Epilepsy Talk

Epilepsy at the Movies — Don’t Believe What You See or Hear! | July 10, 2019

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. It’s bad enough to live through the rejections of this world by the people who claim are your friends & yet they never consider you as an aquaintance to them. They will use you though in any way they would get a benefit, you’re willing to do for them, but have the show on the other foot, they are always BUSY, Being Under Satan’s Yoke, to have time for you. All of that is why I never see those movies you speak about, as I have enough trouble in this real life, believing what others say & do for me, which is little to nothing, but I could do anything for them IF they think it is okay that I could help them out in any way, where THEY would get a benefit from my help. Of course those people do not live with seizures & they are the experts in judging me & others like me who have seizures. I know there is only 1 JUDGE that matters. He /Jesus, may be judging them soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by C D — July 10, 2019 @ 11:24 AM

    • I’m right with you. Who needs the discrimination? It’s right there wherever you go. You don’t need the movies to compound it!


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — July 10, 2019 @ 11:51 AM

  2. Phylis, thank you for bringing up another controversial issue. I’m sure people are all over the place in their experiences with this one. You can probably imagine that my experiences with the way you expressed it – “Epileptic = Demonic” – per our horror movies has been quite diverse. It also is an indicator of how powerful the media is on our culture. People are especially torn when a priest begins to have seizures, especially the tonic-clonic category. Some see it as possession; others see it as being filled with the Spirit. I have been described as having my eyes rolling back in my head, foaming at the mouth, and flopping on the floor. These are classic visual depictions of “Epileptic = Demonic” from the movies, television shows, and also from the Bible. The only thing that I can do is describe the ongoing medical treatment I am receiving. I think that it is a healthy way of responding to this issue. George

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by George Choyce — July 10, 2019 @ 1:59 PM

    • Wow, George, it must be incredibly difficult for you, considering your position as a priest.

      Some might think it’s the Demon “coming out of you”, some might think you’re the “personification” of the Demon, some might says you’re “driven” by Demons. An some might say you’re “possessed”. Scary stuff to deal with.

      Now THIS is where awareness and education is paramount. And the garbage that the general public is fed doesn’t help one bit.

      So, I guess you’re left to your own strength and advocacy to teach them who you are and what YOU suffer from.

      That, in itself, is inspiring.


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — July 10, 2019 @ 2:39 PM

    • yeah George,, What you say may be the right way to explain the issue, yet those who you try to explain or describe things to them, How many of them will ACCEPT you after that, as if what you said to them matters that they will be a BFFL, Best Friend For Life ? You will be assured that you will be the last person they will think about when having any big or small social or public involvement to be a part of any persons life or group of people doing whatever. So we have to find the people with the gift of MERCY or GRACE ? I think you have to have the GRACE to give MERCY & you have to have the MERCY to receive or give GRACE. A pastor might figure that out as I can’t yet.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by C D — July 10, 2019 @ 2:46 PM

  3. I think George is the epitome of mercy and grace.

    And we’re all the richer to know him.


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — July 10, 2019 @ 3:09 PM

  4. Hi Phyllis, You mentioned epilepsy as sometimes being portrayed as a sign of genius. Do you have any examples? I remember pointing “Snowden” out to you as a movie about a genius who has epilepsy, and I’d love to know if you’re aware of others. Certainly, we can point back to the well-known “geniuses” of the past (e.g., Caesar, Sir Issac Newton, etc.) and find them. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that more are beginning to show up in movies! Thanks, Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Alison Zetterquist — July 10, 2019 @ 4:11 PM

  5. Thank you, Phylis! I’m just hoping this august group of members of the hall of fame gets portrayed, at least to some level, in films these days. All the best, Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by shedlightonepilepsy — July 10, 2019 @ 6:57 PM

  6. Me too!

    Enough of the “bad guys and demons”!


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — July 10, 2019 @ 8:46 PM

  7. Little known fact. Julius Ceaser was exicuted because he had epilepsy and his people thought that he was posesed by the devil.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Jeanine Bunt — July 11, 2019 @ 4:02 PM

    • WOW!

      Another factoid…It is said that Richard Burton drank to hide the fact that he had seizures.

      Better a drunk than an epileptic?


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — July 11, 2019 @ 4:46 PM

  8. That’s why I didn’t see “Tower Heist” a more recent comedy that poked fun at people with Epilepsy. There was a line in the film calling Ben Stiller’s character “seizure boy” and poking fun of him. The Epilepsy Foundation took care of it, and I know when I saw the previews originally I asked the Executive Director of Epilepsy Foundation Heart of Wisconsin of they knew about the line and were doing anything about it because I thought it was offensive. Since I used to be on the Epilepsy Foundation Heart of Wisconsin’s Advisory Board when they had a branch in Racine/Kenosha , I took the initiative of standing up about it. I know they at least pulled it from the preview, but whether or not they removed it from the movie I will probably never know, because I wouldn’t want to sponsor something that makes fun of people who live with Epilepsy and contributes to the stigma that is already out there.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by trekkie80sgirl — July 15, 2019 @ 12:43 PM

    • I think they DID remove it from the movie.

      There was a whole statement from the EFA condemning the movie.

      And I think a few other news outlets participated, too.


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — July 15, 2019 @ 12:51 PM

  9. There’s a movie, I believe it’s titled, My Sister’s Keeper, where Alex Baldwin plays a lawyer with epilepsy that has a seizure dog. He’s in court, and the dog starts barking. He asks for a 5 minute recess. The judge denies it and he has a seizure right in court, all the while the dog is barking.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Scott Vitale — November 14, 2019 @ 11:52 AM

    • WOW! The guy had a seizure dog and the judge still didn’t believe him?

      What a jerk!

      I’d like to see it happen to HIM.


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — November 14, 2019 @ 5:29 PM

  10. Girls were always nice right . Bull
    55 yrs ago when I walked out of school after fighting with h Epilepsy since age 3 of course kids knew it. So the girls were waiting for me after school not to be nice but to join hands in a circle skipping laughing calling me names and spitting on me. Some things you never forget they get burned right in your heart.now I’m in my mid 60s these days they consider that school bullying but what do people really think.
    Actions speak louder than words . Now they just shut them up. That’s all.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Charlie Brown — October 21, 2020 @ 1:49 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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