What psychiatric and psychological ideas are in your favorite holiday movies?
Watching holiday films creates a space for family bonding and poses an opportunity for exploring psychiatric and psychological ideas.
The film narrates the 3-day odyssey of Neal (Steve Martin) and Del (John Candy), 2 characters with very different personalities. Neal works for a high-profile executive and Del is a shower curtain ring salesman. Despite antagonistic styles, destiny makes them team up to overcome a number of obstacles and arrive to Chicago on time for Thanksgiving. Both strengthen their attachment once Del opens up about his secret. Watch it on Sling for free.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade (Al Pacino) is an irascible war veteran who has planned a luxury trip to New York during Thanksgiving prior to suicide. As portrayed in the film, disability, alcoholism, apathy, isolation, and difficulty forming attachments after returning to the mundane world can be common in veterans with PTSD. Nonetheless, Frank’s rhetoric and sense of ethics might help his young friend and caretaker (Chris O’Donnell) in a crucial plight. Watch it on Peacock TV for free.
Hannah (Mia Farrow) is resented by those close to her for her self-sufficiency and emotional strength. Sibling rivalry is a central theme to these intertwining stories that take place in the year between 2 Thanksgiving holidays. Hannah’s husband Elliot (Michael Caine) ends up having an affair with one of her sisters, Lee (Barbara Hershey). In a related story, Hannah’s ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen) is in the midst of existential crisis. He believes he has all the symptoms of cancer and tries to find purpose by looking into different religions. An acceptance of his situation and a new love may relieve his fear of having a terrible illness. Watch it on Amazon Prime, YouTube for $3.99.
George Bailey (James Stewart) has sacrificed his dreams to serve others. On Christmas Eve he is contemplating suicide after misplacing all the savings from his company. However, he is rescued by his guardian angel who helps him realize the impact he has made on other people. As depicted in the film, human beings are especially vulnerable to suicide after a significant loss. Watch it on Hulu for free with a premium subscription.
Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) and his assistant Marcus (Tony Cox) travel across the country every Christmas season to a different department store to get the Santa Claus job with the idea of eventually robbing the mall. Willie has a number of antisocial behaviors. He drinks excessively, disrespect the rules, takes advantage of women, and shows no empathy for the children. One day he is visited by Thurman (Brett Kelly), an overweight and gullible kid who believes Willie is the real Santa. Thurman is often tormented by other children. Eventually Willie and Thurman develop an atypical relationship. Willie, who was bullied as a child as well, defends Thurman from the bullies. After that, his empathy is expanded and his antisocial behaviors shift towards more mature adaptive behaviors. Bad Santa shows how empathy can be an antidote for cluster B personalities. Watch it on Youtube for $2.99.
On Christmas Eve, detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) flies from New York to Los Angeles to surprise visit his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) in an attempt to reconcile with her. Holly has met a number of new people at the Nakatomi corporation and is already using her maiden name. It seems that Holly is about to start an affair with her arrogant boss. John’s efforts to save his marriage appear useless until the building is unexpectedly hijacked by a number of foreign terrorists. From a Lacanian psychology viewpoint, fantasy intrudes into reality in the form of paternal or maternal superego to brutally oppress the potential extramarital affair and restore the symbolic order. John now has an opportunity to become a hero and save his marriage. Watch it on Hulu for free with a premium subscription.
In this modern version of A Christmas Carol, Frank (Bill Murray) is a narcissistic television president who abuses his power and mistreats his staff during the holidays. During the rehearsals of a provocative version of A Christmas Carol, he is visited by the ghosts of the past, present, and future. This experience helps him understand the consequences of his behavior and its impact on other people—and himself. He realizes he has an opportunity to make a difference. Watch it on Sling for free with premium subscription.
After an altercation with his older brother, Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), the youngest of the family, is sent to his room on the third floor of the house. The next morning, he is forgotten by his parents in their rush to get to the airport for their flight to Paris. The film allows for reflection on perceived and real abandonment by one’s parents. Watch it for free on Disney Plus.
Jack Skellington is the respected leader of Halloweentown. Tired of the Halloween routine, he discovers Christmastownwhile wandering in the woods. With the help of 3 mischievous trick or treating children, he abducts Santa Claus and organizes the Christmas holidays in a Halloween fashion. Despite his good intentions, the results are disastrous. The possible take home message: we have better chances of succeeding when we get involved in projects congruent with our own talents and skills. Watch it on Disney Plus for free.
