A&E’s unsettling yet compelling new show, Hoarders, follows people who suffer from a mysterious compulsion to hoard objects, trash, and even animals. Cast in a similar mold to the network’s popular Intervention, the series follows new subjects each week. While they appear in their often unimaginably filthy houses, the show cuts to hoarding specialists, including therapists and professional cleanup crews, who try to help make the homes habitable. As the camera pans over mountains of clutter—including tattered clothes, discarded plastic wrappers, rotting food, and, most hauntingly, the remains of long-dead animals—Hoarders evokes a range of conflicting emotions from its audience, from morbid fascination to compassion to revulsion.
According to MayoClinic.com, the causes of hoarding are not entirely known or understood, though it is often associated (rightly or wrongly) with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The series does not attempt to ferret out underlying reasons for how or why its subjects began to hoard, at least not in the episode that aired on 7 September. Here, 21-year-old garbage hoarder Jake struggled with suicidal depression, and Shirley, a 71-year-old stray-cat hoarder, faced criminal charges for animal endangerment. The experts called in to assist Jake and Shirley compared hoarding to drug and alcoholic addiction, but the high or relief that comes from hoarding is trickier to fathom, especially in cases like Jake’s and Shirley’s, when the objects kept have long outlived their use, beauty, or safety. For instance, Jake had trouble parting with his dog’s shed fur (he fears disposing of it will lead to her death), and Shirley had long forgotten the contents of the many cardboard boxes, now soaked in cat urine, crowding every room in her house.
With Jake, there were hints of a heredity disposition or perhaps environmental influences. His alcoholic father also had hoarding issues; his collection of empty booze bottles (crammed under pieces of furniture and inside dresser drawers and kitchen cabinets) must have numbered in the hundreds. Shirley was unable to tackle the clutter because she had been weakened by a recent stroke, but her hoarding of animals began long before then. That she continued to take on more and more cats despite the fact that her pets had destroyed nearly everything in her home (leaving waste and carcasses in their wake) suggested that she was struggling with psychological issues as debilitating as her physical infirmities.
Hoarders vividly illustrates the psychological effects of hoarding, the feelings of shame, worthlessness, and despair caused by living in an uncontrollable mess, plus the crippling anxiety that comes when trying to get rid of it. The show also examines the puzzling codependent dynamic between hoarders and their cohabitants. Family members may be appalled by the clutter, but many also seem to adapt to it. Viewers who have never struggled with this problem (or known someone who has) may throw up their hands in exasperation and exclaim, “Just clean it up already!” But what the show makes palpable is the crippling inertia that can overwhelm the hoarder once his home has been stuffed to maximum capacity. It often takes an outsider —a therapist, law-enforcement official, or removal crew member—to articulate, “It is dangerous for you to keep living this way.”
With their strong resolve, and even stronger stomachs, the experts are the heroes of this series. As he directed his assistants to Shirley’s garage, hoarding specialist Matt Paxton warned, “The smell is going to be aggressive, so if you need to throw up or anything, do it outside.” The therapists, protected by face masks and gloves during the removal process, powered through, talking their clients down from each panic attack and offering positive reinforcement for every useless or unsafe object the hoarder threw away.
Much like Intervention or Obsessed, Hoarders’ visual style follows the typical reality-TV model. Interspersed among the alarming shots of hoarded objects are talking-head interviews and black-and-white intertitles that provide information about the subjects and the therapeutic process. The series occasionally undermines this straightforward approach with unnecessarily “freaky” sound effects (devolving into Clean Sweep by way of David Fincher). While the show sometimes seems exploitative, it also provides its participants with essential (and, one suspects, expensive) professional help they might not otherwise receive. Without the support of these specialists, who knows what would become of Jake, Shirley, or her cats.