Warning: This post contains mentions of self-harm and suicide.

Showtime’s PENNY DREADFUL is a play on Victorian Penny Dreadful novels, which told sensational tales all for the price of a penny. They were a means for the lower classes to engage in literary pursuits, even if they were outrageous and fanciful tales. The show capitalizes on this, presenting the audience with a group of adventurers as they encounter the fantastic and often dreadful supernatural world around them. Interspersed with vampires and werewolves, however, the show also delves into the horror within. One character in particular brushes up against truly disturbing supernatural events — or does she?

PENNY DREADFUL presents an enigma in the form of Miss Vanessa Ives, who may or may not be possessed by the devil. The show creates a tension in the characterization of Vanessa, showcasing the extremes of mental illness and mental health care in a truly horrifying way. Vanessa’s encounter with the supernatural presents a question — is what she experiences real? Or is it simply the product of a tortured mind?

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Miss Vanessa Ives

At first glance, Vanessa is very much a proper Victorian lady. She is articulate, elegant, and unfailingly polite. Her character uses just the right mixture of friendliness and mystery to get what she wants. Yet, Vanessa is not manipulative; she is kind to everyone, from educated if unstable Victor Frankenstein to low-class prostitute Brona Croft. She is beautiful, a wardrobe of dark, prim gowns perfectly setting off her dark hair and pale skin.

Vanessa Ives — beautiful, elegant, composed.

However, Vanessa is much more than simply a proper Victorian lady. The first half of the season drops little hints that point to a complex hidden character. Vanessa hires American Ethan Chandler to do “night work” for her and Sir Malcolm Murray. Sir Malcolm is searching for his daughter, Mina, who was taken by vampires. Eventually, a group of adventurers forms — Vanessa, Sir Malcolm, and Ethan are joined by Sir Malcolm’s mysterious valet Sembene and Victor Frankenstein.

The group searches London for Mina, hunting in dark and sometimes horrifying places. The work is dangerous and unworldly, but Vanessa shows no hesitation. When Ethan questions this, Vanessa responds with an enigmatic “we all have our curses, don’t we?”

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Demonic Influence

What is Vanessa’s curse? The show provides tantalizing hints, but takes its time coming to the real answer. The first episode ends with Vanessa desperately praying to a crucifix, which suddenly emits thousands of spiders. Vanessa is a devout Catholic, but something sinister is haunting her. In another episode, Vanessa seemingly becomes possessed at a séance. In a fit, she climbs on the table, shouting in a strange language and revealing information she should have no way of knowing.

The glyph for Amunet branded on Vanessa’s skin.

Vanessa is called Amunet at the séance. This name connects to the corpse of a vampire they have killed, which was covered in heiroglyphics. The group consults an Egyptologist, who explains the story of Amunet. The consort of Amun-Ra, Amunet would become the “mother of evil” if they conjoined. Together they would bring about the end of the world. The Egyptologist warns not to tell Vanessa any of this. “After all,” he tells Sir Malcolm, “who wants to know they’re hunted by the devil?”

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The devil finds Vanessa when she transgresses the lines of Victorian propriety. Vanessa goes to dinner with Dorian Grey, a charming but thoroughly depraved man. He takes Vanessa to bed and encourages her to be violent with him. Initially, this excites her. However, the combination of sexual activity and violence breaks something in Vanessa. She hears a demonic voice laughing and taunting her. In a panic, she returns home to Sir Malcolm, but it is too late. Sir Malcolm finds her haggard and terrified, and she begins floating in a classic film sign of demonic possession.

Flashbacks

Episode 5 of the first season is dedicated to a flashback of Vanessa’s life up to the beginning of the series, which helps the audience understand Vanessa better. In the flashback, Vanessa is a child growing alongside Mina Murray. Their families were neighbors and the two are “closer than sisters.” Her childhood is benevolent and happy. However, everything changes when Vanessa inadvertently stumbles on her mother having sex with Sir Malcolm. The scene both appalls and entices Vanessa.

