Epilepsy at the movies

November 14, 2003

The film industry's depiction of epilepsy over the past 75 years is reviewed in this month's issue of THE LANCET NEUROLOGY. The author of the review concludes that, unlike the progressive trends seen in literature, the film industry continues to depict many ancient stereotypes associated with epilepsy.

From Hollywood blockbusters to small independent cult movies--with subject matters as diverse as Walt Disney's 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' to JFK--Sallie Baxendale from the Institute of Neurology, London, UK, outlines the portrayal of epilepsy and related disorders in 62 movies across four continents, covering nine cinematic genres.

She discusses that while similar reviews of epilepsy in literature have suggested a progression in the understanding of epilepsy over time, analysis of the film industry highlights many of the ancient beliefs and stereotypes surrounding epilepsy including demonic or divine possession, genius, lunacy, and delinquency.

Sallie Baxendale comments: "There are many stereotypes surrounding the portrayal of epilepsy in the film industry. For example, there is a strong gender bias in the ways in which epilepsy is portrayed. Male characters with idiopathic epilepsy [epilepsy with no known cause] tend to be mad, bad, and are frequently dangerous, whereas the same disorder in their female counterparts evokes exotic intrigue and vulnerability. Most characters with post-traumatic epilepsy are portrayed as heroes triumphing over the odds. The dramatic potential of seizures is highly tempting to writers and directors with fertile imaginations and perhaps this is as it should be. It is not for the medical profession to dictate or censor cinematic content. Nevertheless, a keen eye on these depictions will help us to understand and perhaps combat some of the stereotypes and myths that continue to surround epilepsy."
Contact: Dr Sallie Baxendale, Department of Psychology, National Hospital for Neurology & Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London, WC1N 3BG, UK;
T) 44-1494-601346;
F) 44-1494-876294;
E) sallieb@ion.ucl.ac.uk


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