Stereotypes Surrounding Epilepsy in the Entertainment Industry

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“Are you dancing, or are you having a seizure?”

This question, usually followed by a shrill, hollow-sounding laugh track, has become all too common in television sitcoms.  Unfortunately, this is one of the most common mentions of epilepsy that the entertainment industry makes.

In this industry, epilepsy continues to be depicted as a mysterious, frightening, and sometimes even magical illness.  There are very rarely characters with epilepsy who are portrayed as three-dimensional beings living regular lives.  If the idea of having a seizure is not providing comic relief, epilepsy is often conflated with other disabilities such as brain damage, mental illness, or developmental delay. This only adds to the piles of misinformation about what epilepsy and all the other listed disabilities are, reinforcing stigma across the board. Epilepsy is also a recurring theme in horror movies containing spiritual possession or demonic forces at play.  The entertainment industry has continued to paint an ugly picture of epilepsy, and has done little to stop furthering the stereotypes that have circulated in society for thousands of years.  These stereotypes were based originally in fear, ignorance, and hyperreligiosity, and it is essential for them to end.

According to the World Health Organization, as of May 2015, “approximately 50 million people worldwide have epilepsy, making it one of the most common neurological diseases globally.”   For a disease that affects so many, one would hope that there would be more acceptance of the disorder and those who live with it.  The unfortunate reality is that many, if not most, people living with epilepsy feel compelled to hide their struggle with the disease for fear of being ostracized.  The title “epileptic” has always been a pejorative one; the lack of positive epileptic role models in the entertainment industry only perpetuates this situation.  If the manner in which epilepsy was depicted was less alarmist and more authentic, many people who currently misunderstand and fear the disease would benefit, as well as those who suffer with it in silence.  The compulsion for those with epilepsy to conceal their difficulties would be greatly alleviated with the knowledge that the general population would not laugh at them or find them “scary” or “freakish.”

In addition to these stereotypes, the few depictions of epilepsy that exist in media are often limited. Any seizures that appear are generally shown as grand mal seizures.  This is only one category of seizure type, and while it is, of course, the scariest and most shocking to watch, it would be helpful if other seizure types were highlighted: absence seizures, complex partial seizures, and myoclonic seizures are only three examples of other types of seizures.  If audiences could witness various seizure types along with their presentation and respective necessary interventions, it would go a long way toward demystifying the disease and removing some of the fear borne out of the ignorance surrounding epilepsy.

In the past, The American Diabetes Association created widespread educational campaigns which have been beneficial to those with diabetes; several other conditions have also benefited from this kind of awareness. Such a campaign for people with epilepsy would be invaluable, as many people with epilepsy now feel pressured to conceal their disease at all costs.

If formal audience education is not possible, storylines involving characters that successfully manage their epilepsy would begin to change the widespread stereotypes.  Especially in younger audiences, it would remove some of the stigma associated with epilepsy and introduce a favorable example of what an “epileptic” is.  It would also benefit the epileptic community if the inclination to associate the disease with demonic possession was limited.  To perpetuate the myth that epilepsy is caused by a demonic presence wreaking havoc with someone’s body only adds fuel to the notion that these patients are somehow “evil” or “defective.”  These implications, though they may never be candidly discussed, cause many people with epilepsy to feel inferior and condemned by society.

The entertainment industry must allow their depictions of epileptics to catch up with modern medicine, instead of disseminating ancient beliefs and clichés for the sake of drama.  The influence these writers, directors, and producers hold is enormous; many members of the general population will never have any kind of firsthand experience with seizures and will garner their opinions from these books and films, perpetuating the lack of awareness even further.  Accurate portrayals of epilepsy in popular media are crucial for the ignorance and disgrace to stop.  The removal of seizure disorders as a source of comedic entertainment and horror fodder is also key to encouraging universal acceptance and empathy for the disease.  Efforts to erase the stigmas associated with other disabilities through more respectful media portrayals exist, and I’d love to see a campaign pushing for the same with portrayals of epilepsy. It’s time for the entertainment industry to aid in changing our collective minds about epilepsy.

About Author

L.J. Kelley

L.J. Kelley is a new writer, registered nurse, and adoptive mother. She has a B.A. in Psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a B.S. in Nursing from Saint Louis University.  L.J. has completed her first young adult novel and is excited about her next project, a collection of short stories that push the envelope and open the dialogue for subjects that may be difficult to discuss. Some of her initial flash fiction work has been published on Mash Stories and Story64.  Three additional pieces are scheduled for online publication in The Bookends Review in December 2016, and in the spring issues of The Greenwich Village Literary Review and Empty Sink.  She lives with her husband and two children in Winston-Salem.