cigars of the Pharaoh", Tintin actually is committed (he really wanted to commit two other guys who were under the permanent influence of a drug, but the Big Bad had a letter faked which claimed that Tintin was the mad one, and dangerous too. Oh, and that he would insist that it wasn't him but his friends who were really crazy.)
- In Alan Moore's From Hell, Annie Crook suffers a particularly nightmarish version of this trope after she becomes privy to certain secrets that Queen Victoria would rather keep under wraps. She's dragged to an insane asylum by Victoria's goons...then William Gull makes her authentically insane by surgically removing her thyroid gland, turning her into a gibbering lunatic who's fully incapable of spreading the Crown's secrets.
- Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day was definitely more insane after spending years in a mental asylum (attacking the psychiatrist) than she was before (merely believing in the Terminators). Although it is possible that her experience in the first Terminator set her a path which leads her to violence, including trying to blow up a computer factory. Based on what we see, it's clear that she was subjected to sexual abuse by the staff and other mistreatment by her therapist.
- The wonderfully quirky French film The King of Hearts, in which the madmen become the sane people in an abandoned, war-torn town.
- In Twelve Monkeys, the protagonist (a man from the post-apocalyptic future sent back in time to try to prevent an unprecedented disaster) can't function in modern society and is quickly institutionalized, where his claims of being a time traveler from the future don't really help. He spends much of the rest of the movie more than half convinced that his memories of time travel are just a fantasy.
- This is part of the premise of Quills, based on the real-life incarceration of the Marquis de Sade in Charenton Asylum. The Marquis' substantial wealth had allowed him to be committed rather than executed and to enjoy a substantial level of material comfort. But once the new administrator takes over and starts depriving the Marquis of his possessions and basically begins torturing him as a form of "therapy", the Marquis' mental state rapidly deteriorates.
- In the 1963 film Shock Corridor, written and directed by Samuel Fuller, a reporter gets himself committed to an asylum to solve the death of an inmate and (he hopes) win the Pulitzer Prize. It doesn't end well.
- In K-PAX, the main character "prot" claims to be an alien who is able to travel through light rays. Believing him insane, he is handed over New York hospital psychiatric ward. During the film he is revealed to have uncanny skills and knowledge, and also while under hypnotic regression he seems to remember traumatic events that happened to a man named Robert Porter. By the end of the film, prot announces it's time for him to depart from the planet, leaving behind his catatonic body. The film leaves the viewer wondering whether prot really was an alien who took Porter as a human host or whether he really is just an insane man whose catatonia is a result of being forced to confront his delusions. (The novel that the movie is based on has two sequels that confirm his alien origins.)
- Mob Boss Carmine Falcone does this in Batman Begins. After getting beaten up by Batman and found at the scene of a crime by police, he's facing serious jail time for the first time, despite usually being untouchable by the law. So while in jail he cuts his wrists in a fake suicide attempt, so that he will be taken to Arkham and can go for the insanity defense. He believes he can blackmail the head shrink, Dr. Crane, into backing him up. Unfortunately, Crane has concocted something that creates pure terror, and a dose of it leaves Falcone insane for real.
- In The Wolfman (2010), Lawrence gets locked in an asylum for ranting that he's a werewolf. He'd previously been committed as a boy, to help him suppress the trauma of his mother's death, because he'd been ranting (quite truthfully) that his father was a werewolf and had killed her.
- In Revenge of The Pink Panther, Inspector Clouseau gets taken to an insane asylum while Disguised in Drag, and tries to convince the cops that he's actually Jacques Clouseau, Europe's greatest detective. Another patient retorts that he is Europe's greatest detective... Hercule Poirot.
- At one point late in 'The Oracle, the attempts on Jennifer's life end up getting her put in the nuthouse. Granted, by the time the museum chase is over, she's in hysterics, so the museum guard does the only thing he can do for her at this point: call the men in white coats.
- Disney's Beauty and the Beast movie has Belle's father being imprisoned in the asylum because Gaston wants him out of the way so that he can try and marry Belle.
- Gabriel García Marquez once wrote a short story titled "I Only Came to Use the Phone", about an actress who, after a car accident, ends in a nearby mental institution to ask for a phone to call her husband but is confused for a patient and is interned. She tries to convince the doctors of her sanity, but she is systematically ignored and treated as another crazy. When her husband and her agent finally find her, she has been rendered totally insane by the mistreatment and must remain in the institution, this time for real.
