Freud for the Masses: A Brief Examination of Psychology in Cinema

Psychology and people with psychological disorders have not fared well overall in the hands of Hollywood. When the psychology we see in movies is not either completely wrong, being employed for evil purposes (of all things), or something to laugh about, it is often the object of a great deal of disdain. Somehow psychology is always the cold, clinical voice of modern science, droning at us to straighten up and get in line while missing the point of what makes life worth living. Psychology is just trying to break the beauty and intricate design behind the human brain, the choices we make with it, and the personalities it forms into a mass of chemical impulses which we have no real control over.

Anyway, all of this could easily make for a rather large and sprawling subject, but I?ll try to approach it in as orderly and brief a manner as possible while covering as wide a range as I can. And I know there are plenty of movies I don’t talk about here that I could have . . . It’s just that none of them came to mind while I was writing. Hopefully this is a good cross-section and everyone has seen at least some of these. I hadn’t realized before I really started thinking about it in-depth how important and commonplace psychology is in the movies.

I know that often elements of psychology in fiction are laughably erroneous, but very few sterling examples of this leap immediately to mind because most of the time I probably don?t even notice the mistakes like I would in, say, a ?historical? movie. Two that come particularly to mind as probable offenders are Don?t Say a Word and Gothika. Both belong to the subgenre of so-called ?psychological thrillers.?

In the former, a psychologist must extract the location of long-lost stolen goods from a deranged woman in order to save his family from the original thieves. In the latter (which contains heavy supernatural elements), a psychologist who is baffled by a particularly bad case in the asylum where she works suddenly finds herself interred in the same asylum and experiencing the same symptoms.

A movie character can exhibit the most bizarre and unheard of behavior in the world as long as the writer slaps the label ?psychological disorder? on it. Of course, I don?t know how many of these actually exist . . . probably all of them do in some form. I hear that even the odd behavior of Dr. Strangelove’s right hand has a real-world basis. In Clean Slate and 50 First Dates, major characters wake up every morning with their memories of the day before gone (in both movies this is played for laughs). A minor character in 50 First Dates loses his short-term memory every ten seconds.

In Memento, a man loses his short-term memory every fifteen to twenty minutes. The movie?s ?gimmick? is that the scenes are placed in reverse order so that we are almost as disoriented as he is each time his memory disappears until the movie?s secret is finally revealed. Nurse Betty has a woman go into shock after witnessing the brutal murder of her husband and then believe that she is a character in her favorite soap opera.

And, ranging quite far afield into the realms of the fantastic, The Butterfly Effect has a young psychology major with a history of insanity in his family discovering that he can travel back in time to key moments in his life by reading his journal accounts of those events and can even manipulate the situation. Although this movie is more of a cautionary tale, raising tough questions about the deep effects that even seemingly small things can have on peoples? futures, it does pretend to operate within a pseudoscientific psychological framework.

I can go on quite a bit longer about the constant portrayals of some of the more ?common? disorders, particularly amnesia, obsessive/compulsive disorder, various phobias, and multiple-personality disorder/schizophrenia. Amnesia is a very widely used plot device. Soap operas (so I?m told) pull it out at every opportunity. It forms the entire basis for a number of movie plots. In The Bourne Identity, a CIA-trained assassin fails to complete an assignment and loses his memory when he is shot and falls into the ocean. He spends the rest of the movie trying to discover who he is. Amnesia is the only possible way to explain the decades-long absence of a missing member of the Russian royal family when she reappears in the classic Anastasia, although ultimately the real Anastasia?s fate is left up in the air. Amnesia is used to particularly good effect in The Majestic, where a Hollywood screenwriter, blacklisted unjustly during the McCarthy Era, loses his memory in a car accident and is mistaken in a small town for a local hero from World War II, long believed dead. Even Kermit the Frog is a temporary victim of amnesia when he is hit by a car in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

Characters with obsessive/compulsive disorder are usually at least partially comedic in my experience. Extremely popular lately is the brilliant but ultra-neurotic detective Adrian Monk from the TV series Monk, who is terrified of germs and touches every pole and post he passes in the street. Another example is the main character from Matchstick Men, a con artist who opens and closes every door three times before passing through them, has a number of nervous tics, and spends days at a time compulsively cleaning his house. While both characters have experiences with personal tragedy, most of the time we watch them for their amusing idiosyncrasies.

