Epilepsy Talk

Epilepsy and Movies – Don’t Believe What You See Or Hear! | December 28, 2013

I bet you won’t be surprised to hear that epilepsy is most often depicted in sci-fi and horror films.

Just think of “The Andromeda Strain”, “Crazed”, “Deadwood”, “The Exorcist”, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”, “Frankenstein”, “The Garden State”, “Lighthouse” and “The Terminal Man” to name a few.


A survey of 62 international films that deal with epilepsy, found the condition is still commonly linked with demonic or divine possession, genius, lunacy, and delinquency.

Sadly,“For many people, their recollection of a character ‘faking a seizure’ at the movies may be their only reference point on hearing the diagnosis [of epilepsy],” writes researcher Sallie Baxendale of the Institute of Neurology in London.

Researchers also found that there is strong gender bias in how epilepsy is depicted on the silver screen.

Male characters with epilepsy were frequently portrayed as mad, bad, and dangerous, as in the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.

Female characters are used to add exotic intrigue and vulnerability, such as Elina in the American comedy “Simple Men.”

Then there are heroes like in “The Idiot”, gang leaders in “The Life of Jesus” and dwarves!

In “Snow White”, Dopey appears to have a nocturnal seizure. (Nice, huh?)

Oliver Stone’s “JFK”, implicates a person with seizures as the presidential assassin.

Movie characters with epilepsy are frequently mad, bad, or dangerous, with demonic possession, lunacy, idiocy, and divine revelation as regular features.

Directors use seizures as a tool to drive the narrative…enhance major character traits…add to minor characters…and create distraction from other action.

They’re also used to enhance the overall mood of a particular genre…evoke emotional involvement from the audience…and enhance the voyeuristic experience of the film audience.

The characters are pretty stereotyped, if you think about it.

There’s the dramatic, exciting, frightening character (always a crowd pleaser).

One who’s possessed – from being divine to needing exorsism. The mad, bad, and dangerous men to be wary of.

The exotic, vulnerable, victimized women.

Basically, characters with epilepsy portrayed as one dimensional characters. Black or white. Good or bad.

Don’t you think it would be wonderful if someone did a real GOOD, true-to-life documentary on epilepsy?

Like Tiffany Webb’s “The Sacred Disease” http://www.sacreddisease.com/. Which is, not surprising, in need of funding.

Or maybe we should get together and do a film called “Those Crazy Epileptics” with foaming mouths, thrashing bodies, demon doctors, you know the whole works.

Think of how much money we could make!

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  1. The most memorable epileptic seizure I ever saw in a movie was Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) in “Cleopatra.” Elizabeth Taylor knew just what to do, and she wasn’t frightened at all. I forget the old Alexander the Great movie with Richard Burton. Did Alexander have a seizure in that?


    Comment by Martha — December 28, 2013 @ 4:21 PM

  2. Well, here’s a piece of trivia that will knock your socks off…

    Richard Burton actually DID have epilepsy!

    He chose to portray himself in real life as a drunk (actually alcoholic, which he was), because he preferred that stigma to that of epilepsy.

    Score one for Martha…


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — December 28, 2013 @ 5:12 PM

  3. Divert the flight! Thankfully they didn’t


    Comment by charlie — December 28, 2013 @ 7:51 PM

    • Charlie, I’m sorry for losing the first part of your story about education and awareness.

      It probably makes the second part of your message “Divert the flight! Thankfully they didn’t” sound like a moon shot!

      As I said to Laura, I’ll never use my iPad for Epilepsy Talk again.

      (I was better off when I “unplugged” at your house. I wasn’t available. But maybe that’s a good thing!)

      So much for my week off.

      The only people who were spared where those on Facebook. Perhaps my absence was an advantage.

      Sorry everyone.

      Now, back to our regularly scheduled movie….


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — December 30, 2013 @ 5:14 PM

  4. I always wondered where people got their odd ideas about epilepsy from, it’s not surprising that people treat me as though I am mad if that is their frame of reference! I’m glad that I only watch cute animal movies.🙂


    Comment by mickcgorman — December 29, 2013 @ 5:56 AM

  5. Wow. Mixing alcohol with epilepsy (Burton). That’s a recipe for disaster. Then again, van Gogh mixed absinthe with his neurological issues (seizures, psychosis). Absinthe is so epileptogenic (there’s a word you don’t get to use every day), that it was outlawed in the USA. I think maybe some European countries followed. And I read recently that it is making a comeback.


