Cinematic Visions of Paranoia

Some Cinematic Visions of Paranoia


Thomas J. Rostafinski, Ph.D.
Clinical Associate Professor
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences
Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola University of Chicago

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
Starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line
The Man come and take you away

Buffalo Springfield

“Just because they really are out to get you doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid.”


Cinematic visions of paranoia highlight the epistemology of this disorder as well as its connections with universal human strivings.  Analysis of The Matrix, The Truman Show, and Dark City shows the compelling nature of visions of systematic and hidden persecution, and of the corollary visions of personal grandeur.  Paranoia, whether manifest as a personality trait, personality disorder, or psychotic symptom, may be seen as originating in childhood perceptions of the motivated concealment of the truth by parental and other adult figures.  This perspective is presented here as supplemental to existing psychodynamic understandings of paranoia.

Some Cinematic Visions of Paranoia

Paranoia is a serious disorder of thinking and even perception consisting of delusions of persecution and/or grandeur.  It is a key symptom of schizophrenia, the defining symptom of delusional disorder or “true paranoia”, and the main theme of a personality disorder wherein the suspiciousness falls short of psychotic distortion (Kaplan & Sadock, 1997).

At the same time, both personal grandeur and persecution are universal values.  Popular entertainment has for centuries exalted the heroic and often embattled individual (from Achilles, Ulysses, Lancelot, and Beowulf through Zorro, John Galt, Frodo Baggins, and various Western heroes played by actors ranging from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood).  Persecution, especially when it takes the form of spectacular, or spectacularly hidden, conspiracies, also makes for compelling entertainment, which includes films as varied as The Manchurian Candidate, The Sting, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Blade Runner, and television series from “The Prisoner” in the 1960’s to “The X-Files” in the 1990’s.  Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, such as The 39 Steps or North by Northwest, show a consistent preoccupation with the victim’s initial helplessness in the face of conspiracies, and much of their appeal may come from the victim’s refusal to remain helpless.  Finally, though, paranoia is the arguably distorted manifestation of a universal epistemology: the search for hidden truth.

Paranoia has also played an important part in the history of modernism in art.  Salvador Dali was not the only early-twentieth-century artist to become interested in Lacan’s doctoral dissertation on paranoid psychosis and its connections with personality (Lacan, 1932/1975), but from it he derived a method of composition that he called “paranoid-critical,” which he then exemplified in several of his best known Surrealist paintings (Hughes, 1991).  The method results in an eerie double exposure in which the main element in the painting is also, and incongruously, something else.  Kneeling Narcissus is nearly identical to a huge hand rising out of the landscape.  Two Renaissance courtiers in a marketplace are also a bust of Voltaire.  Nothing is what it seems to be.

Phenomenologically, paranoia begins with the all-too-human tendency to find others to blame for whatever does not go well.

From an evolutionary perspective, the many threats that early humans faced from their environment gave an advantage to those individuals most watchful for danger.

Visions of persecution, that is, of more or less organized malevolent threat, turn out to be inextricably linked to visions of personal grandeur, and probably vice versa.  They are clearly inextricable in the cinematic visions discussed here.

Clinical paranoia represents the exaggeration or hypertrophy of these trends in the human personality, no doubt as the result of organic factors (Kaplan & Sadock, 1997).  There is of course a difference between paranoid personality, wherein the individual suspects hidden persecution, and schizophrenic or nonschizophrenic paranoid psychosis, in which the patient no longer has any doubt, but holds the unshakable, and usually unfounded, belief that he or she is the object of persecution.

In what follows, I intend to present a view of paranoia that emerges from the study of cinematic representations of persecution, and that is intended to supplement rather than replace psychodynamic (and biological) perspectives on paranoid pathology.

From this standpoint, the paranoid personality, with its suspicious searching for hidden truth and its readiness to believe the worst, is more interesting epistemologically than is paranoid psychosis, in which a nonexistent hidden truth has been uncovered and fastened upon.