Phobias can, of course, play either a serious or humorous role in the movies. Vertigo has Jimmy Stewart?s character crippled by his fear of heights, with tragic results (see post with Freudian analysis). What About Bob?, on the other hand, provides with a very sympathetic but hilarious title character, an extremely clingy patient who drives his therapist nuts (literally). The real gag of the movie is that the psychologist is ultimately far less stable than his patient, all initial appearances to the contrary aside. The joke (as usual in the movies) is on psychology.

Multiple-personality disorder has been a popular (often cop-out) plot twist to drop into movies ever since Psycho terrified movie audiences in 1960. The character of Norman Bates, based on a real-life serial killer, has murdered his mother and taken on her personality in addition to his own. The mother half of his personality will, in turn, commit murder in a jealous rage to keep her son to herself. In Secret Window, an author who is being tormented by an insane stalker who claims his story has been stolen discovers (after the stalker has left a trail of bodies in his wake) that this killer is another personality living inside of him.

Fight Club pulls a similar trick, when two main characters with seemingly opposite personalities are revealed to be one and the same near the end of the movie. Identity goes one step better, with ten characters, all trapped at a motel in a heavy rainstorm and dying off one by one, who are revealed to exist together in the head of one man, a convicted murderer. In all of these cases, people with multiple-personality disorder are dangerous killers, and we are made to feel very afraid of them.

This isn?t the whole story, though. A Beautiful Mind, which tells the true story of Nobel Prize-winner John Nash?s struggle with schizophrenia, won the Best Picture Oscar for 2001. Pi, a disturbing head trip in which the main character (another incredibly brilliant mathematician . . . what is it about those guys, anyway?) may or may not be a paranoid schizophrenic, won a number of awards as well.

People don?t exclusively enjoy being frightened by people who hear voices in their heads. The interesting thing to me about Nash?s struggle in particular is that he finally denies medication and other treatments, determined to beat the problem on his own. Often in movies we find that the psychologists? solution is far from the best option. People like to watch their fellow humans beating diseases of the mind on their own, without having to rely on head doctors.

Then, of course, we have the evil psychologists, like in The Manchurian Candidate, who will brainwash you as soon as look at you. In the eerie Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, psychologists might be benign medical professionals who are just there to help, or they might be megalomaniacs, devoted to exploiting the human mind to suit their own needs. Certainly at the end of movie, the former explanation seems to be the true one (the rest of the movie is revealed to have been the paranoid delusion of a lunatic . . . probably). However, by that time we?ve already seen an evil doctor use a hypnotized subject to commit murder for him multiple times.

And then there is the cr譥 de la cr譥 of villainous psychologists, Anthony Hopkins? most chilling character, Hannibal ?The Cannibal? Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs and its sequels. Lecter is an evil genius times twenty. Formerly a psychologist moonlighting as a serial killer in a previous life, now he uses his deadly wiles to play mind games with prison authorities and the FBI analysts who come to him for help in their criminal profiling.

Really, though, you never know quite how a psychologist is going to be portrayed when he or she crops up at random in a movie. The big-city psychologist in What Women Want is self-centered and bored by her patients and their problems. The small-town psychologist in Groundhog Day is a comical character, well-meaning, but left uncertain, even baffled, by anomalies. Malcolm in The Sixth Sense (another moving that tosses psychology and the supernatural into the mix together) is a psychologist whose failure to provide a proper diagnosis in the past had dire consequences for both him and his patient. He is compassionate, insightful, and desperate to redeem himself this time around.

My favorites of all psychology-related movies, however, are those which communicate a positive and valuable message about life and the human spirit. Unfortunately for the psychology involved, it is usually depicted as the problem rather than the solution. I realize, of course, that the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater when it comes to psychotherapy and new medications. In fact, I happen to have a great deal of faith in the merits of both. However, it is always possible to get carried away with them as well, and some movies that I really enjoy address this problem from different perspectives.

Man of la Mancha is a musical based on Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes and starring Peter O?Toole as the title character. Considering that the book was written about 400 years ago and is set in about that same time period, one might wonder how it comes to mention psychology. Technically, it doesn?t. However, in the musical, Don Quixote?s perception of reality is rather skewed . . . in fact, he is basically crazy. But he is also in pursuit of an idealistic dream based on virtue, chivalry, and charity.

As a cynic, I may not have a lot of faith in his ability to accomplish his mission of bringing light back into the world (or whatever), but I can certainly agree with the principle of what Quixote is trying to do. His relatives, though, don?t see things quite the same way. They feel that he is making them look stupid, and send a man out to shock him back to reality. Their idea is that people cannot be allowed to pursue even the most worthy of causes if they have to live in a crazy, made-up fantasy to do it. Don Quixote is roughly shocked back into reality and winds up totally demoralized, lying on his deathbed before a final musical number rekindles his dying spirits.

