Fear of the Dentist – Movies, Media and Negative Images

Anyone who has read Mary Shelly’s fictional novel, “Frankenstein,” or has seen any of the myriad of Hollywood horror films beginning with Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the tragic monster, are aware that Victor Frankenstein, the doctor responsible for it’s creation, was a physician who had higher purpose on his mind and a mad scientist’s ego as his driving force.

I am surprised however, that given our profession’s negative and painful image, the title character wasn’t a dentist. After all, though we are quite respected within our communities and do possess the technology to create nearly painless dental experiences, dentistry has been, and still remains, among the most feared and hated of all health professions. Over the years I’ve heard more than a few women comment at social gatherings, “I’d rather have a baby than a root canal.” Dental treatment can make the strongest man in the world sweaty and weak at the knees. The fact that Frankenstein was an MD and not a DDS or a DMD is of some, but frankly, very little comfort.

Even though the dental profession has taken many positive steps towards making dental treatment more comfortable for the public, the negative image of uncaring dentists and painful dentistry has been drilled into the minds of the public for years, not only through negative personal experiences and dental “horror” stories, but also through books, cartoons, TV shows and films. Sadly, that representation continues today through the same channels as well through the Internet, websites, blogging, and YouTube movies.

Unfair and negative depictions of dentists as comic relief or as aloof, uncaring and sadistic, and negatively slanted depictions of dental treatment by the arts and media have scared the psyche of the public and created unnecessary fear. The saddest point is that even in 2010, there are still few if any positive dental characters or memorable passages from books or scenes from movies to counterbalance that negative image. Unfortunately, there are no friendly and affable neighborhood dentists, like Dr. Marcus Welby, MD.

Popular culture has not been kind to dentists. It began with classic paintings of barber who were the dentists of that era, standing on top of horrified, screaming patients with some kind of medieval tool in hand.

As a child, I remember characters in old black-and-white cartoons that devised contraptions of ropes, pulleys and doorknobs to remove a tooth rather than go to the dentist. These images continue to the present in many cartoon series.

In films by the classic comedy duo, Laurel and Hardy, or on episodes in the 1950’s Abbott and Costello TV show, I remember the pained expression on Oliver Hardy’s or Lou Costello’s handkerchief-wrapped face. A string was tied to his tooth and then tied to a doorknob on the other end. Then the other partner slams the door and the tooth goes flying. Funny Huh?

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