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On January 9, NYAM’s Author Night Series featured NYAM Fellow Sharon Packer, MD, presenting her book Cinema’s Sinister Psychiatrists – From Caligari to Hannibal to an attentive audience of 85 psychiatrists, other members of the medical profession, social workers, researchers, and the lay public.
Using film clips and passages from her book, Dr. Packer traced the history of the “mad doctor” characterization in film that dates back to early cinema. Bad depictions of mind doctors occurred long before Hannibal Lecter burst upon the scene; some of the most memorable characterizations can be seen in the 1920s German silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which launched the stereotype of screen psychiatrists who are sicker than their patients, and the three films by Fritz Lang focused on the scheming hypnotist Dr. Mabuse.
Dr. Packer explained that many film psychiatrists function as political metaphors, while many more reflect real life clinical controversies. Her book discusses films with diabolical drugging, unethical experimentation, involuntary incarceration, sexual exploitation, lobotomies, "shock schlock," conspiracy theories, and military medicine, to show how fact informs fantasy, and when fantasy trumps reality.
Sharon Packer, MD, is a New York City psychiatrist in private practice. Dr. Packer is a Fellow of The New York Academy of Medicine and Executive Committee member of NYAM’s History of Medicine and Public Health Section.