A deep dive into a filthy TV show


Whereas I find the suffering of mentally ill people to be inappropriate as entertainment, I recently got into binging Hoarders (what my TV-buddy Julian calls a “Goth-lite” TV show), because it is like watching open-heart surgery in a medical theater —  only the theater is the mind of the hoarder, and the surgery is performed by removing unstable mounds of filthy thrift-store items. 

“Compulsive Hoarding is a mental disorder marked by an obsessive need to acquire and keep things even if the items are worthless, hazardous, or unsanitary,” says the show, at the outset. 

Another way of saying it: hoarding is human pain manifest in a self-imposed prison of waste.

It is, in essence, what J.G. Ballard would call an “atrocity exhibition.” 

I found this show strangely compelling for a number of reasons, the least noble of these being, “Mental illness?  Hell, I have well under 75 dead cats in the refrigerator.  I’m a rock star.”  Squalor is interesting in and of itself; and it is gratifying to see it being cleaned up, both physically and psychologically.

 But really, the attraction is this: nowhere are the mysteries of mental illness more tactile and potentially malleable than in the home of a hoarder. A ram-packed house is a portrait of unprocessed grief, trauma and buried resentment.  Neurosis spreads around the hoarder like an externalized fungus of neglected clutter.  Studies have shown that hoarding disorder affects 19 million Americans. 

What each hoarder seems to have in common is the defeatist attitude, “I finally gave up and said to hell with it!” — in conjunction with a defiant stance articulated by “I don’t want anyone telling me how to live!”  Each hoarder has been triggered by a trauma —usually death, divorce or some other violation — which caused their hoarding to “spiral out of control.”  The walls of junk are not just a metaphor for emotional blockage — they are the literal blockage — a completely weaponized bunker of denial that protects the hoarder against unfelt grief, humiliation, shame - and also the various perils of close human contact. 

It’s an interesting premise for a reality show: the production company of the TV show connects with people on the brink of losing their homes, or their families, or in some medical cases, their own lives due to excessive hoarding. They are under threat from city officials due to code violations, or on the verge of having their children removed into foster care; some family members of hoarders are considering calling Adult Protective Services and removing the hoarder from their ruined homes, into assisted living arrangements. 

The hoarder has a limited amount of time - several days - to completely change, inwardly and outwardly, and to let go of all the accumulated debris of decades — which is a gruesome challenge both emotionally and physically. 

The TV show exerts an intense amount of pressure onto the situation. They’re the Hail Mary, last-ditch attempt to bring the hoarder into a healthier life, and in some cases avoid homelessness.  There’s a redemption element;  the Hoarders production team is there to rescue the hoarder in the way that only a team of experts with a fleet of trucks can achieve. 

Sometimes the experts on Hoarders, who are legally obliged to do so, threaten to call CPS or APS on the hoarder themselves after seeing the packed home, adding an extra, somewhat inhumane ‘gun to the head’ element to the show’s objective of a fast and successful cleanup/ emotional catharsis.

The production company provides psychiatrists who specialize in OCD spectrum disorders and compulsive hoarding, in tandem with extreme cleaning teams — in some cases, biohazard teams wearing Tyvek suits.  

The stars of the show are really the psychiatrists, particularly Dr. Robin Zasio, a tall, skinny blonde psychologist with Morticia Addams sleeves who looks like she was a Triple Delta all through college life, and Dr. Melva Green, a soulful-eyed black woman who is full of folksy, spiritual truths like “You have to be able to feel it to heal it.” 

Dr. Green has an uncanny ability to see through rooms of trash straight into the wound of them: “She’s hoarded with a sense of worthlessness.” 

It is important to the team to secure the permission of the hoarder to throw their dirty and useless things away — otherwise, the hoarder may have a complete nervous breakdown.   Many hoarders when forced to throw things away become hysterical or irascible (they are especially attached, for some reason, to styrofoam or Igloo coolers, which many love to the brink of physical violence.)  Many hoarders disappear for hours or days in the middle of the process, because the emotion of publicly disposing with the literal tons of emotional garbage in their homes is too much for them.

According to an excellent listicle I found on by Alexa Terpanjian, hoarding is more common in the United States than anywhere else in the world.  In countries with socialized medicine like Sweden and the Netherlands, where there are comprehensive social programs and mental illness is actually dealt with, it is far more rare. 

Terpanjian wrote that according to the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 2011, there is a genetic variation in hoarders that substitutes valine for methionine, the chemical causing the brain disorder responsible for both hoarding and overeating in both people and animals. (Hoarders are three times more likely than other people to be overweight or obese.)

