The Asylum, circa 1964. Metaphor for mid-century America, where culture war has begun to rage between new and old views on human nature and reality itself. Briarcliff Manor remains a bastion of the old, home to inmates who embody ideas considered perverse, insane or downright demonic by a society where moral standards have been shaped by a Catholic-Christian worldview. Masturbation. Homosexuality. The very notion of a sexually active woman. Interracial romance. Many things have changed since the sixties, thanks, in part, to the work and activism of renegades and reformers working in the realms of art, science, social justice and journalism. But other things haven't changed as much, if at all.
Meet Lana Winters, a struggling journalist looking to leap from scribbling frivolous stories to doing serious journalism for national glossies like Life or Look. (Besides, she isn't qualified to pen the local paper's cooking column -- she's terrible in the kitchen.) Lana arrives at Briarcliff Manor Sanitarium looking to do a story about The Asylum’s well-regarded bakery, run by the institution's commanding habit-in-chief, Sister Jude. Or so she claims. This plucky young woman hides at least a couple secrets, including the love that dares not speak its name. Especially in 1964. She makes a home with her "roommate," a science teacher named Wendy, who fears losing her job and the good work of shaping young minds should parents discover she's a lesbian. (She notes it's hard enough just getting them to have an open mind about Evolution.) She adores Lana, even if she won't kiss her unless the shades are pulled, and even if she hates her cooking. Lana feels that commitment, draws strength from it. "Anything I can do in life," she says, "I can do because you love me."
Soon, that belief will be tested.
The Asylum is in its prime. The lawn is verdant, the gardens blooming. The façade of the building its strong and unblemished, regal as a castle. (Curious: Briarcliff has three towers, evenly spaced, mirroring the three prongs on the crown logo of Woodall Gasoline.) Lana primps her hair and strolls toward the entrance in her conservative brown heels. Before she gets to the door she is accosted by a woman afflicted with what appears to be Virchow-Seckel syndrome. She’s part Koo Koo the Bird Girl, part Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead. “Play with me!” she begs, handing Lana a flower. "Play with me!" (FOREVER. AND EVER. AND EVER...) Lana takes it – and pricks her finger on the thorn. And we remember that once upon a time, a beautiful princess fell into an epic sleep thanks to the thorny curse of a wicked old witch...
Sister Mary Eunice arrives on the scene and shoos away Play With Me Girl. Lana deems her “harmless.” The nun begs to differ. “She drowned her sister’s baby and sliced his ears off.”
Sister Mary leads Lana inside The Asylum and up a spiral of stairs. “Sister Jude calls this her ‘stairway to heaven,’” Sister Mary boasts. Besides a certain Led Zeppelin song still seven years away from rocking the planet, “stairway to heaven” evokes the Biblical story of Jacob’s Ladder, and in general, the idea that the spiritual journey to regain the golden ratio of Edenesque pre-Fall perfection -- sanctification -- is laborious but progressive, rung-by-rung upward climb. But the look on Lana’s face, as she gazes around at suffering patients and listens to their cries, suggests that she doesn’t find the environs too heavenly, or the prospect of cultivating redemption here too promising.
The long and winding ascension into the Briarcliff rafters brings Lana to the austere offices of an imperious, control-freak woman christened with the name of the patron saint of lost causes. We meet Sister Jude as she’s shearing the dirty blonde locks of an inmate named Shelley -- punishment for breaking Asylum rules. We aren't told her crime, but we do quickly learn that Shelley has been diagnosed as a "wood nymph" – errr, nymphomaniac. “Take her to the common room so the others can see her newfound immaculacy,” Sister Jude instructs Sister Mary, tone dripping with condescension... and jealousy? Shelley remains defiant despite her diminished glamour. “You think I’m full of shame and regret for what I’ve done now, Sister? You can shave me bald as a cue ball and I’ll still be the hottest tamale in this joint!” Shelley certainly has a strong sense of self; whether she’s truly “sick” remains to be seen.
Sister Jude certainly has her doubts. She indulges Lana’s curious off-topic inquiry about the nature of Shelley’s condition by making it very clear that she considers the whole notion of "mental illness" to be theologically unsound. “Nonsense from the charlatans,” Sister Jude seethes. “That woman is a victim of her own lust. There is no other name for it. Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin.”
NEXT: Hey, Jude! Don't make Lana Turner all bad!