Becoming a Mad Man: Psychosis in Shutter Island


“Why are you all wet, honey?” Dr. Naehring asks Teddy Daniels at the top of the lighthouse, echoing Teddy’s hallucinations and flashbacks of his wife. Bewildered, he stops and stares at the doctor, who proceeds to explain that Teddy is, in fact, the mysterious disappearing patient he himself has been trying to find the entire time he’s been on the island. Continuing, the doctor enlightens Teddy that the entire weekend he has just experienced has been an elaborate roleplay aimed at getting Teddy, whose real name is Andrew Laeddis, to snap out of his delusions before he is forced to get a lobotomy. This drama unfolds and anchors the storyline of Shutter Island, a 2010 film directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a patient on Shutter Island, admitted because of a traumatic incident where his wife killed his children and he, as a result, killed his wife. DiCaprio’s character, Teddy, rather than accepting the events, blocked them out by creating an alternate persona – a U.S. Marshal who has come to the island to investigate a disappearing patient and is confronted with Nazi experiments being performed on the patients.

Martin Scorsese, through his use of different color palettes, aims to let his viewers see things from Teddy Daniel’s perception. Scorsese’s color palette in the film is the primary medium through which he develops and nurtures a general sensation of Teddy’s psychotic break. At the beginning of the film, the distinction between hallucination and reality is marked clearly by differences in color palette. In this case, bright colors, particularly reds and yellows, are indicative of hallucination, while desaturated greys indicate real life. Eventually, these color palettes fold into each other, marking the point at which reality has become a delusion. At this point, Teddy is unable to tell reality from fiction, flashback from present day. The viewer, too, is unable to discern what is real and what is not, stuck in Teddy’s mind and point of view. The film proves how easy it is for perception to be warped in such a way that hallucination and delusion become constitutive of reality. Teddy, in this case, is the film’s subject/patient, undergoing the signs of a trauma-induced break from reality. As the protagonist, his experience becomes the experience of the audience, who, like Teddy, descends into madness, and ultimately becomes mad.

Shutter Island uses components of “institution films,” in which institutions are central to the narrative of the film, to help put the viewer inside Teddy’s mind throughout the movie, allowing the viewer to sympathize with Teddy’s state of being. In the case of Shutter Island, the asylum plays the role of the institution: a large, controlling body that the protagonist rebels against. The asylum asserts its control in a lot of ways, including enforced uniformity of clothing, close monitoring and his lack of private space. After Teddy gets caught in the storm and his clothes get wet, he is given a patient’s uniform to put on in their stead. He is constantly with his “partner,” who is in reality his psychologist, Chuck Aule, also known as Dr. Sheehan, and he is given a cot in the basement with the other patients during the storm. These elements make Teddy a part of the institution, and as a result, he begins to rebel by pushing the boundaries – both the boundaries of the island and the boundaries of the institution. We, as viewers, constantly see Teddy on the edge of the island, climbing on rocks, on the edges of cliffs, and attempting to reach the lighthouse just off the coast. During the power outage caused by the storm, Teddy attempts to violate the boundaries of the institution by exploring Ward C, which was labeled explicitly off-limits to him during his time on the island.

Throughout the film, there is a material distinction and parallel between the physical space of the tunnels of Ward C and the winding road of Teddy’s mind. Ward C, during the storm that causes a power outage, transforms from a highly regulated space to a twisted series of tunnels where Teddy comes close to finding his true identity, particularly when he encounters George Noyce, a former friend of his. George reveals the truth to Teddy, telling him, “They knew! Don’t you get it? Everything you were up to. Your whole plan. This is a game. All of this, it’s for you. You’re not investigating anything. You’re a fucking rat in a maze.” Teddy denies this, his delusions not allowing him to comprehend what George is telling him.

Isolation is a key component of institution films, especially in Shutter Island and especially with asylums: “One of the key shots of the filmic asylum is a sense of overwhelming separation from the outside world when the patient first crosses the threshold” (Pheasant-Kelly 218). As Teddy and Chuck cross the boundary into the asylum, the gates clang shut, and the camera assumes Teddy’s point of view as he looks up at the dominating entryway. Following Teddy’s experiences, the audience member accompanies him as he enters into the space of the psychiatric institution. All of the literal elements of the institution film are figurative and suggestive of the central authority of psychoanalysis.

