I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “bedlam” I think first of the fantastic Val Lewton RKO movie of 1946 entitled BEDLAM and starring the incomparable Boris Karloff. (It would be the last of Lewton’s classic Horror films; Lewton passed away in 1951.) But the madhouse setting of the film was an all too real place, a place even worse in reality than it was depicted in film. A corruption of the word “Bethlem”, as pronounced with a Cockney accent, and with Bethlem itself being a derivation of “Bethlehem,” the word bedlam has become synonymous with chaos. It was an insane asylum in London; in fact Bethlem Royal Hospital is still in operation today. It isn’t the same old place, though—fortunately for the patients.
Bedlam had first opened way back in 1247 as a hostelry for visiting church officials but also housed the poor. Its primary purpose however was to raise funds to support the Crusades, which explains its name, as it was in service to the Church of Bethlehem. Bethlehem, the city, had been conquered by Dracula’s ancient enemies the Turks in 1244, three years before Bedlam was opened. Bedlam might have been intended as a hospital when it first began to cater to the mentally ill somewhere around the late 1300s, but what it was in practice was a place to lock up the insane, to protect society from them. Keeping them corralled was the point, not curing them.
This is a fascinating subject, one we will visit again. Stay tuned.