What becomes abundantly clear, watching the series, is that hoarding is an addiction as devastating to a family as any narcotic; in cases of rat infestation, it can affect an entire neighborhood.  Hoarders are commonly in deep denial; many call themselves “collectors,” or simply “bad housekeepers.” 

The one thing a hoarder controls, according to the show, is “the act of collecting.”  The cleanup invariably causes the hoarder deep anguish; they often compare the removal of the hoard to the loss of children or limbs. 

Hoards erode human connection; families are estranged as the hoarder refuses to let them see the inside of the house.  Most of the families have not been inside the hoarders’ lairs for a number of years, and all are shocked to tears and horrified by the hoarder’s living conditions.  The children of hoarders are often bullied at school because of their weird smell.

“You gotta have shoes,” explained one hoarder. “Just like you gotta have a wig to go with it.” (Cut to: wall of enough wigs to make a mastodon, next to a crying, distraught daughter, asking the hoarder, “Does your junk mean more to you than I do?”.)

Rooms become so hoarded that the only access to certain rooms is to climb up to the top of the doorway and slide down the other side. The narrow aisles through a hoard are clinically known as “goat paths” (a term they avoid, on the show). 

The soundtrack of the show would not be out of place in a horror movie - long, low, sustained dread-chords with screechy punctuation synths just shy of the Psycho soundtrack.

“As the cleanup goes on, Mike makes a shocking discovery,” a sign on the show often reads. 

This could be anything; a petrified rat, a noose, a ziggurat of urine jugs.

The show can be uncomfortably graphic, filled with shots of what I’d call “hoarder porn.” 

In sedimentary layers, as hoarded floors are shoveled out, often the one closest to the floor is overrun with vermin feces and insects.  Packed refrigerators are teeming with black mold.

Some hoarders turn completely primitive and improvise bathrooms when their water gets turned off — a few defecate on their own floors, ruining the wood down to the studs.  The producers seem to cherish shots of  defunct toilet bowls crawling with maggots, or bathtubs encrusted with vulcanized dung.   In one case, a house was full of possum droppings.  In severe cases, once the hoard is removed, there is no option other than to bulldoze the house. 

It is not uncommon in the case of animal hoarders to find cages containing the skeletons of dead dogs, cats, birds.  Animal neglect as a result of hoarding accounts for the suffering and/or death of some 250,000 animals a year, in the US. 

The animals’ bodies become… something else, for the hoarder, other than a corpse.   One woman refused to give up the petrified carcass of a dead rat, because she was going to “do macramé and make a background for it.” 

Sometimes there is a miniature class war between the Hoarder team and the hoarder.  “You can just go out and buy another table,” the hoarder with missing teeth hollers at Dr. Zasio, the flat-ironed statuesque blond, obviously well-to-do therapist urging her to recognize that the the rat-feces covered dining table is unsanitary. 

Interestingly, according to Terpanjian, brain scans have revealed that hoarders have extremely low activity in their thinking and emotion center, the anterior cingulate cortex. These areas light up drastically however, when their stuff is being taken and thrown away.

The British Psychological Society came out with a report decidedly against reality shows that use mental illness to shock and entertain, stating that “The shows promote the idea that arriving at a house with a cleaning crew and pressuring people to discard possessions is the way to solve the problem.” 

The hoarders who cooperate the most enthusiastically with the purging process at the beginning of the cleanup are often the most difficult toward the end —  the experts complain that they’re not getting down to the unprocessed emotional dirt.  Hysterical crying is seen as a good sign that someone is “doing the work.” 

Aftercare funds for psychotherapy are in some cases provided, ironically, by Storage Mart.  Few hoarders opt for the after-care.  A number of hoarders regress back to their old ways as soon as the cameras leave.

“I don’t think we’ve done much this time,” one of the expert cleaners occasionally laments.  Often, when the mental illness is too far gone, the house is left half-hoarded, with a still-raving woman living in a temporary oasis of visible floor-space. 

What the show really does is expose psychological damage in such a physical way, it forces the viewer to consider in what ways they too are hoarded, with the internal debris of neurosis, defense mechanisms, anxiety, trauma — and what that looks like on the inside, when it isn’t expressed through a shed full of tangled bicycles.

Arguably, the real culprit is American consumerism; the insidious, tacit promise that material items will provide a temporary high when purchased — the satisfying hunt for bargains, the making of a deal.  Purchasing items (compulsively, often unto bankruptcy) provides something that feels like conferred self-esteem.  In this way, hoarding is perhaps the most American of all mental illnesses.  Our consumerism — the relentlessness and sophisticated psychological intrusiveness of commercial messaging -  is perhaps the deadliest and most addictive drug of them all.  In this internal sense, we could all use a fleet of televised dump trucks to make us whole.