Having argued that the film is considered to be a part of the institution film genre, it is acknowledged that there are elements of the noir film in Scorsese’s directorial gestures. To really understand a noir film, one must also add the language of psychoanalysis. In noir films, and certainly in Shutter Island, audience members interpret the actions of deranged protagonists in the same ways that psychotherapists receive and diagnose their patients. The general theme of a psychic break from reality becomes the central drama unfolding in any noir film, something that Pheasant-Kelly acknowledges in her description in the world of Shutter Island: “The film’s unsettling effects also arise from its noir stylistics and horror iconography, which visually suggest Shutter Island as a place of foreboding and dread. The darkened sky and unnerving music enhance the sense of doom generated by the island, visible through a slow zoom in as the boat approaches the quay” (Pheasant-Kelly 220). This is intriguing, as the darkened sky correlates to the grey color palette Thomson refers to as indicative of reality – Teddy’s experience of the island as a dark, foreboding, scary place is rooted in reality, as opposed to being in his own head.

shutter island

The music, too, is a noteworthy component of the film. As Jorgen Bruhn, a film critic, notes, Martin Scorsese is a member of the melomanés of modern film, a group that uses music to extreme effect in their films. These directors, most of which are “auteurs” who control almost every aspect of their films, use “music as a platform for the idiosyncratic expression of taste, and thus it conveys not only meaning in terms of plot and theme, but meaning as authorial signature itself” (Bruhn 325). The most prominent piece Scorsese chooses is Gustav Mahler’s “Quartet for Piano and Strings in A Minor,” which is playing when Teddy walks into the doctors’ quarters for the first time. Teddy begins to have brief glimpses of flashback to Dachau in Nazi Germany: a hand grasping a barbed wire fence, a study with papers floating in the air. Dr. Naehring, in a voiceover, tells the gentlemen, “You know, men like you are my specialty. Men of violence… Since the schoolyard, neither of you has backed down from a physical conflict. Not because you enjoy it but because retreat isn’t considered an option.” Meanwhile, the music, crescendo-ing, evokes longer snatches of flashback; Teddy remembers the papers stuck to the ground, soaked in blood, and the shot widens to reveal a Nazi officer lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood, with Teddy approaching him in a military uniform. Outside, snow is blowing in time with the papers falling in the office, all while the Nazi officer is stretching for a gun that is just out of his reach on the floor. The music begins to climax as Teddy slowly and meticulously slides the gun out of his way with his foot. Back inside the doctors’ quarters, Teddy externalizes his thoughts: “You, uh, ever seen a death camp, doctor?” He begins speaking in German to Dr. Naehring, concluding with, “Your English really is very good. You hit the consonants a tad hard, though.”

Bruhn is particularly fascinated with the choice of this piece: “The Piano Quartet is A Minor is one of the less popular items in the work of Mahler, who was seldom recorded or performed until the sixties’ ‘Mahler renaissance’. Therefore, it seems highly unlikely that Mahler, and in particular the almost unknown Piano Quartet, was the music chosen for the suicide of the camp general in Dachau (for ideological reasons) and by the psychiatrist in Boston Harbor (for historical reasons)” (328). The intentional choice of this piece is interesting; the music of Gustav Mahler, a Jewish man, was banned in Nazi Germany, and this particular piece was not known in the classical world until the 1960s, over a decade after the film took place. This can be read as an intentional error on Teddy’s part, where he is drawing parallels between a piece that is not related to his time in Dachau, as well as a twisted triumph on Mahler’s part – the Jew outlives the Nazis. Additionally, Teddy’s flashback in this scene could be considered indicative of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition of consistent stress resulting from a traumatic event – in Teddy’s case, World War II, in which he was a soldier. A study done by Alan Fontana and Robert Rosenheck found that symptoms of PTSD are “more severe the more severe the traumatic exposure” (27). Teddy’s exposure to this moment of the Nazi officer’s failed suicide, as well as the moment he witnessed his children’s murders at the hands of his wife, are very likely to create extremely severe symptoms.