In studying delusions of persecution it is also important not to lose sight of the realities of persecution, including subtle racism and sexism in the West as well as ethnic cleansing elsewhere, or the large-scale oppression of women in much of the Islamic world.  The diagnosis of paranoia must take social and cultural context into account.  Victims of actual persecution may appear “paranoid” in the colloquial sense, but their beliefs are, unfortunately, likely to be well-founded.

The Origins of Paranoia: Developmental and Cultural

It is not unnatural to think that, if something is hidden, it must have been hidden by someone, for some reason.  Parents conceal various truths from their children, for various reasons: to protect the children from premature exposure to the harshness of the world, to protect themselves from embarrassment or inconvenience, or to comply with the custom that dictates that children should be kept innocent about certain things.  Governments and other organizations conceal truths from all but certain inner circles for often self-serving and sometimes malign motives, and such concealment becomes the bureaucratic order of the day even when no longer necessary.  Conspiracies aimed against individuals or groups, or directed simply at keeping inconvenient facts away from the public eye, occur with some regularity.  It is the job of the investigative journalist, in societies such as ours in which freedom of information is protected by law though not always by practice, to ferret out the truth.  It is the job of the citizen to follow such investigations and rely on sufficiently diversified sources of information that he or she is not unduly influenced by the official communiqué or the party line.

Most hidden truths, however, are not hidden because they have been hidden by someone with intent to conceal.  They are instead hidden because of the vastness of the universe and of human experience, and because of the limitations of the individual and collective human intellect.  Philosophy, physics, cosmology, molecular biology, and medical research all represent the search for hidden truth that is an important part of human civilization and culture.  These endeavors extend the human collective’s grasp of the truth, and the capacities of the mind at the same time.

At some level, however, the search for hidden truth retains traces of the childhood effort to learn about those things that our parents did not want us to know about, at least not yet.  Freud’s fundamental insight was to trace many complex phenomena of the adult psyche to the dependence and helplessness of childhood.  Sex looms large, of course, among the things parents don’t want children to know about.  Freud (1911/1958) described the intricate ego mechanisms, particularly denial and projection, whereby sexual but also hostile impulses are rechanneled so as not to threaten the psychic equilibrium of the individual.

Let us define a subtype or aspect of paranoia as the search for hidden truth, or at least the belief that there is a hidden truth, together with behavior more or less consistent with such a belief, accompanied further by the corollary belief that the truth has been hidden with malign intent by persons or agencies with regard to whom one is more or less helpless.  This attribution of malevolent intent to conceal, mystify, or deceive is often (though not always) a distortion, and is the regressive aspect of the universally valued search for the truth.

False Reality and Virtual Reality

If one’s aim is to hide the truth from others, it is helpful to create a false reality sufficiently compelling to distract the others from noticing that it is false.  Psychotic paranoid patients are utterly compelled by the false realities that form the core of their delusions.  Indeed, false beliefs are not in themselves pathognomonic of paranoia; it is the utter certainty with which the false belief is held that distinguishes the delusional patient.  Besides the paranoid, only fools are so positive.

It is difficult, outside of psychosis, to envision so compelling a false reality.  On the other hand, there is a strong market for virtual realities for those wanting to suspend disbelief, as seen in increasingly realistic video games, in special effects in cinema, as well as in three-dimensional virtual reality in its strict sense.  Filmmakers in this way mimic the work of the (hypothetical) mental agency that weaves delusions.

These are new developments in technology.  Religions, on the other hand, have long taught that the most important realities are hidden, and that special ceremonies or procedures are required to gain access to these truths.  Some religions teach in addition that there are forces, usually regarded as contrary to Divine intention if not simply evil, that create a false reality whose effect is to keep the truth hidden.  Hindu (and Buddhist) myth postulates a divine being named Maya who spins a most compelling web of illusion, and our sensory reality is wholly part of this web.  Gnosticism, an early (and early repudiated) version of Christianity, followed Plato in declaring that the world as we know it was created by an inferior god, or demiurge, for the purpose of ensnaring us in illusion.  In both cases, the Eastern and the Western, religious practice has as its aim enlightenment, which is insight into the illusion, followed by the glimpse or intuition of the hidden reality behind the veil or web woven by the malign deity.  Freud’s description of insight as the curative element in psychoanalytic treatment (Freud, 1923/1961) thus has a long prehistory.

