This could go really well, or really badly. On one hand, I’m all about horror films that aren’t about psycho killers stalking and slashing scantily clad teenage girls. On the other hand, it takes a lot of restraint to do psychological horror well. Either way, the Stanford Prison Experiment looks set to terrify more than just first year psychology students, with the similarly-themed The Experiment in the works.
In fairness, it isn’t literally based on the Stanford Prison Experiment – it’s based on the German film Das Experiment (which translates as… well, The Experiment), which is loosely based on the famous psychological experiment, despite the disclaimers at the start.
For those lucky enough to be unaware of the Stanford Prison Experiment, it’s part of psychological folklore. Designed to examine the human capacity to submit to authority by Professor Philip Zimbardo (the rather scary-looking gentleman in the photograph), it saw volunteers assume the roles of guards and prisoners in a fictional prison. The guards promptly began to act abusively and demeaningly to the prisoners, who in turn began to feel victimised. Even after being told they wouldn’t get paid, the prisoners did not simply walk out of the experiment. The brutality of the guards is pretty well known – many commentators were quick to compare the treatments of inmates at Abu Ghraib to the experiment. Those involved later could not explain their actions.
Those involved came from all walks of life, which arguably demonstrated that anyone is capable of such brutality – regardless of their background or life experience. The aggression seems to come with the social roles themselves. Things got so bad that that the project – intended to run two weeks – was cut short after six days at the behest of various officials. The experiment itself was widely discredited in the scientific community. It is also somewhat of a relief that the results of the experiment cannot be consistently duplicated – though it could be argued that modern ethical requirements make the situation impossible to recreate – Zimbardo himself has tried to explain away different results obtained in various attempts to reproduce the experiment, notably an effort in 2005 by the BBC. As you can imagine the original experiment came in for quite a bit of criticism on ethical grounds too. Of course, as if the whole thing wasn’t disturbing enough, they’ve also discovered that you can recreate Nazi Germany in a high school classroom and that high school kids will fit equally comfortably into these roles. Of course, the experiment isn’t particularly well-documented – but it probably says enough that I can at least accept the results without ironclad proof.
So, interesting grounds for a movie? Yep. And it has a great cast – Oscar winners Adrian Brody and Forest Whitaker with Elijah Wood thrown in too. There is, in fairness, limited potential for the gore that Hollywood loves so much (though I can see the movie making harrowing viewing). Still, when was the last time Hollywood pulled off a solid psychological horror without cheapening it with crude shocks? It’s a tough genre to pull off, hinging on the self-restraint of everyone involved in the production – and self-restraint isn’t a factor you generally link with American horror, where everything must be bigger, louder and more aggressive.
Maybe there’s a bit of hope to be gleamed from the timing of the film. Man’s inhumanity to man is always prime drama fodder. The film’s been confirmed since January and filming take place this month. For a small, non-effects-based film that means it could be out for awards season. We may be hoping against hope, but this may be intended as an awards dark horse. Certainly it adds up with the cast.
Part of me is a little pleased about that. The awards have always loved holocaust movies – The Reader was holocaust porn (literally) – but this is a move that might actually look at the really scary part of the holocaust. Yes, the facts are horrible and terrible, but the true horror is that humanity itself was capable of all this. The abstract lesson is even more terrifying than the concrete example. The inhumanity demonstrated isn’t necessarily confined to the past. Those are the tough questions and the legacy of the event that really need to be explored – and that’s exactly where most of the many movies looking at the events come up short. It could happen here. And that should chill you to the bone.
Still, I remain a little curious and the movie is going on my ‘watch’ list. Not my ‘much watch’ list, but we’ll see how word filters out in the coming weeks.
Filed under: Movies Tagged: | Abu Ghraib, adrian brody, das experiment, elijah wood, films, forest whitaker, horror, Movies, philip zimbardo, psychological experiment, psychological thriller, psychology, stanford, stanford prison expiremnt, the experiment, true stories, zimbardo