Examining the Real World Delusion of The Truman Show

Peter Weir’s reality TV-inspired nightmare, The Truman Show (1998), is celebrating its 20th anniversary this week. At a time when we were only beginning to scratch the surface of celebrity culture and surveillance, The Truman Show predicted a media-obsessed age to come. Two decades on, the film’s colossal impact can be measured in the real-life mental disorder known as Truman Syndrome. 

“Truman Syndrome,” or “The Truman Show Delusion,” is characterised by an extreme feeling of paranoia, with the sufferer believing their lives are staged for a television show, or that they are under constant camera surveillance. Living in an isolated reality is cited as the main pathogen of this “disease” – a condition that is becoming increasingly common in our digitalised modern world. Whether writer Andrew Niccol expected such an epidemic to surface from his revolutionary screenplay is another matter altogether.

Courtesy of Amazon

The film starring Jim Carrey follows Truman Burbank, a man, who unbeknownst to him, is living a lie. Trapped inside a carefully constructed dome of a fabricated reality (for the sole purpose of public entertainment), Truman’s suspicions of his all-too-perfect suburban life grows into justified paranoia.

The last shot of The Truman Show is one of the most telling in cinema history. A wide shot of Truman exiting the set he was raised on, a fake clear blue sky with stairs leading to an open door. His back to the camera, Truman steps out of this alternate reality and takes a leap into the real world. Talk about a visual metaphor for the modern age. Yes, the film is an aesthetic masterpiece, but more than that, it provokes deep thought on love and heartbreak, identity crisis, and theological interpretations that film professors have revelled in for two decades.

The Truman Show was a product of its time. Being released in the late nineties alongside programmes like Big Brother, fast TV was in. It was inflated to an extent where there was rift between what was culturally relevant and what was being projected. The continuous streaming of everyday people on our television sets was a constant that we, as consumers, became accustomed to. Through reality TV, there was a version of Truman in everyone’s living room, and the impacts started to become all too real. It’s unclear who or when the first case of Truman Syndrome (a term coined by psychiatrist John Gold and his brother, Ian) became public.

Courtesy of BoomBeam

In one shocking case of confessed Truman Syndrome, a Sydney man made headlines around the world. It was over six years ago when Anthony Waterlow experienced the delusion to an extreme and tragic extent. Waterlow was so convinced his family were streaming his life live to the internet with computers accessing his brain, he took a violent turn and murdered his father and sister. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Waterlow specifically referenced the film when questioned about the delusions.

Obviously cases like Waterlow’s show an extreme side of being drenched in a surveillance society. But this is 2018, and the farcical augmented reality that Ed Harris’ Christof, a god-like director, created doesn’t seem so far-fetched. You only have to look to Snapchat stories, Instagram stories and now, Facebook stories to see that any phone-wielding person has the license and materials to stream their lives to the world. Whether it be live or saved to be posted later, we are addicted to sharing our lives through all the different forms social media offers. We seek opportunities to stream our reality daily, wholeheartedly embracing the gaze of constant surveillance. We want people to watch, but unlike Truman, no one seems paranoid by it.

Courtesy of Sky

Has the 21st Century become the age of the anti-Truman? No one’s being kept in the dark – or under a dome. Some take pride in the precise curation and construction of their online self to form a flawless presence, only to be viewed on a stranger’s screen. Is this another style of orchestrated delusion? The line between an ordinary person’s online social identity and public identity is progressively being blurred, and with the camera constantly on, who’s to say what’s real and what’s artificial?

That the Truman legacy still lingers 20 years on is hardly shocking. Any film that pushes the boundaries of pop culture, beyond that of magazines and books, to feature in journals of psychology, is quite a feat. The pretty pastels and white picket fences of Seahaven, an idyllic “town” with cruel objectives, did predict the future, just without the added complicity of our modern world. 

If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend experiencing the twisted augmented reality of Truman Burbank and perhaps learning something of your own “reality” in the process. 

Do you believe we are living in a hyper-surveyed Truman reality today? Let us know in the comments below.