    Comment by Martha — December 29, 2013 @ 1:14 PM

  6. I think only very ignorant people would treat you as “mad” if you have epilepsy. So many famous people have had epilepsy. I just tell people that my son has an excess of electrical activity in his brain; chickens and cows do not have that problem.


    Comment by Martha — December 29, 2013 @ 1:17 PM

    • LOL!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂

      Epilepsy Hall of Fame



      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — December 29, 2013 @ 2:19 PM

    • From my experience even very intelligent and educated people have no idea what epilepsy is. Why would they? If they have no personal experience with it in themselves or a close relative or friend, they would be as ignorant about it as they would be about any other disease or condition they have not personally encountered.

      My brother is an ex-cop. When I sent him a link to a video on how cops should respond to people potentially having a simple complex seizure he wrote back to say that he would forward it to the “mental health” division of his police department. He thought epilepsy is a mental illness, like schizophrenia. My brother is not among “only the very ignorant people”. He was misinformed. Which is why we all need to keep courageously explaining things when we are confronted by people with misinformation.


      Comment by Laura M. — December 30, 2013 @ 4:09 PM

      • Actually the entire EFA has an awareness campaign targeted at public “servants”, hospital personnel, education institutions, etc.

        They want everyone from the chief muckety-muck to the janitor to know what seizures are, how to deal with them appropriately and how to administer first aid.

        It’s an ambitious endeavor, but wouldn’t it be nice…


        Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — December 30, 2013 @ 5:32 PM

      • I stand corrected. I do still meet people who think you have to prevent the person from swallowing his tongue. However, I just cannot remember a time when I didn’t know that Julius Caesar, Alexander, Socrates, Hercules, and so many others had what the ancients called the “divine illness.” Perhaps most people today do not study ancient history.

        I know Epilepsy Foundation in NJ does go around to schools to teach people the “basics.” They should probably do the same for anyone who deals with the public, especially first responders.


        Comment by Martha — December 30, 2013 @ 7:24 PM

  7. Re: Vincent van Gogh. Very interesting book: “Seized” by Eve LaPlante. It’s about temporal lobe epilepsy, perhaps the most mysterious of all.


    Comment by Martha — December 29, 2013 @ 5:47 PM

    • Thank you Martha the Magnificent. 🙂

      I just ordered it.

      Have you read the latest Oliver Sacks book “Hallucinations”?

      The book is divided into 15 chapters that cover different neurological conditions. I’ve been told that chapter 10 deals with epilepsy. (However remotely.)

      It sounds much more eery than “The Mind’s Eye,” his previous book, which is WONDERFUL if you haven’t read it.

      Ok. Enough. I’m beginning to sound like a book club! 🙂


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — December 29, 2013 @ 6:42 PM

      • I take note, and will look for those books by Sacks.


        Comment by Martha — December 30, 2013 @ 7:27 PM

  8. I am from India and have been reading your newsletters. The advice I seek, that if my neurosurgeon from a good hospital on the basis of the observations of lesions seen (injury suffered in an accident years ago) in the MRI on a 1.5 Telsa machine tells me that these lesions will never go and my medication, ie. Toprimate, Keppra and Oxetol (all the medication suiting my body) will continue lifelong, do I have ways to improve this situation through alternative modes.


    Maandeep Singh

    Maandeep Singh Nagi Contact Number +91 98889 11720


    Comment by Maandeep Singh Nagi — December 30, 2013 @ 2:26 AM

    • Dear Maandeep,

      Welcome. I am not a doctor, but you MAY have some surgical options, particularly a Lesionectomy.

      About one quarter of patients with recurrent seizures are now discovered to have small, previously unrecognized lesions, for example; a small tumor or an abnormal blood vessel.

      Lesions may be located in any of the lobes of the brain — temporal, parietal, frontal, or occipital — and they can cause frequent seizures.

      A lesionectomy can be very effective in cases where the whole lesion and a small surrounding margin of brain can safely be removed.

      Since surgical removal of these lesions can result in complete seizure control in many patients, the patient is considered an excellent candidate for epilepsy surgery depending on the location of the lesion and its relationship to the cortex.