Young Vanessa and Mina discussing proper methods for taxidermy, as children do.

This marks a turning point for Vanessa, who begins stealing things from Mina. This is only a minor action, but it hints at future transgressions. As the flashback progresses, Vanessa becomes a beautiful but possessive young woman. She is angry when Mina gets engaged, but it is unclear why. Vanessa seems to resent both Mina for becoming engaged before her and Mina’s fiancé for taking up Mina’s attention. The night before Mina’s wedding, Vanessa thinks of all that will change when Mina leaves. In a shocking act of betrayal, Vanessa has sex with Mina’s fiancé, and Mina discovers them.

Understandably, this betrayal causes a rift between the two girls and the two families. Vanessa attempts to apologize, but Sir Malcolm rebuffs her. She becomes suddenly ill, violently feverish and out of her head. She has convulsions and foams at the mouth. At first, the doctors think it is epilepsy, but they soon discard that notion. With no physical evidence of illness, Vanessa’s family brings her to an asylum. Some time after her release from the asylum, Vanessa has a vision that Mina is in trouble and goes to Sir Malcolm to help. He reluctantly accepts her help only in the name of helping Mina; this is where the show begins.

Possession

Things get tricky here. To her family and to the doctors at the asylum, it seems as though Vanessa is experiencing a mental breakdown. However, in both her early breakdown and the breakdown occurring in the present-time of the show, Vanessa is clearly tapping into some supernatural force.

When Vanessa breaks down after leaving Dorian, Sir Malcolm brings the other men to help take care of her. She lashes out at the men as they take turns watching over her. In this fit, Vanessa reveals secrets she should not know and has an unworldly awareness of events. For example, she knows Frankenstein is a virgin and that Dorian seduced Ethan, using her knowledge of both of these events to taunt and mock the others.

A significantly less elegant Vanessa, mid-breakdown.

Vanessa’s earlier breakdown involves a more direct brush with a demonic force. She returns home to her mother catatonic after her release from the asylum. She has an experience where she thinks she is speaking to Sir Malcolm, but is in fact talking to a demonic spirit. Drawing on her faith, Vanessa names the spirit as the devil. She initially rejects the demon, but it seduces her and they begin to have sex.

On the one hand, this seems like it could be entirely a manifestation of Vanessa’s madness. Vanessa has a lot of guilt built up from her interactions with Mina’s fiancé and from watching Sir Malcolm and her mother. However, Vanessa’s mother investigates after hearing strange noises and comes upon her daughter seemingly having sex with an invisible man. If the demon were simply a figment of a mad imagination, it seems unlikely that Vanessa’s mother could have seen it. This was enough of a shock to kill Vanessa’s mother, which implies that the occasion was real.

Breakdown

However, in many ways Vanessa’s experience mirrors a projection of severe depression. Many of the symptoms and behaviors displayed in her “possession” resemble those of a person experiencing severe mental distress. Like many people who deal with mental illness, Vanessa initially insists she is fine. Over the course of a month, though, she progresses into a crisis.

This crisis hits hard. Vanessa ceases to eat or drink; bereft of sustenance, her face becomes gaunt and her lips crack and bleed. Vanessa claws at her skin, leaving bloody cuts on her arm, similar to a patient who self-harms. These actions completely obscure the beautiful and elegant woman we met in the first episode. Eventually, Vanessa has to be restrained to a bed for her own safety and given intravenous transfusions to sustain her.

Vanessa begs Ethan to kill her.

The crisis reaches a breaking point when Vanessa begs for death. Although she does not take steps to end her life herself, she does attempt to provoke the men into killing her. She closely resembles patients who contemplate suicide as a means of dealing with mental illness. As a devout Catholic, Vanessa cannot kill herself; yet, she still wants to be dead. Many patients contemplate and even wish for death yet shy away from direct actions for a number of reasons.

Depression

Could Vanessa’s experience simply be a manifestation of severe mental illness? She initially breaks down after Sir Malcolm rejects her attempted apology. She is overcome by guilt and sorrow over her actions. If Vanessa had a predilection for mental illness, such a shock could have resulted in a severe breakdown.

