Shutter Island and Post-Traumatic Stress

Shutter Island and Post-Traumatic Stress

Last update: 08 June, 2018

An island, a mental institution, and an unexplained disappearance are the main ingredients of this psychological thriller. And it will leave plenty of people with their mouths wide open. The movie is set in 1954, a time when mental institutions were on the rise, and when they still practiced things like the transorbital lobotomy.

Federal agents Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule go to Ashecliffe hospital to investigate a strange disappearance. Is it possible for someone to disappear from a totally secure mental institution, on an island, with no shoes on, and in the rain? The movie’s plot starts to twist little by little until it wraps up with a truly disturbing ending. 

Madness and history

The treatment of mental illnesses throughout history was extremely diverse. Michel Foucault talks about this in his book, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. He takes Nietzsche’s idea of the transvaluation of values and applies it to the term “madness.” Something considered “good” at one time could be the opposite in another, or it might change direction and gain new meanings. He says something similar happens with madness. Foucault isn’t defending it, he’s just trying to explain the change that came about over time.

mental institution

During the Middle Ages, society pushed “crazy people” out but didn’t lock them up, because people thought they had access to a different kind of knowledge. It wasn’t until the Renaissance, with the rise of rationalism, that society locked them up and isolated them. Along with the idea of reason there came the idea of unreason, madness. 

In the modern era, madness awoke a kind of interest and fascination in certain researchers. From that moment on people started to look for a cure, although the first things they tried would totally shock us nowadays. We wouldn’t be exaggerating if we said that people discover new disorders or mental illnesses every day, things no one has ever heard of before. And in that same way they destroy the myths about some beliefs. Let’s not forget that it wasn’t so long ago that people saw homosexuality as a mental illness.

Madness in Shutter Island

In Shutter Island we get a look at a truly horrifying mental institution: Ashecliffe. It’s a hospital on an island that no one can escape from. It’s totally claustrophobic and isolated (this is worth repeating), a really, really inhospitable place. The music doesn’t exactly make you expect to see anything pleasant either. It’s completely the opposite: it creates a dark, gloomy atmosphere full of tension. 

The history

The movie also shows us the psychiatric “war” that was being fought at that time. It was a time of change and transition where the new trends butted up against the old ones. The old psychiatric model thought that the best thing to do was send the mentally ill away and use things like electroshock therapy or lobotomies. On the other hand, there was a new current that wanted to humanize, or normalize the patients’ lives. This would mean not  locking them away and using medication instead. The main problem was that a lot of those medications still weren’t fully developed and were still in their experimental phase.

Doctor Cawley

Doctor Cawley is the director of the institution. He seems like a man who tries to bring together both currents. He never wants to treat the patients as criminals, advocates for the use of drugs, and tries to make it so the ill patients can live a “normal” life. But all that is in total contrast with the fact that he directs a mental institution completely shut off from the world, where they lock the patients up, and where they use lobotomies in extreme cases.

The patients

But the patients on Shutter Island aren’t just any patients. They’re all people who have committed terrible acts: they’ve murdered, harmed…But instead of putting them in jail, they send them to this institution, where there are different wards based on how dangerous the patients are.

mad woman

The disorders in Shutter Island

It’s impossible to talk about Shutter Island without giving out any spoilers, but basically it’s a movie with a lot of plot twists that give you some clues about the ending. But if you don’t want to know what happens stop reading now!

Although at the beginning it seems like a detective movie, Scorsese starts leaving some clues that maybe everything in Shutter Island isn’t exactly what it looks like. There are small details like how Chuck can’t get his pistol out as fast as a policeman should be able to.  Then there are bigger things like how Teddy starts to have hallucinations, how he starts to dream about his dead wife, the drugs Cawley gives Teddy for his migraines, etc. And all that will make you think that something strange is going on with our main character.

Daniels’ story

As the story moves forward, we see how Teddy Daniels starts to have migraines and memories come up from his past in World War II. He went through truly traumatic experiences there that deeply scarred his mind. The images from the Dachau concentration camp are really hard for him to erase, and they take a toll on him in the present. When he got back from the war, Daniels shared a life with his wife Dolores and their three children, but he always invested himself in his work and didn’t spend much time with his family. But his way of “confronting” the ghosts from his past wasn’t great, and he had serious drinking problems


Daniels starts to relive his past experiences through dreams and hallucinations. We can see that he’s probably a victim of a post-traumatic stress disorder because of the difficult things he’s been through. As the movie moves forward, we see that it wasn’t just World War II that scarred our main character. The story of his family left him scarred too. 

His wife told him there was something talking in her head, like a kind of worm inside of her. Daniels was so wrapped up in his work and his own trauma that he didn’t pay any attention to his wife’s mental illness. And as a result, his wife’s health deteriorated and she ended up murdering their children. When Daniels finds out what happened, he kills his wife while sobbing.

The breakdown Daniels has afterwards

This all makes his stress get worse and he enters a state of denial and personality splitting. He invents characters in his head with anagrams like Andrew Laedis (who is Daniels himself) and Rachel Solando (his wife). He invents a fantasy where his wife died in a tragic fire started by this so-called Laedis. And in his fantasy he’s a federal agent who came to Shutter Island to investigate a mysterious disappearance.

Our main character creates a new reality and uses it to forget what happened in his past. He refuses to accept it and chooses to live a lie. He keeps on thinking about and investigating the supposed conspiracies and experiments happening on the island.

Doctor Cawley and his team let him carry on with his fantasy, hoping that he’ll realize there is no conspiracy. They want him to become aware of his past, accept it, and reach his own cure.

Shutter Island is definitely an interesting movie with themes about the history of psychiatry and psychology. and it masterfully plays with our minds and tricks all of our senses while it’s at it. Nothing is what it seems like in Shutter Island

Which would be worse: To live as a monster, or to die as a good man?

-Shutter Island-

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.