A young woman wakes up handcuffed in a small boat. She attacks her captors, but they’re far out to sea – there’s nowhere for her to escape to. She’s brought to a small island where nobody will answer her questions. Medical tests are performed by staff who ignore her demands. Eventually a doctor arrives and reveals the truth: she’s been committed to a sanatorium, and there’s a good chance she’ll never leave.
Set in 1973, Finnish series Bad Apples is the latest in a long line of gripping thrillers showing the grim abuses of a mental health system more interested in keeping troubled people out of sight than providing them with real help. But there’s more to the series than just a gender-swapped version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Bad Apples’ women-only insane asylum might be a compelling setting for fiction, but the horrors Onerva Poikelus (Satu Tuuli Karhu) will face at Eaglerock Sanatorium are based firmly on facts.
A real-life island of horrors
At the beginning of the 17th century, Seili, a small, isolated island in the Turku archipelago off the western coast of Finland, became the site of a leper colony. Chosen because it was handy to the Turku–Stockholm shipping lane – and more ominously, because it had a sandy ridge perfect for a cemetery – it rapidly became home to a mix of lepers and the mentally ill.
Left largely to fend for themselves with only occasional visits from the local doctor, the death rate among those dropped off on the island was around 30% a year. It rapidly became the biggest mental institution in Finland; after the lepers were moved elsewhere it remained a hospital and was expanded several times in the 19th century.
Then in 1889, the island’s mental institution became women only. It was not a place with a focus on rest and recovery. Basically, it was seen as a one-way trip; legend has it that those sent there were told to bring wood and nails to build the coffin they’d be buried in.
Even though it was close to Finland (you can travel there today on your own boat), for the next 70 years it became the nation’s dark secret. Some of the women sent there had real disorders that desperately needed serious treatment; others ended up there because they were an inconvenience to their families.
Women were sent to this island of no return for being prostitutes, or being homeless, or for falling pregnant outside marriage. And once there, they were given the kind of treatments that were standard in the first half of the 20th century: injections of mercury, freezing baths designed to induce hypothermia, insulin-induced comas and the then primitive blunt force version of electro-shock therapy.
The fiction from the facts
Though the real hospital was eventually closed in 1962, Bad Apples asks the question: what if the hospital at Seili – or one very much like it – had remained open? During the social turmoil of the late 60s, an institution aimed at “rehabilitating” women who didn’t conform to the values of the time would have had a steady clientele. Today they’d be seen as rebels, trailblazers, or just women trying to live their lives; back then, there was a sizeable chunk of society who saw them as problems needing a solution, and all it took was a husband’s signature to lock them away.
That’s the grim situation 23-year-old sociology student Onerva finds herself in. A social activist detained after a student riot, she’s shipped off to the fictional Eaglerock Island for “rehabilitation”. Once there, she’s told a recent storm has put the phones out of order; calling her husband Tuomas (Paavo Kinnunen) for rescue is going to have to wait. Though with her reputation as a troublemaker, getting off the island might take more than just a phone call – and with her anger issues, some might say the island is the right place for her.
As a newcomer, Onerva struggles to find her footing on the island. Psychopathic patient Ritva Kalima (Sonja Kuittinen) seems like a threat, while Dr Lundsten (Santeri Kinnunen) might really want to help. But the treatments she’s put through quickly go beyond the ordinary, threatening to destroy her very identity. Whatever’s taking place on the island, she’s going to have to uncover the truth quickly.
As part of the treatment on the island, the women are sent to work in an orchard. The best apples are sent offshore; the rotten ones are cut up and used to make juice to help the patients take their medicine. Onerva’s told the bad apples still have their uses, so long as they don’t contaminate the good ones; if she gets her way, one bad apple is going to blow the whole barrel apart.
Bad Apples season 1 is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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