For Halloween, and as something of a companion piece to my previous post on the Perception episode “Asylum“, I wanted to take another look at an all-time personal favourite series, Millennium. My episode of choice this time, though, is not seasonal favourite “The Curse of Frank Black“, but rather another second season instalment that again features a psychiatric hospital and its patients at the heart of the story: “The Pest House”.
Whilst not Halloween-themed, this is certainly an episode that seeks to trade on scares and, specifically, urban myths about bloody murders perpetrated by the so-called mentally-deranged. I found the original Fox trailer for the episode on my hard drive, as posted on the official site during the series’ original run. It’s impossibly grainy and low resolution—this was as good as it got in the Nineties, Millennials!—and is naturally over-dramatised in comparison with the tone of the episode itself, but it nevertheless conveys a sense of the brand of drama that the story seeks to leverage from its setting:
Penned by Season Two executive producers Glen Morgan and James Wong, “The Pest House” focusses criminal profiler Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) and the increasingly sinister Millennium Group’s Peter Watts (Terry O’Quinn) upon the patients at the East County Forensic Psychiatric Hospital, where they come into conflict with Dr. Ellen Stoller (Melinda McGraw, perhaps better known to Ten Thirteen fans for her semi-recurring role in The X-Files as Dana Scully‘s sister, Melissa).
A forensic psychiatric hospital typically treats and/or seeks to rehabilitate those who have come into conflict with the law but who have been either considered unfit to stand trial or deemed not criminally responsible due to mental illness. Some such units might also house people convicted of crimes but who have been sent to such a facility for rehabilitation as opposed to prison, although it would seem, from Stoller’s early interactions with Frank and Peter, that this is not the case for East County:
The representation of the hospital is an interesting mix of apparent contradictions: on the one hand a forbidding, somewhat dilapidated building, whilst on the other staffed by a team who—on the surface at least—seek to maintain as relaxed and informal an atmosphere as is possible under the circumstances.
Black and Watts are led to the hospital in the wake of a brutal killing of a teenager who, in a scenario that makes for a thrilling teaser but hinges upon a ridiculous coincidence, is killed moments after relating a spooky story about the modus operandi of a killer housed at the hospital—colloquially termed “The Pest House” by some locals—in the exact same fashion. A sequence of murders follows, each of them apparently following the pattern of a different patient in the hospital, which leads their investigation a merry dance.
In the exchanges between Black, Watts and Dr. Stoller, the tension between those caring for the patients in such an institution versus those with a duty of care towards the wider public is drawn into focus. It is a perennial debate, and the script effectively and sensitively walks its fine line without ever coming down too firmly on one side or the other. In one such conversation, Dr. Stoller challenges Frank’s assumptions that one of her patients may have been able to replicate one of his crimes from several years previously:
The explanation for the run of apparent copycat killings is where the parallels with Perception‘s episode “Asylum” come to the fore. Whilst Purdue (Michael Massee), one of East County’s long-standing patients, is signalled throughout much of the episode to be the guilty party, it is in fact one of the staff, Edward (Justin Louis), who is responsible. His motives are hinted at in a conversation with Frank after Dr. Stoller narrowly escapes an attempt upon her life by an unknown assailant:
Again, I find it an uncomfortable resolution to such a story as this, in a desire to buck audience expectations about who the killer might be, to land upon a caregiver as the killer. Yet it is somehow the combination of Millennium‘s heightened sense of reality alongside a more restrained explanation for the killer’s motives that make its version altogether more successful than Perception‘s later plundering of a similar vein.
At the episode’s climax, Edward makes a more direct attempt on Dr. Stoller’s life at the hospital only for Purdue to intervene. Purdue brutally kills Edward before he can inflict any more harm, implying that the nurse has somehow taken his and others’ dreams out of their heads, leeching them of their darkest imaginings and inclinations in the process. Whilst other instalments of Millennium have memorably shown visions of demons when killers are advancing upon their prey, in this instance it is the very patients he has emulated that appear to Stoller as Edward advances towards her:
As one thread in my essay—”Evil Has Many Faces”—for the book Back to Frank Black, I wrote about the model of evil as a contagion, and its ability to take hold of any one of us as a result. Evil is, of course, a nebulous concept that defies any absolute definition, but perhaps something similar can be said of mental illness under certain circumstances. Edward was clearly affected by what he saw Rachel, his former colleague, endure. It is strongly implied that her mental health suffered in the wake of her attack, and perhaps the same can be said for Edward himself.
Millennium is, of course, often speculative in terms of how far it will push such concepts, but perhaps there is a metaphor here for the mental damage inflicted upon the victims of violent crimes and those whose spirit may be broken due to events or pressures in their own lives, including their highly-stressful attempts to care for others. It is a bleak message, but it may just hint at an emotional truth.
If you’re staying in this Halloween, you could do much worse that revisit “The Pest House” and consider its themes for yourself. But whatever you do, and as that Fox trailer warns, “Close your windows, lock your doors, and be very afraid of the dark”.