The point of this movie is brought home nicely in a more modern context in one of my favorite movies: Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd, the kindest, friendliest man in the world. Elwood?s one and only flaw seems to be his best friend, an invisible six-foot rabbit named Harvey. His sister, Veta Louise, and his niece, Myrtle Mae, are sick of his eccentricities leaving them socially bereft, and they make arrangements to have him committed . . . but a funny thing happens on the way to the asylum. Veta Louise is committed by mistake and Elwood wanders off before anyone notices the mix-up.

The audience soon realizes that Harvey really does exist, but the asylum doctors are a good bit slower. Elwood really is a great guy. At one point, when he?s talking about what he and Harvey do with their time, it struck me that it?s a pity that Christians don?t witness like this more often:

We sit in the bars, have a drink or two, and play the juke box. Very soon the faces of the other people turn towards me and they smile . . . We came as strangers – soon we have friends. They come over. They sit with us. They drink with us. They talk to us. They tell us about the great big terrible things they’ve done and the great big wonderful things they’re going to do. Their hopes, their regrets. Their loves, their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. Then I introduce them to Harvey, and he’s bigger and grander than anything they can offer me. When they leave, they leave impressed.

Elwood (once he is finally rounded up) defies all attempts at psychoanalysis, saying, ?Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.? The movie suggests that that is the entire purpose of psychology, to return us to reality, even if reality is the last thing we need. As Elwood is about to receive his treatment, another character observes, “After this he’ll be a perfectly normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are!” Movies of this type seem to basically be saying, “Psychology calls this madness. Well, if it is, aren’t we better off crazy?”

Garden State came out just last year, and it is one of my favorite recent releases. It has a great deal to say to the present-day generation of twentysomethings left dead in the water by a search for purpose that has led only to things like apathy, hedonism, and overmedication.

We are introduced to Andrew Largeman as he lies on his back in his bed, staring up at the ceiling with a totally expressionless face. The room around him is a shocking-sterile white. The phone rings, but he lets the answering machine get it, and his father is heard weeping and telling him that his mother has just died. We find out that he is originally from New Jersey, but hasn’t been home in nine years.

As he begins to reconnect with old friends back home, we see that relations are very strained between him and his father for some reason. And then there’s Sam, the very unique girl he randomly meets at a doctor’s office. As the story unfolds, we find out that, at a young age, Largeman was accidentally responsible for his mother becoming a quadriplegic. His father is a psychologist and has basically kept him on emotion-deadening medication for his entire life.

Largeman’s relationship with Sam deepens, and the two of them spend an entire day on a quest around the area with Largeman’s friend Mark. Only Mark knows what they are looking for, but, as so often happens, in the end it isn’t the destination, but the journey that is important.

Talking with his father later that night, Largeman announces his decision to go off of the medication: “This is my life, Dad. This is it. I spend 26 years waiting for something else to start. So no, I don’t think it’s too much to take on because it’s everything there is. I see now it’s all there is.” He talks about how numb he has been to everything for his entire life. His dad only wanted them all to be happy and normal, but there was no way to accomplish that through the methods he was attempting to use. Later on, Sam brings up this point again: “I know it hurts. But it’s life, and it’s real. And sometimes it f–king hurts, but it’s life, and it’s pretty much all we’ve got.” The movie states that we?re better off facing life, good, bad, and ugly, than hiding behind a medical solution to life’s problems.

I really enjoyed most of the movies I’ve discussed in here. Some of them are even on my top favorites list. But I think it is worthwhile to recognize that, when it comes to their picture of psychologists and the disorders they study and help treat, we are dealing with an incomplete picture more often than a complete one. I still think many of the messages (particularly in the last two) are worthy of consideration from one angle or another, but if Intro to Psychology this semester has taught me nothing else, I have at least learned a bit about what psychology is and, more importantly, what psychology isn’t.


~ by Jared on April 28, 2005.

3 Responses to “Freud for the Masses: A Brief Examination of Psychology in Cinema”

  1. Who is Amads de Gaula?


  2. Introductory Psychology was my favorite general education class without question. Its strange that most scientists believe in a creator, but that 80% of psychologists are athiests.


  3. Hi,
    I came across your post after doing a google search on the movie Secret Window. You say that Johnny Depp’s character has Multiple Personality Disorder (or Dissociative Identity Disorder). Have you given any thought to him having Schizophrenia? I know that’s not the point of your article here, but something to consider is that if his problem is DID, they did a bad job portraying it acurately.


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