Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on June 16, 2016
The title of my post is somewhat deceiving but that’s the idea. Today I’m going to talk a little bit about deception in the movies, particularly when it comes to the medical condition known as vertigo.
Earlier this week I was diagnosed with vertigo after waking up one morning and discovering that my bedroom was spinning. It was a deeply frightening and unnerving experience that left me feeling vulnerable and bewildered. To make matters worse, the unsavory side effects I’m experiencing from vertigo include nausea and random headaches. When my doctor gave me my diagnose I was surprised and confused. Like many people, I had always assumed vertigo is something associated with the fear of heights and caused by looking down from a great distance.
My ignorance was due to the fact that I’d never experienced vertigo before and I naïvely assumed that the movies I’d seen depicting the condition were medically accurate. Au contraire! Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1959), Jules Dassin’s Topkapi (1964) and Guy Hamilton’s adaptation of Evil Under the Sun (1982 film) all got it wrong. A fear of heights can make you dizzy and disoriented but the acute sense of spinning associated with real vertigo is something altogether different and can come at any time no matter where you happen to be.
In Hitchcock’s defense, his 1958 film defines its main character, the psychologically damaged and sexually obsessed John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), as suffering from a fear of heights known as acrophobia AND vertigo but the two have become interchangeable since the film’s release. Having not read the original Boileau-Narcejac novel Vertigo was based on I can’t tell you if Hitchcock’s film supplemented the term “vertigo” or just adapted it because it sounded more frightening and compelling than the typical “dizziness” associated with a fear of heights. It’s also possible that the word was misread when the French novel was translated into English. Whatever the case may be, acrophobia and vertigo have now become inseparably linked.
A quick Google search will pull up hundreds or even thousands of misinformed articles that wrongly associate the two medical conditions. Even some online dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster claims that a “simple definition” of vertigo is “a feeling of dizziness caused especially by being in a very high place” but their “full definition” is “a. sensation of motion in which the individual or the individual’s surroundings seem to whirl dizzily or b. a dizzy confused state of mind.” More importantly, their medical dictionary contains a much more accurate definition of the word.
Hitchcock may or may not have been wrong, I’ll leave that up to you to decide, but that doesn’t explain the thousands of journalists and writers who continue to perpetuate the myth that vertigo and acrophobia go hand-in-hand. I’ve been dizzy, suffered from a muddled sense of depth perception due to climbing great heights and I’ve now experienced vertigo. Believe me when I tell you that they are all very different things.
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