The Cultural Fear of Insanity. ~Cora

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”

~Albert Einstein


A cultural fear is something that society fears as a whole. Society does not know how to cope with something so they fear it. One of these cultural fears is the fear of insanity. Over time, the mentally insane have been dealt with in different ways. The insane have large effects of the people around them and themselves. They are usually sent away because society does not know how to control or deal with them, making them a cultural fear.

Two books that exhibit the mentally insane are; The Yellow Wallpaper, and The Turn of the Screw. In The Yellow Wallpaper a woman is in therapeutic isolation, because of a sickness she contracted, and being alone all the time eventually drove her mad. In The Turn of the Screw, a young governess goes insane and starts to see things, and eventually ends up killing one of the children she is taking care of.

Insane people have an effect on the people around them and themselves, and this is why it is a cultural fear. Society will not conform to them so they are taken out of normal society.


What the general populace thinks:

In the 17th and 18th centuries, mental patents were viewed as possessed by the devil, or that they were bewitched. The treatment of these people was far less than inadequate, and inhumane. They were often restrained with heavy ball and chain, or strength jackets. Treatment was usually therapeutic isolation, which was meant to calm the patents so they could collect their wits. The insane were generally places in prisons or asylums, which was almost the same thing in that time. After the asylum reform mental patients were treated much better. They practiced much safer forms of rehabilitation that did not cause harm to the patent.

What the scholarly think:

Early insanity treatment was inhumane and harsh. The mentally ill were put into prison-like hospitals and were often beaten into submission. They were poorly cared for and often went without clothes or food. They were crowded and the hospitals were extremely overpopulated. They were usually restrained in some way, with things like a ball and chain or a strength jacket. “Treatments” used were usually things like therapeutic isolation and sensory deprivation. After the reform of the asylums, led by Dorthea Dix, asylums in America had much better conditions, and asylums in England were starting to reform as well.

Insanity as seen in books:

The Yellow Wallpaper is written in the point of view of a woman who goes insane. She was placed in therapeutic rest by her husband, who was a doctor, because she had been sick and he wanted her to get better. She eventually went insane, according to her because of the hideous yellow wallpaper that was in her room, and started to rip all of the wallpaper off the wall. This shows that isolation actually made her go insane and that it was a bad treatment to practice on people who were insane, after reading this many people working in the insanity treatment business changed how they treated mental patents.

The Turn of the Screw was written to be a very ambiguous novel, and one of the ways to interpret it is that the governess had taken on too many roles, and as a result she went mad and accidentally killed on of the children in her care. Because of the stress she was under, she went crazy and started to see things, and she decided that her hallucinations were ghosts. While “protecting” the children she scares a little boy so bad that his heart stops and he dies. This shows one of the ways people went mad, by being under too much stress.


When someone is deemed insane or mad they are usually taken away to be treated. They have a great effect of the people around them, like in The Yellow Wallpaper, when the woman’s husband sees that she had gone insane he passes out from the shock and sadness. She herself does not care that she is insane, only that she can get out of the room with the yellow wallpaper. Her husband is upset at finding his wife insane, because he loves her and only wants the best for her. Society cannot tolerate people who are insane so they put them out of site. Asylums were often out of the public eye, partly to hide the terrible conditions, and partly to give the public peace of mind that they do not have to tolerate the insane being near them.

Conditions for the insane have improved greatly since the 18th century. They are still a cultural fear because society cannot, and will not tolerate them. People are afraid that the insane might upset the balance of society and culture and our way of life.

“Insanity is relative. It depends on who has who locked in what cage. ”

~ Ray Bradbury


“26d. Prison and Asylum Reform.” Prison and Asylum Reform []. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 July 2012. <;.

“History of the Organization and the Movement.” Mental Health America:. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 July 2012. <;.

Mental Health Ethics: The Human Context. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Scull, Andrew T. Madness: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford [England: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Swartz, Leslie. Culture and Mental Health. Cape Town: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.


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