Angel of death haunts Fox drama!
November 17, 2014 — Tonight’s episode of Fox’s drama Sleepy Hollow featured a strikingly clear example of the angel-of-death image of nursing: The being who was coercing patients to commit suicide at a psychiatric hospital turned out to be the demonic ghost of a real nurse who had been executed in 1959 for having caused the deaths of 21 patients. The ghost-nurse said she was acting to relieve suffering, but her method, a drug cocktail followed by powerful manipulation, was a display of creepy, monstrous evil. This is not the first time a television drama has adapted the Charles Cullen story — a prior example is a 2004 episode of the NBC drama Medical Investigation— but it may be the most explicit use of the angel of mercy / death image. That’s partly because of the extreme plot, in which the nurse actually is a supernatural being like an angel, but also because of touches like having the nurse call herself an “angel of mercy.” And the episode has no context or positive nurse counterexample. Of course, a few nurse serial killers do exist. But this kind of one-dimensional portrayal reinforces both the angel and battle-axe images. Using the term “angel” tells viewers that nurses should be spiritual beings identifiable by their virtue rather than their health care skills. The contrast between that and murder is what makes the term so powerful. And it is still applied to people like Cullen, even in the news media. At the same time, an angel of death is an extreme battle-axe; even Nurse Ratched herself did not kill dozens of people. At least the Sleepy Hollow nurse did not display the repressed sexuality that often seems to underlie the battle-axe’s misdeeds. Maybe she was too busy using telekinesis to slam the show’s police characters against walls before they finally managed to banish her with a hex! But as fantastical as such a plotline is, it still reinforces deeply held notions of who nurses are. We urge Hollywood to think carefully before trotting it out again for easy thrills.
Especially with demonic influence
This episode (Damian Kindler’s “Mama”) follows the show’s two leads, current-day police detective Abbie Mills and her somewhat unusual partner, the resurrected literary character Ichabod Crane, as they continue to battle supernatural evil in small-town New York State. Mills takes the lead on their new case, partly because Crane is ill and partly because she has a personal connection–it involves three recent suicides at the same Tarrytown Psychiatric Hospital where Mills’s mother killed herself fifteen years earlier and where Mills’s sister was once a patient. Mills arrives at the creepy hospital with her reluctant sister, and they are soon greeted by a pleasant Nurse Lambert, who is dressed, oddly, in a kind of 1950s uniform. Anyway, throughout the episode, Mills is haunted by images of her dead mother. It appears that her mother struggled with mental illness throughout Mills’s childhood and tried desperately to protect Mills and her sister from some unseen demons. It also seems that Mills’s mother was held involuntarily at this hospital up until the time of her suicide.
Reviewing surveillance video of the first current-day suicide, Mills and her sister see the victim getting pills from Nurse Lambert, who leaves. Soon after, the lights go out, the patient hangs himself, and handy night vision shows them the ghost of their mother in a corner–suggesting that ghost-Mom is responsible. Later, the ailing Crane suggests that perhaps their mother has been brought back by the demon Moloch (right), who seems to be the source of much of the evil in the show. The Mills sisters actually manage to intervene in time to prevent the next suicide, but when they do, Mills’s mother appears, then she and Mills both disappear. Mills finds herself in some creepy old wing of the hospital, where ghost-Mom issues one of her standard “it’s not safe!” warnings. Suddenly the mom is gone, and Mills is startled by the voice of Nurse Lambert, who reassuringly reintroduces herself and wonders: “How did you wind up here? This wing hasn’t been used in years.” A somewhat rattled Mills departs without wondering why Lambert herself would be there. But soon, Mills and her sister discover that ghost-Mom has left a clue directing them to an old treatment video of hers. In that video, real-Mom warns that demons are after her, and specifically that “the nurse, Lambert” says she’s a bad mother and wants her to “do it,” presumably meaning kill herself. We see an image of Lambert with the name tag “G. Lambert RN.” The off-camera therapist in the old video calmly reminds real-Mom that there is no nurse Lambert, that it’s just a delusion of hers. Mills realizes that is not the case.
Meanwhile, back in the present, Lambert is “comforting” another hospital patient, Frank Irving (right)–presumably named after original Crane creator Washington Irving–who happens to be a former police officer friend of Mills. Lambert makes her seductive pitch: “I love helping people, everyone has so much hurt bottled up inside. Trust me, these [pills] will help with the pain.” Irving takes them, and we soon see him try to drown himself in a kind of bathing facility, accompanied by spooky Lambert-voices urging him on. Mills and company rescue him, and later Mills reports that he was given psychotropic drugs, so he was open to suggestion, “especially with demonic influence.” Next, Mills is viewing a 1959 Sleepy Hollow newspaper, with the headline, “‘Angel of Mercy’ Killer Executed: Lambert Executed by Electric Chair.” Mills reads that “Gina Lambert claimed the lives of 21 patients across the country while working as a nurse.” Lambert reportedly fed patients a “cocktail that included sodium pentathol,” breaking down their emotional defenses and causing them to be willing to take their own lives. The paper explains that Lambert saw the deaths as “mercy” kills, ending patients’ pain, until she was caught in 1958. Mills and her team deduce that ghost-Mom is fighting to save people, not hurt them.
