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Psychosis on the Big Screen
I don't think we tire of seeing mental health disorders depicted on the big screen, from borderline personality disorder in the movie Fatal Attraction to dissociative disorder in Fight Club. While many movies portray a character who is afflicted with some type of mental health disorder, no one presents a more chilling and graphic case of psychosis than Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining.
In this 1980 film based on the 1976 Stephen King novel, Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a middle-aged man who takes a position as the caretaker of an isolated hotel for five months over the winter. After losing a teaching job, he thinks time away with his wife and five-year-old son will give him the opportunity to work on a new writing project. As the weeks and months progress, he begins to experience severe writer’s block along with significant feelings of cabin fever. These factors, combined with a strained relationship with his son and a marriage that is unaffectionate and non-communicative, soon cause him to mentally unravel.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), a person must present with two or more of the following symptoms to be diagnosed with schizophrenia: delusions; hallucinations; disorganized speech; or grossly disorganized or catatonic behavior. Jack exhibits all of these, the most apparent of which are his hallucinations.
Hallucinations occur when a person sees or hears things that other people do not hear or see. A clear sign of his mental decline is when Jack enters the hotel’s main ballroom and imagines a large group of people attending a party. He interacts with them and then proceeds to sit at the bar and have a drink with the nonexistent bartender. Although these hallucinations are a bit exaggerated by Hollywood, they do exist in cases of schizophrenia.
Delusions are false beliefs a person refuses to give up even in the face of contradictory facts. A person with schizophrenia could experience several different types of delusions; persecutory, grandiose, delusions of reference, erotomanic, somatic, thought insertion, withdrawal, control, or broadcasting. Jack exhibits persecutory delusions, the most common type. The person experiencing persecutory delusions believes he/she is being followed or is under surveillance, that he/she is being tricked, or treated unfairly by others. This type of delusion usually leads to fear and paranoia. Jack’s five-year-old son has psychic powers that allow him to see or hear people who have died. Jack believes his son is using his psychic powers to plot against him.
Disorganized speech results when a person mixes up words or says words or sentences that do not fit the context of a situation. In one of the movie’s most frightening scenes, Jack’s wife, out of fear, locks herself in the bathroom. Jack, in his pursuit of her, says, “little pig, little pig, let me come in. Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.” When he finally uses an axe to chop a hole in the door large enough to stick his head through, he says, “heeeeeeeere's Johnny!” This confused speech does not fit the context of the situation and points toward some level of mental dysfunction.
Catatonic and disorganized behavior is inappropriate and bizarre behavior. Jack acts in odd ways many times throughout the movie. In another chilling and heart-pumping scene, Jack’s wife enters the room in which Jack is working and begins to look through his papers. She sees that he has written the same sentence, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” over and over on every single page. When he discovers her looking at his work, he advances on her with a baseball bat and says, “I don’t want to hurt you; I just want to bash your brains in.”
While Jack’s redundant and bizarre writing is characteristic of a schizophrenic condition, the evil and murderous behavior he shows toward his family does not accurately represent this illness. Most people with this disorder are not violent, and Jack’s evil and menacing behaviors were created with Hollywood’s quest for entertainment and shock value in mind.
At the end of the movie, Jack’s wife and son fortunately escape his murderous advances. He, however, ends up freezing to death while trying to chase them down. Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe, and disabling brain disorder that affects approximately one percent of Americans. While there is no cure, if Jack had received treatment, medication, hospitalization, and psychotherapy, he would have had a significant chance of improving and leading an independent and satisfying life.
For die-hard Stephen King fans, the wait for more horror and shock is finally over. In September 2013, the long-awaited sequel to The Shining will be published. In King’s newest book, Doctor Sleep, Danny, Jack’s psychic son, is now middle-aged and working in a hospice. He tries to save a little girl who is also afflicted with the shining, the power to see and hear dead people.
Stephen King told Entertainment Weekly, “I wanted to go back to that real creepy, scary stuff. We’ll see if it works.” I have no doubt it will, and we can only wonder which mental health disorder might be featured in his newest creation.
Content copyright © 2013 by Dr. Ilyssa Hershey. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Dr. Ilyssa Hershey. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Dr. Ilyssa Hershey for details.
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