The 13th Floor

Folie à Deux: Shared Psychosis

Keith Whittaker made a quick stop at the gas station on his way to an appointment. He filled his Ford F-250 at the Caltex Service Station in Goulburn, Australia and was back on the road when it happened; something kicked the back of his seat. Until that moment, Keith was pretty sure he was alone in the truck.

He looked behind him to see a woman laying on the floor.

Keith quickly pulled over and got out of the truck. After a few minutes he went back to his F-250; the woman was still there. Almost a half hour went by before the woman moved again. She sat up and stared straight ahead. Keith asked her who she was. She didn’t know. He asked her how she ended up in his truck. She didn’t know.

For whatever reason, Keith waited until this moment to call the police. It would be another hour before they arrived at the scene. In that time, the woman sat still, staring ahead. She offered Keith some money for all the trouble, but Keith declined. Not long after the police arrived, the woman was identified as Riana Tromp. She, along with the rest of her family, had disappeared from their family farm the day before.

Over the course of the week, the remaining members of the Tromp family would be found, each one of them in a different location. The family, it seemed, had become positive that someone was trying to kill them. While it is rare for something like this to happen to so many people, the concept of a shared psychosis, better known as the way cooler sounding folie à deux, is nothing new.

In 1933, sisters Christine and Léa Papin worked as maids for the Lancelin family in Le Pen, France. The two girls were quiet, rarely speaking to anyone but eachother, and appeared to have no hobbies. One night, while René Lancelin was out, the sisters Papin went about torturing and killing Madame Lancelin and her daughter Genevieve, ripping out their fingernails and gouging out their eyes. When police arrived at the scene, the Papin sisters were found lying together in their room. Depending on the report you read, they were either naked or wearing robes.

The sisters quickly took credit for the murder, saying that a blown fuse, the second that week, was just too much to deal with so, you know, time to kill people.  When the sisters were separated in prison, Christine began to suffer from hallucinations and would writhe on the ground screaming out for her younger sister. When they were brought back together, Christine would become calm but would act overly sexual towards her sister.

Possibly the most famous case of folie à deux is that of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme. Parker and Hulme met in their teens and quickly bonded over their illnesses; Parker suffered from osteomyelitis (an inflammation in the bones) and Hulme from tuberculosis. The two quickly became inseparable, often sneaking out at night creating their own fantasy world so in depth that they built a religion for it, with their own saints. Their religion had its own heaven, a parallel dimension called The Fourth World that I imagine was very different from the Fourth World created by Jack Kirby for DC Comics.

When the girls’ parents became concerned about the amount of time Pauline and Juliet spent together, and worried that their relationship was sexual,  they tried to keep them apart. When that didn’t work, it was decided that Juliet would be sent to live with family in South Africa. The girls decided to kill Pauline’s mother and leave New Zealand for California. On 22 June 1954, Pauline and Juliet beat Honora Parker to death with a brick in Victoria Park.

A similar story happened not long ago in  Waukesha, Wisconsin when Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier stabbed their friend nineteen times in hopes that it would keep the internet legend Slender Man from killing their families.

Morgan Geyser had become obsessed with the Slender Man myth, believing that the creature was not only real, but that it had been visiting her since she was a baby. Morgan and Anissa believed that if they murdered their friend, not only would their families be safe, but they would become servants of the creature, living their lives in his mansion which they conveniently deduced was in Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin.

The two girls spent months planning the murder, deciding to go through with the plan during a sleepover for Morgan’s twelfth birthday. Originally, Morgan and Anissa were going to kill their friend in Morgan’s home; at 2 AM they would duct tape their victim’s mouth and then proceed to stab her in the throat until she was dead before running off for the national park a little over 300 miles away. When the time came, the girls decided to wait until the next day.

In the morning the three girls went for a walk. Morgan and Anissa began their attack in a park bathroom but couldn’t go through with it. Somehow they convinced their victim not to freak out and the three girls went into the woods. There, Anissa told Morgan to kill their friend. Morgan stabbed the girl over and over again with a five inch blade. As the girl lay dying, the two friends promised to get her help and walked away.

Somehow, the victim survived after she crawled to the road and was found by a bicyclist. Morgan and Anissa were picked up by police a few miles away; they were walking to Nicolet National Forest.

Since the stabbing, it has become clear that Morgan suffers from schizophrenia. Since birth, Morgan has been a victim to her mental disorder, unable to tell the difference between reality and the hallucinations her mind creates. Anissa, according to psychologist Dr. Abigail Baird, went along with Morgan’s psychosis because “all she wanted was friends”.

Folie à deux doesn’t just happen between two people, it can also occur with a human and a pet. In volume 149 of the American Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. Robert Howard wrote of an 83-year-old widow who was sure that her upstairs neighbor purposely moved furniture around to annoy her. Over the course of six months the woman, who Dr. Howard referred to as ‘Ms. A’ became convinced that the neighbor was trying to frighten her from her home. She believed that the man was sending “violet rays” through her ceiling to harm her and her dog. To protect herself, Ms. A placed her mattress under her kitchen table, using it as a shield from the ray. For her dog, Ms. A built what she called an “air raid shelter” out of a small table and a few suitcases. According to Dr. Howard, the dog had become so conditioned to the “air raid shelter” that at the slightest sound from the apartment above, the dog would rush into its safety spot in the kitchen.

Most cases of folie à deux consist of a dominant personality pushing its will on a subservient personality. The parents of the Tromp family led their children into a world of paranoia, Christine Papin could not function without her sister. Anissa went along with Morgan’s delusions, even pushing her further along, just so she could have a friend. In some cases, like Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, it isn’t clear who the dominant personality is, or if there even was one. The disorder appears to affect women at a far greater rate than men. Cases are rare, making them hard to study, and they are usually only discovered after a tragic event.

*Header Photo: HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994) Miramax