If there's one thing that Hollywood is crazy good at, besides explosions and anorexia, it's making sure the audience has an easy time of separating the good guys from the bad guys. No villain, no drama. No drama, no cocaine for the producers.
Unfortunately, Hollywood does such a good job that we forget that in real life, some organizations are, well, kind of the good guys. Consider ...
As Seen In: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Girl Interrupted, House on Haunted Hill, Shutter Island, Nightmare on Elm Street, Batman Begins, 12 Monkeys
What Hollywood Thinks They Do:
Good luck if you're a mentally unstable character in a Hollywood movie, because you're in for a rough patch. You're either going to be held against your will and tortured by malevolent nurses with electroshock, or your asylum is straight haunted. Either way, your mental wellness is no one's priority.
Also, finding cigarettes can be a bitch.
In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, an un-crazy Jack Nicholson is committed to an insane asylum to serve out the rest of a prison sentence. He thinks he's going to get a cushy rehab before flitting back out into the real world, but he finds the place is even more oppressive and humiliating than an actual prison. Thanks to the brain-numbing drugs and daily humiliations distributed by Nurse Ratched, the patients end up crazier (or deader) than they were when they first arrived. Jack winds up with a chunk of brain cut out against his will.
But even that isn't as bad as the asylums in horror movies. Or the one in Batman Begins, where a crazy administrator gives patients hallucinogens that induce nothing but bad trips. Or the one in House on Haunted Hill, which was once the home of a diabolical doctor who performed Mengelesque experiments on his patients. Or Shutter Island, where we won't actually tell you what happens, but just know an insane asylum is involved and it is terrible.
Do not watch this movie on drugs unless you've got a mean hankering for PTSD.
The rest? All haunted.
What They Actually Did:
There's no question that back in the old days, there was some brutal treatment of the mentally ill in these facilities. But you also have to stop and ask: If there were no such thing as asylums, what's the alternative? What happens to the people too mentally ill to care for themselves?
They make tens of millions of dollars?
We know the answer, because about 80 percent of all the asylums in the country were closed down between 1955 and 1985, which left about 400,000 patients without care. The answer is sleeping on the park bench of every city you go to: We now call these people "the homeless." This is why about 40 percent of the homeless are people with mental illnesses.
The backlash against asylums started in the 1960s, when the government A) realized it was expensive to run group homes, and B) the world found out about a hellhole called Willowbrook. Staten Island's Willowbrook was an institution for mentally retarded children, and we're not going to lie to you, it was bad. Way bad. Robert Kennedy called the place a "snake pit," and it would have actually been better had it been filled with snakes.
"Dr. Jonesss, when would you say you started to fear commitment?"
Geraldo Rivera did an expose that showed patients rocking themselves on the floor, naked and surrounded by their own poop and pee. Naturally, the whole country freaked out that our most vulnerable children were being treated this way, especially after we found out that doctors intentionally gave the kids hepatitis to study its effects. So, yeah, Willowbrook was really bad.
Not quite Geraldo Rivera bad, but still pretty awful.
So, the good news was that a really evil place was shut down. The bad news was that people kind of got the impression that all asylums were as bad as Willowbrook, and they had no problem shutting down other group homes as well. The other bad news was that it turned out most families weren't all that interested in a lifetime of caring for their mentally ill, and those former patients usually ended up on the streets, which led to the huge spike in homelessness that Comic Relief has been talking about for decades.
But hey, at least the streets aren't haunted.
As Seen In: Sons of Anarchy, Rat Race, The Terminator, Mad Max, The Wild One, Fletch Lives, Weird Science
What Hollywood Thinks They Do:
If you're in a movie and you see a motorcycle gang, run! Because you don't want to be around for all the rape and murder that will inevitably get under way. Like on the series Sons of Anarchy, which features a gang of bikers who sell illegal guns and run a protection racket. Not only do they beat up, shoot and kill people every other week, they also fight with rival biker gangs over territory, as if the whole country is just one big mess of outlaw biker hooligans or something.
We're so used to seeing biker gangs as the bad guys that we take the whole cliche for granted. Of course the villains of Mad Max are barbarians on motorcycles. Of course a lady biker gang runs a family off the road over a minor misunderstanding in 2001's Rat Race. In the movie world, stuff like that is how bikers get their kicks.
What They Actually Do:
There is such a thing as outlaw biker gangs, just as there is such a thing as outlaws who like to drive souped-up cars. The federal government claims that about 20,000 bikers are members of "outlaw motorcycle gangs," which usually means they use their clubs to traffic drugs. Sure, it sounds like a big number, but considering that the largest group of registered bikers (the American Motorcyclist Association) claims 25 million members, that'd give you less than one outlaw biker in a thousand. Which means that the 999 others are more likely to be regular guys who just have a thing for leather and love the feel of the wind in their mullets.
"I actually drive a Rascal. But I still pack a MAC-10."
So what do groups like the AMA do if they're not raping and pillaging? They raise millions of dollars for charity every year. Here's a list of their main functions:
1. Providing insurance benefits to members
2. Organizing rallies and educating riders on driver safety
3. Donating close to $8 million a year to charity
We suppose it's just not as exciting to portray motorcycle clubs as they really are -- composed almost entirely of regular guys who like motorcycles and want to hang out with other guys who like motorcycles. But that's all it is; they have rallies where people show off their bikes and ... well, that's about it. That and the charity.
"Y'all best donate to Amnesty International, 'fore I skin your face with a tire chain."
As Seen In: Lady and the Tramp, Hotel for Dogs, The Shaggy D.A., Fluke, All Dogs Go to Heaven
What Hollywood Thinks They Do:
In the world of movies, the pound is basically a jail for dogs, only every animal is on death row and being someone's bitch isn't such a bad thing. In the kids movie Hotel for Dogs, not only is the pound built like an actual prison, with an iron fence and guards, but the people who work there seem to hate animals with a passion. Halfway through the movie, dozens of dogs are sent to the pound, at which point the pound workers brag about euthanizing them the next day. No waiting period, no trying to get them adopted, no remorse.
So maybe it's less like a prison and more like a freaking concentration camp.
What They Actually Do:
First of all, the pound actually gives you a place to look for your dog if it gets away, so you don't have to wander the streets like a hobo canine detective. In fact, 30 percent of dogs that are brought into shelters end up getting reclaimed by their owners. Of the leftovers, half get adopted by people who aren't out to kill animals at all.
Obviously there is a limited capacity to care for the animals, and eventually they have to be put down (though most states have no-kill animal shelters now, which are shelters that will never put down the animals they take care of, no matter how long it takes for them to get adopted).
"I've been here since the Nixon administration!"
We realize that in a movie starring, say, talking dogs, it makes sense from the screenwriter's perspective to make the dog catcher and the pound the villain -- a whole lot of dogs do go there to die. But what makes the portrayals in these movies so grossly unfair is that these facilities are run by the people who love animals the hardest. They're not exactly high-profit operations, and who else is going to take a job at a place where they get paid next to nothing to clean up dog poop?
It would be like a homophobe applying for a job as a roadie on the traveling production of La Cage Aux Folles. It just doesn't happen.