Epilepsy Talk

Epilepsy in Movies and TV | May 23, 2017

The portrayal of epilepsy and seizures in films and television usually has negative connotations.

In general, they do nothing but reinforce the stigma that is rampant about the condition.

Other the other hand, TV shows and movies have the potential to educate and begin to address genuine issues in a positive fashion, rather than misusing epilepsy to add tension and drama.

The following TV shows and movies all feature characters with epilepsy. Included are the good, the bad and the plain ugly portrayals of epilepsy on screen.

Epilepsy on TV — Soap Operas

Coronation Street (2010)
Weatherfield hairdresser David Platt, played by Jack P. Shepherd, was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2010 after blacking out while driving.

As an ongoing character, he controls his epilepsy with medication but had a seizure in an episode aired in March 2013.

East Enders (2014)
Has received praise last year for featuring an epilepsy storyline.

Nancy Carter, played by Maddy Hill, had her first seizure on the show in January 2014.

Charity Epilepsy Action were called upon to provide advice on the script to ensure that epilepsy was depicted in the right way to help raise awareness as well as achieving a level of realism.

The Young and Restless
Victor Newman is a character in this long-running daytime American soap who has temporal lobe epilepsy.

Although this is a rare example of a long-running character in a TV program with epilepsy, the show struggles to achieve its balance between educating and using it for shock and drama.

Epilepsy on American TV Shows

Epilepsy has featured on many American TV shows in ways that fail to educate and raise awareness, instead reinforce ignorant viewpoints.

Unsurprisingly, epilepsy has featured in the story’s of medical dramas House and Grey’s Anatomy as well as Deadwood.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989 TV series)
A serial killer taunts Poirot, killing people in alphabetical order.

A traveling salesman named Alexander Bonaparte Cust has traveled to all of the murder locations on the day the crimes occurred.

Cust had suffered a blow on the head during military service, and as a result is prone to blackouts, headaches and epileptic attacks.

Could this seemingly innocent stranger be the killer?

Deadwood (2004)
In this gritty Western TV series, the minister of Deadwood, Reverend Smith (played by Ray McKinnon) has epilepsy. He attributes his seizures to divine intervention.

Diff’rent Strokes (1978 TV series)
Arnold and Sam learn that their new friend, a street performer, has epilepsy. Their emotions become a ball of confusion and misconception…until someone very close to them (namely, Pearl) shares her experiences with the disorder.

House M.D. (2004 TV series)
A presidential candidate vomits and collapses at a fundraiser. Viral tests clue House to the fact that the problem stems from a childhood epilepsy treatment.

Q.E.D. (1982 TV series documentary) Episode: The Morgan Treatment (1990)
Report on Tony Morgan, who suffered from epileptic seizures until he took up the sport of weightlifting and became the youngest ever British champion.

Epilepsy in Movies

The Andromeda Strain (1971)
A deadly virus arrives from outer space to threaten the world. A team of scientists is drafted to save the human race.

When one of the scientists experiences a tonic-clonic seizure, they presume she has caught the deadly andromeda strain.

Control (2007)
Sam Riley’s portrayal of Joy Division frontman and epileptic Ian Curtis in this visually arresting film by Anton Corbijn.

It has received many plaudits, in particular for the bold depiction of Curtis having a seizure on stage.

The Exorcist (1973)
In this classic horror story, doctors initially believe that the child has temporal lobe epilepsy.

However, they change their diagnosis when confronted with some of cinema’s most alarming scenes.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
Emily Rose believes herself to be possessed by demons and undergoes an exorcism. She dies.

The priest conducting the exorcism is accused of negligent homicide, primarily because he initiated the cessation of the girl’s epilepsy medications.

The ensuing courtroom drama considers whether Emily Rose had epilepsy and psychosis.

Based upon a 1970s documented source case.

Face-Off (1997)
One of the characters fakes a seizure as a distraction in the race to find a bomb.

First Do No Harm (1997)
Meryl Streep stars in this TV movie about one woman’s struggle against the medical establishment after she discovers her young son has epilepsy.

Frankie and Johnny
A customer has a seizure in a restaurant, bringing together the chef and the waitress in a first aid attempt and subsequent romance.

