Epilepsy Talk

Epilepsy at the Movies – Don’t Believe What You See or Hear! | December 27, 2016

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 exorcism. The mad, bad, and dangerous men to be wary of.

The exotic, vulnerable, victimized women.

Basically, characters with epilepsy are 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 “Seized”, currently showing on PBS.

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. This is an interesting post. I was a little confused by one thing, on 6/21/2014 you wrote a post about Dopey having AS displaying jerks and tremors and other aspects of seizures and how these could be perceived in a positive light because of his well loved character and fame, but in this post your view has changed. I was curious as to why the change of heart?


    Comment by Freya Symes — December 27, 2016 @ 7:54 PM

  2. I seem to remember that the root of the Greek word from which the word “epilepsy” is derived has to do with being seized, seized by the devil or an evil,spirit that is. The disease used to be called “the falling sickness” which is far less scary!

    Michael H


    Comment by Michael H — December 27, 2016 @ 9:34 PM

    • I gotta say Michael, being seized by the devil or an evil spirit seems to be the conclusion of both mythology and hollywood.

      (Sometimes it’s hard to determine which is which — mythology or hollywood!)

      The “falling sickness” is a whole lot more complementary. 🙂

      Women have been sterilized, people have been burned at the stake, and many were placed in institutions for the criminally insane.

      And as you know, people with epilepsy have been viewed as degenerate, demonic, or intellectually diminished.


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — December 27, 2016 @ 9:50 PM

  3. Well, yes Freya, you’re right, he did have Angelman Syndrome, I stand corrected. And I have to admit, either you’re a devoted follower or you have a terrific memory! 🙂



    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — December 27, 2016 @ 9:39 PM

    • My memory certainly isn’t the greatest so it must be the former. Your posts are wonderful filled with so much information. You’re appreciated by so many!


      Comment by Freya Symes — December 27, 2016 @ 9:43 PM

  4. Hi, One 2016 movie that didn’t imply judgment is the true to life “Snowden.” Regardless of what you think about his whistle blowing and whether or not he’s a traitor, he’s brilliant. His epilepsy played a role in the course of his life, with his hating Tegretol for dulling his cognition slightly.


    Comment by Alison Zetterquist — December 29, 2016 @ 12:17 PM

  5. WOW! What an eye-opener. Thanks, Alison! (I never saw the movie.)


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — December 29, 2016 @ 3:05 PM

    • So happy to have commented! Keep in mind, too, that the filmmaker, Oliver Stone, is pro-Snowden. If anything, epilepsy is portrayed as just something he has, nothing defining him – exactly what it is for all of us. And beyond the epilepsy, I enjoyed the movie tremendously. Hope you do, too!


      Comment by Alison Zetterquist — December 29, 2016 @ 3:38 PM

  6. I do know the movie was made by Oliver Stone who is pro-Snowden.

    But as you point out, the epilepsy factor is fascinating…


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — December 29, 2016 @ 3:55 PM

  7. But we are in good company. If you go to Wikilpedia and look at “Famous people who had epilepsy” you will find famous philosophers, scientists, politicians, entertainers and even the current Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. But you won’t find any known Devils, or evil spirits listed.


    Comment by Michael H — December 30, 2016 @ 1:03 AM

  8. Michael you’re exactly right. That was just one side of the coin.

    You might enjoy these articles:

    Epilepsy Hall of Fame


    Famous Athletes with Epilepsy


    Celebrities with Epilepsy



    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — December 30, 2016 @ 8:57 AM

  9. Here’s one to add to your list of movies with a character who has epilepsy: “The A.B.C. Murders” — an Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie. Christie is reported to have had epilepsy herself, so her depiction of the character is not unsympathetic. In fact, several of her novels feature a character with epilepsy.


    Comment by Martha — April 4, 2017 @ 4:42 PM

  10. I just watched the old movie, “The Egyptian” the other night on YouTube. It is based upon the novel by Miki Waltari, and is about the Pharaoh, Akhenaten, who reportedly had epilepsy. Like many with temporal lobe epilepsy, he had religious visions just before his seizures. He changed Egypt’s polytheistic religion to monotheism (at least, while he was alive). The movie does show him having a seizure, just before “the god” comes to him.


    Comment by Martha — October 29, 2017 @ 7:15 PM

    • Well, since people with epilepsy (in kinder times) were believed to be visionaries, that makes sense.

      Others weren’t considered so “insightful”. 😦


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — October 30, 2017 @ 1:40 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 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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