The Snake Pit


In case you couldn’t tell by now, I have a tendency to watch a film and become so enamored by it that I just have to tell someone, and you, dear reader, are the perfect person for me to tell.

Watching movies was a big part of my life growing up, so much so that I had a select few favorite flicks that I would watch every single day like clockwork.

My mind is now drifting to A Clockwork Orange, but that’s a story for a different time. Let me get back on track.

I used to consider my house much like a Blockbuster, full of VHS tapes and DVDs for nearly every genre of film. From horror and thrillers to dramas and musicals, there wasn’t a movie you couldn’t find.

As time went on, it became harder for me to become interested in anything new that would come out, along with the death of Blockbuster and Hastings and the rise of streaming services in their places, that special, nostalgic feeling of sitting and watching a movie had faded.

I never was too impressed with the special effects that had become a major part in film-making at the time because it seemed to me that the story was always either overshadowed or diluted.

Remakes were becoming popular, sequels were being made for movies that should’ve ended three films ago, and there just didn’t seem to be many original ideas anymore, but that’s just my opinion.

Aside from watching movies, I was an avid book reader throughout my school years, so I always appreciated a good story and didn’t rely much on visuals. But as I’ve gotten older, I have a tendency to become sleepy when I read, even if the story itself has captured my attention.

Over the past few months, I’ve been on the search for good movies with good storytelling not reliant upon special effects and CGI.

As I mentioned in my Gaslighting article, I came across the Criterion Channel and I think it’s safe to say that I’ve browsed and watched more movies on that service than any of the other major platforms, and while I can’t say they’re “new” movies, they’re certainly new to me.

My new fascination with the older black and white films surprised my grandmother, as she had never seen me watch anything made before the 70s.

She recommended a movie to me the other day that her mother had shown her many years ago: the 1948 psychological thriller/drama, The Snake Pit.

When she described to me what the film was about, I instantly thought of one of my favorites, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

So I began my search.

First stop was the Criterion Channel and to my surprise and slight disappointment, it wasn’t there. It wasn’t anywhere.

Usually when I can’t find a particular movie, YouTube always comes to the rescue and sure enough, I was able to purchase the full movie.

Within just the first few seconds, the viewer is introduced to the main character Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) where she is sitting outside answering questions to a voice that isn’t present; except in her head.

She seems confused as to where she is, who had been asking her so many personal questions and who the woman is sitting next to her that keeps referring to her as Virginia.

A nurse yells out for everyone to form a line and head back into the building and it becomes clear to the viewer that Virginia is a patient at a mental institution, a realization she has not yet made.

She asks the friendly woman from the bench where they were going and this is where we hear some of the most profound lines that sets the scene for the rest of the film, only four minutes in.

“Oh I see. It’s a zoo. A tour. I don’t like the zoo. I don’t like the smell and I’m sorry for the animals locked up in cages.”

After she witnesses the commotion of the many women being rounded up and pushed to their assigned wards by the harsh and unsympathetic nurses, Virginia assumes that she is in fact in prison and they’re all just criminals.

She is then met by her husband (Mark Stevens) who has been faithfully visiting her daily since her admittance in the institute as well as psychiatrist Dr. KiK (Leo Genn) who has found Mrs. Cunningham’s case very peculiar and fascinating.

Although these are faces that she has seen everyday, she is unable to recognize or remember who they are.

Dr. Kik has the firm belief that Virginia is not insane and is actually struggling with deep-seeded trauma that has now come to the surface and until she can face that trauma, she will continue to suffer, in her head and within the walls of the institute.

The institute is comprised of 33 wards, with Ward 33 housing the violent and incurable patients and Ward 1 viewed as the best, acting as a stepping stone toward freedom.

Although the wards are categorized by the severity of the patient’s case, the nurses’ behavior towards the patients isn’t dependent on what ward they’re assigned.

With the help and sympathy from Dr. Kik, Virginia begins to make progress, recalling events from her past with each treatment she is given, from shock to hypnotherapy.

However, with each successful session, setbacks occur when a particular nurse who has become jealous of Virginia’s friendship with Dr. Kik, sabotages her progress through ridiculous altercations with Virginia, causing her to go into manic episodes and therefore being sent to Ward 33.

It was at this point when just as Virginia has hit the brink of insanity, she realizes during the chaotic whirlwind of screams and wails from the unfortunate inhabitants of Ward 33, she is in fact not insane at all.

“It was strange. Here I was among all those people and at the same time, I felt as if I were looking at them from someplace far away. The whole place seemed to me like a deep hole and the people down in it were like some strange animals. Like snakes and I had been thrown into it,” Virginia tells Dr. Kik.

“I remember once reading a book that said long ago they used to put insane people into pits full of snakes. I think they figured that which might drive a normal person insane might shock an insane person back into sanity. It was just as though they’d thrown me into a snake pit and I was shocked into thinking that maybe I wasn’t as sick as the others, that I really might get well.”

From that point on, Virginia was able to pinpoint and face the trauma that she had endured since her childhood, coming to terms with the guilt she had felt and surpressed for far too long. 

The Snake Pit was a film that impacted the way society viewed mental institution operations and the people running them.

In 1949, Herb Stein of Daily Variety wrote that “Wisconsin is the seventh state to institute reforms in its mental hospitals as a result of The Snake Pit.”

It is also said that 26 out of the then 48 states had enacted reform legislation because of the film.

Charles Schlaifler was a prominent figure in getting federal support for mental health after World War II and was connected to the film, using it as a tool against Congress to fight for mental health reform and convincing them to dramatically increase funds and raising mental awareness on the national level, a feat that was successful.

For a movie to have made such a cultural and societal impact for its time, I couldn’t help but share it with you and I urge those of you who have not seen it to take the time to sit and watch it through its entirety, and for those who have seen it, give it another watch. 

It speaks as many volumes now as it did then.