      Removal of the lesion along with a temporal lobectomy yields excellent results in over 80% of cases, particularly those with refractory seizures…

      For what it’s worth, here’s an article that might shed some more light on the matter:

      Epilepsy and Brain Surgery — The Basics



      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — December 30, 2013 @ 10:35 AM

  9. I don’t remember the movie or TV show but it was a mystery. A woman has an epileptic seizure which she uses as “proof” that she could not have committed the crime (murder I think). The solution figured out by “our hero” was that she had done the deed and then lay on the floor and deliberately used some kind of flashing light to induce the seizure. Very smart but evil lady using her epilepsy to hide her crime. I saw this long before I was diagnosed myself. It was merely interesting to me. Now, I find it despicable. Would anyone in Hollywood find it acceptable to use any other condition (say cancer or diabetes) in this manner? The closest I can remember is an episode of Quincy where an alcoholic deliberately causes a car accident and then drinks a lot waiting for the ambulance to raise his blood alcohol level. Quincy figures it out when he notices that the alcohol level in the blood that had oozed out of a laceration did not have the same high level as the blood drawn at the hospital.


    Comment by Laura M. — December 30, 2013 @ 3:47 PM

    • Sorry for the “thumbs down.” Every time I try to work on my iPad, I screw up. And I can’t seem to change it. I swear, I’m going to stay on my desktop or laptop when working. Forgive me.

      Hey, there’s always the brain tumor monster character. Or does that pertain to us too?

      Maybe someone with diabetes, robbing a candy store?

      Think that would work?

      Hmmmmm…I think we need some more scenarios.


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — December 30, 2013 @ 4:11 PM

      • Hmmm. I guess I never saw the “brain tumor monster” movie. That’s despicable.

        What’s really disgusting is that the Hollywood crowd actually seems to believe that they are “bringing attention” to conditions that need more research. The only person in Hollywood I know of who has gone public in an appropriate way regarding epilepsy is one of the actors on that TV show “Heroes”. There may be others, but I never knew Richard Burton had epilepsy. And look at how John Travolta behaved and spoke about his son’s death. Did he or did he not have epilepsy? Did the Travolta family ignore the child’s condition and ultimately “cause” his death? We’ll never know because they aren’t out there being honest and open when it would probably be helpful. (And I like Travolta and his wife though I don’t agree with their “religion” Scientology.)


        Comment by Laura M. — December 30, 2013 @ 4:20 PM

    • Lets see, i had a baseball type brain tumor removed which left me an epileptic, so i guess that makes me all of the above comments. Doh!!

      I guess i can play Frankenstein in the movie. After my surgery, when my head was all shaven and the 44 staples in my head looked quite dramatic. I went into a grocery store early one weekday, when a lot of moms bring there kids into the store to shop. Well you should of seen the stares i got from the little kids. It was hilarious seeing how they would just get a little closer to their mama’s side, when i came by as i followed my mom through out the store. 🙂

      Well after that i let mom go alone, at least until i grew my hair back.


      Comment by Zolt — January 7, 2014 @ 4:18 PM

      • Actually Zolt, we have a member whom I meet in NYC every few months.

        He has a long jagged scar on his head and I (not so tactfully) asked him why he didn’t grow his hair longer?

        He said: “That’s my badge of honor. Whenever someone asks about it, I explain I had brain surgery for epilepsy and I get a few seconds to tell them about epilepsy and educate them.”

        In fact there’s an article here called: Cheers for Charlie! 🙂



        Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — January 7, 2014 @ 6:40 PM

  10. The first time in my life I learned of Epilepsy was when a little girl had a seizure I did not witness when I was about 4. My mother could not deal with it when I told her about it.

    Years later, she told me a story about when she was a child and she was walking with her mother. They came across a woman sitting on the curb who had urinated on herself. Her mother told her and her sister to just walk on by “so we don’t embarrass the woman”. My grandmother was a Catholic and this was what she thought would be the compassionate way to “help” someone?? My mother said that her mother thought the woman was drunk.

    Later, in Catholic school (fifth grade) I learned about Jesus curing the demon possessed people whose “behaviors” sounded suspiciously like epileptic seizures.


    Comment by Laura M. — December 30, 2013 @ 3:59 PM

    • Since the dawn of time, epilepsy has affected millions of people — from beggars to kings. It’s one of the oldest conditions and also one of the most misunderstood, although legions of accomplished people have shared the stigma.

      Ancient people thought epileptic seizures were caused by evil spirits or demons that had invaded a person’s body. Luckily for them, the “cure” was prayers and magic. Unfortunately for Victorian epileptics, the “treatment” was often castration and bleeding by leeches.