Vanessa’s later breakdown likewise occurs when she is dealing with immense feelings of guilt. A normally proper woman, her actions with Dorian go completely against her character. When consulted, Frankenstein states that she appears to be having a psychosexual breakdown. He asks if she has experienced sexual trauma, which could spark such a breakdown.

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However, another interpretation could be that Vanessa has made a connection between sex and tragedy. Having sex with Mina’s fiancé did not directly lead to a breakdown, but the aftereffects of losing Mina did. Vanessa’s mother’s death was likewise a tragic effect of a sexual occurrence in her life. If she feels that sex leads to tragedy, she could have broken down after her encounter with Dorian.

It is entirely possible that Vanessa has created a strong link between something that was negative in her life with mental breakdowns. This often happens with mental illness patients. It could be thought that sex is a trigger of sorts for Vanessa. Because sex has proceeded severe negative consequences, Vanessa has created the assumption that sex causes these negative consequences. Being confronted with her trigger — having sex with Dorian — leads Vanessa to break down because she assumes that something bad is going to happen.

Dark Realities

Regardless of whether or not the possession is real, however, PENNY DREADFUL showcases the darkness of Victorian mental health treatment. In the asylum, Vanessa receives hydrotherapy; orderlies dunk her in freezing cold baths and shoot at her with high-powered hoses. They drug her and restrain her in a straight-jacket. Eventually, the doctor lobotomizes her, and returns to her mother bald and catatonic. Vanessa is in fact lucky to return home at all. Many families, ashamed of their mentally ill relatives, left them in asylums for the rest of their lives.

An orderly cuts off Vanessa’s beautiful hair pre-lobotomy.

Vanessa also represents the sexism in psychological thought at the time. The idea that madness is connected to sexuality was an inherently misogynist viewpoint held in the Victorian period. Women were thought to be more prone to both wickedness and madness because of their sex. For instance, Vanessa goes to an asylum that explicitly specializes in “women’s disorders.” One wonders if Vanessa would have received the same treatment if she was a man.

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Furthermore, if Vanessa was possessed rather than mad, she represents an unfortunate reality about the institutionalization of women in Victorian England. Many female patients were actually sane, and only went to an institution because of outright sexism. If a woman acted in a transgressive manner, she was often treated as mad. Whereas a man might be deemed eccentric or provoking, a woman would be labeled mad and shunted off to an asylum. Vanessa demonstrates how many of these women could be condemned to an asylum against their will. She insists to her mother that she is not mad, yet her family still institutionalizes her.

What is Real?

Vanessa’s experience also showcases the dark reality of mental illness, regardless of time period. The fact that Vanessa may be possessed by a demon does not mitigate the horrors that she goes through. Patients with severe depression exhibit symptoms similar to Vanessa. Self-harm and suicidal thoughts are a major issue for depressed individuals. Vanessa’s trajectory from elegant and composed lady to bleeding and bedraggled victim exposes the way that depression can change an individual.

Vanessa’s visions are also reminiscent of mental illness. Patients with psychosis may go through similar struggles with understanding what is real and what is not. We as the audience do not know what is real either. The show indicates that Vanessa is truly possessed. Given that PENNY DREADFUL is a horror/supernatural show, it does seem possible and even likely.

Later seasons will further develop Vanessa’s dark connections to the supernatural. However, later seasons also show more of Vanessa’s time in the asylum. These scenes show both her perspective and the perspective of her nurse. By showing both sides, it becomes muddled who is right. The nurse views her as a sympathetic but ultimately mad woman. Who is the audience to trust?

Vanessa may be possessed by a demon. She may be the “mother of evil.” But she may also just be a person experiencing extreme darkness who needed help, help that she was not given. A victim of her time period, she would not have received proper treatment no matter her reality. As a woman, she would likely have received negative treatment from both the Church and the medical establishment. Vanessa represents the struggles that many women face in seeking help. Her experience is a sobering reminder of the ways that depression can change a person’s entire world.

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