Posted by: PharaohKatt | 11-01-2011

Out Of Arkham — Mental Illness In Batman: Arkham Asylum

Please Note: some of the pages I link to contain ableism and other -isms. Take care.

Recently, LM (my partner) finished playing a game on His X-Box called Batman: Arkham Asylum. Technically speaking, the game was great. Game play was engaging without being difficult, progression was even but challenging, atmosphere was creepy as Hell.

As well as the main quest — finding and taking down The Joker — there were a number of side quests, where you learn the history of Arkham, gain patient information and search for items hidden by Riddler (using classic Riddler riddles).
Aside from some dodgy animation and horrid voice acting, an entertaining game.

But there was one aspect of this game that I found quite troubling; the portrayal and treatment of people with mental illnesses.

Portrayals of asylums/institutions are rife throughout the media1. They are things of nightmare; patients roaming the halls with listless expressions, staff who are abusive, weird and horrifying treatments ranging from drugs that destroy your mind to shock therapy. It’s a horrifying prospect (if you’re sane, that is2).

The asylum in this is no different. The complex is placed on an island, to keep inmates away from the general population. It is a tall, forboding set of buildings, made of dark grey stone. Joker is pulled along backwards, chained and wearing a straight jacket. Signs point to rooms and areas rerved for “intensive treatment” — code word for shock therapy.

All our worst fears of asylums, of being institutionalised, are played on in full.

The game also rehashes some very problematic stereotypes of people with mental illnesses. Despite the fact that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of violent crime3, not the perpetrators, we are seen as being, somehow, inherently violent; something to be feared.

We see this play out in the media again4 and again5 and again6. When someone goes on a rampage, people are quick to start talking about how sie is “unstable”7, “crazed”8 “disturbed”8; because clearly only someone with mental problems could ever possibly do anything horrible, right?

This is played out to the extreme in Batman: Arkham Asylum. The inmates scream maniacally, ramble nonsense while hanging from buildings. They attack Batman as soon as they see him, with wild, flailing movements.
The message is clear: mentally unstable people are violent and dangerous. They need to be kept sedated, locked up, for the good of “the rest of us”.

Batman: Arkham Asylum has the opportunity to question this. You learn through the histories that the owner of the place had visions of grandeur, of saving the world from those people. But he begins to fear them, calls them animals, decides that it would be better for everyone if they we’re just locked up, sedated, electrocuted, lobotomised.

This isn’t seen as a good thing. The impression I get is that we are meant to be horrified by these practices. But it doesn’t progress from that. At the end of the game, all the patients go back to Arkham. Status quo maintained. You’ve saved the day, and put those people back where they belong.

What does this say to the teen with OCD manifesting as violent thoughts? What does this say to the parent with post-partum depression, who fears that sie will lose it and kill hir infant? What does this say to the person with severe anxiety and panic attacks, who has to limit hir social interaction for fear of having another outburst?

What does this say to the woman with visions of blood and pain, who gouges out her own flesh as a way to control it?

You are wrong, you are dangerous. You deserve to be locked up, to have your kids taken away from you. If you seek help, you’ll end up in one of those places, because you are one of those people.

Is it any wonder that mental illness is still strongly stigmatised9?

– Pharaoh Signing Off

Link Information
1: Psychiatric hospital – Mental hospitals in the media
2: It’s Only Wrong If You’re Sane: Pop Culture And Institutionalisation by Anna at FWD
3: People With Mental Illness More Often Crime Victims by Aaron Levin at Psychiatric News
4: But Is She Taking Her Medication: Movie Myths About Crazy Roommates by Anna at FWD
5: TW for ableism —
Darth Vader Was Mentally Ill, Researchers Say

6: TW for ableism — 12 Craziest Movie Mental Patients Rotten Tomatoes
7: TW for ableism — Jared Lee Loughner: ‘mentally unstable dropout’ who had met Gabrielle Giffords before
8: TW for ableism in comments — ‘Psycho killer’? The Jared Lee Loughner case brings out the usual abuse
9: TW for ableism — UCLA stabbing brings back issue of college students’ mental health
10: Mental Illness Still Stigmatised by s. e. smith at FWD



  1. Great post with some good linkage backup. Informative for someone like me who doesn’t have a lot of knowledge in this area. Timely as well, especially in light of the Arizona shootings.

    And, pretty new blog is pretty.

  2. This was great. I haven’t played Arkham Asylum yet, but it sounds like they’ve adapted the hospital from the Batman comics pretty much verbatim.

    I think Batman as a franchise is locked fairly tightly into a sort of early 1940s mindset and aesthetic, and as such it brings with it all of the worst cliches and stereotypes of the pulp thrillers from that period. It’s a pastiche, and I suppose in the context of that pastiche Arkham works perfectly well on a sort of gaudy, dark creative level. As you point out, however, it’s not an accurate or remotely supportive depiction of mental illness.

    It’s interesting that the film Batman Begins, which went to great lengths to add elements of realism and modernity to the Batman mythology (more practical costume and vehicle, more realistic gangsters, believable police, less fantastical villains, etc) chose Arkham Asylum as the one element of the film not to update or re-envision. I hadn’t considered that until reading your post and it makes me a little disappointed.


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