      On the other hand, epileptic seizures were considered to have a power and symbolism which suggested creativity or unusual leadership abilities. Scholars still are fascinated by how prominent prophets and other holy men, political leaders, philosophers, and many who achieved greatness in the arts and sciences, suffered from epilepsy.

      Epilepsy Hall of Fame



      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — December 30, 2013 @ 4:18 PM

      • I have very specific premonitions. Usually but not always related to death. When I verbalized a prediction of a murder of someone I had only known for a few weeks I was treated like a witch after the murder took place. It was when I was 19 and it was the first in many violent deaths I “felt” and verbalized beforehand.

        After being diagnosed with epilepsy decades later I began to wonder if there was any correlation. There seems to be nobody studying this. One can either talk to “psychics” who may or may not be “studied” by parapsychologists. Or one can talk to skeptical doctors and others who say there’s no such thing as ESP.

        I believe that some artists (authors of fiction, screenwriters and painters) are exploring the condition especially as regards the “psychic” or other connections. But, what is really needed, IMHO, is acknowledgment that some of us do have “strange things” happen that may or may not be related to our epilepsy. This should be explored by scientists in a way that acknowledges that we can’t turn these psychic experiences on and off like a light switch.


        Comment by Laura M. — December 30, 2013 @ 4:38 PM

    • There’s at least one passage in Mark 9:14-29 were the father. The title of that passage is, “The healing of a boy with a demon”.


      Comment by Debbie T. — January 24, 2014 @ 11:37 PM

      • I meant to include that the father brought his son to Jesus saying his son “possessed by a mute spirit”.


        Comment by Debbie T. — January 24, 2014 @ 11:45 PM

  11. Laura M.

    About premonitions and psychics…I personally believe in both of them.

    As time goes on and I meet more people, live, learn, and experience things, I tend to feel “reality” is a very personal thread.

    Yet it is interesting how epilepsy CAN be a common thread, also.

    At the time when my seizures were at their worst, I was prescient. Unfortunately, although I could “foretell” the “who” and the “what,” I couldn’t figure out the “when” part.

    It was dreadful. I knew my boyfriend Marshall was going to have a car crash in which his passenger died. But I didn’t know when.

    That weekend, he was supposed to go skiing with a friend. I begged Marshall to meet his friend there. The bad news is that Marshall had a dreadful car accident. The good news is that he lived and his friend was NOT in the passenger seat.

    Interestingly, this prescience phase ended once my seizures were under control.

    Have any of you ever heard of Synesthesia? I hadn’t until one of our members brought it up in a discussion of auras.

    Synesthesia is sort of like a twisting of the senses or crossed wires where sight, sound, touch, taste (and, much less often, your sense of smell) sensations can occur simultaneously and also involve involuntary movement.

    The famous Russian painter Kandinsky combines color, hearing, touch, and smell.

    Harpist and fiddler Tina Larkin experiences music/color synesthesia.

    And this was news to me: Billy Joel and Itzhak Perlman have synesthesia!

    Here’s the interesting part: Just as few people with epilepsy have synesthesia, many people with synesthesia do NOT have epilepsy.

    Epileptic Synesthesia: What Is It?



    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — December 30, 2013 @ 6:15 PM

  12. Hi, Phyllis, I know this is an older post, but I wanted to add that there are two plays by Shakespeare where the title role has epilepsy: “Julius Caesar” (no surprise there), and “Othello.” In Othello’s case the seizure is clearly provoked by great emotional stress. Both of these characters were military men (likewise Alexander and Napoleon, who were also victims of the “falling sickness”).


    Comment by Martha — April 5, 2015 @ 11:54 PM

  13. Martha, thanks. It’s always wonderful to get your insights and input!


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 6, 2015 @ 1:04 AM

  14. We keep perpetuating the statements that are attached To epilepsy we do not do these Other diseases We need to educate the public Starting at the top with the president and the Senators ….!!


    Comment by maryleeparker — February 12, 2016 @ 1:54 AM

  15. Starting anywhere is a good thing. But your statement is so true…


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — February 12, 2016 @ 8:29 AM

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    About the author

    Phylis Feiner Johnson

    Phylis Feiner Johnson

    I've been a professional copywriter for over 35 years. I've also had epilepsy for decades. My mission is advocacy; to increase education, awareness and funding for epilepsy research. Together, we can make a huge difference. If not changing the world, at least helping each other, with wisdom, compassion and sharing.

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