Can’t get enough of compulsive hoarders

Shows from CSI to South Park are cashing in on our fascination with the disorder

Can't get enough of compulsive hoarders

On a CSI episode, a hoarder is a suspect after a body is found under heaps of trash; South Park mashed up hoarding with Inception | Monty Brinton/CBS/Getty Images; Comedy Central

Move over, drug addiction: compulsive hoarding is the most popular real-life disorder on television. After the success of two reality shows about people who compulsively save all kinds of junk—A&E’s Hoarders and TLC’s Buried Alive—many shows in the last year have done fictional stories about the issue. Experts don’t seem to know whether or not this is going to be a good thing for public awareness of the condition. Gail Steketee, a professor at Boston University and co-author of the book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, told Maclean’s that a CSI episode called “House of Hoarders” offered “some accurate verbal information” about what hoarding is, but that “stepping on dead bodies amidst the clutter definitely overplays the problem.”

CSI wasn’t the first gruesome procedural to get to this topic. Earlier in 2010, Ann-Margret won an Emmy award for guest-starring on Law and Order: SVU as a woman who refused to throw away sheets that she bled on, and Bones dealt with the murder of a man who couldn’t bring himself to throw anything away in his smelly apartment. Hart Hanson, who created Bones and co-wrote the hoarding episode, told Maclean’s that his staff looks for timely topics to build murder mysteries around, and that hoarding provided a perfect arena for sleuths to investigate: “We liked the idea that the hoarder had something of great value hidden in amongst the crap—in our case, a radioactive gnome.” They were even able to tie the story into the previously established character traits of their hero, Booth (David Boreanaz), whose messiness “classified him as a ‘level one’ hoarder. He collected junk. And we put that in the story.”

Comedy has been just as eager as drama to get in on the act. South Park, which often bases plots on reality shows, did an episode combining Hoarders with the movie Inception, as people went into a character’s dreams to find out why he was incapable of throwing anything out. (It turned out he had been raped by an anti-littering mascot.) Meanwhile, Raising Hope, one of the most popular new comedies of the season, revealed that the character Virginia (Martha Plimpton) was saving all of her family’s useless junk. What’s causing all this interest in people who are, as Steketee describes it, “inordinately attached to their possessions”?

Part of it is that no matter how much scriptwriters complain about reality television, they watch plenty of it. Hanson says the Bones story “came directly from the world of reality TV. Monday morning, invariably someone would talk about the Hoarders show” and the filth it chronicled. “I think what caught my ear was that one of the hoarders had snakes in her place, in the middle of the city, on the third floor of an apartment building. And off we went.” Though Hoarders is A&E’s most popular show, it gets a fraction of the viewership of Bones or CSI. But network TV writers can use these shows to find out what kind of real-life horrors the public is interested in.

Will all these stories actually call attention to what experts consider a serious problem, or will they just trivialize the issue? Maybe the latter, as usual. Steketee points out that there’s a tendency to portray any messy behaviour as an example of hoarding, whether it really is or not. The comic strip “Zits” recently did a story where the team from Hoarders showed up to look at a teenager’s sloppy room, but Steketee says that any parent would know “this is hardly a hallmark of hoarding—it’s just a pretty normal lack of interest in cleaning up after oneself.”

With everyone jumping on the hoarding bandwagon, Steketee thinks the viewing public might lose sight of the difference between real hoarding and normal human behaviour: these plots are all right “so long as people don’t begin to assume that messiness equals hoarding. It doesn’t.” But the job of writer-producers isn’t to raise awareness; it’s to create what Hanson calls “worlds that we can enter, which we hope are interesting, visual, and don’t break the budget to recreate.” That’s why hoarding may stick around as a TV subject for a while: a messy room is fascinating to look at—and not expensive to build.

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