Sit down and grab a drink because it is time that we talk about the LSD trip that is the 1981 movie Shock Treatment. Shock treatment can be called a sequel to Rocky Horror; however, the storylines are very different, and the only common thread is our main actors Brad and Janet. Where Rocky Horror was a play about lust and sexuality, shock treatment was a musical about questioning your sanity… or something along those lines.
The problem with Shock Treatment -and part of why I loved it so much -was that it was a satire on absolutely anything and everything. The message of the show was unfocused; it shot a ton of stuff at the wall and let the viewer fill in meaning. Many themes could be elaborated on within this show, including mental health, control, gender norms, consumerism, censorship, human nature, and manipulation. Most subjects were one-off and did not serve further the plot that much, but other topics struck home. The show is still well worth the watch because it’s entertaining, and it’s eerie to see how well a movie from the early ’80s reflects society today. Moreover, newer shows like Westworld and Black Mirror are still portraying the same messages about control and consumerism but, using different narrative structures than the ones used in Shock Treatment.
At a high level: we have our antagonist Farley Flavors, the CEO of Fantastic Fast Food trying win over his twin brother’s wife (Janet) by using his recently purchased TV network– Denton TV. Farley schemes to get Brad (the husband) admitted into a pseudo mental hospital using the Denton TV show Marriage Maze. Farely proceeds to win over Janet by using mysterious medicine and making her the star of the new TV show Faith Factory as “Miss Mental Health”. The devious plot of Farley Flavors gets stopped by Betty and Judge Write, who started poking around the studio after their news program got canceled to make room Faith Factory. In the end, Judge Write and Betty sneak into the mental hospital (which is inside the massive TV set), unlocked Brad, and crashed the premiere of Faith Factory. Despite saving Brad and Janet, the rest of the town is willfully ignorant and signs up for the new “mental health treatment” that Farely is selling.
The dangers of rampant consumerism and advertising are presented by using satirical Denton TV shows. The first show is called Marriage Maze; on it, Brad and Janet discuss their struggling marriage using blatantly obvious product placement. This culminates in the catchy song Bitchin’ In The Kitchen.
Later we see the Happy Homes show; in it, Janet talks to her parents about her struggling marriage and gossips about other people. The entire set of the show is an elaborate model home decked out with all the new appliances that the studio is advertising.
There is soo much to be said about mental health with this show. It is first essential to understand the historical context behind the show. Released in 81, it was likely influenced by David Rosenham’s work in 1975: Being Sane In Insane Places. This work found that it was easy to get committed to a mental ward, but, hard to get out – even if you are perfectly normal.
In the show, Brad is committed to a mental hospital for “shock treatment” to fix his marriage with Janet despite there being nothing wrong with him. Once in the psychiatric ward, Brad is drugged up, strapped to a chair, gagged, and locked away in a cage. This could be making a statement about how poorly we treat the mentally ill or how we diagnose them –especially in the ’70s and ’80s. Or, one could read more into how the audience reacted to Brad getting locked away– could be saying something about the stigma associated with mental illness.
The theme of mental illness makes more sense when considering it alongside the power structure that is presented in this show. Nobody in the show seemed particularly keen on the actual mental well-being of Brad. Farley Flavors was simply using mental health as a pawn in his plan to win over Janet. Moreover, Farley was selling mental health in his new show Faith Factory – possibly as a way to maintain his viewers’ cult-like following.
Did someone mention cult-like following? The viewers of Denton TV are caught in a trance like-state of believing everything that is told to them on the Denton TV. This brings up a discussion about how corporate interests influence the media and how that affects vulnerable audiences. In Shock Treatment, the loyalty of the viewers was betrayed by Farely Flavorers Fantastic Fast Foods when he used viewer trust to admit everyone into his literal mental hospital.
How the media can influence its audience by telling them what a person should act like was also explored in the song Thank God I’m a Man. This illustrates the media’s power to define what is considered normal. We also see more of this when they sculpt Janet into the perfect model for the new TV show Faith Factory.
Shock treatment raised some excellent questions, questions still reverberating through society today. How should we interact with the media we consume so that it doesn’t negatively influence us? How do we deal with the mentally ill in a way that is non-exploitative? Shock treatment was able to approach these questions by posing a satirical view of what society could look like with unchecked consumerism and mass media. Newer shows like Black Mirror and Westworld are raising the same questions using technological dystopias focusing on AI. This change primarily reflects technological advances and what audiences fear the most.
The type of dystopia presented in Shock Treatment is rather close to the dystopias in Farenheight 451 by Ray Bradbury George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. These dystopias were concerned with censorship, mass-media, and tyrannical rule. Non-surprisingly, we see all these features in Shock Treatment. The entire film takes place in a gigantic movie set with a large number of Denton TV fanatics. Farely censors Betty and Judge Write when they stepped out of line from his message. Finally, Farely rules with only his own motives in mind and sits alone in a control room with monitors watching everyone on set. Sound familiar? Farenheight 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four also fixated on the presence of TV screens and the omnipresence of being watched without your knowledge.
New tech dystopias like Westworld and Black Mirror liven this up for modern audiences by adding Artificial intelligence and other futuristic technologies. Now, it isn’t a powerful elite telling you what to like using mass media, it is an algorithm that determines the fate of your everyday mundane lives. This is exemplified in Westworld season three, where we learn that an AI computer system called Rohoboron is silently controlling the world through manipulation.
After nearly 40 years, it is astonishing how relevant Shock Treatment still is.