In this dark comedy, Father Angel (Alex Angulo) is a Basque priest who develops the delusion that the Antichrist is about to be born on Christmas Eve in Madrid. He travels to the city searching for signals about where the satanic birth may take place. There he meets Jose Mari (Santiago Segura), who in addition of helping him, ends up believing all the father’s ideas. In a Quixotesque fashion, Jose Mari internalizes the priest’s psychotic ideas. Shared psychotic disorder had a diagnostic category in DSM-IV. In DSM-5, it is only in the section on the other specified schizophrenic spectrum and other psychotic disorders, as “delusional symptoms in partner of individual with delusional disorder.” Watch it on Tubi for free.
The film entails 10 short stories about different aspects of love. Perhaps the most interesting of all of them for mental health care workers is the one of Sarah (Laura Linney), an American woman working in London at a graphic design company. She has been in love for years with her co-worker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). After the office Christmas party, they finally kiss but they are interrupted by the phone call of Sarah’s brother who has severe mental illness and is hospitalized with active psychotic symptoms. On Christmas eve, Karl spends the night at work while Sarah passes the time with her brother at the psychiatric unit. Watch it on YouTube for $3.99.
During the Christmas season, Jonathan (John Cusack) and Sarah (Kate Beckinsale) meet in New York City. Sara believes it is better to not exchange numbers and rely on fate to reunite them. The fantasy of ending up together sticks with them for years, even when each of them are about to marry someone else. This motion picture allows for cathartic relief of our romantic fantasies. Almost every person has believed at some point that fate will bring their better halves into their life without making much effort. Watch in on YouTube for $2.99.
A big portion of the film takes place on a Christmas Eve. Following the death of their father, Fanny and Alexander’s mother marries the abusive local bishop Edvard Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö). To cope with his stress and anxiety, Alexander (Bertil Guve) creates magical stories. However, unable to empathize a child’s psychology, his new stepfather finds Alexander’s habit unacceptable and suppresses it with violence. Watch it on HBO Max for free.
Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a respected citizen who works in the kindergarten of a small Danish community. One day, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of his best friend, kisses him innocently on the mouth while playing at school. Lucas redirects her. One day Klara draws a pornographic picture that her brother showed to her. This picture is interpreted by the school authority as a possible sign of sexual abuse. After interviewing Klara, the teacher concludes that Lucas is a pedophile. He is ostracized by the entire community and become a victim of fake accusations. He attempts to restore his honor on Christmas Eve. Watch it on Tubi for free.
Billy (Zach Galligan) receives a mogwai, a furry creature, as a Christmas gift. According to his prior owner, there are certain rules he must follow. Once the rules are broken, fantasy intrudes into reality. Mogwais turn into gremlins and cause chaos in the community. Society is not prepared to accept rules and discipline. Watch it on Amazon Prime for $3.99.
Introverts or people with traits of schizoid personality disorder find refuge in internal fantasies. In Last Christmas, Kate (Emilia Clarke) has a dead-end job. She has to move back with her parents after being kicked out by her roommate. Kate’s father is absent, and her mother has depression. She lacks perceived psychosocial support. Kate finds refuge in an eccentric man with whom she falls in love. The film depicts how fantasy can help with coping in times of social isolation. Watch it on HBO Max for free.
Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) travels to Norway for a ski trip with his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and children to pass the holidays. During a controlled avalanche, Tomas runs away with his cell phone and leaves his family behind, driven by an unconscious response. The event is not addressed until Ebba eventually confronts him about it during a dinner with a friend. Watch it on Amazon Prime for $3.99.
The Grinch is the only one who does not enjoy Christmas in the town of the Whoville. Due to a traumatic childhood, the Grinch tries to steal every Christmas present. Eventually love and affection acts as therapy for the Grinch’s pathological envy. Watch on Netflix for free.
Sally (Meg Ryan) and Harry (Billy Cristal) meet after college on a car trip from Chicago to New York. Both talk about the difficulties to form a genuine friendship between men and women due to sexual tension. They struggle to find their better half over the years, but on New Years’ Eve they realize the value of friendship in romantic love. Watch it on HBO Max for free.
After the holiday season, one can only wait for the winter to be over. Phil Connors (Bill Murray), a narcissistic television weatherman, travels with Rita (Andy McDowell) to Punxsutawney to cover Groundhog Day. Perhaps due to his arrogance, he becomes magically forced to relive the same day over and over. Only a true understanding of what it means to be a good person will save him from the spell. Watch it on Amazon Prime for $3.99.
Dr Forcen is affiliated with the Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. He is founder of The Journal of Humanistic Psychiatry. For more information, see Dr Forcen’s book, Monsters, Demons and Psychopaths: Psychiatry and Horror Film. Podcast: El Último Humanista: https://elultimohumanista.libsyn.com