Epilepsy Talk

Truth or Lies: Epilepsy in Movies and TV | May 9, 2023

Apart from tuberculosis and syphilis, few diseases have been as steeped in myth as epilepsy.

The generalized tonic-clonic seizure has been associated with phenomena ranging from divine powers and possession by spirits to mental and moral depravity.

This has been chronicled and described extensively in fiction and feature films.

They do nothing but reinforce the stigma that is rampant about the condition.

But not always.

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

And last but far from least is Netflix’s pejorative “The After Party” (2018)

In the movie, the main character has a seizure while rapping on stage. He vomits and writhes, a moment captured on video that goes viral. He gets dubbed “Seizure Boy,” and soon everyone is doing a #SEEZJAHBOY dance.

The movie has outraged the epilepsy community like little else.

“The way seizures are portrayed in the film only adds to the ignorance, misunderstanding and fear that exist about seizures. This Netflix film harkens back into the Dark Ages,” Phil Gattone, president of the Epilepsy Foundation, said in a written statement.

Gattone said he reached out to Netflix in hopes of working with it to produce a public service announcement about seizure disorders that could be played at the end of the movie or posted on Netflix’s digital outlets. He never heard back.

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  1. Reblogged this on Disablities & Mental Health Issues.


    Comment by Kenneth — May 9, 2023 @ 11:58 AM

  2. Of all the really stupid things people said to me after I was newly diagnosed, the prize-winner was that I was chosen by god, and would I mind sharing any messages.

    Thank you for the list of films. Perhaps one of them reflects life as it is lived.

    Note that a number of recent graphic novels do a fine job of depicting what it’s really like.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by HoDo — May 9, 2023 @ 2:09 PM

  3. Watch it HoDo,, Are you Chosen by God or a god ? God is a jealous God who does not like anyone or anything to have more focus on them, not that A god would choose you for anything as so many people of this world think they are a god, & have power over us because we have a seizure condition. God however has always been by my side at those wild times when I had NOBODY around & the many times when others were around as I have always looked UP for my answers, as the middle verse of the bible puts it best. PSALM 118:8 It is better to have trust in the Lord, than to have confidence in man. Hebrews 13:5 Let your conversations be without coventousness, and be content with such things you have. For he said I will never leave thee nor forsake thee. What man does that or will do that ? Say 1 thing that someone despises and does not agree with today, then you become a BIG target of hate from them/other people where they have nothing to do with you. But they are not my judge which is why I have no worries where I end up, no matter if I am dead from a seizure all alone, or die some other way where no seizure or aura happened.


    Comment by James D — May 9, 2023 @ 4:02 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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