The Real Victims Behind The Disappointments Room

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Hauntings and mistreated mentally ill go hand in hand.

In order to stabilize the rocky ship of mini-major studio Relativity after its bankruptcy in July 2015, a lot has changed. Schedules have been moved, marketing has shifted, and release strategies have skewered towards smaller VOD releases. So if you’ve missed the buzz for Kate Beckinsale’s new horror film The Disappointments Room, it’s not your fault. Its September 9th release date is the third in the film’s history, but its creepy origins have remained unchanged.

Disappointment rooms, though the term seems specific to North America, were small spaces, generally located on the top floor of a house, where family members (usually children) suffering from mental or physical disabilities were kept so that they would remain out of the public eye.

The horror film revolves around Beckinsale’s character and her son discovering the history of their home’s disappointment room and its undoubted hauntedness. The true story the film is (partially) based on seems to come from a seventeenth season episode of the HGTV show If Walls Could Talk where a couple discovers a second-story room with iron-barred windows, a metal floor with welded metal loops, and a door that locked from the outside in their 19th century home. You can watch the a clip of the episode below:

Though there aren’t any ghosts or hauntings in this seemingly nice Rhode Island home, the owners take it upon themselves to make the room creepier by dedicating it to the young girl they believe to have lived there. After learning that the former owner’s daughter (from a prominent family) had died young, but never been mentioned in newspaper articles, it seemed conclusive that she was actually locked away in this secret attic.

The kindly old woman that clues these reality show homeowners in to their home’s secret past may come up and lay a wizened hand upon Beckinsale’s shoulder, but here’s hoping that her position is relegated to the creepy butler that primly tromps through the film’s trailer:

Though the name “disappointments room” may be relatively specific to the upper crust of New England, this terrible social phenomenon has been happening long before the Simpsons decided to “[chain] Hugo up in the attic like an animal and [feed] him a bucket of fish heads once a week”.

Patrick Henry, of the liberty-death ultimatum, had a wife, Sarah, that became increasingly mentally ill around 1771. Refusing the “public hospital” available at the time for such patients, Henry couldn’t let Sarah be locked into a windowless brick cell containing only a bedroll, chamber pot, and leg iron meant to attach the patient to the wall. The whole hospital was made of disappointment rooms.

Yet the social pressures of the times worked hard on Henry. He eventually secluded his wife in a two-room section of his basement until her death (though they had windows, a fireplace, and no leg irons to be found).

A legend surrounding St. Louis’s famous (and famously haunted, according to some) Lemp Mansion involves the patriarch’s illegitimate son, Zeke, born with Down’s Syndrome and sequestered in the attic. Another legend involves the heir to Glamis Castle in Scotland, who became known as the Monster of Glamis. A 1908 article cites an 1830 letter that would support the theory that a secret chamber in the castle hides the deformed rightful heir to the title and property, “but who is so unpresentable that it is necessary to keep him out of sight and out of possession”.

The Kennedys isolated the lobotomized Rosemary, no longer suffering from the behavioral problems of a young woman in her twenties but reduced to the mental capacity of a toddler, in a private home staffed by two nuns off the campus of a Wisconsin mental institution. The house, called “the Kennedy cottage”, hid her from the public eye and from the minds of her family.

The popular propagation of this bizarre treatment seems to have started, at least in popular fiction, with Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre. Savagery, in the Victorian mindset, sprung from mental illness led to her confinement and ultimately tragic death. Social critique comes in hot and heavy for her depiction, especially when the trope it formed (The Madwoman in the Attic) rears its ugly head, but it has later been reclaimed as a barb at the sexism and discrimination bred by the financial elite.

Be sure the film will treat its disappointment room as a damnation of the upper-class focus on presentability, though it might eschew all that and go the way of the unfettered ghost story.

Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).