Ryan Murphy hits hard yet again with the suspenseful drama series Ratched starring American Horror Story’s Sarah Paulson; the connection between these two shows is paramount, but we will get to that in a bit. Based on the character from Ken Kesey’s iconic counterculture novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Ratched is Nurse Ratched’s origin story. We see exactly how Mildred Ratched came to the mental health industry and what made her into the psychologically complex and terrifying manipulative, however impressive boss bitch that she is.
This is not the first time I write about Murphy’s work; check out Gore and Glamour: Versace, an American Horror Story, WTF, American Horror Story, and American Horror Story is Not Dead Yet: Why You Should Watch Season 8, Apocalypse for more about Murphy’s other entertainment texts.
Murphy was involved in the creation of American Horror Story, Scream Queens, and The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Ratched, AHS, Scream Queens, and The Assassination of Gianni Versace all have a very similar aesthetic, characters, and themes making Murphy what I would consider a tv auteur. In film and genre studies, auteurs are directors whose creative influence and style are discernable throughout their entire filmography. These directors are credited as the main creators of the films they direct; well-known auteurs include Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Tim Burton, and Quentin Tarantino.
Francois Truffaut argues that “the work of an author, an auteur, could be seen in many Hollywood films. This auteur was . . . the film’s director whose ‘signature’ could be discerned by the sensitive critic who bothered to look for it” (Mast et. al 580). In auteur theory, the director’s particular “‘style’ or his ‘basic motifs’ . . . can be discerned by viewing his work as a whole” (Mast et. al 580). Although Murphy’s texts are tv/web series and he juggles writing, producing, and directing, his creative influence and style are evident in every single one of his series; you need only observe the color palette, style of horror/gore, witty writing, and actors in a series to easily identify it as Murphy’s.
In fact, it’s very likely that Murphy was influenced by auteurs’ like Hitchcock, as the parallels between Ratched and Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) suggest. Hitchcock also tackles mental health and the psyche through horrific and highly artistic and detail-oriented means in Psycho; additionally, the score in Ratched is reminiscent of Psycho’s, which is iconic to say the least. Composed by Bernard Herrmann, the score created for Psycho is highly regarded as the definitive sound of horror; according to Robert Siegel of NPR, “Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho has come to epitomize suspense and terror.”
What made the score so effective was “a string ensemble striking a chilling chord composed by Bernard Herrmann. Film professor Royal Brown calls it the Hitchcock chord” (Siegel). Siegle continues,
That bump-bump-bump-bump sort of signals the whole presence of “Psycho.” And
it's a 7th chord that contains both major and minor intervals. And that, to me, is one of the
essences of Hitchcock, which, of course, Hitchcock tends to start out in the ordinary. For
instance, the opening scene of "Psycho" looks like just an ordinary tryst in a hotel room
between Janet Leigh and John Gavin. So there's the major, but then there's also the minor,
which is getting us into the darker side of things.
In Ratched’s score, composed by Mac Quayle, there’s a similar focus on strings, and the pacing of the music is also quite similar.
Thus, Quayle achieved the classic horror sound established by Herrmann in Psycho.
In terms of aesthetic, Ratched, AHS, Scream Queens, and The Assassination of Gianni Versace share incredibly vivid color palettes that are reflected not just in the set design, editing, and lighting, but also in the costume design. The protagonists of Murphy’s shows are often dressed colorfully and placed in and around comparatively dull settings and people. They must stand out not only because they are the protagonists, but also because they are larger than life, special; the difference in their psyche is reflected in their wardrobe.
The result of Ratched’s astutely chosen color-palette, incredibly detailed set design, and artful direction are still frames that approximate paintings; the artistry in Ratched is spectacular.
As mentioned, Ratched, AHS, Scream Queens, and The Assassination of Gianni Versace also make heavy use of severe lighting and Dutch angles to demonstrate the psychological distress of the character on screen.
In Ratched, green lighting is often used to show a character has entered a negative or dangerous mental state, that is, to show something has been distorted in their thought process. A good example of this in Ratched is in episode 3 when Mildred is having sex with Charles. At first, she fantasizes about a soldier she “treated” during her service as a military field nurse in WW2, but the soldier quickly turns into Gwendolyn suggesting she’s the one Mildred truly desires. The instant this happens, the entire screen is consumed in harsh, green lighting showing us that Mildred has not accepted her sexuality.
Dutch angles and severe lighting seem the perfect tools to employ considering all of Murphy’s series explore mental health and the psyche.
- AHS: S1 - Murder Mouse/S2 - Asylum/S6 – Cult
In murder house, Dr. Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) is a psychologist who ends up treating the mentally ill, and also dead, Tate Langdon (Evan Peters) who shot up his high school. Interestingly, Asylum features Paulson as Lana Winters, a lowkey lesbian investigative journalist that is held at Briarcliff Manor, a psychiatric facility, against her will – Ratched is not far off from this with Paulson yet again playing a closet lesbian in a psychiatric facility. Cult focuses on the fear of rhetoric and the cult of personality, as demonstrated by Evan Peter's interpretation of Kai Anderson.
- Scream Queens – All the Chanels essentially suffer from delusional, narcissistic personality disorder.
- The Assassination of Gianni Versace: Versace’s murderer, Andrew Cunanan, was a spree killer that was known to have murdered five people – clearly, he had some issues.
- Ratched: Post-WW2 psychiatric facility, enough said.
In addition to all of the series sharing the mental health thematic, there’s the gore as well. Honestly, Murphy clearly has a thing for using bright color palettes to tell horrific stories about mental health, and he’s fantastic at it. Thus, it makes sense that Murphy would choose One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as source material, with its heavy critique of post-war society and psychiatric care and exploration of human darkness.
For those not familiar with the novel, it follows the story of a collection of institutionalized men who are in the care, or rather under the control, of the cruel head nurse, Nurse Ratched. In the novel, which is a clear critique of post-war heteronormative society which urged conformity and discouraged individuality, Nurse Ratched clearly represents the state or “Combine,” which must control those which threaten the stability of the system.
If you’re at all familiar with the novel, finding out Mildred Ratched’s sole desire is to free her psychotic and murderous brother in Ratched is quite the trip; in fact, the gentility and consideration she displays to others in certain instances is straight up mind boggling. Of course, these are only slivers of the real Mildred coming out; she’s not all good. In fact, Mildred proves to have a proclivity for the dark and a penchant for the gruesome, so long as it’s with a purpose.
As we discover Mildred’s backstory and how her relationship with her brother developed, we begin to understand how she became the strange, twisted, and, honestly, interesting woman that she is. So, what changes between her and her brother? Well, you’ll have to watch the show to find out (I don’t want to tell you everything), but trust that something happens that clearly sets Mildred on a more selfish path, one we can reasonably see landing her at the Oregon psychiatric hospital where One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest takes place.
In Ratched, society at large plays the role that Nurse Ratched plays in the novel, it dissuades the main characters from being their authentic selves. Mildred Ratched along with most of the other main characters in the show have secrets they must keep in order to save face and be socially acceptable. The show is essentially about running from you who really are; it’s about how normative society stamps out individuality in favor of complacency and the lengths people are willing to go to to preserve their sense of agency and authenticity.
Mast, Gerald et. al, editors. Film Theory and Criticism. Oxford University Press, 1992.
Siegel, Robert. “Bernard Herrmann's Score to 'Psycho.'” NPR, 30 Oct. 2000,