- There is an interesting example in H.G. Wells' short story, "The Country of the Blind". The eponymous society believes that the protagonist, the Only Sane Man, is insane with his talk of sight, and thus propose to cure him by gouging out his eyes.
- One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (and its film adaptation) is practically the Trope Maker.
- If you're looking at McMurphy's side; on Chief Bromden's side it's almost a subversion.
- Fredric Brown's "Come and Go Mad" involves a character who had once believed he was Napoleon being returned to an asylum to uncover a conspiracy. In fact, he really was Napoleon, having been body-swapped by the real conspirators—red and black ants who have secretly manipulated all of human history. He goes mad from the revelation, is given electroshock therapy, and is sent home from the hospital "cured"—though in fact he now has the delusion that he is not Napoleon, but a salesman.
- Shutter Island (and its film adaptation) is based on this premise. Or is it?
- In Philippa Gregory's The Boleyn Inheritance, Jane Boleyn pretends to be mad to escape being executed for treason. Later chapters suggest that she, already self-deluded, has finally gone over the edge. To no avail, sadly, as the King has changed the law to accommodate her death.
- Susanna Kaysen's auto-biographical book Girl, Interrupted is an interesting exploration of this trope. It's debatable how mad we'd consider her today, but she was certainly adversely affected by her experience in the asylum, as were other inmates. On the other hand, it helped her get over her borderline disorder.
- The protagonist of The Serial Killers Club insists this isn't the case. After all, unlike the other club members, he hasn't killed anyone who wasn't trying to kill him. Of course, if any of them realize this, he has to bump them off, so his body count grows higher and higher as the club membership dwindles—and his thought processes grow more and more skew.
- The catch behind Catch-22 is that you can only be removed from flight duties because of insanity. Only someone who was sane would try to prove they were insane to stop being sent on missions.
- Played with in In Fury Born. After the attack on Matheson's World, when Allie starts displaying unusual behavior (on account of having one of the Greek Furies in her head), she is placed in a mental hospital. She then decides to play up her apparent insanity in order to hide the fact that she isn't insane, so she and the Fury can escape and start their Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
- Ana is The Glimpse, leading to the realisation that they are Not So Different.
Live Action TV
- In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Frame of Mind", Riker has a role in a play as a character whom this happens to, but then it turns into a Cuckoo Nest as play and reality start mixing, and Riker has to convince himself he's not insane. It turns out Riker is on a mission (which he's preparing for during the course of the play) during which he's captured by aliens who are using a Mind Probe; his fantasy is a coping mechanism so he'll keep his sanity.
- As part of a scheme JR Ewing had himself committed in Dallas; it didn't work out so well.
- An episode of Colditz involved one of the POWs pretending to be mad in order to be invalided out. Perhaps not surprisingly, after keeping up the pretense for months he really does go mad. This was an adaptation of a genuine Colditz escape. Unlike the fictional version, the officer that tried it both succeeded in getting sent home and was still relatively sane when he was.
- In Due South, Fraser goes undercover in a mental hospital in order to investigate a string of suspicious suicides there. He gains admittance via Sarcastic Confession.
- Monk episode "Mr Monk goes to the Asylum"
- Psych episode "Shawn, Interrupted"
- An episode of Stingray is featuring Ray on an undercover mission in a mental hospital after one of the doctors working there recruits him. As soon as he arrives he has to find out the she is actually a patient .. but her reports were true and he has to stop Russian spies from interrogating a scientist who is a patient there.
