Hollywood has taken great interest in psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and psychotherapy over the decades. As a result, the general public has come to view the work of clinicians by way of films, including one of the most influential films of the mid-20th century: 1948's The Snake Pit.
The film has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly debate, criticized for its portrait of its female protagonist, her fellow patients, and hospital staff. Recently, Ben Harris, PhD, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire, published "The Snake Pit: Mixing Marx With Freud in Hollywood" in the journal History of Psychology, using archival sources to revisit the film's making and reception. (1) Harris, who has also held postdoctoral fellowships in the history of science and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Wisconsin, sat down with Psychiatric TimesTM to discuss his findings.
PSYCHIATRIC TIMES[TM]: For those who may be unfamiliar with it, will you recap The Snake Pit?
BEN HARRIS, PHD: The award-winning film showed the hospitalization and recovery of Virginia Cunningham at an upstate New York psychiatric hospital. A confused but resilient young woman, Virginia progresses through various overcrowded, understaffed wards to Ward 1--the best. She then relapses and ends up in Ward 33--overflowing with the most disturbed patients. This seems to her like a medieval snake pit, into which the mad were tossed to shock them into health.
Realizing that she is healthier than the worst-off patients, Virginia gradually regains her sanity. She is aided by the saint-like Dr Mark Kik, who uses electroconvulsive therapy to connect with Virginia, followed by "narcosynthesis" and then psychotherapy informed by Freud. As her childhood fixations are unearthed and her transference to Kik is resolved, Virginia comes to love her husband again, whereas before she had denied his...