Kill Bill and the Truth Serum

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In the fourth film by Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill (Vol. 2; 2003), Bill (as played by David Caradine) shot The Bride (as played by Uma Thurman) with what he called The Truth Serum. The basic premise was that the injected drug would suspend her volition while allowing her to express herself verbally. The Truth Serum may not be as fictional as it may sound. The notion of the Truth Serum dated back to the invention of a Texas country doctor by the name of Robert House during the 1920s.

He claimed that scopolamine, a well known anesthetic, could suspend volition without impairing communication, allowing untampered access to memories or the authentic self (Winter, 2004). Even though the courts dismissed his claim, the notion struck a chord with the lay audience, police, and forensic practitioners. The barbiturates sodium amytal and sodium pentothal, first synthesized in 1927 and 1929 respectively for surgical anesthesia, were tested as truth drugs. Eventually, these barbiturates replaced scopolamine as the drugs of choice for inducing truth from a subject. Amytal, in particular, was used (by Bleckwenn and Lorenz, in particular) to induce states of profound unconsciousness in those who had been catatonic for a long time, allowing them to temporarily revive activity, communicativeness, and "some element of the former normal selves' (Winter, 2004). Schizophrenics treated with amytal were able to describe their hallucinations at some point (as cited in Winter, 2004).

Amytal's reputation with the reconstruction of the individual made it popular as a treatment for psychiatric casualties of war trauma. A more biological based theory regarding amytal's effects arose in the post WWII years, postulating that its effect had do to with the suppression of the autonomic nervous system, preventing the production of the nervous response to fear that was triggered by the individual's traumatized states (Sargant and Slater, 1944; see also Sargant's 1942 film, The Treatment of War Neuroses). Of course, subjects' behaviour as altered by the drug (in some cases, subjects were noted to behave like a spoilt child under treatment) were attributed to the 'authentic self' rather than the creation of the drug. Interestingly, 'inappropriate' or adverse reactions to treatment by the application of amytal (such as the refusal to speak under the drug influence) were deemed an indication of the lack of neuroses and the presence of malingering.

While the truthfulness of subjects' account can be debated, amytal is continued to be used today in the treatment of various psychological disorders, such as anxiety, insomnia and epilepsy. It does not have the paralyzing effect as portrayed in the film Kill Bill, but it is not entirely impossible that it elicits certain behaviour from the affected.

Film(s) to watch: John Huston's Let there be light (1946), Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), Frankenheimer and Axelrod's The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Sargant, W., & Slater, E. (1944). An introduction to physical methods of treatment in psychiatry. London: Livingston.

Winter, A. (2004). Screening selves: Sciences of memory and identity on film, 1930-1960. History of Psychology, 7(24), 367-401.

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14 Response to Kill Bill and the Truth Serum

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- Norman

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