ByKarly Rayner, writer at
Movie Pilot's celebrity savant
Karly Rayner

The brutality shown in American Horror Story: Asylum was truly shocking, but even more unnerving is the fact that almost everything depicted in the show was derived from a real-life historical treatment.

From hammering a metal stake into a patient's eye socket to evaporating their memories with a high voltage current, a countless amount of real people had to endure the tortures depicted in the show and below are some of the chilling realities of the vintage mental asylum.

Bed Restraints

Use in American Horror Story: Asylum: The most memorable use of restraints in Asylum were when Sister is forcibly tied to a bed after being framed for Frank McCann's murder.

Examples of restraints from 1869 and 1910
Examples of restraints from 1869 and 1910

Historical Facts: Before the advent of drugs and other treatments, nearly all manic, aggressive, and suicidal patients were dealt with through restraint that could be enforced for 24 hours a day, and were even more barbaric than the methods seen in American Horror Story. This method of control was particularly overused after the Great Depression and the first and second world wars when mental hospitals in America were horribly overcrowded and underfunded. These conditions meant that restraint became a necessary means of control, rather than a therapeutic tool.

Electroshock Therapy

Use in American Horror Story: Asylum: Lana Winters is given electroshock therapy for writing down the asylum's misdeeds after being incarcerated simply due to her sexuality, which was shockingly a valid reason for admission to real-life mental hospitals during the '50s.

The electroshock was administered in the hopes of getting Lana to forget the things that she had witnessed while imprisoned, and the historical (and modern day) usage of electroshock therapy has similar goals for more therapeutic reasons.

Historical Facts: Although it was used as far back as the 17th century in Great Britain, electroshock therapy really began to become commonplace in the mid '30s. Originally named convulsive therapy by the Hungarian neuropsychiatrist Ladislas J. Meduna, it was worryingly devised after Meduna saw pigs being electrically stunned to make them unresponsive before they were slaughtered.

Early ECT treatments resulted in such severe memory loss that patients couldn't even remember the shocks they had endured, but this was seen as a plus by some doctors because it was easy to get them to submit to another treatment. Other complications were patients convulsing so violently they broke and fractured bones and bit off their own tongues.

Although it sounds brutal, ECT is still used in much more controlled circumstances to this day (and only on patients who can give their informed consent) and it is effective against severe depression and the safest treatment available for pregnant woman who become seriously mentally ill.


Use in American Horror Story: Asylum: The Straitjacket is so synonymous with mental asylums that it featured heavily in teasing fans with the theme of American Horror Story: Asylum.

The iconic garment also makes a few appearances throughout the show, one of the most notable being when Dr. Arden discovers Kit's link to the alien sightings, and he is restrained to prevent an escape.

Patients were often restrained for conveniences sake, even if they weren't being violent
Patients were often restrained for conveniences sake, even if they weren't being violent

Historical Facts: The straitjacket was invented in France in 1790 by an upholsterer named Guilleret, for Bicêtre Hospital during an era where retraining mentally ill people was the norm.

Although it is now considered inhumane, the jackets were initially viewed as the lesser of two evils as it was 'gentler' than chains and restrains. They also allowed freedom of movement, meaning nurses could take more stable individuals for strolls outside to lift their spirits.

Like the restraints mentioned above, however, the straitjacket was chronically misused and left on patients for hours, even days on end causing excruciating shoulder pain and numbness of the hands.


Use in American Horror Story: Asylum: The most chilling thing to occur in American Horror Story that routinely happened in mental asylums is undoubtedly the lobotomy. We see a graphic reconstruction of this brutal operation when the delusional Charlotte Brown (or the real Ann Frank, depending on how you look at it) is lobotomized.

Historical Facts: Controversial from its inception in 1935, the lobotomy is even more brutal than it looks. At first, operations were performed by trained surgical professionals, but soon an American 'innovator' created the shocking transorbital procedure we know today from numerous horror movies.

Walter Freeman wanted the surgery to be readily available to the people he felt needed it the most: patients in grossly underfunded state medical facilities who had no access to surgeons or anesthesia. To allow psychiatrists to have access to the operation, he devised his method by experimenting on a grapefruit with an icepick.

A diagram showing Freeman's method and a supposedly cured patient
A diagram showing Freeman's method and a supposedly cured patient

After experimenting further on multiple cadavers, Freeman developed a method that involved hammering a surgical metal rod through the delicate skull beneath the eyelids and pivoting it around at a depth of 4 inches into the brain, scraping away most of the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex.

Needless to say, the procedure had dramatic results including death, severe brain damage, disabling impairments and a total destruction of the patient's personality, and emotional and intellectual spheres. Ultimately, the goal was to make patients more manageable as opposed to 'curing' them and their decreased cognition means that many were less able to put up a fight. Freeman chillingly coined the term "surgically induced childhood" to describe this.

(Source: Wordpress, Wikia, Wikipedia (2) (3), CVLT Nation, Bow Shrine)


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