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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness




SpiderBased on a novel by Patrick McGrath, Spider was directed by David Cronenberg, in 2002, and stars Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne and Lynn Redgrave. Set in the 1980s during the beginning of the movement from institutional to community care, the film tells the story of a mentally ill man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, who is released from a psychiatric hospital after 20 years to live in a hostel for the mentally ill. Cronenberg says about the film, “Spider is an austere psychodrama with a profound human mystery at its heart. It has the feel of Samuel Beckett confronting Sigmund Freud."

David Cronenberg is a director well known for his highly original horror films and this film was regarded as a departure from his more usual style. It is interesting to note that Cronenberg deferred his own salary to make Spider. He is quoted as saying: “Everybody's a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We're all trying to experiment to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.” Spider is definitely a film that explores one man’s struggle to fend off psychotic breakdown and chaos whilst trying to face the reality of his past.

The Film

From the opening credit sequence, showing a series of Rorschach inkblot images to the accompaniment of a beautifully haunting folk song, the scene is set for a film about the mind.

Spider begins with a train pulling into a London station and disgorging its commuters, all purposefully bound for their destinations. Only as the platform begins to empty are we shown the dishevelled figure of Mr Cleg (played by Ralph Fiennes), apprehensive and unsure of his surroundings, carrying a small suitcase. From this very first encounter, we experience Mr Cleg’s self-absorption and preoccupation with an internal dialogue. He walks the familiar streets of East London, in search of a half way hostel, where the authoritarian Mrs Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) is in charge. She shows Mr Cleg to his room, where we see him react anxiously to the sight of the gas heater, an ominously significant motif in the film.


The main body of the film focuses on Mr Cleg’s trips out into the local community, where he grew up, and examines the effect these visits have on him. The viewer shares several different views of his past experiences mixed up with each other. These comprise some apparently accurate flashbacks to his boyhood, showing the early signs of his schizophrenia developing, and several scenes from his time in the psychiatric hospital. The remaining recollections are made up of Mr Cleg’s distorted beliefs of the events leading up to the tragic death of his mother, in which he is also present in the frame, commenting on the characters. In these scenes, the film makes us party to the psychotic internal workings of his mind.


We learn how he acquired the nickname of Spider from his much loved mother (Miranda Richardson), and how he would weave string webs in his room as a child. We witness Spider’s emerging jealousy of his parents’ intimacy and his feeling of rejection by his mother, as he watches her attempts to reignite the sexual relationship with her husband (Gabriel Byrne) when their marriage is under strain. The story that unfolds in Mr Cleg’s mind reveals a very traumatic childhood involving the death of his beloved mother at the hands of his father and the arrival of his hated stepmother, a prostitute. However, the film gives us a clue that what we see may not be a wholly accurate account of what happened, by using the same actress, Miranda Richardson, to play the part of both his mother and his prostitute/stepmother.


In his hostel room, Mr Cleg scribbles ‘non words’ frantically in a special notebook that he must hide safely in his room. As his mental state deteriorates, we see him convinced that gas is leaking from his heater requiring him to strip off his clothes and tie himself in newspaper for protection. Challenged by ever more powerful, painful memories, his paranoia increases and he steals some tools from Mrs Wilkinson.


In a seemingly accurate boyhood memory, we see Spider plan to avenge what he believes was the murder of his beloved mother using string connected to the gas tap in the kitchen. In the hostel, he tears up his precious notebook, weaves a string web about his hostel room, echoing the same behaviour from his childhood, before threatening violence toward the hostel manageress. At this moment, Mrs Wilkinson is played by Miranda Richardson rather than Lynn Redgrave, to represent the confusion in his mind about her identity. Finally, overwhelmed by the accurate memory of his mother’s death, he suffers a relapse of his paranoid schizophrenic illness and is recalled back to the psychiatric hospital.


Relevance to the field of Mental Health

This is a film that focuses on the inner and outer worlds of its main character. It tells the story of Mr Cleg’s external reality as a man with incompletely remitted schizophrenia, as well as plunging us into his psychotic internal world where we are unsure of what is true and what is falsely constructed. As such, the shifting sands of reality in the film give the viewer a glimpse of what it might be like to suffer from schizophrenia.


On the one hand, the film presents an accurate portrait of someone suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, who has spent many years in an institution. The excellent performance by Ralph Fiennes is very believable and draws us in to caring about Mr Cleg and his predicament. He demonstrates some of the negative symptoms of schizophrenia very well, such as social withdrawal, blunted affect, poor concentration and paucity of speech. In addition to this, the personal details, such as his wearing of four shirts at once, having tobacco stained fingers and keeping his possessions in a sock, are all in keeping with the diagnosis and a long period of institutional care. He shows evidence of responding to the abnormal perceptions of auditory, olfactory and, possibly, visual hallucinations. By the end of the film we learn that many of his recollections were in fact delusional memories. For these reasons, Spider could serve as a very good starting point for a discussion about schizophrenia in its more severe and intractable form and the effects of long term institutional care, as well as examining the issue of risk assessment at the time of transfer from an inpatient setting to the community.


