I happened to be in London last weekend and was lucky enough to come to the Barbican for an afternoon of talks and screenings on the relationship between cinema and psychosis, here’s a short report on the talks. It ends with some questions that might be of interest to researchers and voice hearers.

Cinema and Psychosis was an event organised by Sal Anderson and her newly formed Institute of Inner Vision. It was hosted at the Barbican Centre as part of their Wonder season, co-funded by the Wellcome Trust and the University of the Arts London. It brought together critics, psychologists, academics and filmmakers to question the relationship between psychotic conditions and the moving image. HtV’s Charles Fernyhough shared a panel with Ian Christie and Vaughan Bell. All three reflected upon the unique potential of the cinematic medium to expose audiences to the experience of psychosis, both by allowing us to observe psychotic states and facilitating an impression of what it feels to be psychotic.

Focussing on this session, I’d just like to sum up and reflect upon some of the points raised by each presentation and then describing a number of ways in which cinema and HtV’s work on the phenomena of auditory-verbal hallucination might coincide.

Ian Christie began by giving a broad overview of how canonical films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) have interacted with the history of mental health and its treatment. Christie was at his best when expressing the subtle tensions and borrowings between classical psychoanalysis and popular entertainment. While Freud felt suspicious of cinema’s effects and pleasures, his students, like Otto Rank, developed their psychoanalytic theories by giving readings of well-known films. There was, I think, the explicit assumption in Christie’s talk that the care for and treatment people experiencing symptoms of psychosis can be reducible to the history of psychoanalytic practice; the ‘madness’ Christie spoke of was discussed almost exclusively through the history of psychoanalytic thought. Although it is certainly the case that many films are produced and understood for their reference to these ideas, they cannot be the only means by which to anchor the extremely plural experiences of those identified or identifying as ‘psychotic’. Nevertheless, the point that Christie finally arrived at was shared by others with more clinical interests – cinema has, he argued, a “unique power to display madness as reality”. In other words, we were encouraged to think about cinema as both a reality-making medium and a medium capable of communicating the interior experiences of others.

That cinema could leave the ‘normal’ in tatters was just one of the many cinematic effects described by psychologist Vaughan Bell. His presentation gave some stricter definitions with which to work as we moved through Karl Jasper’s work on delusion to consider the “fundamental change in meaning” that can propel the deluded towards psychotic experiences. Bell gave many clips and examples, particularly from Rosemary’s Baby (1968), to show how some films deliberately encourage audiences to examine the rupture between the evidence characters assess and the logical conclusions that they reach. What interested Bell was how cinema, itself an evidential medium, compels us to make our own decisions based on the same evidence related by the protagonists. This can have disarming effects, making us doubt our intuitions and lending cinema an experiential and empathetic potential that is important for those wanting a deeper understanding of psychosis.

Charles Fernyhough rounded off this session with an introduction to the HtV project. He explained how the biomedical explanation of auditory hallucination failed to understand regular inner speech, the plural nature of voice hearing and the many different contexts in which it occurs. He explained how voice hearing is always already a meaning-making phenomenon because, in the first instance, we need to have an idea of what ‘normal’ inner voices sound like for us to detect a voice that feels alien or strange. Dolly Sen gave an extremely powerful description of how her experiences of psychosis were let down by conventional medical approaches. She suggested that film, along with other creative arts, could provide an important way of individuating psychology, allowing stories and personal narratives to have a therapeutic effect on biomedical practice as well as for patients.

These presentations left me with some strong impressions about the relationship between voice hearing and cinema. Perhaps the function of cinema is not just to provide a means to represent voice hearing on screen, as it is in The Snake Pit (1948), or to manufacture the alarming and disconcerting feeling that we do not know what is true or false. At the very least, the experience of watching films in conventional cinematic or domestic settings provides important, life-long training in hearing voices which emanate from electronic speakers systems. Cinemas, then, might provide interesting laboratories for research into listening, inner speech and various experiences of hallucinatory listening. In the end, such research would seek to understand whether voice hearers experience film in particular ways. We’d be very interested to know how cinematic experience changes – good or bad or without qualitative effect – when intrusive voices or sounds are also present.

This also raises a related a more general question: what films would you recommend that feature aspects of voice hearing? Also, are there filmmakers out there that are in the process of developing film ideas or have works that could be screened together? One of the striking things about the Barbican event was that the afternoon began with thinking about the reception of cinema and its relation to psychosis and ended with seeing some specially commissioned short films produced by people who have experienced some aspects of psychosis. These were directed by Adam, Gregory Hilton and Dolly Sen. Given the importance of personal testimony among voice hearing communities it seems right that any further consideration of cinema and voice-hearing should, where possible, include works that are produced by those who hear voices.

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