This hellish life
Visiting her mother’s old room, Mills encounters ghost-Mom and tells her that they know about Nurse Lambert. Ghost-Mom helpfully notes that her old journal has powerful magic from the ancestors that could help fight Lambert–it’s not clear why that did not help real-Mom 15 years earlier. Just then, ghost-nurse Lambert arrives and flings everyone against the walls, slams the door shut and takes Mills, who wakes elsewhere in the empty hospital wing. Immediately Lambert is on her, cooing “like mother like daughter” and strapping the struggling detective into a wheelchair. It’s tough to fight that ghostly telekinesis.
Lambert: You’re a broken spirit, needing to be freed from this hellish life. I gave your mother peace — don’t you want to know peace too? Yessss…your soul is crying out for it.
Mills (still struggling): All I want…is for you to go to hell, bitch.
Lambert: You do not have very nice manners, young lady.
Ratched could not have put it better! Anyway, Lambert wheels Mills away. Meanwhile, Mills’s sister and a detective colleague find real-Mom’s journal. Inside they discover what Mills’s sister–who seems to be a witch–describes as a “West African invocation to expel witch doctors who had risen from the dead.” But Lambert continues to menace Mills.
Lambert: Your mother struggled too. It’s difficult to see the truth sometimes. She resisted at first, but we ended up seeing eye to eye. Some of us aren’t strong enough to bear the burden, they need an angel of mercy to help them cross over, to free them from pain. Your mother finally surrendered.
Mills observes that Lambert killed her mother, and Lambert responds by presenting some pills, which the ghost-nurse seems to have the power to cause Mills to accept. But just at the last moment, ghost-Mom appears and pulls Lambert away! Meanwhile, Mills’s sister deploys the hex. Lambert starts to struggle and lash out, but her body shreds and she disappears through a floor vent, leaving only her many keys on the floor. In a closing scene, the now-liberated ghost-Mom stops by for a last visit and confirms that she did fight to protect her daughters when she was alive. But when she was committed to the hospital, the demon Moloch sent Lambert to finish her off, and she has been trapped there ever since. Remember, Mills’s mother died around 1989, when Lambert had already been dead 30 years, so there is no indication here that Moloch simply took an innocent nurse and corrupted her; Lambert was doing evil nationwide many decades earlier.
Nurse Lambert is one for the ages: a classic “angel of mercy / death” who takes dozens of lives over some six decades, in both earthly and demonic forms. Even now it’s not clear if she’s really gone for good, or just “expelled” for the time being. And she doesn’t just happento be a nurse; she’s an “angel of mercy,” as she modestly describes herself. Maybe she could come back and seduce the Headless Horseman, to help deal with those sexual urges this episode did not get into! Lambert draws on not just the real-life biography of Charles Cullen, who was responsible for many patients’ “mercy” killings, but also on elements of Nurse Mildred Ratched from Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery, psychopathic characters who tortured patients under the apparent belief that they were helping them–and incidentally both led to Oscars for the actresses who played them in later films. Hollywood does love its angels of death. Even Fox’s The X-Filesincluded a murderous Ratched-like battle-axe in a 1997 episode! One nurse the Lambert character does not resemble as closely is real Texas pediatric nurse Genene Jones, who reportedly inspired King’s character by killing dozens of children for the more mundane purpose of being praised for reviving them. In any case, as Cullen and Jones show, there have been a few actual nurse serial killers, and that is hardly surprising in a profession of millions whose work involves easy access to deadly tools and a real chance to evade detection. The problem is simply throwing echoes of those tragic, isolated cases into one-dimensional horror scenarios. At least at a subtle level, it does reinforce the sense that nurses should be defined by feminine extremes–they are either angels, nobly serving others with their hearts if not their brains; or battle-axes, abusing their power over patients; or naughty, obsessed with sexuality in the workplace. We have called this the Bermuda Triangle of the nursing image, because it’s a perilous trio of stereotypes, none of which suggests what nursing really is: a modern profession of high skilled science workers of all genders.
We’re not saying it would be impossible for Hollywood to present a responsible image of a nurse serial killer. But this episode of Sleepy Hollow is not it.