Garden State (2004)
Written and directed by Zach Braff, Garden State is a cult indie flick about the main character’s return to his hometown of New Jersey.

Once home, he meets a girl called Sam, played by Natalie Portman, who has epilepsy. A relationship, of sorts, develops.

Gods and Monsters (1998)
A film about James Whale, the director of Frankenstein, who is played by Sir Ian McKellen.

In the film, Whale experiences temporal lobe seizures that are the result of a series of strokes.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Two of the patients have epilepsy in this story of the vindictive regime in a secure psychiatric hospital. One refuses medication because he hates the side-effects and the other over-medicates because he fears the seizures.

Snow White (1937)
A young princess escapes from her wicked stepmother with the aid of seven dwarfs. One of the dwarfs, Dopey, has a nocturnal seizure.

The Winning Team (1952)
Baseball great Grover Cleveland (Ronald Reagan) develops post-traumatic epilepsy following a head injury during a match. He turns to drink. With the help of wife and friends he stages a successful comeback.

Epilepsy Documentaries

What’s The Time Mr. Wolf (2011)
Directed by Sal Anderson, this documentary about living with epilepsy has the strap line “A seizure is like a Wolf creeping up on you, ready to pounce …”

It follows members of an acting workshop who know that a seizure could strike at any moment.

Zach, A Film About Epilepsy (2009)
This fly-on-the-wall epilepsy documentary features Zachery Smith who has a severe form of epilepsy.

Directed by Christian de Rezendes, it presents a day in his life showing what is involved in his care from parents, family and therapists.

The film was co-produced by Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE), a charity raising awareness about epilepsy. You can watch the film in full via IMDB

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Resources:
With thanks to Tom Spooner.
http://neurologicaldisordersinthemovies.wordpress.com/epilepsy/


21 Comments »

  1. Grover Cleveland Alexander is his full name.Great article, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by alex moon — May 23, 2017 @ 10:15 PM

  2. A great article, as they all are. I read every article, and they are timely and informational. Our daughter fought epilepsy for her 52 years of life, ultimately dying from SUDEP. I will be using this article or parts of it in my next newsletter, with appropriate references, if you don’t mind.
    Thanks for sharing, Tom Davies

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Thomas — May 26, 2017 @ 1:31 AM

  3. I was surprised you didn’t list the infamous “Tower Heist” as they joked about Ben Stiller’s character having seizures in childhood in the film. I have not seen the film after they were told to remove the offensive scene, I knew they took it off the public previews. I know they were kept online for awhile though, even after being removed from the previews in theaters.
    Chicago Med has shown both seizures and PNES/ Conversion Disorder on the show. And since all “Chicago” series crossover with one another, I do believe I probably have seen it on “Chicago Fire” at least too. Dick Wolf is the producer of the “Chicago” series along with “Law & Order: SVU” which, has also done crossovers with the “Chicago” series, mainly “Chicago P.D.”, but in the beginning they did more with “Fire”, and “P.D.” when it was just the 3 shows.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by trekkie80sgirl — June 4, 2017 @ 3:00 AM

  4. I’m currently watching A Quiet Passion, a biopic about Emily Dickinson, in which she experiences seizures. A significant number of scholars seem to believe that she suffered from epilepsy, though it’s hardly a consensus.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by dphk — May 4, 2018 @ 7:02 PM

  5. Electricity

    The Sacred Disease

    Two movies about epilepsy

    I have epilepsy and really can’t deal with the details right now, Electricity is directed by Brynn Higgens and based on a book and informed by an Epilepsy foundation

    The Sacred Disease is about TPE and written and directed by Erica Scoggins it’s a biopic short film

    I love both films

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Illyria — June 10, 2018 @ 12:06 AM

    • I’ve heard about the Sacred Disease and even helped finance it. I think it’s stirring and extremely well done.

      Electricity, I haven’t heard of. Sounds kind of scary, though.