On the other hand, the film explores Mr Cleg’s internal world and in so doing, it offers an introduction to the Object Relations theory of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Spider visually represents the defence mechanism called splitting, employed to manage the persecutory anxieties associated with what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position. The delusional memory sequences give us access to Mr Cleg’s inner world of thought and feeling and suggest that when his ‘good mother’ seeks to reinvigorate the sexual aspect of her marriage, she is split off and experienced as a ‘wicked prostitute/stepmother’. The use of the same actress to play both his ‘good mother’ and his ‘bad stepmother’ supports this view. With Klein’s Object Relations theory in mind, one can suggest that this defensive splitting, which occurred in his childhood and is represented in his delusional memories, has served to protect his idealised ‘good’ mother from the persecuting ‘bad mother’ whom he ultimately attacks. It is only when his boyhood attack on the ‘bad’ mother results in her death, that the film shows us that he has also killed his ‘good’ mother, confirming that they are parts of the same person.


In schizophrenia, there is thought to be a pathological development in the paranoid-schizoid position in which the mechanisms of projection, introjection, splitting, idealization, denial and projective and introjective identification may fail to master anxiety, resulting in a defensive disintegration of the ego if anxiety is too great. It is only when Mr Cleg is placed back in the community where he grew up, and where he is unable to avoid being confronted by the anxiety associated with the truthful recollections about his childhood, that these defence mechanisms are overwhelmed and he suffers a complete psychotic relapse.


The phenomenon of transference is also visually represented in the film. By once more substituting the actress who plays his ‘wicked stepmother’ for the one playing Mrs Wilkinson, we are shown his unconscious redirection of angry feelings for his ‘bad’ mother on to the hostel manageress, perhaps triggered by her harsh, authoritarian manner. The transference in this case very nearly results in serious violence.


Spider therefore also offers the opportunity to discuss Klein’s Object Relations theory, and could lead to a further exploration of her work. For a good summary of these concepts, I would also recommend a book entitled “Introduction to the Work of Melanie Klein” by Hanna Segal, (New edition 1988, Karnac Books).


  • For more information about schizophrenia and its management today, there is a very good leaflet on the Royal College of Psychiatry website.
  • For psychiatrists, there is further reading about the assessment and management of risk in a Royal College Council report produced in 1996.
  • Further information about Spider can be found at IMDB where a short trailer can also be viewed.
  • The DVD is available at
  • Minds on Film is written by Dr Joyce Almeida.

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Re: Spider
Despite the excellent acting and direction that this film offers there are several difficulties in how it portrays people with mental illness and treatment.

Fundamentally, and worringly, it is yet another example of a film showing someone with mental illness as unpredictable, dangerous and unreliable. They are not to be trusted, their memories are false, they may attack you.

Likewise with any mental health treatment - you are discharged on your own (and not well), you are not supported and the only significant time you will see anyone again is when you are taken back to the institution (Cronenberg implies hospital but uses the language of prison) where you clearly belong, away from society. There is no sense of hope, of treatment, or of recovery, in this slightly timeless world that is wedded to a kind of (cheap and easy) psychoanalytical determinism.

A thought provoking film certainly, but not for the right reasons - the targets are too easy, and the psychology too simple. A film that really addressed these issues ? Now that would be a real challenge.

Chris O'Loughlin
Re: Spider
I think this film is superbly acted and is very interesting. I am a laymen when it comes to the professional and studious part of psychology but have however been in the system a long time and have lived with some very severely ill people. I think this film shows that, if anything, mentally ill people are predictable to some. The very fact that there is a blog explaining the mental state of this character shows that he is predictable and therefore in some senses reliable. As in life there are always good and bad hospitals, doctors, nurses, patients - people (what I mean by good and bad is entirely a malliable concept, what is a good nurse to one wont be for another)and i think this film is trying to show the fear and confusion of being engulfed by the world your mind has created. It allows the viewer a snap shot of his experinces and and how his experinces are viewed by others. Had it not allowed an insight into his thoughts, would that outcome not have appeared more dangerous etc? I feel it really begins to show the terror and bleak, almost visceral, experince from the sufferers side. Of course one could argue that for some it is not like that and they would be completely right. I dont think you will see a film where you will see the good and the bad side of any mental illness from the point of view of the patient, doctor, outsiders etc (and if you could there wouldnt be enough time to watch it!)

I think what im trying to sy, in a very clumsy fashion, is films where both the view of the sufferer and the view of the observer are portrayed, are quite rare and this film captures the distressing aspects of both views very well. All in all a good film that offers an insight not many other do.

many thank xx
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About this blog


Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.