Acting up: A brief look at the ‘Hollywood Phenomenon’ delusion

In a previous blog I briefly examined Delusional Misidentification Syndromes (DMSs). These are arguably some of the strangest mental and neurological syndromes that exist. All DMSs involve a belief by the affected individual that the identity of something (i.e., a person, place, object, etc.) has altered or changed in some way. There are many variants of DMS, and in most cases the delusion is monothematic (i.e., it only concerns one particular topic). The DMSs that are most written about are:

  • The Fregoli delusion (individuals who have the belief that more than one person that they have met is the same person in more than one disguise).
  • The Capgras delusion (individuals who have the belief that someone (typically a spouse or close relative) has been replaced by an identical-looking imposter.
  • Subjective doubles (aka Christodoulou syndrome) (individuals who have the belief that there are (one or more) doubles of themselves [i.e., doppelgangers] that carry out actions and behaviours independently and lead a life of their own.
  • Intermetamorphosis: (individuals who have the belief that people in their immediate vicinity change identities with each other but keep the same appearance.

According to Dr. K.W. De Pauw and Dr. T.K. Szulecka in a 1988 issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, those with DMSs are “more likely to commit violent crimes against persons than those with chronic, undifferentiated psychoses”. In their paper, De Pauw and Szulecka reviewed the literature concerning violence associated with DMSs and reported four case studies of individuals that were “either perpetrators or victims of assaults as a consequence of the syndromes of Fragoli, Intermetamorphosis, Subjective Doubles and Capgras”. After this paper was published, Dr. A.P. Shubsachs and Dr. A. Young responded to the paper (also in the British Journal of Psychiatry) with a short account of two case studies with a variant of delusional misidentification environment”.

The two cases had a delusion that was described as the ‘Hollywood Phenomenon’ and comprised the belief “that the patient’s environment has been changed to a film or theatre set peopled by actors and in which the patient has a role to play”. (This also appears to be similar to the ‘Truman Show’ Delusion that I described in a previous blog and is “a novel delusion, primarily persecutory in form, in which the patient believes that he is being filmed, and that the films are being broadcast for the entertainment of others”).

Shubsachs and Young asserted that the ‘Hollywood Phenomenon’ (HP) was a symptom rather than a syndrome. They also reported that based on their tow case studies, HP can occur along with atypical Capgras phenomenon, and may result in violence, verbal hostility, and non co-operation. Here are the two case studies in the authors’ own words (taken verbatim from the British Journal of Psychiatry):

  • Case 1: “Mr. A, a 22-year-old single Australian man with a history of two admissions for bipolar affective disorder, left Australia in the early stages of a manic episode. On arrival in the UK his condition deteriorated, with elevated mood, decreased sleep, excess energy, and accelerated thoughts. He recognised that he was relapsing and consulted a GP, who arranged an urgent out-patient appointment. Before that appointment he became convinced he was ‘an actor and that everything that was going on was a film’ in which he was the main player. He stole a car which he deliberately crashed because ‘it was a stunt car and I was a stunt man who was supposed to crash it…it was rigged so I wouldn’t get hurt’. He was arrested and later assaulted the police surgeon with what he erroneously believed was a bottle of ‘harmless sugar glass’ causing severe injuries. Mr A. claimed that he, the surgeon, and the police were all play actors and that his actions would have ‘no real consequence’. Remanded in prison for psychiatric reports, he was intermittently violent in response to similar misidentifications until he became euthymic following medication. He was transferred Hospital Order, and on admission had insight into his previous delusions”.
  • Case 2: “Miss B. exhibited both a Capgras phenomenon and a ‘Hollywood phenomenon’. She was a single retired midwife in late middle age, living alone. She had had several admissions with a diagnosis of depressive psychosis or schizophrenia. On this occasion she was depressed with early morning wakening, psychomotor retardation, appetite and weight loss, and felt hopeless and worthless. She believed relatives were impostors and was verbally aggressive towards them. She believed that the hospital was a film set peopled by actors, the admitting doctor a film director, and that the purpose of the interview was to obtain a script for the film. While she struggled and was verbally hostile at attempts to detain her, there was no serious violence. She recovered fully after ECT”.

Shubsachs and Young claimed that the HP delusion was both uncommon and under-reported, and that both of the cases that they described involved “affective illness without organic impairment”. They then went on to claim that they didn’t think that the ‘Hollywood Phenomenon’ was “specific for affective disorders” (and asked if other psychiatrists reading their case studies could provide other examples). They concluded that the HP “differs from the superficially similar transient experience in derealisation in that it has a real, not an ‘as if’ quality, is enduring, and has all the features of a delusion including the tendency to be acted upon”.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Christodoulou G.N. (1986). Delusional Misidentification Syndromes. Basel: Karger.

De Pauw, K. W., & Szulecka, T. K. (1988). Dangerous delusions. Violence and the misidentification syndromes. British Journal of Psychiatry, 152(1), 91-96.

Ellis, H.D., Luauté, J.P. & Retterstøl, N. (1994). Delusional misidentification syndromes. Psychopathology, 27(3-5), 117-120.

Enoch, M.D. & Trethowan, W. (1979). Uncommon Psychiatric Syndromes. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann; 1979.

Fusar-Poli, P., Howes, O., Valmaggia, L., & McGuire, P. (2008). ’’Truman’’ signs and vulnerability to psychosis. British Journal of Psychiatry, 193, 168.

Gold, J. & Gold, I. (2012). The “Truman Show” delusion: Psychosis in the global village. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 17, 455.

Shubsachs, A.P., & Young, A. (1988). Dangerous delusions: The ‘Hollywood phenomenon’. British Journal of Psychiatry, 152(5), 722-722.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on January 30, 2015, in Case Studies, Culture Bound Syndromes, Fame, Obsession, Popular Culture, Psychiatry, Psychological disorders, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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