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Cinema's Sinister PsychiatristsReview - Cinema's Sinister Psychiatrists
From Caligari to Hannibal
by Sharon Packer
McFarland, 2012
Review by Mark Welch, PhD
Jul 30th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 31)

In her subtitle, From Cagliari to Hannibal, Packer, herself a psychiatrist, sketches the scope of this highly entertaining addition to the literature of the cinematic history and representation of the evil, charlatan or sinister psychiatrist. It is not really a consideration of psychiatric illness, nor of patients, but rather the psychiatrist who, from those initial powerful stereotypes that Schneider described, Drs. Dippy, Evil, and Wonderful, have become a trope that somehow includes a malevolent knowledge, the power of manipulation, something of the dark side and even magic. Psychiatrists in the cinematic world are not ordinary physicians with an interesting specialty; they are almost the Lucifers, the fallen angels, those who seem to have entered into some Faustian pact that allows them to invade men's souls.

Whether or not this is a true depiction of psychiatrists is, of course, another question, and not one that Packer really wishes to examine. It is far more interesting to her to ask why this should be.

She works through her thesis in twelve chapters, moving from what she calls Mad Military Mind Docs, where the theme of mind-control as in The Manchurian Candidate, is explored in some depth, through the supernatural in such films as Haxan (1922), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) and The Sixth Sense (1999), to institutions themselves as in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Shutter Island (2010), and at every stage examines the way in which the tension between good and evil and the opportunity to meddle in areas that may not be truly mankind's to meddle with can either be too tempting, or too irresistible or likely to provoke a psychosis (usually involving megalomania and paranoia). Clearly, there is also the opportunity, and often the evidence, of something transgressive. The sinister psychiatrist can be something of a Mengele of the mind.

The construct of the evil scientist or the mad genius is, of course, not unknown before the advent of cinema. Dr Frankenstein and Prospero are only two of the most obvious examples. However, the peculiar ability that cinematic psychiatrists have to influence and control the minds of people lifts them into another category where not only lives are at stake, but the essence of a person - the soul if you will, as Secrets of a Soul (1926) attests.

The book is attractive on a number of levels. It is undeniably entertaining, although the reader will quickly realize that the social forces that create a character like Dr. Caligari are not that much different from those that find expression in Hannibal Lecter -- look for what we fear, and we will find an uneasy feeling that it cannot be controlled. There are thought-provoking chapters that range from the classic cinema -- and Packer's recurring debt and return to Caligari is just one example - to modern pop cultural references. There is fine scholarship and an intriguing thesis, and although it is only focused on the sinister psychiatrist, there are allusions to a broader question of representation from the eponymous Dr. Dippy to the benign, bumbling, pompous and comic Frasier.

There is an interesting and comprehensive filmography, from 1894's A Chinese Opium Den to 2012's A Dark Knight Rises, and a useful reference list and bibliography. These latter aspects would appeal to those looking to explore the territory further. Indeed, as Packer notes, there is increasing interest and use of films in medical, psychological and nursing programs to look at the social construction of these professions. The intellectual debt is clear, and although reference is made to the work of the Gabbards in particular as well as seminal figures such as Krackauer, Kaes and Schneider, there is not a great sense of a theoretical development, rather it is descriptive -- but not less worthy for that.

Packer does not deal to any great explicit extent with the different sorts of psychiatry, so that where a psychoanalyst may seem to subtly infiltrate into a person's subconscious, a biological psychiatrist may be more likely to resort to medication, restraints and incarceration. Both may be malevolent, but in different ways.

It would also be interesting to examine the relationship between the films and real-world psychiatric practice. It is not without interest that many of the most significant films that have dealt with psychiatric issues have had considerable psychiatric consultation, including Cuckoo’s Nest and more recently, Shutter Island. Psychiatry has had a hand in the portrayal of itself; it is not an entirely innocent bystander in this process.

As Packer points out, sinister psychiatrists have become a significant trope, almost a meme, and that in itself is a worthy subject – one to which Packer has made a very welcome addition.

© 2013 Mark Welch

Mark Welch PhD, British Columbia, 2013.


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