- On Smallville, in the appropriately titled episode Asylum, Lionel Luthor came up with a plan to have his own troublesome son, Lex Luthor, committed to a mental hospital and Lex's memory of the past few weeks erased via electroshock therapy, so that Lex would stop investigating his father's shady dealings. To that end, Lionel had Lex's drinking water laced with psychotropic drugs to make him appear insane. It didn't help that Clark Kent, while investigating his friend Lex's sudden strange behaviour, was forced to reveal his Superman powers right in front of Lex to save Lex's life. Of course there were no other witnesses, and when the Men in White arrived with the straitjacket and Lex kept insisting that he had seen Clark stop a car with his own hands, Clark had already fled, for fear that his secret cover would be blown and his powers made public, leaving Lex and the wrecked car. Clark later did his best to free Lex from the mental hospital, but not before Lex had been drugged with tranquilizers, had made an unsuccessful attempt to flee, was restrained, was nearly freed by Clark only to see Clark beaten up by several superpowered inmates with a fistful of Kryptonite, and was finally dragged off to undergo electroshock therapy. After which he was released, all his memories of what he had witnessed gone forever. Which kind of bit Lionel in the butt. He had, by this point, already spent some time investigating Clark to try and figure out the mystery surrounding him. He then sees a security recording of Clark visiting Lex in the asylum, where Lex admits to knowing Clark's secret - but he only sees this after he's had Lex given the electroshock.
- In Supernatural, Dean and Sam check themselves into an asylum (to hunt a murderous monster). Subverted by the fact that they actually begin to lose their minds. A wraith did it, and they get their minds back.
- Invoked in The Killing; Sarah is committed by the owner of a casino she had been harassing, who claims she was found threatening to jump off the roof. Their intention is to get her locked away for a few days so her cowboy investigation won't screw up an upcoming mayoral election which the casino has a large stake it.
- An episode of Threshold had a man who had been locked up in an insane asylum after killing his entire family when he was 12. After Threshold investigates, they discover that his family had been infected by an alien artifact, and given the circumstances, what he did was actually justified. His current mental instability is the result of having been in an asylum and on drugs for so long. He doesn't actually get released due to a need to keep up the Masquerade, but he is transferred to a better facility where he won't be put on drugs.
- A variant happened to Sierra's original personality, Priya Tsetsang in Dollhouse. She spurned the advances of a doctor, so he had her put in the asylum and put on enough drugs to drive her insane, then had her sent to the Dollhouse so he could hire her.
- In The Flying Cestmir, Cestmir's father is mistaken for insane and committed, because his son sometimes poses as him. Cestmir's adult form (caused by one of the magical flowers) looks like his father. Cestmir is a weird boy as it is, and with his cloudcuckoolander pre-teen behaviour, he just can't succefully pass for a sane adult.
- Supertramp's Asylum. The singer's protests against being called insane do nothing for him, as he is sent to an asylum, and by the end of the song he believes he's dying.
- In the uncompleted, web-released Ravenloft supplement Van Richten's Guide To The Mists, the chapter on outlanders (= people from other game-settings) has a scene in which a cleric from an outlander adventuring party pleads for his former comrade-at-arms to help free him from a mental asylum. Unfortunately, her therapy to rid her of her "delusion" that she'd come from another world has apparently worked: she refuses to help him escape, and expresses the hope that he'll soon be "cured", like she was.
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street:
- Johanna is sent to Fogg's Asylum by Judge Turpin when her plan to elope with Anthony to get away from the Dirty Old Man is discovered. The movie doesn't dwell much on Johanna's mental or emotional state, but the stage play has her playing up her rather Ophelia-like state during the asylum sequence.
- It's also revealed in the climax by Mrs. Lovett that Lucy Barker, after she was raped by Judge Turpin and drank the arsenic to try to kill herself, was sent to Bedlam House (the actual one) instead of the hospital, which, along with the effects of the arsenic, drove the woman quite insane, leaving her as the crazed Beggar Woman. And Mrs. Lovett knew about this all along, and didn't tell Sweeney about it until after he had killed her and recognized her just now. Needless to say, Sweeney does not take it well.
- In The Duchess Of Malfi, the Duchess's brothers attempt to drive her insane with the help of half-a-dozen genuine madmen. Done right, it's a seriously disturbing scene. But then, what do you expect from John Webster?
- Twelfth Night: Poor, poor Malvolio. Because he's a dark-clad, self-possessed puritan who frowns upon drinking and music, the woman he works for naturally thinks he's gone insane when he shows up wearing bright yellow stockings and obnoxiously flirting with her. Actually, he received a fake love letter that told him she'd love him better if he did these things. The servants who were in on the plot promptly chain him up in a dark room (the standard treatment for madmen back in the day) and mess with his mind by sending "the curate" (actually The Jester in disguise) to talk nonsense to him in the hopes of making him "sane." By the end of most productions, he's pretty much gone off the deep end.
