The film Compliance tells the hardly-believable but essentially true story of a sociopathic phone-pranker who, pretending to be a police officer, persuades a fast-food restaurant manageress to detain and strip-search a young female employee, then leave her to be sexually abused, under the direction of phoned orders, by the manageress’s middle-aged fiancé. It caused a little upset at Sundance, I’ve heard, but I found it a marvelously acted and beautifully shot, claustrophobic film that built quickly from mild humour to disbelief and offence then outrage and shock.
Compliance briefly offers Milgram’s classic experiment on obedience to authority as some sort of explanation and makes a few references to Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment throughout; but I feel that the the real-life Kentucky McDonalds case , mildly fictionalised in the film, and the 70 or so other hoax calls of varying degrees of nastiness are unfathomable enough to demand an extra dimension of explanation.
Charles Mackay’s classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds touches intriguingly on bizarre beliefs shared by relatively large numbers but I was reminded of psychoses shared on a smaller scale in the folie à deux, a syndrome where delusional beliefs may be shared with another person – or, more generally, the folie à plusieurs, known to DSM as the shared psychotic disorder. A startling example of the folie à deux is that of the twins Ursula and Sabina Eriksson who, among other things, deliberately and repeatedly hurled themselves in front of motorway traffic (the strange sequence of events is worth reading about for the sheer oddness).
In the film and in the real-life fast-food restaurant case the film lightly fictionalises it seems to me that the participants were doing more than obeying authority. They were sharing in a fiction that became gradually more incredible through the ratcheting demands of the hoaxer – but a fiction that was supported and maintained by the repeatedly tractable participants in the hoax. Halfway through the proceedings, the restaurant staff and even perhaps the principal victim were already suspending disbelief and supporting each other in a narrative that would have been preposterous to anyone who hadn’t been carefully prepped stepping freshly into their strange world.
These musings cause me to wonder then if some similar folies à plusieurs aren’t perhaps the stuff of our everyday lives. Perhaps we might expect to find our families and our workplaces relying upon this penchant for shared delusions and our willingness to maintain implausible fictions.
In the film the bubble is burst when a maintenance worker who hasn’t been at the restaurant all day is confronted with the horrifying consequence of the hoax and simply says ’No!’ Similarly, a few weeks after you’ve left a long-held job, say, the day to day urgencies seem very like a strange psychotic episode, and the hierarchies, demands and necessities of what was just a short time ago so terribly important suddenly vanish – not only because you’re no longer working at that particular job but because the delusion that that job and that company were so very vital and important is no longer being shared.