Paranoia and the Cinema

The cinematic visions to be discussed here are like those highly systematized delusions in which a person feels encircled by an all-embracing web of conspiracy or other malign action of which he or she has been singled out to be the target.  The feared conspiracy may be so far-reaching and powerful as to alter the very reality in which the paranoid person lives.  It has been theorized (Freud, 1911/1958) that paranoia comes from the operation of projection, wherein processes inside the mind, particularly aggression and/or unacceptable erotic interests, are disavowed and attributed instead to outer social (or sometimes even physical) reality.  What is inside us is of course inescapable, hence this all-encompassing quality of the malevolent conspiracy in the paranoid delusion.

What these films thus show is not paranoia but the object of paranoia.  In these cinematic visions the paranoid fantasy of conspiracy and persecution has become real.  Such visions are gratifying to viewers for a variety of reasons, not least being the vindication, in shared fantasy, of the fears and suspicions that are not uncommon in our complex society, but that might otherwise be labeled paranoid, hence unreal.

It is not entirely clear why the portrayal of paranoia is so seemingly natural to cinema.  It has been said, in a film-theory context (Ngai, 2001), that the paranoid vision is a male vision that nearly always has the male as the visionary discoverer:

The disposition to theorize finds itself aligned with paranoia, the affective complex underwriting the conspiratorial imagination, which Cyndy Hendershot has usefully described in shorthand as the belief in a total system. (Ngai, 2001, emphasis in the original)

My focus, however, in this preliminary study will be as much on the discovery itself as on the discoverer.

The Matrix

The Matrix (1999) initially presents a world that is only a slightly more sinister version of ordinary 1999 reality. Soon the viewer learns that this seeming reality is a shared illusion created by the computers that actually control the world and harvest human biological energy for their power. The hero, Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, learns of this reality along with the viewer. Neo is initiated by other characters who are the adepts, the enlightened, who see through the illusion created by the computers, and are able to enter and leave it at will — though not without danger. The leader of the rebellion, played by Laurence Fishburne, is named Morpheus. The film was popular for its action sequences, taking place almost exclusively in the virtual 1999.

The most fantastically unreal or surreal scene in the film, however, is the one that actually takes place in the (future) reality: countless pods in which human bodies are tethered to life support and to the machines’ power grid while their brains are wired to the Matrix and their minds live in the virtual world of 1999. Neo’s actual body is removed from its pod, presumably by some action of the resistance, the connectors embedded along his spine snapping apart. In the scenes taking place in the real twenty-second century, the connectors remain a visible presence and reminder of the bondage to the Matrix from which the resistance fighters had escaped. In the virtual 1999 these connectors are gone.

The Matrix is apparently the computers’ second attempt at creating a virtual reality sufficiently compelling to enslave most of the human race. The first Matrix created an ideal, beautiful virtual world for the humans that it enslaved. This Matrix was somehow (the viewer does not learn how) rejected by the humans. The next edition, which is presented in the film, is more complex and incorporates drama and suffering, just as real life always has, at least through 1999. Just as the cinema always has.

In the action sequences, our heroes have to fight the “agents,” personifications of the Matrix, wearing suits and dark glasses just like the B-movie villains that they are, and skilled in martial arts as well as firearms. Any person encountered in the Matrix could suddenly turn into an agent. And though virtual, any harm the agents inflict with their kicks or their guns is experienced by the heroes’ real bodies. Having real bodies, our heroes are mortal and vulnerable to computer-generated violence. Before his enlightenment, Neo could experience the worst of the persecution by agents of the Matrix, then believe that it was only a dream. Battles with the sinister “agents” of the Matrix are virtual, but often also have dire consequences for the rebels’ bodies.

Neo is a Messiah or Christ figure in the film, “The One” of whom people spoke, the One who may be able to release them from bondage to the machines. In the end he finds the ability to stop bullets in mid-flight by realizing that they are only virtual, only computer-generated imagery. Grasping the reality of unreality offers a way not only to escape but also to overcome. In this the film’s vision becomes more Buddhist-like than Judeo-Christian-like.

