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“The Manchurian Candidate” – A Psychological Analysis

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The Manchurian Candidate was originally a novel written by Richard Condon, and then made into film in 1962. It is a story about an American soldier, Sgt. Raymond Shaw, fighting in the Korean War when his troop is ambushed by the Chinese as a result of an oriental translator convincing them to cross in a single line. Raymond Shaw and his troop are air lifted to a POW camp where they are the centre of a brainwashing program funded by Soviet and Chinese brass. Sgt. Shaw receives hypnotic suggestions to murder two of his troop members, the other men are not able to react as they are in a similar trance. They are all returned to the States with absolutely no recollection of what had took place, further more, the troop members “remember” Sgt. Shaw as a hero who had ultimately saved them while fighting in Korea. Sgt. Shaw receives a medal for his “bravery”, soon realizing that his mother has organized this three ring circus as good publicity for his step father – Senator John Iselin.

Many of the troop members begin to get terrible nightmares that reveal images of what really transpired while being held captive. Major Bennett Marco’s dreams are in fact so vivid that he becomes suspicious of Sgt. Shaw and decides to inform his military unit of his fears. The case is investigated and Major Marco is asked to do some less strenuous work, public relations, but is unable to perform and receives an indefinite sick leave. In his New York apartment, Raymond reads a letter from another member; Corporal Melvin about his “terrible dreams” and fears of going crazy. When the phone rings, Sgt. Shaw answers and the programming code that sets him off is triggered by a male voice: “Raymond, why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire”? Robotically, Raymond begins dealing from a deck. When he turns up the Queen of Diamonds during the card game, it unlocks or activates the key to his brainwashed mind and opens him up to obey any suggestion.

Sgt. Shaw is asked to come in for a “check up” and more hypnotic suggestions are implanted resulting in the murder of Gaines. Major Marco still believes there is something very “phony” about all of this, especially to his own conditioned response to how he feels about Sgt. Shaw, “Raymond Shaw is the bravest, kindest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life” He gets on a train and heads toward New York where he confronts Sgt. Shaw; When Marco mentions his awful “real swinger of a nightmare,” Shaw interrupts: “Is it about a Russian general and some Chinese and me and the men who were on the patrol?” Shaw continues to describe the contradictory letter from Corporal Melvin. Major Marco, leaves on a hunch to Washington to watch projected photographs of “male models, Mexican circus performers, Czech research chemists, Japanese criminals, French head waiters, Turkish wrestlers, pastoral psychiatrists, and of course, various officials of the USSR, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Army.”

Marco immediately points out two individuals who were seen in his dream, and is immediately put in charge of a combined intelligence which is based in New York; his mission being to investigate Raymond Shaw further. Marco soon learns that Shaw is being hypnotized when Shaw abruptly leaves a bar and heads to central park to jump in the lake after receiving an accidental suggestion from the bartender. The physiatrist in the army intelligence points out that the solitaire games acts as some sort of a trigger. Marco then remembers a quote which leads to him realizes the Queen of Hearts is in fact the real trigger. Marco receives a deck of cards which contents include only the Queen of Hearts cards, and, rushes to see Shaw. Marco puts Shaw into a trance by showing him a card then strengthening it by showing another, Shaw immediately confesses to all the murders, and Marco places his last suggestion; that “it’s over. The links, the beautifully-conditioned links are smashed”. Marco leaves, apparently being broken free of the hypnotic trance. His mother calls and asks him to commit his final murder; presidential candidate Arthur, leaving John Iselin to rise to presidency. When the time arrives, Marco turns the gun on Iselin, his mother and finally on himself.

The subjects in “The Manchurian Candidate” were brainwashed or “conditioned” so that they would follow orders without so much as a question asked from their end. Conditioning can be defined as a “form of learning in which an organism comes to associate or anticipate events. A neutral stimulus comes to evoke the response usually evoked by another stimulus by being paired repeatedly with the other stimulus.”(Spencer, 2004, p219). In the preconditioning phase, the suggestion to “pass the time by playing a little solitaire” was the first of two unconditioned stimuli for Shaw. For the other soldiers, they were simply implanted with a false memory which will be described later. Shaw then went through the conditioning phase where the phrase became the conditioned stimulus, triggering a conditioned response.

Shaw would begin to play the card game allowing him to discover the Queen of Hearts which would act as his second conditioned stimulus. A second conditioned response would follow putting him in the hypnotic state to allow for any suggestions to be implanted. Although it is not very clear what the Soviet and Chinese brass used to pair the unconditioned stimulus with, it was suggested that the subjects were simply envisioning being at another location which is also known as dissociation. (Spencer, 2004)

It would be much easier to train an animal using conditioning (for immoral acts of violence) rather than a fully grown adult. This is why the subjects in the film were first put under a hypnotic trance so that they would become more suggestible prior to the conditioning. Generally, a hypnotized subject’s brainwaves fluctuate within the Theta range: between 3.5 and 7.5 cycles per second. “Theta” is a brainwave associated with deep meditation, hypnosis, also with children between the ages of two and five. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theta_wave). When the brain registers a Theta wave, imagination assumes a life-like reality thus making it possible for the subjects to imagine themselves elsewhere while being implanted with suggestions.

Unlike Shaw, the other platoon members were only given a single trigger and a single false memory of Shaw’s bravery. While in a hypnotic trance, the soldiers were asked to replay an event in their mind that was entirely fabricated by the Soviet and Chinese. They were asked many times over to repeat what they “saw”, so that when awaken from their trance, the implanted fabricated story would appear as an episodic memory in their mind’s eye. Episodic memory is a kind of explicit memory (memory for specific information). They produce memories for things that happen to us or take place in our presence. Because the subjects were asked to visualize the fabricated story while under the trance, they were dissociating themselves and in a way the events really transpired in their minds. (Spencer, 2004)

The issue of the platoon members, including Shaw, “forgetting” about the ambush as well as the events within the POW camp, could be a result of a few things. Firstly, and as suggested by the film, would be that while under hypnosis they were simply given the suggestion to not remember the specific events. Although this was probably the case, it is also likely that the soldiers were suffering from a form of anterograde or retrograde amnesia due to the anxiety associated with the traumatic event; the soldiers where unable to remember the ambush, which could be a result of retrograde amnesia. In retrograde amnesia, “the source of trauma prevents people from remembering events that took place before the accident”. (Spencer, 2004, p 280) The soldiers also could not remember their time at the brainwashing facility, which would suggest that they were suffering from anterograde amnesia. In anterograde amnesia, “there are many memory lapses for the periods following a trauma such as a blow to the head” (Spencer, 2004, p280) much like the blow they each received during the ambush.

This was the first time I had watched The Manchurian Candidate, and after two viewings I was able to really appreciate this classic award winning film. Its portrayal of hypnosis and conditioning made it an excellent choice for this Psychology class. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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