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Who is Nurse Ratched? Meet the Character Behind Netflix’s New Series

If you’re a fan of literary and classic film monsters then you have a good reason to be excited this Fall. Netflix and Ryan Murphy are diving into one of the most terrifying villains of all time thanks to the upcoming horror drama Ratched. But if old-school horror isn’t your deal then you’re probably wondering why people are so worked up about this upcoming show.

Adapted from Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the rare horror movie that transcended the limitations of its genre to garner mainstream praise. Starring Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Danny DeVito, and Christopher Lloyd, this film about an inmate singlehandedly taking down a corrupt nurse is one of the most beloved in film history. So Sarah Paulson reimagining this iconic character’s past is sort of a giant deal. Here’s everything you need to know about Ratched to get you excited for Paulson’s stone cold interpretation of the character.

Who Is Nurse Ratched in Netflix’s Series?

There’s truly only one Nurse Ratched, and she’s one of the most detested villains in literary history. The character first appeared in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as the head administrative nurse for Salem State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital that served as the novel’s setting. Throughout the novel Nurse Ratched stood as a dictator of her domain. She had absolute authority over her mentally unwell patients and was given next to no medical oversight.

The novel, Broadway play, and 1963 movie of the same name all focus on the same power struggle. As Nurse Ratched rules her ward with an iron fist by practicing questionable medical procedures that are akin to torture, the rebellious Randle Patrick McMurphy taunts her authority, standing up for the rest of the inmates and proving that Nurse Ratched doesn’t have complete control over this hospital. By the end of the novel McMurphy almost chokes Nurse Ratched to death. She responds by having him lobotomized. It’s a fitting end to their struggle; he destroys the vocal chords that were the source of her power and she destroys his spirit.

Netflix and Ryan Murphy’s take on the character is an origin story starring Sarah Paulson. The series will attempt to show exactly what transformed this accomplished nurse into a literal monster.

What Does Nurse Ratched Symbolize?

The common interpretation is that Nurse Ratched represents institutional corruption. Though she is in a profession that’s meant to help people, she uses her power to abuse these vulnerable patients. More chilling than her reign of terror is the fact that her abuse often goes unquestioned by her staff. Only the most helpless people in this ecosystem, the patients, are able to overthrow her. Since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published, Nurse Ratched has come to embody the trope of a battle-axe nurse.

What Mental Illness Does Nurse Ratched Have?

That has never been addressed in any adaptation of the work. It’s clear that Nurse Ratched is mentally unwell. No sane, rational, or caring person would withhold lifesaving medication as part of a power play or lock people in boiling tubs. But whether those actions are a form of sociopathy, psychopathy, or something else is never explained. Instead the character is supposed to stand as a pure representation of evil.

Where Does the Term Ratchet Come From?

Though it may sound very similar to this popular literary figure, “ratchet” has nothing to do with Nurse Ratched. The slang term started gaining mainstream popularity thanks to rappers like Boosie Badazz, Nicki Minaj, and LL Cool J. According to Dictionary.com, the term likely originated from Shreveport, Louisiana, which is lovingly nicknamed Ratchet City. It means “a toothed bar with which a pawl engages.”

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, Louise Fletcher, 1975
Courtesy Everett Collection

Who Played Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

That would be Louise Fletcher. For the role Fletcher intentionally styled her hair to look like she was from the 1940s as a nod to the fact that Nurse Ratched is trapped in time. The film adaptation won Fletcher several awards including an Oscar for Best Actress, a BAFTA for Best Actress in a Leading Role, and a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama Motion Picture. Her portrayal is considered among one of the best in film history and to this day Nurse Ratched ranks No. 5 on AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Heroes and Villains.

What Else Has Louise Fletcher Been in?

Fletcher’s actually made her debut on television when she starred in 77 Sunset Strip. She then transitioned to film where she starred in Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us as well as Firestarter, Flowers in the Attic, and Cruel Intentions. Later in her career she starred as Winn Adami in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and she currently has a recurring role as Frank Gallagher’s foul-mouthed mother accused of manslaughter in Showtime’s Shameless.

Who Else Has Played Nurse Ratched?

In addition to Fletcher and Sarah Paulson, Ingrid Torrance portrayed the iconic character in ABC’s Once Upon a Time. The fairy tale drama saw Nurse Ratched working with the Evil Queen. Also Joan Tetzel, Linda Marlowe, Amy Morton, and Alex Kingston have all taken on versions of the character for the stage.

Watch Ratched on Netflix September 18

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