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Epilepsy Stereotypes Abound in Movies

Film Industry Depictions Don't Match Up With Modern Medicine

WebMD Health News

Nov. 21, 2003 -- The dramatic potential of epileptic seizures has been a favorite source of inspiration for filmmakers. But new research suggests that the film industry hasn't caught up with medicine and continues to depict ancient beliefs and stereotypes associated with epilepsy.

A survey of 62 international films that deal with epilepsy found the condition is still commonly linked with demonic or divine possession, genius, lunacy, and delinquency.

The study also found that there is strong gender bias in how epilepsy is depicted on the silver screen. Male characters with epilepsy outnumbered female characters. Most of the films with males depicted a faked epileptic seizure for a criminal gain.

Researchers found that male characters with epilepsy were frequently portrayed as mad, bad, and dangerous, as in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But the same disorder is often used in female characters to add exotic intrigue and vulnerability, such as Elina in the American comedy Simple Men.

Epilepsy is a nervous system disorder caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. These electrical bursts lead to epileptic seizures that temporarily affect a person's muscle control, movement, speech, vision, or awareness.

Epilepsy at the Movies

Researchers say the portrayal of epilepsy in film has not been widely studied. But for most people, a cinematic representation might be the only epileptic seizure they ever see.

"For many people, the recollection of a character 'faking a seizure' at the movies may be their only reference point on hearing the diagnosis [of epilepsy]," writes researcher Sallie Baxendale of the Institute of Neurology in London.

"Although it is not for the medical profession to dictate or censor cinematic content, 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," says Baxendale.

The study, published in the December issue of The Lancet Neurology, showed that characters with epilepsy were much more common in dramas than any other genre. These characters ranged from war heroes (The Idiot) to prostitutes (1900) to gang leaders (The Life of Jesus) to dwarves (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).

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