Hoarders works because you can see mental illness and its effects on screen like never before: in piles of trash, or rotting food, or feces-covered toilet paper, or, in one especially disturbing episode, dozens of dead cats. The two people featured in each episode are usually at some kind of turning point—their relationship is deteriorating, they’re going to be evicted—and so a professional organizer and/or specialist comes in with a cleaning crew to help them deal with what has accumulated over the years.
But the subjects’ mental illness—for which hoarding may just be a symptom—prevents them from being able to do that, which makes it obvious that they aren’t just being stubborn. That frustration is clear in friends and family members, but particularly in the workers who have been hired to help clean up. They can’t understand why it matters that they threw away a piece of broken tile, for example.People with mental illnesses hording is not a new thing. D. Jablow Hershman in his book 'Manic Depresion and Creativity" mentions the fact that Victorian writer Thomas de Quincey "(He) piled his papers until every piece of furniture and every inch of floor were covered with them, leaving only a clear path to the door. He called this process "snowing up." When a room reached that condition, de Quincey locked the door and left it forever. He did that to six rooms." (p. 192)
Probably the most famous hoarders were the American Collyer Brothers, Homer and Langley. Both were eventually found dead in 1947, in the Harlem brownstone where they had lived as hermits, surrounded by over 130 tons of rubbish that they had amassed over several decades. E.L Doctorow's 2009 novel "Homer and Langley' and Stephen King's "Salem's Lot' were both inspired by the brother's story.
"Horders" is worth a look if you find it on your TV schedule, or download from iTunes or Hulu. But as a warning- if you love animals, cats and dogs, do not see the episode with the woman who hoards cats.
A viewable preview of the season finale is here.