      Like

      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — June 10, 2018 @ 10:43 AM

  6. It’s sad how people such as actors & actresses can play the part of having seizures/epilepsy, but nobody in the Epilepsy world tries to convince those people to discuss this ”condition as it is”, & NOT label it as a brain disorder or some brain disease / illness that it is not. When numbers from 5 to 20 million people from 1970 to 1980 had Epilepsy & today that number is over 65 million, you know people do not like talking about seizures, knowing the rejections from others we all get, even from the medical world & advocates who rather support them & their questionable treatments of the seizure symptoms over us. Phylis can not do it all for us alone, as I am always wanting my voice & OTHERS heard more than my own, as I am one of very few who lives with seizures that everyone seems to never realize what I live with UNTIL seizures & seizure activity starts to affect them, or has affected them the same ways. As long as neurologists & AAN will continue to ignore what we want from life, ONE WITHOUT SEIZURES,, then we will never see a day of any life free from seizures until the RAPTURE happens for some of us, which is why I am always looking UP for my hope, more than what everyone on earth has answers for us. PSALM 118:8 & PSALM 119:71 those 2 verses seems to be for ALL of us, no matter what you may believe otherwise. Then check out NT in MATTHEW 17:21 & MARK 9:29. TWO times the same words are all but used so there must be real truth in those words, when prayers & fasting seems to work better than drugs, & the rest of the ”50-50 WILL or WONT end seizure chances” we seem to only get from neurologists answers. We all have had enough of FALSE HOPE from the medical world. I still am hearing it for over 57 & 1/2 years. HOLLYWOOD & every day NEUROLOGISTS & never do not get that.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by C D — June 17, 2018 @ 9:30 PM

    • Your point of falsehoods hits it.

      As if each day was a lovely fairy tale of which we were the stars.

      Reality? Who wants to hear it, no less see it.

      Liked by 2 people

      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — June 18, 2018 @ 9:42 AM

  7. Here’s a link for reference Phylis made for the Diff’rent Strokes episode in this post.

    https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0559933/?ref_=ttep_ep12

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Donald — June 18, 2018 @ 3:44 AM

  8. Below is a link to Phylis’ post about the Diff’ rent Strokes episode.

    https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077003/?ref_=tt_ov_inf

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by epilepsy67 — June 18, 2018 @ 3:48 AM

  9. Just as an addendum, the new YouTube Original “Impulse” shows someone with epilepsy whose seizures actually become portals to her confusing new superpower, teleportation. She’s troubled, but intelligent, strangely likable, and, in general, a sympathetic character, and none of her problemss are attributed to her epilepsy. I wrote a blog about it, that I thought you might be interested in reading:

    https://themighty.com/2018/07/youtube-series-impulse-epilepsy/

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Alison Zetterquist — July 4, 2018 @ 1:48 PM

    • I had read about Snowden, but not about “Henry”.

      What a wonderful story.

      10 Episodes of “Impulse” sounds like a real-life treat.

      Maybe a gateway to a real-life evolution?

      Like

      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — July 4, 2018 @ 3:13 PM

  10. Also, I forgot to mention that @pamzich, via twitter, mentioned that The Leftovers, a series on HBO, also has a character with epilepsy whose persona isn’t driven by it. I’ve not seen it, but I plan to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by shedlightonepilepsy — July 4, 2018 @ 2:03 PM

  11. Reblogged this on Karen's mixed up mind.

    Like

    Comment by karebear1967 — September 17, 2018 @ 1:43 PM

  12. Even though T.V. shows and movies sometimes show Epilepsy in the negative way, Phyllis, I’m glad that they’re at least bringing it out of Society’s “closet”, and reminding people about it. Back when I was in 9th grade, the health class actually showed a film about a very young boy, who had uncontrollable Grand Mal seizures and needed neurosurgery. I watched the class go into a state of shock 😱. One of my friends even told me that if there was ever anything for me to do in her name, to never have that done. I’m afraid (but not afraid) that I broke that promise in 92, at the Mayo Clinic, and might have to do it again at Johns Hopkins. I’ve always thought that if I ever bumped into her, I’d have to say “Umm… Tracey, I think we’d better go sit down.”

    Like

    Comment by David Jensen — September 17, 2018 @ 4:04 PM

    • Well, she was doing her best.

      Not, in my opinion, like the intentions of movies and TV.

      Yes, I understand that exposure is a good thing, but at what cost?

      Like

      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — September 17, 2018 @ 7:07 PM


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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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