How Batman's Arkham Asylum Became So Messed Up
The Batman director Matt Reeves has announced a new HBO Max show about the least effective mental institution in all of fiction, Arkham Asylum ... and un-announced the previously discussed show about the Gotham City Police Department since HBO decided to pull the plug on that one. This kinda makes sense because no one sits down to watch Batman-related media thinking, "Boy, I wonder what the colorful and interesting cops are up this time" (and if anyone did, the show Gotham ended that).
Reeves described the new show as "leaning into the idea of ... it's like a horror movie or a haunted house that is Arkham." That certainly fits Arkham Asylum's modern interpretation, but the place didn't always have that "haunted house" vibe going on. Originally, it was called Arkham Hospital and looked like a regular building with proper lighting and boring euclidean geometry.
Despite the H.P. Lovecraft reference in its name, there was nothing particularly eerie or supernatural about Arkham when it first appeared in 1974. For a while, they just drew it like a normal prison, with a shared visiting room and all (as opposed to the Hannibal Lecter "talking through thick glass" visiting system it has now).
Arkham's inept security was a recurrent theme from early on, though. Somehow, the guards failed to notice the fact that the Joker turned his padded cell into an elevator and built an entire criminal hideout under the asylum, which he called the "Ha-Hacienda."
At first, Arkham's backstory was "eh, it's a building, who cares." But everyone and everything in comics must have an elaborate secret origin, and in 1985 Arkham got a pretty dark one: turns out it was founded by Amadeus Arkham, whose wife and daughter were killed by one of the asylum's first inmates, and it's implied that Amadeus fried the guy's brains in retaliation. Amadeus ended up becoming an inmate himself, and he didn't just go crazy -- he went "carving indecipherable inscriptions on the floor of his cell with his fingernails" crazy.
In 1989, the acclaimed Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth graphic novel expanded on this sad tale and established that the "inscriptions" were part of a spell created by Arkham to bind some sort of bat demon that haunted the place. It was also around this time that artists started drawing Arkham like everyone in it is constantly having the worst acid trip of their life, which might explain why so many asylum employees end up going nuts.
The graphic novel was ambiguous about whether Amadeus Arkham's demonic fears were real or just delusions, but it has since been made canon that there is an ancient bat deity haunting Gotham. This is among the many indications that Arkham does have some sort of supernatural ju-ju going on, hence stuff like Amadeus hearing the Joker's echoing laughter decades before the Joker was born. The place is so alienated from normal human logic that it doesn't even obey the rules of time and space.
Matt Reeves' "haunted house" comment makes it sound like the new show will at least partially follow these crazy ideas, but who knows, maybe he'll surprise us by going with the more lighthearted version of Arkham and giving us the first live-action adaptation of the Joker's Ha-Hacienda. Frankly, it's overdue.
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Top image: Warner Bros. Pictures