“You have no right to mess with my head”
Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s American thriller film The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015) unearths the 1971 social psychology experiment led by Philip Zimbardo. Its objective was to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power. Though it was initially supposed to run for two weeks, Zimbardo, after being confronted with a horrified outsider’s evaluation of the brutal treatment of the “prisoners”, put an end to it after only six days (August 14th – August 20th 1971).
After volunteering for the experiment with the prospect of making 15 dollars a day in mind, students are randomly assigned the role of either a prison guard or a prisoner in the makeshift prison located in the basement of Jordan Hall. As the guards’ cruelty grows daily, so does the prisoners’ shock and helplessness, leading to questionable morals both below the university building, and in Zimbardo’s (Billy Crudup) office, in which he takes on the role of the all-seeing and all-knowing superintendent.
Bearing in mind the intimacy of the confining set, the film’s equilibrium rests entirely in the actors’ hands. It’s no surprise, then, that the horrors we witness on-screen are amplified by the artistic prowess of the few faces plastered permanently to the back of our eyes. The cast take to their roles like cream to coffee, bringing the stifling sense of entrampent to life and sharing it generously with us, the viewers. Ezra Miller as Prisoner 8612 and Michael Angarano as the “John Wayne” Guard are particularly thrilling, though for different reasons.
As we watch the gradual collapse of the mind, we are treated to invasive camera shots that impound us in both roles. We are made aware of the immersiveness of the viewing experience when we struggle with the guilt of identifying with the scowl-adorning guards one minute, and begging for mercy as the prisoners the next. And lurking in the background are the tones of Andrew Hewitt’s unsettling, monotonous music that serves as a subconscious means of torment.
As exciting, chilling and disturbing as the film is, it also contains elements of humor. Admittedly, they serve to make us feel culpable for seeing the light in the unfolding darkness. The script is also witty when necessary, and ominous when least expected, adding to the duality of the social psychology experiment. After all, true power rests in the hands of Zimbardo himself. And it’s his behavior that exhibits the most horrifying effects of the psychological changes taking place in all those involved.
The central implications of identity and its hold over an individual’s behavior are presented in an interesting manner. Not only does the professor play to the ego of his future guards to incite a sense of superiority of character, but he manipulates the prisoners’ parents in much the same way. His team’s handling of the prisoners’ degenerating sense of self-worth seems too obvious to even mention.
As Simply Psychology notes, the actual experiment’s conclusion called upon deindividuation and learned helplessness as the two factors responsible for the students’ shocking behavior. The former explains the loss of a sense of identity due to complete immersion in the norms of the group, and the latter serves as a catalyst for the prisoners’ eventual submission.
In The Stanford Prison Experiment, both of these notions are presented with care, focusing on intentional feminization and the erasure of the prisoners’ given names. That, and Prisoner 819’s (Tye Sheridan) agonizing breakdown, which marks the death of the prisoners’ rebellious inclinations.
Even at the time of the experiment, eyebrows were raised concerning the ethical aspects of the so-called “procedures”. What unsettled most was the lack of scientific elements, and the experiment’s likeness to a simulation. It’s no surprise then that since 1971, both French academic Thibault Le Texier and psychology professor Simine Vazire have called the Stanford experiment “one of the greatest scientific deceptions of the 20th century” and “anti-scientific”, respectively.
As Inside Higher ED states, John Mark, who took on the role of one of the real “guards” in the 1971 experiment, said that Zimbardo actively shaped the experiment with evolving strategies like forced sleep deprivation to “fit the conclusion that he had already worked out”.
In conclusion, The Stanford Prison Experiment captures the essence of humanity’s hidden ability to act either ruthlessly or submissively, depending on social conditions. It’s so succeessful in disquieting the mind, in fact, that it hardly feels like a film at all. And since its was always meant to be a docudrama, perhaps that’s the greatest praise it could receive.
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