Med Students Study the Pathology of Horror

October 24, 2018


Perhaps unorthodox, but certainly popular, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Psychiatry Professor Anthony Tobia, MD is at it again. We once told you about his “Psy-feld” curriculum, which involved assigning students watch episodes of NBC's "Seinfeld" to review and diagnose mental disorders observed on the top-rated ‘90s sitcom. Now, just in time for Halloween, he’s turning his teaching talents to the big (scary) screen. 

This time, students are viewing 31 of the most terrifying horror movies to study and diagnose the mental disorders illustrated by their infamous antagonists.

"For our residents, the course is actually termed ‘Reviewing Mental Disorders with a Reverent Understanding of the Macabre’, Dr. Tobia recently told reporters. “Certainly, given the fact that they are film, and they are fictional, there is a lot of creative liberty taken, so sometimes they are a little bit over the top and may even continue the stigma of mental illness. But for our teaching didactic, we identify that, of course. And it is much more important to pick out the actual details that will lend to a diagnosis." 

Dr. Tobia’s blog, Views Through the Psychiatrist’s Lens, which appears in Psychology Today, offers a glimpse into this unique teaching approach. A recent post focused on Wes Craven’s 1996 film, Scream, in which a high school student is stalked by a mysterious killer, only known as “Ghostface”, who taunts victims with creepy phone calls asking about their favorite horror flicks. 

“In Craven’s film, we learn of the Jungian archetypal warning of what happens when you neglect your responsibility when caring for children,” Dr. Tobia writes, referring to a scene featuring character Casey, played by Drew Barrymore, while she’s babysitting. “Casey is talking to her boyfriend when she’s supposed to be watching the children. Ghostface then represents the keeper of prosocial norms that ensure the preservation of cultural values such as the welfare of children. This is the minor (familial) Father archetype that represents the virtues of sternness and control.”

Scream also depicts Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder in character, Sidney Prescott, played by Neve Campbell. Sidney experience intense emotional pain and constant preoccupation with the circumstances of her mother’s death. Given that Sidney also contemplates suicide and appears underweight, an eating disorder should also be in the differential diagnosis, Dr. Tobia writes.

And in John Carpenter’s frightening favorite, Halloween, the Michael Myers character serves as a case study of conversion disorder, a type of somatic symptom disorder, which involves the presence of physical symptoms that suggest a general medical condition. 

“What’s defining is that the symptom or deficit (e.g. mutism) is not fully explained by a) a medical condition (e.g. aphonia), b) the direct effects of a substance, or c) another mental disorder,” Dr. Tobia writes. “Following the murder of his sister, Michael loses his ability to talk. Through the entire franchise (to date) which includes the original film, seven sequels, and two remakes, Myers doesn’t utter a single word. There is no physical explanation for his motor deficit. The film and its many reproductions illustrate a conversion reaction stemming from the trauma of murdering his sister. Michael’s violent behavior may therefore be interpreted as nonverbal communication resulting from the defense mechanism; acting out.”

The project is proving highly effective for students, who are eager to make a connection between their studies and some of their favorite pop culture references.

"We take our students outside of the classroom and we put them a different clinical context," Dr. Tobia said.

We here at WOLFPACC certainly appreciate a uniquely effective approach to the study and practice of medicine. In fact, it’s something we specialize in ourselves. Visit our website or call 904-209-3140 to find out how our own revolutionary approach can give you a competitive edge in medical school.