We were contacted by Kimberly Woodcock, founder of 'Spirit of the Old Town' to see if we were interested in contributing to the Halloween Ghost Walk in Hemel Hempstead. Kim had seen our performance of Blue Pixie at the LP Cafe and wanted to work with us.
That years theme of the Halloween walk was to be "Asylum". Given our ethos of educating about mental health issues and challenging the stigma around it, we were conscious that we didn't want to be presenting the cliched and damaging stereotype of dangerous escaped lunatics as 'entertainment'. Mental Illness is so often perceived as something very taboo leading to shame and denial about what is actually remarkably common (one in four of us in any given year). Kimberley was also concerned about this and assured us at the earliest opportunity that she wasn't expecting us to parade mental illness around as titillation.
Having looked a little into the history of responses to mental health needs in the UK, we were aware that both medical and psychiatric treatments have come along way. Historically, asylums were the stuff of nightmares. A selection of reasons for incarceration included the following: Immoral Life, Jealousy and Religion, Laziness, Masturbation, Venereal disease, Novel reading, Opium Habit, Over Action of the mind, Over study of religion, Parents were cousins, Tobacco, Political excitement, Asthma, Bad company, Periodical fits, Business nerves, Death of sons in war, Self-abuse, Desertion by husband, Suppression of menses, Vicious vices, Woman trouble, Superstition, Small pox, Spinal Irritation, Greediness, Grief, Salvation Army, Seduction and disappointment, Sexual derangement, Feebleness of intellect.
The treatments changed over the years, but have included: forced lobotomy (incision into the prefrontal lobe of the brain, accessed via the eye socket. The resulting brain damage was catastrophic to personality and intellect), ice water treatments, chains and manacles as physical restraint, “moral talks”, management’ techniques developed by Renaissance "horsemasters" to control stubborn horses and enforced physical activity. And that’s not even taking instances of illicit abuse by staff into account, just some of which has been widely reported.
When we looked into what 'asylum' meant we had a few basic ideas. Safety. Sanctuary. What was so striking was how much these were anathema to the treatment received by those in historical asylums. For our characters, asylum comes only in the escape from such an institution. We needed asylum from the Asylum.
I would like to add that the current political connotations of asylum, the plight of asylum seekers, was not ignored but, as our current membership consists entirely of those born with British citizenship, we did not have the insight into such stories. We decided to focus on stories closer to our own. But by looking at the experiences of any one group asking for help to survive impossibly dangerous and unfair situation in which they find themselves, hopefully we can encourage audiences to consider: "What if that were me, or someone I loved?" Hopefully being moved enough to resolve to help, where they can, and become an asylum, in themselves for those who need it.
We took our name from the local Metropolitan Asylum for Chronic Imbeciles, latterly Leavesden Hospital, local to one of our members.
We took ourselves over to Hemel Old Town several times to rehearse in situ. The sunniness of the days often in contrast to our bleak subject matter, a lot of fun was had.
On the day, we were made most welcome by the regular ghost walk performers and got our makeup done
The "lunatics" have found brief respite, hidden amongst the curious onlookers.