- In Second Sight, the protagonist (and the Love Interest) is drugged to make them appear insane and loocked away to keep them from revealing a conspiracy (as they have Psychic Powers). Luckily they get better after the drugs have worn off. Unlike many uses of this trope at least one psychiatrist seems angry with the way the protagonist is treated (albeit because the drug used is experimental having been tested on monkeys, rather than actually believing that they're really sane) and can be heard complaining to the orderlies about it.
- In Sanitarium the Player Character starts in the titular asylum, even though he may not be quite insane.
- The Sims 2 fans created a Self-Imposed Challenge based on this concept, called the Asylum Challenge. The player creates an ill-equipped Bedlam House and fills it with inmates, only one of whom they are allowed to control— the rest run on their infamously inept free will.
- The Darkness II has a confusing sub-plot that makes it look like the protagonist is actually in an insane asylum and the events of the game is nothing more than his delusions. Revealed to be a Battle in the Center of the Mind
- In between BioShock and BioShock 2 during the "Something in The Sea" advertising campaign, Mark Meltzer calls Detective Benny Stango and tells him he's going to kill himself. Benny, who up to this point has blamed Mark for his daughter's disappearance and vowed to bring him to justice, freaks out and tells Mark to calm down as he goes to protect Mark from himself. However, the mental breakdown was a trick to get into Tollevue Hospital, where he could talk to Orrin Oscar Lutwidge, a man who knew information that Mark needed about Rapture. Benny was pissed when he figured out that Mark faked it.
- The DLC story for Outlast, entitled "The Whistleblower'', starts off with the player character getting thrown into the Mount Massive Asylum and also volunteered for the Morphogenic Engine Program because he sent an email out to Miles Upshur in order to blow the place wide open. Thankfully all ends well, however, and he's able to escape in the chaos when everything starts going horribly wrong for the asylum's owners.
- Corpse Party: Cross Fear opens with Kaori stuck in a mental hospital. Nobody believes her stories about the cursed school, and she's regarded as a violent patient for losing her temper with the staff.
- In College Roomies from Hell!!!, Marsha is committed to a psychiatric hospital for being Ax-Crazy (she is). While there, the doctors also convince her that her boyfriend Mike is in love with April (he isn't), and that he doesn't have a tentacle in place of his left arm (he does). Upon finding out this last fact, Mike issues the ultimatum "All right, whoever's in charge here, I wanna have a little chat about the nonexistence of my tentacle!"
- When Helen breaks up with Dave, in Narbonic, she actually remarks "You don't want to go among mad people." This refers of course to herself and her colleagues. Ironically, after reading the quote in context, Dave himself goes mad, exactly what Helen was trying to prevent by breaking up with him.]] She told him that he wasn't the one sane person in the crazy house that he thought he was - he was an emerging Mad Scientist who Helen had been studying for years to try and nail down what made Mad Scientists mad.
- Last Res0rt has the players attacking a ship that they later discover is an asylum to Deprogram members of the Church of the Endless. The Doctor in charge, Gabriel, is perfectly willing to accept that the players are "sane", except for Jigsaw, who's currently disguising her aura to appear Endless (and lacks the proper skill to change this.) This doesn't stop him from enforcing a 72-hour hold on the players, though — the only exception is Daisy, who has an advance directive that gives her a bit more leeway. Of course, given the show...
- This happens to Batman in Batman: The Animated Series, which lets him solve the Scarecrow's plot, but for a time messes up his mind.
- Fry in the Futurama episode "Insane in the Mainframe", and the same asylum pops up in "Bender's Game". After a security camera catches him involved with a bank-robbing robot, Fry is committed to "The HAL Institute for Criminally Insane Robots", which as the name suggests is a mental asylum for defective robots, where he has a surprisingly difficult time convincing the psychiatrists that he's sane or even human. The robot therapist tells Fry that because it's an institution for robots, and he's a patient there, then Fry must logically be a robot. He is allowed to leave after he gets cured of his "delusion" of being human. The asylum even has a robotic mad hatter. Played for rather dark laughs.
