A Psychiatric Evaluation of Michael Myers
For psychiatric resident students taking the REDRUM Psychopathology course at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University, weekly homework assignments are a tad more macabre than you might expect. Instead of reading Hales, Gabbard, or Blazer, they're watching Bates, Krueger, and Myers, as in Michael Myers, from cinema serial killer fame.
REDRUM stands for Reviewing [Mental] Disease with a Rudimentary Understanding of the Macabre. Anyone who's seen The Shining knows it better as "MURDER" spelled in reverse. In the REDRUM course, Professor Anthony Tobia harnesses Hollywood to teach his students about mental disorders.
At first, this might seem like a bad idea. Movie portrayals of mental illness are often wildly inaccurate. Thanks to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, lots of people think electroconvulsive "shock" therapy is a barbaric, ineffective, and antiquated treatment. In fact, it's not. Many other flicks portray psychiatric doctors and asylum directors as uncaring or even malevolent. But Tobia takes great care "not to perpetuate the stereotypes of mental illness often portrayed in cinema."
"Residents are directed not to take the movies at face value," Tobia says. "Instead, we focus on an abstract and symbolic understanding of the plot summary or aspects of character analysis that allow psychiatry residents to discuss major teaching points germane to a full spectrum of adult mental illnesses."
Residents learn, for example, that demonic possession as seen in The Exorcist, is not actually caused by demons. Instead, it's woefully misdiagnosed mania, Tourette’s syndrome, conversion disorder, histrionic personality, or dissociative identity disorder. It might even be a confluence of some or all of these conditions.
Slasher films offer some of the best educational material. The legend of Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th is a symbolic outcome of the direct effects of fetal alcohol syndrome. Michael Myers losing the ability to speak after murdering his sister showcases conversion disorder, where symptoms of acute or chronic stress manifest physically. Myers also likely suffers from voyeurism and autism. If you're looking for a metaphorical example of narcolepsy, look no further than A Nightmare on Elm Street, in which nightmares involving maniacal killer Freddie Krueger intrude into wakefulness. Krueger himself likely has pedophilia, psychopathy, and "mother issues."
Zombies -- modern society's favorite monsters -- also offer an invaluable teaching opportunity when viewed through the lens of neurology, says Dr. Susan Hatters-Friedman, a forensic psychiatrist at Auckland University.
"Schlozman suggests the ataxic gait and imbalance in Romero’s zombies could be explained by a cerebellar lesion. Constant hunger could be explained by abnormalities in their ventral medial hypothalamus not receiving or being able to interpret signals. Lack of problem-solving and executive functioning capacity may be explained by prefrontal cortex damage, and their characteristic lack of fear and constant anger by amygdala alterations."
Tis the season for horror flicks. Make it an educational one!
Sources: Anthony Tobia et. al. The Horror!: A Creative Framework for Teaching Psychopathology Via Metaphorical Analyses of Horror Films. Academic Psychiatry March 2013, Volume 37, Issue 2, pp 131-136
Friedman SH, Forcen FE, Shand JP. Horror films and psychiatry. Australas Psychiatry. 2014 Oct;22(5):447-9. doi: 10.1177/103985621454308