By Isha Khawaja
While some may enjoy horror films like The Shining, Psycho or It, I found The Stanford Prison Experiment to be the creepiest of the horror film genre.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is dramatization of an actual experiment conducted by Stanford University psychologist and professor,Philip Zimbardo. The participants in the study were 24 male Stanford undergraduate students who expressed interest in volunteering after seeing a newspaper ad that listed compensation for participating in the experiment.
The Stanford students were randomly assigned either as a guard or a prisoner to evaluate the way institutions, primarily prisons, affect individuals.
The morning the experiment started, the “prisoners” were arrested at their homes by police officers who arrived with blaring sirens. They were then taken to holding cells at the police station where they were subject to fingerprinting and a strip search.
As the experiment began, the participants assumed their roles, some more aggressively than others. One of the guards, Christopher Archer, often referred to as ‘John Wayne,’ assumed his guard position quickly.
Archer, played by Michael Angarano in the film, takes position in his role as guard when he imitates the evil warden from Cool Hand Luke. Archer puts on his dark brown tinted aviators and quotes the film with a scary and dictator-like accent. This is when Christoper Archer leaves the Stanford psychology department basement and Mr. Correctional Officer assumes the position at prison.
For the duration of the experiment, Archer speaks only in this madman accent. The more aggressive his accent sounds, the more aggressive he is with the prisoners.
Since Archer and the rest of the guards were informed they could not physically abuse any of the prisoners, the abuse begins as psychological.
The guards refer to the prisoners by their prison numbers and force the prisoners to repeatedly state their numbers aloud. If any of them forgets their number or have to look down for reference, they are reprimanded by being forced to do pushups or jumping jacks.
Conditioning the prisoners to associate their prison number with their name and instilling an aura of fear and intimidation is only the beginning of this unsettling drama.
As the guards slowly realize that there are no consequences for their actions, the abuse becomes physical. What starts off as harassment transforms into torture. Prisoners are struck by nightsticks, thrown into the ‘hole’, essentially just a small utility closet with no light, and have their wrists tied to their ankles while lying face down on the ground for hours on end.
The scariest part about this is that the volunteers believed that they could not get out of the experiment. The only prisoners who are able to leave were the ones who break down and make a scene.
After Daniel Culp, played by Ezra Miller and often referred to as prisoner 8612, has a mental breakdown from spending hours stripped naked in solitary confinement, he becomes the first prisoner who demands to speak to a doctor. However, his conversation with the directors of the experiment leads Culp back to the cell with his prison mates.
As the guards try to continue to taunt the inmates, Culp has had enough. He bangs on the walls, facing the camera used by the directors of the experiment, and blood curdingly pleads to leave.
Dr. Zimbardo permits Prisoner 816, played by Thomas Mann, to leave after he cries in his office and mentions that his uncle is a lawyer.
At the end of the film, there is a short clip that shows the two characters in the film with the most pugnacious relationship: Archer and Culp.
Both of the Stanford students discuss what happened and how they felt during the experiment.
After Culp questioned Archer about why he was so brutal to the prisoners, Archer reveals that he was conducting his own experiments during the simulation. Archer wanted to see how far he could go to harm people and to what extent would people allow him to do it. He noticed that once you have power, people around you will allow you to continue practicing harmful behavior, and they will not speak up.
Aside from the unusual psychological and physical abuse, that is one of the scariest things about The Stanford Prison Experiment. The film shows that, regardless of background, anyone with authority is capable of doing harm and their chance of being stopped is slim.