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Catalepsys boy.jpg
Classification and external resources
ICD-10F20.2, F44.2
ICD-9-CM295.2, 300.11

Catalepsy (from Greek κατάληψις "seizing, grasping") is a nervous condition characterized by muscular rigidity and fixity of posture regardless of external stimuli, as well as decreased sensitivity to pain.[1]

Signs and symptoms[edit]

Female with depression and catalepsy
Rigidity of the body produced by catalepsy

Symptoms include: rigid body, rigid limbs, limbs staying in same position when moved (waxy flexibility), no response, loss of muscle control, and slowing down of bodily functions, such as breathing.[2]


Catalepsy is a symptom of certain nervous disorders or conditions such as Parkinson's disease and epilepsy. It is also a characteristic symptom of cocaine withdrawal, as well as one of the features of catatonia.[citation needed] It can be caused by schizophrenia treatment with anti-psychotics,[3] such as haloperidol,[4] and by the anesthetic ketamine.[5] Protein kinase A has been suggested as a mediator of cataleptic behavior.[6]

Historical cases[edit]

St. Teresa of Avila experienced a prolonged bout of catalepsy that began in 1539. This episode was precipitated by the stress she was suffering at the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation. Her legs became rigid, leaving her an invalid for three years. Teresa endured intermittent attacks of catalepsy from then on.[7]

Artistic depictions[edit]

In the arts, catalepsy is often used for dramatic effect, sometimes as a plot device.

In literature[edit]

In Alexandre Dumas, père's novel The Count of Monte Cristo, the Abbé Faria has fits of catalepsy from time to time, before eventually dying from one.

In Eugène Sue's The Mysteries of Paris, the villain Jacques Ferrand experiences a fit described as cataleptic in his final confrontation with Rodolphe, blinded by lamplight and hallucinating with visions of his fantasized Cecily.

In George Eliot's Silas Marner, the main character Silas Marner frequently has cataleptic fits and seizures. It is not mentioned if they are caused by any of the aforementioned factors.

In Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Resident Patient", a man feigns catalepsy to gain access to a neurologist's rooms; the doctor attempts to treat him with amyl nitrite.

In Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, the protagonist Dowell experiences catalepsy following the death of his wife.

In Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, the main character Valentine Michael Smith is believed to have catalepsy when he is returned to Earth.

In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Premature Burial", the narrator develops catalepsy. He fears being mistakenly declared dead and buried alive, and goes to great lengths to prevent this. In another of Poe's short stories, "The Fall of the House of Usher", Madeline Usher has catalepsy, and is buried alive by her unstable brother Roderick. Catalepsy is also depicted in "Berenice", thus becoming one of the recurrent themes in Poe's fiction.

In Poppy Z. Brite's Exquisite Corpse, the main character—Comptom, a serial killer (recreation of Jeffery Dahmer's life story) facing a lifetime sentence—uses shamanistic techniques to induce catalepsy, and, convincingly appearing deceased, is able to escape prison.

In Émile Zola's short story "La Mort d'Olivier Becaille" ("The Death of Olivier Becaille"), the title character is buried alive and notes that "I must have fallen into one of those cataleptic states that I had read of".

In Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels, Dr. Fu-Manchu has a serum that induces a state of catalepsy so extreme as to be indistinguishable from death.

In Charles Dickens's novel Bleak House, Mrs. Snagsby has violent spasms before becoming cataleptic and being carried upstairs like a grand piano.

In Hegel's Lectures on the History of Philosophy: Greek Philosophy to Plato, Hegel describes Socrates as having catalepsy caused by magnetic somnambulism when in deep meditation.

In Charles Williams's novel Many Dimensions, Sir Giles Tumulty says to Lord Arglay, the Chief Justice of England: "You are a louse-brained catalept, Arglay."

In Philip K. Dick's novel Now Wait for Last Year, Kathy Sweetscent becomes immobilized by withdrawal from JJ-180, an alien (and highly addictive) drug. "My God, Kathy thought as she stood gazing down at the record by her feet. I can't free myself; I'm going to remain here, and they'll find me like this and know something's terribly wrong. This is catalepsy!"

In the second chapter of Álvares de Azevedo's Noite na Taverna, character Solfieri rescues a woman who has catalepsy from inside a coffin.

In film and television[edit]

In Sam Taylor's Kiki (1931), Mary Pickford feigns a case of catalepsy to keep from being removed from the apartment of the man she secretly loves.

In the soap opera La Traición, the main character, Hugo De Medina, has catalepsy. Later in the telenovela, it is revealed that his daughter, Aurora, has the same illness.

In Chavo del Ocho, the main character, El Chavo, would have cataleptic-like seizures if frightened, where he would curl as if sitting down in a chair and become stiff. However, he could be healed by being splashed with water.

In the 1965 Roman Polanski film Repulsion, Catherine Deneuve's character shows signs of the condition through her erratic and unexplainable behavior.

In two Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes, "Statistical Probabilities" and "Chrysalis", the character Sarina Douglas, a genetically-enhanced human woman, exhibits cataleptic symptoms. In "Chrysalis", Dr. Bashir promises to do everything he can to cure her of the disorder, and is ultimately successful.

In The Premature Burial (film) based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe, the protagonist is buried alive during a cataleptic episode, as his lack of response to external stimuli causes his family and doctors to believe him to be dead.

In The Fisher King (1991), Robin Williams' character Parry has this condition after witnessing the brutal murder of his wife.

In Isle of the Dead (1945), Katherine Emery's character suffers from a multitude of illness' that render her almost incapable of caring for herself. Of these many illness' she is subject to catatonic trances which inevitably lead to her demise.

In a second-season episode ("Halloween" - 1993) of Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman, several residents of the town believe they have seen a dead man, only to have him disappear before they return with Dr. Quinn, who thinks they are playing Halloween pranks on her. Dr Quinn eventually sees the man have a seizure and diagnoses him with catalepsy.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Sanberg PR, Bunsey MD, Giordano M, Norman AB (October 1988). "The catalepsy test: its ups and downs". Behav. Neurosci. 102 (5): 748–59. doi:10.1037/0735-7044.102.5.748. PMID 2904271.
  3. ^ Rasmussen K, Hsu MA, Noone S, Johnson BG, Thompson LK, Hemrick-Luecke SK (November 2007). "The orexin-1 antagonist SB-334867 blocks antipsychotic treatment emergent catalepsy: implications for the treatment of extrapyramidal symptoms". Schizophr Bull. 33 (6): 1291–7. doi:10.1093/schbul/sbm087. PMC 2779883. PMID 17660489.
  4. ^ Hattori K, Uchino S, Isosaka T, et al. (March 2006). "Fyn is required for haloperidol-induced catalepsy in mice". J. Biol. Chem. 281 (11): 7129–35. doi:10.1074/jbc.M511608200. PMID 16407246.
  5. ^ Miller, Ronald (2005). Miller's Anesthesia. New York: Elsevier/Churchill Livingstone. ISBN 0-443-06656-6.
  6. ^ Adams MR, Brandon EP, Chartoff EH, Idzerda RL, Dorsa DM, McKnight GS (October 1997). "Loss of haloperidol induced gene expression and catalepsy in protein kinase A-deficient mice". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 94 (22): 12157–61. doi:10.1073/pnas.94.22.12157. PMC 23735. PMID 9342379.
  7. ^ St. Teresa of Avila, The Life of St. Teresa de Avila, 1565, chapters V, VI, and VII.