Sound in and of itself plays an important role in Shutter Island. The illusions of madness on the island are perpetuated by the words chosen for names, such as “the name of Teddy’s partner, Chuck Aule – chuckle – and the name of the island – shut her Island” (Bruhn 332). The clear auditory connotations with these names, to the informed viewer, are an ironic joke aimed at entertaining those who know the reality of the plot. Similarly, the first words spoken in the film are “Pull yourself together, Teddy,” which, as Bruhn argues, “of course has a deeper meaning for the delusional and schizophrenic protagonist in retrospect” (Bruhn 326). For individuals descending into madness, it becomes increasingly hard to tell what is real and what is false, and as such, increasingly hard to voice ideas about the world around them in a way that seems socially appropriate.

Ultimately, the different ways the film’s elements contribute to a vision of Teddy’s madness help to place the viewer inside Teddy’s mind. Teddy, throughout the film, descends into madness, and the film portrays this through a loss of distinction between hallucinations and reality. The boundary work evident in this film shows how Teddy’s madness isolates him from others in the hospital, as mental illness does to individuals in society. Overall, this movie is a larger commentary on how society views individuals who are mentally ill – they are ostracized and isolated, when it is hard for them to differentiate between objective reality and subjective delusions, thoughts, and impulses. To live in Teddy’s head for these couple hours seems to compel a viewer to be more empathetic to those who are living with mental illness, no matter how far from reality these individuals have strayed.

Hoofbeats and Heartbeats

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

Growing up, I always loved horses. My mom had a horse as a little girl, and pretty much as soon as I was able to sit upright in the saddle, she started me riding. At first, it was just summer camps, but it quickly became riding lessons, which turned into leasing a horse, which led to me owning my own horse now. I remember, in middle school, crying in my favorite horse’s stall over my parent’s divorce, and the horse nuzzling me and letting me sob into his neck. Although I never interacted with horses in a “therapeutic” setting, horses were my therapy. Just being around them calmed me down, relaxed me, made me happier, and the only disappointing thing about moving to NYC was that I believed I would have to let this passion go.

How wrong I was.

I was online one day last March looking for a place to go on a trail ride in Central Park when I stumbled upon GallopNYC, a therapeutic horseback riding association dedicated to providing equine therapy to people with physical and mental disabilities. I immediately applied to volunteer, and received an orientation at Bronx Equestrian Center, where I ultimately would end up boarding my own horse. I knew nothing about equine therapy when I began with the nonprofit, but the more I learned, the more I loved the work I was doing.


Gallop, at each of its locations, provides many different populations with two primary types of equine therapy: hippo therapy and therapeutic riding. Hippo therapy is physical therapy using the horse as a vessel, while therapeutic riding is actually teaching horseback riding to disabled individuals. Hippo therapy can be incredibly beneficial for those who can’t physically walk, among other things, because the horse walking mimics the feel of a human walking. Therapeutic riding can address a multitude of goals, from improving self-confidence to following direction to using language.

When I first started at Gallop, I was working 3 days a week, with 3 very different populations. Wednesday mornings, I helped with a special education school group; Thursday afternoons, a preschool group; and Saturdays, I saw more individual equine therapy and therapeutic riding lessons. Each came with their challenges. The school group on Wednesday mornings weren’t always the most kind to the horses – they didn’t mean to hurt them but sometimes, due to lack of spatial awareness, they would abruptly slam down on the horse’s back, hit their side, or rip hair our of their mane. The preschoolers, while not disabled (Gallop aims to make horseback riding accessible to everyone!) were at times nervous to ride or overwhelmed by the horse. And with the Saturday morning group, our mantra was flexibility. The riders had wildly different levels of ability and goals set for their lessons, and there was never any telling what would happen in any given day.

But with these challenges, there were incredible rewards. One of the special education students was nonverbal, but by the end of their six weeks of lessons, was able to tell the horse to “walk on”. One of the children who came for Saturday lessons told me one of the horses was his best friend, that this was the best part of his week, and that he always felt like horseback riding was going on an adventure. Hearing these heartwarming narratives and seeing for myself how my passion was able to touch and help other people was incredibly fulfilling for me, and not something I will soon forget.

I have continued working with Gallop, volunteering and working as a horse education instructor for the general public, and now I am moving towards my PATH instructor certification to be able to teach therapeutic riding lessons. Every time I am there, seeing the obvious joy others receive from riding horses makes my day, and I strongly encourage individuals to find ways to watch others be inspired by their passions and interests. For me, it continuously breathes a new life into the work I am doing and my love for horses. In many ways, it completes me.