- In The Simpsons Homer gets committed after letting Bart fill out his psychiatric tests (which he was taking in the first place because he wore a pink shirt thanks to Bart putting his red hat in the wash). Shout Outs to One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest ensue.
- One episode of the would-be-a-cult-show-if-people-remembered-it series God, the Devil and Bob, Bob is arrested while painting over a billboard; at first the arresting officer ignores Bob's claim of "God told me to," but then the Devil starts an argument with Bob in the back of the squad car and gets Bob committed. One of the most touching moments on the show was when God came to visit Bob and all the other inmates could see him too: "The innocents of the world usually can."
- Happened in King of the Hill to Boomhauer. He fell asleep while intertubing and wound up in Austin. What happened was that he went around, in a speedo, covered in algae, while talking. He winds in an Mental Hospital for a Psych Hold. He calls Dale to bust him out, but Dale being ...Dale sneaks into the mental hospital to break him out. Problem is that now he can't get back out and the orderlys won't believe him. So they call Bill to get them out... Who then realizes he has a lot of issues and checks himself in for help. They then call Hank who is not an idiot talks with the staff and explains that Dale and Boomhauer shouldn't be there.... And that Bill's insurance won't cover his stay.
- Something of a Truth in Television: a well known psychology experiment is to send people to present themselves to psychiatric hospitals with minor complaints, drop the complaints after they've been committed and see how long it takes to get out. In 1973, the average was 19 days, and most were diagnosed with Schizophrenia. Snopes has more at http://www.snopes.com/medical/asylum/crazybus.asp. Of course, there's no way of knowing how many people get put away and are never revealed to be sane, and it's a very common legend... The participants in one of these experiments reported that they were only released after admitting they were crazy. Insisting they were sane made the staff insist on keeping them there.
- After the psychiatrist responsible for the study, David Rosenhan, published his findings, another psychiatrist who worked in a mental hospital indignantly retorted that Rosenhan's findings surely weren't representative of the profession at large, and challenged Rosenhan to send some sane impostors ("pseudopatients" was the term Rosenhan used) to his hospital. Rosenhan agreed, and a month later the psychiatrist wrote to him saying that he was fairly sure that several of his patients were impostors sent by Rosenhan. Of course, Rosenhan hadn't sent any.
- Reporter Nellie Bly was known for, among many other things, spending time in hospitals including mental hospitals, to investigate the conditions there. The full report is here
- Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, spent some time in mental institutions and taking psychotropic drugs as research for his novel.
- Italian author Luciano De Crescenzo told this story in his autobiography: He and a team of other guys were working at the film The 32nd of December. The location they were filming at was the park of Rome's biggest mental institution. The director advised one worker named Panciera to burn some leaves to create smoke they needed for a visual effect. Panciera sat in a ditch to avoid showing up on camera. When they had finished the scene, they forgot about Panciera and left. Half an hour later, two wardens found him. Following dialogue ensued:
Warden: What are you doing?
Panciera: I'm making smoke.
Warden: And why are you doing that?
Panciera: Because the director wants so.
Warden: Which director?
Panciera: Well, him of course! (Gets out of the ditch, to see that everyone's gone.)
Wardens: (take him): So, which director?
Panciera: Of the movie!
Warden: Of which movie?
Panciera: The 32nd of December!
- There's an ongoing story about a man who faked insanity to get himself committed, and how all his later attempts to secure release have been in vain. In an interview, one of the staff doctors argues just how sane could someone be to try and have himself locked up.
- According to a Radio 4 documentary, a diagnosis of psychopathy is especially hard to shake off, given that the first thing everyone knows about psychopaths is that "they look just like anyone else". In addition, they're known to be intelligent and good at manipulating people, leading doctors to be wary of trusting anyone thought to be a psychopath. As a result, there are violent criminals who relied on an insanity defense and ended up spending longer in psychiatric care than they ever would have in prison.
- Many totalitarian governments have reportedly dealt with troublesome citizens by slapping them with a diagnosis and shipping them off to be 'rehabilitated'. The Soviet Union even came up with its own made-up illness — 'sluggish schizophrenia'.
- One humorous example was a person was touring a mental hospital when an orderly pulled him into a group doing a walk. The person being Genre Savvy knew that they wouldn't believe him so he played along. It was afterwards when they did a headcount they realized that they had one extra person and let him go.