Ballon, Bruce, and Leszcz, Molyn. "Horror Films: Tales to Master Terror or Shapers of Trauma?." American Journal of Psychotherapy. 61.2 (2007). 11 May 2008 .
This scientific article discusses the phenomenon known as cinematic neurosis; it was written by and based on the clinical experiences of two psychiatrists. The authors review the literature regarding symptom presentation and case reports, as well as the possible etiology of the pathology, including trauma theory, narrative theory, and borderline personality organization theory as it relates to the structure of the typical horror film. Specifically, they focus on The Exorcist since it is a powerful example of an “invasion metamorphosis” narrative of the paranoid-horror film class. The ‘invasion’ involves the possession of an innocent young girl; the ‘metamorphosis’ involves her transformation into a demonic creature who threatens those around her, and the setting is the safe home. The storyline constantly deals with paranoid anxiety due to Regan’s dangerous and unpredictable behaviors, as well as depressive anxiety with the loss of a loved one (as experienced by the passing of Father Karras’ mother).
Ballon and Leszcz argue that throughout The Exorcist, an individual can relate to parts of the narrative that parallel their own life experiences. This can either carry levels of stress that will be mastered, or serve as a traumatic event that will be re-enacted until it is conquered. This “re-enactment” takes the form of cinematic neurosis, which is a culturally influenced disorder associated with the development of anxiety, somatic responses, dissociation, paranoia, panic attacks, and even psychotic symptoms after watching a film. In this case, the film stimulus overwhelms the coping threshold of the viewer, resulting in symptom presentation. (However, the factors that predict the onset of this condition include not only the viewing experience, but also one’s pre-existing vulnerabilities/personality traits.)
The authors posit that the characteristics of the movie itself enhance the identification process and its potentially traumatic impact. Graphic films, such as The Exorcist, can overwhelm ego boundaries with the help of the actors’ skill, music, and most importantly, the special effects and cinematography—all of which further enhance the narrative. The latter features capture and heighten the characters’ pain and suffering, relentlessly shocking the audience without warning. Furthermore, the psychiatrists write that the “film’s special effects sequences become central as the film reaches its climax”. Thus, it can be concluded that the presentation of cinematic neurosis is related to the quality and shock-factor of the cinematic techniques that accompany the narrative. The fact there have been several medically documented cases of this culturally shaped disorder is a testament to how effective the artistic team was in capturing people’s greatest fears and creating effects that were easy to believe—although unfortunately sometimes to the viewer’s detriment.