Movies, whether independent films, documentaries or Hollywood blockbusters, have a powerful impact on how we understand concepts. Whether information is accurate, exaggerated or false, if it’s portrayed in movie form we tend to accept and believe it more readily. Some of the most pervasive areas of movie influence over information is in the area of mental illness, mental institutions and institutional behavior.
Think about mental institutions and what comes to mind? “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Girl Interrupted”, “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”, “Patch Adams”, “Sybil”, “The Snake Pit” and more recently “Shutter Island” to name a few movies about mental institutions. We take our view of what we don’t know or don’t understand from what we see in movies and on television. In some cases, if the representation is accurate, we form relatively accurate opinions. If the information is distorted we form distorted ideas.
All too often, especially in terms of mental illness, we inherit fear and loathing from movie portrayals. In the 1970s, every state mental institution employee became Nurse Ratched in the mind of the American viewing public. She became a symbol of terror and brutality. Every inmate became a McMurphy, who was being tortured, institutionalized unfairly and should be released to freedom, we thought.
Just what that idyllic freedom entailed, we weren’t sure. Often, released inmates returned to a state of semi-permanent homelessness, vagrancy, hunger and want. But that didn’t matter because we the movie watching public had deemed that because we had ‘witnessed institutional conditions’, albeit in a fictionalized sense, we were doing a public service by opening the doors of the institution.
The most painful and poignant issue with mass hysteria based on movies, or any mass hysteria for that matter, is that it often is based in some truth. People were treated cruelly in institutions. “The Snake Pit” (1948) with Olivia de Haviland, is not far off with it’s depiction of institutions. “Girl Interrupted” (1998) with Angelina Jolie gives a fairly accurate picture of how institutional behavior develops. Even “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” has strong merit as a mental institution expose.
Sensationalized stories, however, often block our vision. They take the focus off the real issues with over-dramatized, lurid depictions. “Shutter Island” (2009) is a perfect example. Viewers were prepared to be terrified by gruesome mental institution scenes. What they got was a complex, multi-layered story that poked holes in many accepted fallacies about mental illness. Some accusation of sensationalism has been levied at “Sybil” (1976). I have used and would continue to use the film in psychology classes, for Sally Field’s exceptional performance and because it gives an inside-out look at the effect of child abuse. The important issue is to recognize media hype and deflect it with accurate information.
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