Films like The Matrix picture not paranoia but the object of paranoia. The paranoid fantasy of conspiracy and persecution has become real. Such visions are gratifying to viewers for a variety of reasons, not least being the vindication of common fears and suspicions that might have been labeled paranoid, hence unreal.

The Truman Show

An obsessional, depressive, but not clinically paranoid patient I treated some time ago related that as a child he had played with the fantasy that many of the things he read about in books or learned about in school were not real — but that there was a conspiracy, in which most people took part, to deceive the few, including him, into believing that there was such a place as Antarctica, that there had been two World Wars and that there was currently a war in Viet Nam, that men and women like to conjoin their bodies at the crotch and that this makes babies happen. He basically knew that no such conspiracy existed, but the fantasy haunted him.

What haunted him most was the possibility that a person he happened to notice on the bus, on the street, anywhere, was another one of the few upon whom the many were working this conspiracy. It was always a grown-up, never another kid. My patient did not concern himself with a motive for such a conspiracy, and in time it stopped occupying him. The hoped-for kinship was perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this “paranoid” fantasy. Then, when someone told me about a film called The Truman Show, about a man whom an entire town, and an entire television production crew, conspire to keep in the dark, I was instantly reminded of my former patient.

The Truman Show combines systematic conspiracy with the grandiosity as well as the humiliation of being the object of the conspiracy, in a seemingly benign context. Truman (played by Jim Carrey) is a foundling raised by actors from infancy in a simulated small town, his life televised in its minutest details from its beginning, to become the ultimate reality-TV program with a world-wide following. All of the people in his life are acting, including the best friend with whom he shares night-time conversations by the lake about the meaning of life, the wife who (he suddenly discovers in a photograph) had her fingers crossed behind her back when she made her marriage vows, and even his supposed parents. His first glimmer of the truth occurs when he hears a radio broadcast in his car that he was not meant to hear: a broadcast narrating all of his movements to the actors and extras taking part in the filming. In the end he tries to set sail toward freedom, only to be confronted by the God-like voice of the Director (played with Olympian calm by by Ed Harris) suggesting that he remain where he is and benefit from the Director’s protective tyranny rather than face the dangers of the real world.

Earlier, one night when Truman was beginning to suspect something, and decided to give the ubiquitous cameras the slip for a while, the Director, ever godlike, directed his staff to “Cue the sun!” Something like sunlight quickly began to flood the town-sized stage to make it easier for Truman’s handlers to look for him. At the end of the film the complementary grandiosities of Truman and the Director meet in a final confrontation.

Dark City

This film’s genre is classic film noir, and it is the most visually surreal of the three. It takes place in a city at night; the visuals are as grimly dark as they are sunny in The Truman Show, and the falsity of the sunny facade in Truman finds its complement in the suspiciously constant darkness in Dark City. John Murdock, the hero, also initially a murder suspect, notices there is never daylight, and sunlight is at best a distant memory, never a recent one. Everyone thinks they remember going, long ago, to a sunlit “Shell Beach,” of which a faded billboard is the only reminder. No one seems to remember how to get there. The film’s narrator, a psychiatrist (named after Daniel Paul Schreber, the psychotic jurist whose autobiography gave Freud his conceptions of paranoia), gives away part of the secret of this dark city at the very beginning of the film. He has sold out to the alien beings who use their powers of telekinesis (“tuning”) to control the lives of the city’s residents. Every night at midnight the aliens put everyone to sleep wherever they are, even in traffic, and then go on to alter both the architectural landscape and (with the psychiatrist’s help) the minds of the people, who then wake into a different setting than before their not quite natural sleep, but also into different memories and therefore different identities.

