The Stanford Prison Experiment (IFC Films, R)

stanfordprison SQIt was a prison run by psychologists instead of the state.

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The Stanford Prison Experiment is the latest feature film about Philip Zimbardo’s infamous 1971 psychology experiment. That summer, the Stanford University professor advertised for students to play the roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison environment. The experiment quickly grew beyond Zimbardo’s expectations, with emotional and psychological abuse emerging and spirits breaking. Rather than uphold the no-violence aspect of the study’s contract, Zimbardo instead eagerly watched as the students quickly devolved into base roles. (It should be noted that, unlike the based-on-a-real-story 2010 film The Experiment, which takes significantly more liberties with the truth, this one was blessed by the researcher himself.)

For those who don’t know, Zimbardo recruited 24 Stanford University male college students and assigned them as either guards or prisoners. He set up a mock prison in the basement of a university building, rigged it with video cameras, and settled down to watch from a control center upstairs. The men were nameless; the prisoners went by their prison numbers and the guards were just guards. The experiment ended early—after six days instead of the planned two weeks—and was met with outcry from psychologists and ethicists everywhere. In fact, the (mis)treatment of Stanford participants was instrumental in the crafting of the Belmont Report, U.S. governmental guidance on how to treat human participants in research.

Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez made a brilliant decision, then, in not running any credits at the beginning of the movie. The prisoners weren’t people; why should the actors be?

Those selected to be prisoners were shackled in handcuffs and hauled in by real police officers. Once in “prison,” they were stripped of their clothes, deloused, and handed smocks. As Zimbardo told an associate, “Prisons represent a loss of freedom literally and symbolically”; in giving them “dresses,” he was both dehumanizing and feminizing the participants. Within the first day, one of the guards—dubbed “John Wayne” because of his no-holds-barred attitude—decided to conduct his own experiment: How far could he push this guard thing? Turns out, he went far beyond what he (supposedly) thought he was capable of, administering abuse, organizing the other guards, and making his prisoners’ lives sheer hell.

Prisoners sobbed. They begged to be released. They went on hunger strikes. They spent entire days in solitary confinement. They did push-ups until their muscles gave out. And Zimbardo did nothing. Two prisoners asked to be released. As they presented their case to the “parole board”—the researcher and his cronies—rather than honor his contract with these young men, Zimbardo insulted them, demeaned them, attacked their masculinity by calling them cowards. (In the real study, one prisoner did end up getting early release due to psychological breakdown.)

The Stanford Prison Experiment takes an unflinching look at what happened in that Stanford University basement. The camera doesn’t shy away from the emotional abuse, physical cruelty, and psychological breakdowns of the prisoners, nor does it ignore the guards’ cruel scheming. And while it shows Zimbardo deciding not to intervene, it still reveres him—as he reveres himself—as a genius. “I think this could be great,” he says mid-experiment. “This is important to me.” He quickly corrects himself, of course, adding, “But the results are important.”

Finally, after questioning by a fellow professor (“If this is an experiment, what’s your independent variable?”) and admonishment by a lover, Zimbardo calls the experiment on just its sixth day. Two months later, speaking about his immortal research study, he says, “There was no strong sense of precedent for how far this thing could go.” After the same passage of time, Prisoner 2093 said, “It was a prison to me. It still is a prison to me. It was run by psychologists instead of the state.”

The Stanford Prison Experiment took home two Sundance Film Festival awards, including Best Screenplay. Despite the godlike representation of Zimbardo, it is still a shocking reminder of what power can do to even the most intelligent of us. And that’s a frightening thing, indeed. | Laura Hamlett

About Laura Hamlett 467 Articles
Laura Hamlett is the Managing Editor of PLAYBACK:stl. In a past life, she was also a music publicist and band manager. Besides music, books, and other forms of popular culture, she's a fan of the psychology behind true crime and violent criminals. Ask her about mass murder...if you dare.

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