The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

Nellie Bly Walked so that Martin Scorsese could Run

Many have come to know Martin Scorsese’s 2010 thriller, Shutter Island as a deep dive into the idea of madness. When I first viewed the film in 2018, I was drawn to the story and found that many of the quotes lingered with me weeks later. Recently, however, while continuing my dive into literature, I have made a realization. Scorsese’s exploration into madness is nothing new, or unique. Nellie Bly’s journalistic, 10 Days in a Mad-House predates Scorsese’s film by over 100 years and bears countless thematic similarities. Shutter Island, although fictitious, also retains an investigative theme. The lead role, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, interviews much of the staff and patients, slowly becoming “mad”, as the story progresses. The plot is strikingly similar to that of Bly’s experiences, as I hope to demonstrate. 

Curiously enough, Scorsese’s film grossed just shy of 300 million dollars box office, while the 2015 film adaptation of 10 days in a Mad-House grossed an astoundingly meager 14 thousand dollars. Given that Bly’s investigative work paved the way for films like Shutter Island, it would be an unprecedented shame if her real-life account of events was overshadowed in such a manner. In the spirit of Nellie Bly, I hope to shed some light on this issue! I do not wish to disparage the work of Scorsese, but rather attempt to give Nellie Bly the recognition that she deserves. 

Through Bly’s journalistic uncovering of life in an insane asylum, she recalls completely inhumane living. In one particular chapter, she mentions a communal bath that was forced upon patients, writing, “I think I experienced some of the sensations of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering, and quaking from the tub.” (p. 31). This is a feeling that no person should endure, let alone a supposedly unwell individual. Bly goes on to say that the bathwater was not changed out between patients, many of whom had open and festering wounds. This bears a resemblance to the setting of “ward C” in Shutter Island. Patients are kept behind metal bars from what we are shown, like a prison. They are hardly clothed, with exposed wounds. The origin of the patients’ wounds is not directly addressed in the film, but Bly can provide an explanation. 

Bly uncovers that direct physical violence was inflicted upon the patients by the staff. She writes, “One day an insane woman was brought in. She was noisy, and miss Grady gave her a beating and blacked her eye. When the doctors noticed it and asked if it was done before she came there the nurses said it was.” (p. 41). This theme of physical violence is alluded to in Shutter Island. At one point, an anxiety-filled DiCaprio is being driven through the grounds by a guard who remarks, “God loves violence… why else would there be so much of it? Its in us- it’s what we are.” 

What’s more than physical violence is the theme of mental torture. One would think that patients should have their mental health improve, but in both stories, this was far from the case. Throughout Shutter Island DiCaprio is weary that he is being slipped a drug without his consent. Seemingly an outlandish plot-furthering device, this idea is based on truth, according to Bly. She writes, “At any rate one night they came in and tried to make me take a dose of some mixture out of a glass ‘to make me sleep,’ they said.” (p. 41). As recalled by Bly, these blatantly unethical practices were common in the asylum and were used without hesitation to sedate and control patients. 

Perhaps the most compelling similarity between the films is the attitude towards madness itself. Bly writes of several patients that are completely “normal”, and who have no business being in the facility. In Shutter Island, we see this idea through the character of Mrs. Kearns, a patient. During an interview, DiCaprio’s character remarks, “Excuse me for saying this Mrs. Kearns… you seem quite, quite normal.” Bly introduced the idea that “madness” is not necessarily inherent, but rather something inflicted upon an individual. Shutter Island takes this idea and runs with it. 

Upon revisiting quotes from the film that were memorable, I realize that they are practically interchangeable with the words of Bly. A character in the film says, “People tell the world you’re crazy and all your protests to the contrary just confirm what they’re saying.” Bly writes, “How can a doctor judge a woman’s sanity by merely bidding her good morning and refusing to hear her plea for release?” (p. 45). DiCaprio’s character says, “You act like insanity is catching,” while Bly writes, “For once I did look insane… Unable to control myself at the absurd picture I presented, I burst into roars of laughter.” (p. 30). 

Nellie Bly’s journalism found an audience in her time, but it seems as though her work is not receiving its due credit. Scorsese’s film is critically acclaimed for very good reason, but a slim percentage of its viewers realize the big picture. Nellie Bly’s courage and storytelling abilities birthed the foundational ideas of the film, but she receives none of the credit.

Sawyer Harris is a Sophomore at Rollins College in Winter Park Florida. He is studying English and Communications, and is a copy editor for the College Contemporary.

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