As in The Matrix, the aliens with their telekinesis and ability to fly through the air are again matched by an emerging hero who in the end is able to outdo them and bring the dark night of the city to an end. The film, which began with the greatest sense of helplessness and isolation, ends with the most grandiose vision of the three under discussion. The hero is eventually able to count on help both from the psychiatrist and from the detective who had arrested him for murders that had never occurred. It becomes clear as he does this that we are not on earth but on a tiny island in space, presumably a colony of humans created by the aliens for their needs. Even as the hero “cues the sun” in a manner that oddly counterbalances the order given by The Truman Show‘s Director and corrects the imbalances that the aliens had wrought, there is no escape from the ultimate persecution of isolation in the vastness of space. The film also raises this question: do we own even the memories of which our identities are so precariously constituted?

Paranoia and Reality

Reality is different from cinema. Conspiracies may be common but are rarely seamless to the point of creating even briefly an alternate reality for their victims. The persecution of one person or group by another is extremely common in history as well as in current events, but sheer malevolence or hatred is seldom the only motive. Over time, too, persecutors lose their power. Fantasies of special powers and special missions are much more common than is actual specialness of this sort. Reality keeps us relatively safe. Cinema presents us with a vision wherein the dangers are more dramatic than in reality, and the opportunities for overcoming and prevailing richer and potentially more enhancing to the individual. This alternate reality is somehow, for all its dangers, reassuring. It prevents life from being too mundane. The dangers are only on the screen, after all.

The paranoid individual is constantly on the watch and cannot relax. Shapiro (1965) describes a life of tense vigilance for “clues” as the paranoid personality style. The world created by the paranoid mind is perhaps more interesting, certainly more dramatic, than the reality the rest of us have to inhabit. As the police detective in Play Misty for Me says: “Everything is important.” Unfortunately, another character neglects this principle in failing to attend to a clue in time, which costs the detective his life. For police detectives this vigilant attitude is necessary to their jobs, and indeed their survival. For the paranoid individual it is woven into every part of his or her life, and we call it hypervigilance.

There are different varieties of paranoid personality, differing in such overt manifestations of aggression as litigiousness. Akhtar (1990) points out that the paranoid personality’s overt suspiciousness and anger and sense of victimization and injustice represent a compensation for underlying feelings of insecurity, depletion if not depression, and shame and guilt. Film, of course, privileges personal importance and power over personal weakness or insignificance, and film audiences respond favorably to complete victories over malevolence in the final reel. While it is important not to idealize paranoid or any other mental disorder, the way the Romantics of the nineteenth century, the Surrealists of the early twentieth, and the Counterculture of the late twentieth did, it is also important to understand the universally compelling nature of themes of persecution, conspiracy and secrecy, and personal grandeur.

The pleasures that bring audiences in for these visions of paranoia are complicated. The viewer experiences the relief of not being the target of sinister actions such as those imagined by the film maker. Every viewer also is beleaguered, in his or her own way, by the major problems and by the innumerable hassles of which life often consists, and it is natural to attribute to certain feared or disliked persons the authorship of at least some of these problems. The viewer thus also sees himself or herself in these films as in a mirror. The viewer’s daily struggles are thereby transformed into something more heroic or epic, like lonely battles against tremendous odds. Even hopeless struggle (like Cyrano de Bergerac’s) may be preferable to lack of meaning, and paranoid visions are highly meaningful.

Also a citizen, the viewer can hardly avoid the influence of the conspiratorial rhetoric that has at least intermittently characterized political discourse since the founding of the United States (Hofstadter, 1964). The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 appear to have been the result of a far-ranging plot that for a number of years eluded detection by the security and law-enforcement agencies of many countries. Currently, the continuing elusiveness of al-Qaeda is matched by the American government’s secrecy about what it has learned and what it plans to do. (The belief in even more far-reaching conspiracies, for example that the terrorist attacks were actually engineered, either by Zionist agents or by representatives of the U. S. national security establishment, with the aim of fomenting a war on the Islamic world, is most common among the relatively powerless in any society.)

Even without the terrorist threat, it is easy for the individual citizen to feel powerless in the face of the sheer size and complexity of the nation and the society. Film visions of conspiracies, and their uncovering and unraveling, echo this pervasive feeling of powerlessness and remedy it at the same time, if only in fantasy.


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