Medical Horrors on Small and Large Screens

11 September 2009 at 19:59 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

My husband and I recently completed the first season of Lost (yes, we are WAY behind on that trend!) and it occurred to me as I watched the series that one of its scariest elements of the show happens to be medicine–how appropriate considering the national discussion in the United States about healthcare! The debates about rationing health care come to mind as I watch the castaways of Lost struggle to keep their injured companions alive with the limited resources available to them. Of course, Lost would not be the first example of representations in which diagnosing, curing, or repairing an illness or injury can be just as terrifying as the illness itself, as the examples described below demonstrate.

The Exorcist stands out as one of the most grueling representations of how diagnostics can prove to be almost as painful as the ailment. When young Regan (Linda Blair) starts to behave strangely, her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) turns to medical doctors for answers. Through editing and framing, these scenes portray the testing as painful, drawn out, and isolating. After several of these attempts to pinpoint the problem fail, Chris first tries psychiatric treatment before finally hiring an exorcist. The scenes of diagnosis, however, suggest that medical technologies meant to further wellness necessarily objectify the patient, leading to discomfort, pain, and frustration when they do not produce answers.

After conventional medicine fails her, Chris (Ellen Burstyn) turns to an exorcist (Max Von Sydow) for assistance with her possessed daughter.  Image taken from

After conventional medicine fails her, Chris (Ellen Burstyn) turns to an exorcist (Max Von Sydow) for assistance with her possessed daughter. Image taken from

The series House, M.D. also portrays diagnostics as a pained process. Episodes typically revolve around one patient’s mysterious illness and the effors of title character Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) and his team of diagnosticians to determine the cause of the illness. While much of the horror in the show derives from the body’s malfunction, depicting symptoms in graphic detail, the means by which House attempts to determine the illness generate the most tension. House’s extreme methods often include letting the patient get sicker in order to determine the cuase of the disease based on additional symptoms. These methods generally ruffle the feathers of his supervisor, Dr. Cuddy, and his insistence on obtaining information and samples often leads to violations of the patient that range from rummaging through the patient’s residence to find clues to forcibly obtaining samples of body fluids. In, House sometimes portrays the diagnostic process as violent, and always presents the body as
vulnerable and complex.

Where The Exorcist and House differ are in the outcomes they present. Western Medicine fails Regan due to the supernatural causes of her behavior. In House, medicine rarely fails to cure the illness and always succeeds in determining the cause. In other words, the body is entirely knowable with access to the right technology.

It makes sense, then, that other texts derive their medical horrors from a lack of access to this very technology. Several films and television shows from various genres use scenes of surgery to demonstrate how a character’s (or characters’) removal from civilization leads to a heightened vulnerability. Lost qualifies as one such example. For those unfamiliar with the series, it follows a group of plane crash survivors on a remote Pacific island. From among the ensemble of characters, Dr. Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) emerges as one of the strongest leaders in the group, in part as a result of his knowledge of medicine. Medical emergencies occur frequently, and without the proper medical equipment, Jack must use primitive techniques to save those in danger.

Dr. Jack Shephard (portrayed by Matthew Fox) of Lost.  Image taken from

Dr. Jack Shephard of Lost.

In the episode “Do No Harm,” for instance, Jack performs various operations on an injured character. When several attempts do not work, Jack considers amputating the patient’s crushed leg, but at the last minute the patient pleas with Jack to let him die rather than prolong his life through a violent procedure. The episode, with its titular reference to the physician’s maxim “first do no harm,” raises questions about the definition of harm–can prolonging a life through surgery be “harm”? Is saving a patient by any means necessary really to his benefit? Does utilizing scarce medical resources on a patient with no hope of survival put the larger group at risk? Obama adviser Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel ponders such “moral medical dilemmas” in his book The Ends of Human Life: Medical Ethics in a Liberal Polity. His serious discussions of these issues have led conservative reactionaries to falsely depict him as a death panel proponent in spite of his past efforts against assisted suicide. But what critics fail to understand and what “Do No Harm” illustrates is that when certain resources (e.g. organs for transplant) become limited, difficult choices must be made for the benefit of the greater good. Far from the black and white characterizations of Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, and others, these ethical quandaries tend to muddle distinctions into gray.

Aside from the difficult questions presented by “Do No Harm,” the mere presentation of medical procedures such as transfusing blood, setting broken bones, and amputating legs provides terrifying moments to the audience much in the vein of House. Though such injuries result from accidents rather than psychopathic killers, these gory, graphic depictions of the body in pain share much in common with the violence of the contemporary horror film. A similar (though far more graphic) scene occurs in the 2005 horror film The Descent when one member of a group of trapped cavers falls into a cavern and breaks her leg. The severed bone protrudes through the skin and must be put back into place, resulting in one of the film’s more sickening moments. Again, this depiction of the body’s fragility heightens the tension in an already suspenseful film that plays on the characters’ entrapment underground and subsequent isolation from medical tools and technology that could assist them. (Here’s the scene–IT’S NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART)

Of course, many such tools resulted from modern advances, so films and television shows set prior to the twentieth century can also draw upon the horrors of medicine. I think specifically here of the HBO miniseries John Adams about the life of the second American president, on the face of it an odd choice for such a scene. In the final episode of the miniseries, John Adams’ (the excellent Paul Giammatti) daughter Nabby (Sarah Polley in all her terrificness) receives a breast cancer diagnosis. Not surprisingly, the scene of surgery shows very little in terms of the actual procedure, yet it proves to be no less affecting in its portrayal of the violence that surgery does to the body. The episode shows Nabby steeling herself for the painful surgery (anesthetics were not administered) and her parents on the floor below send out her children for a walk with the knowledge that the kids might hear their mother’s cries. Sadly, the tumor returns and Nabby decides to forgo treatment preferring to die rather than undergo another excruciating (and possibly ineffective) surgery. Certainly, Nabby’s story reminds us of how far medicine has advanced in the past two hundred years, but patients today continue to face similar choices she regarding cancer treatment.

Sarah Polley as Nabby Adams in the John Adams Miniseries.  Image taken from

Sarah Polley as Nabby Adams in the John Adams Miniseries.

In summary, these films and television series demonstrate that the body and its malfunctions play an important role in generating terror and suspense and will continue to do so for years to come. What’s more, the cure for illnesses and injuries can generate just as much fear as the ailment itself. But what might be more disturbing these days is the breakdown of the health care system which compounds the damage with bureaucratic mazes and discriminatory practices. For that reason, I leave you with the trailer for perhaps the most horrifying medical horror film of all: Sicko.


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