Epilepsies and epileptic-alike seizures in international feature film – criteria and charaterising keywords

Authors: S. Heiner, Cortona, Italien, F.C. Schmitt, Magdeburg, Germany
English translation from German version 12.7.2019 by Catherine Sweene-Reed and F.C. Schmitt

The database “Epilepsy Feature Films” chronicles feature films in which “epilepsy” and “epileptic seizures” directly or indirectly play a role. Films are also included, in which the relationship with epilepsy is completely secondary and/or episodic.

Seizures and symptoms are cinematically evaluated, i.e., from the perspective of viewers without medical knowledge.

The criteria by which the films are rated and included in the database are presented as follows.

A. External criteria

  1. Attribution: Any type of reference to epilepsy and/or epileptic seizure in the events of the film. As a general rule, these are accepted without verification.
    Example: “The Last Exorcism II” by D. Stamm (reference from Wikipedia)
  2. Expert reference(s): Reference(s) from experts in epileptology and/or cinematography. The rating of ”Expert references” is given especially to films that are discussed in specialist literature/publications (see Bibliography: “Epilepsie im Spielfilm” [“Epilepsy in Feature Films”])
    Example: “Kissing Candice: A Teenage Nightmare” by A. McArdle

B. Reference to “epilepsy” in the narrative of the film

  1. Reference in the narrative of the film: Reference to epilepsy exclusively in the Literary original of the film, in a film remake, or a plots related to the film. However, epilepsy plays no role in the film itself.
    Example: “The Big Sleep” by H. Hawks
  2. Only literary/historical: One of the film characters is considered in literature and/or in history as suffering from epilepsy. This plays no role in the recorded film itself, however.
    Examples: film adaptations of, e.g. Othello, van Gogh, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, etc..
  3. Isolated episode only: The “epileptic event” is limited only to one occurrence. It plays no role in the film beforehand or afterwards.
    Example: “Frankie and Johnnie” by G. Marshall.

C. Role of the person connected with epilepsy

  1. Main character: standard definition for literary and film roles
    Example: “Garden state” by Z. Braff
  2. Supporting role: standard definition for literary and film roles
    Example: Medical Drama Series ”Monroe” , Season 2, Number 5” by D. Moore. Dr. Monroe prepares for high-risk brain surgery on epilepsy patient Bridget Ally.
  3. Role not clarified: This category was introduced, because the database authors could not always determine who in a film was “epileptic” from the references found.
    Example: “Last Exorcism II” by D. Stamm (several, not clearly identifiable individuals were indicated as having epilepsy.)

D. Definition of feature that led to classification as “Epilepsy Feature Film”

  1. Naming of term: The term “epilepsy” or “epileptic seizure” occurs in the film.
    Example: “The King’s Speech” by T. Hooper
  2. Seizure event: A clearly visible seizure occurs in the events of the film.
    Example: “Control” by A. Corbijn

E. Seizure forms, causes, triggers

The categorisation of “seizures” in “Epilepsy Feature Films” is blurry in the medical sense: main emphasis is put on the fact that films are aimed at entertainment and not at medical or scientific education. The categorisation of these “seizures” refers back to commonly used clinical seizure classifications

  1. Bilateral convulsive-alike seizure
    Example: “Control” by A. Corbijn
  2. Complex seizure (gesticulation, limb contortion, confused wandering, etc.)
    Example: “Requiem” by H.C. Schmid or “The Cell”, by T. Singh
  3. Fall (without further incidents)
    Example: “The Winning Team” by L. Seiler
  4. Brief freezing
    Example: “Dr. Kildare’s Crisis” by H. Bucquet
  5. Seizure-like occurrence of emotional/sensory perceptions
    Example: “Capitalismo Selvagem” by A. Klotzel or “The innocent”, by John Mackenzie,
  6. Induced seizure (e.g. electro- und insulin shock episodes)
    Example: “A Beautiful Mind” by R. Howard
  7. Reflex seizure (triggered by external causes shown or mentioned in the film: flickering lights/disco, stress)
    Example: “The Simpsons: Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo” by J. Reardon (flickering lights)
  8. Simulated seizure (seizures, which the film character consciously “performs“)
    Example: “Drugstore Cowboys” by G. Van Sant
  9. Psychogenic, non-epileptic seizure (based on the film’s narrative it can be concluded that the cause of the seizure is purely psychological and not biological / epileptogenic
    Example: “Il grande Cocomero” by F. Archibugi

F. Special issues

  1. Epilepsy surgery (brain surgery, which is explicitly named as such)
    Example: “Dr. Kildare’s Crisis” by H. Bucquet
  2. Eclampsia
    Example: “ER: Love’s labor lost” by M. Leder
  3. Context of violence
    Example: “The Terminal Man” by M. Hodges
  4. Animal seizure
    Example: “The Conchords: Love is a weapon of choice” by J. Bobin


Heiner, S. 1996. „Epilepsie im Spielfilm“. Dt. Gesellschaft für Epileptologie - Informationspool Epilepsie, Nr. 13 (2008): 1–4.

Heiner, S. 2003. „Krise, Kontrolle, Vision – Zur Rolle epiletischer Anfälle im Film“. In Bildstörung – Kranke und Behinderte im Film, 1. Auflage, 65–70. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Mabuse-Verlag.

Heiner, S. 2015. „Musik in Spielfilmen mit Epilepsie“. Zeitschrift für Epileptologie, Oktober, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10309-015-0028-z.

Schmitt, F.C., und R. Besser. 2001. „The relationship between a seizure and aggression: notions in feature films“. In Epilepsia, 42:133. Blackwell Publishing Group.

Schmitt, F.C. 2009. „Seizures connected to religious concepts“. In Epilepsia, 50:251. Elsevier.

Schmitt, F.C. 2016. „Epilepsie im Spiel- und Fernsehfilm“. Zeitschrift für Epileptologie, Juni, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10309-016-0064-3.