Mental illness following The Exorcist

Horror movie The Exorcist remains one of cinema’s darkest and most frightening classics. So great was its power that rumours circulated about viewers running in fear, feinting, or even going mad after seeing the film. In fact, it caused such concern that it was discussed in the medical literature for its possible role in triggering mental illness.

In 1975 psychiatrist James Bozzuto wrote an article for the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease entitled ‘Cinematic Neurosis Following The Exorcist’ that reported four cases of previously untroubled people who seemed to develop psychiatric difficulties after watching the film.

I’ll return to the case reports in a moment, but it’s probably worth mentioning that Bozzuto was not alone in discussing the possible ‘destabilising’ effect of the film. In fact, his commentary was remarkably reserved in comparison to some of his contemporaries.

A 1974 Time magazine article quoted some of his less inhibited colleagues:

After seeing the film, two young Chicagoans required hospitalization. “They’re way out in leftfield,” said Dr. Louis Schlan, psychiatrist and medical director of Riveredge Hospital in Forest Park, Ill. “They see themselves possessed by Satan.”

Many others who have seen the film experience nightmares, hysteria and an undefined, but nevertheless profound apprehension. “It is dangerous for people with weak ego control,” explains Dr. Vladimir Piskacek, a Manhattan sociologist and psychiatrist, “but it would not cause psychosis.” Small children may suffer from hallucinations after seeing The Exorcist, but Dr. Piskacek doubts that the film would permanently impair even an immature mind.

Predictably, there are widespread objections to the film’s R rating, which permits youths under 17 to see it if accompanied by a parent. Manhattan Child Psychiatrist Hilde Mosse warns that the film provides a “deadly mixture of sex, violence and evil. The idea that we can solve our problems by magic instead of by rational solutions is destructive. I lived through this before Hitler came to power. He said, ‘Listen to the language of your pure Germanic blood, your unconscious.’ The Jews in Germany then became the devil to be exorcised. The only thing The Exorcist can do,” Dr. Mosse concludes emphatically, “is to pull young people down to a primitive level.”

With Hitler, hallucinating children and Satanic possession being invoked in relation to the film, it’s no wonder that people had anxieties about its influence.

Bozzuto’s explanation for his four case studies is perhaps a little mundane in comparison, but the influence of the media hysteria is plain to see.

One case is particularly striking, owing to gentleman’s florid magical thinking about the Devil and his possible malign influence.

Case 4. Mr. Lyle H. was a 24-year-old black male who initially came to the emergency room for three visits approximately 1 month after seeing “The Exorcist”. At that time, he complained of flashbacks and of getting “nervous”, especially with his two children and his wife; he was frightened that his 5-year-old daughter was possessed, had insomnia, and felt that certain people “looked strange”. He was given Vallium and referred to the Psychiatric Clinic. After being contacted for his first interview, he was fearful of coming for he felt that the therapist may have been involved with the Devil.

The patient stated that he knew little about the movie but had seen it discussed on a TV talk show before. He went with his wife and another couple. He was so upset during the movie that he had to walk out, and afterward he was frightened, feeling that the Devil “would come”. He had immediate insomnia, 15-pound weight loss over the past month, and numerous nightmares of vampires chasing women with himself interfering. He could not look people directly in the eye for fear he might imagine them to be devils…

Also, since seeing the movie, he complained of a stiff neck which he related to an identification with the girl in the movie. He was afraid to use a razor that his brother-in-law had given him because it might be stolen and it would imply he had done something wrong and would therefore be like the Devil.

Bozzuto suggests that each of his patients was already under significant pressure and the film was the last stressful straw that broke the camel’s back.

He also suggests, invoking the spirit of Freud, that the movie’s theme of losing control to the love-hate figure of the Devil may have had special significance for the four, each of which was apparently struggling with an ambivalent relationship.

According to Bozzuto, the similarity triggered repressed feelings, leading to an emotional crisis and a subsequent breakdown.

While the cases remain entirely anecdotal, it’s interesting that they made it into print at all, considering that almost all films have the potential to trigger emotional crises in some.

The fact that the issue of ‘Exorcist madness’ was considered serious enough to appear in a medical journal is more likely testament to the fact that the film touched a raw nerve in the America of the 1970s, than the fact that it raised the hackles of some of its audience members.

Link to PubMed entry for ‘Cinematic neurosis following The Exorcist’.
Link to Time article ‘Exorcist fever’.

4 Comments

  1. Matthew Platte
    Posted May 26, 2008 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    I think I haven’t seen it. The book, however, creeped me out plenty, so that was why I didn’t see it when the movie first came out. I was working nights and not sleeping much and I do recall reading the entire book in one session. Since then, well, I guess I’m not that fond of horrorshow.
    I went to ‘Wasp Woman’ when I was about 7 or 8 and had to leave the theater before the end of the film.
    Probably the worst, though, was when I was a projectionist. The reel change for ‘Alien’ came just after the baby burst through the guy’s chest and I had to watch closely to catch the end-of-reel indicators. So there I am, all tense for the projector change-over that I knew was close when the creature burst out. Not sure how I managed to not flip out on that one, and it wasn’t exactly pleasant on subsequent showings either.

  2. Posted May 26, 2008 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Interesting post. However, I wonder whether you intended to say that the movie raised the hackles, rather than the heckles, of the audience…

  3. Posted May 26, 2008 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Hi montereyham,
    You’re quite right (now fixed!). I’m sure it did raise a few heckles as well, but that’s not quite what I intended to say.
    Thanks for spotting that!
    Vaughan

  4. osofine
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    I think you meant “fainting” (losing consciousness for a short time because of a temporarily insufficient supply of oxygen to the brain), not “feinting” (pretending to throw a [punch or blow] in order to deceive or distract an opponent). What is up with all of the errors in this website? This is the only one I’ve commented on, but I have found at least one in each of the four random articles I’ve read in the past 20 minutes.


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