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Short description: Psychomotor symptom of catatonia, abnormal maintenance of postures
Image from page 719 of "Diseases of the nervous system - a text-book of neurology and psychiatry" (1915).jpg

Catalepsy (from Ancient Greek katálēpsis, 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

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

Symptoms include a 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] Unsuggested waxy catalepsy, sometimes accompanied by spontaneous anesthesia, is seen as an indicator of hypnotic trance.[7] Suggested or induced rigid catalepsy, of extended limbs or even the entire body, sometimes tested with heavy weights, has been a staple of stage hypnosis shows and even academic demonstrations of hypnotism since the late 18th century, as proof of extraordinary physical abilities possible in trance states.[citation needed] Such demonstrations have also been performed by Asian martial artists to prove the presence of "ki" or "chi" power, a kind of psychological or spiritual resource.[citation needed]

Historical cases

Armand D'Angour suggests that reports (such as that recounted in Plato's Symposium) of Socrates, in about 429 BC, standing perfectly still for hours on end during the Athenian campaign against Potidaea while seemingly deep in thought, are 'too extreme to be considered wholly a matter of rational choice,' and that 'it is reasonable to suppose that it was the symptom of an underlying physiological or psychological condition', such as catalepsy. [8]

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.[9]

Artistic depictions

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


Friar Laurence
...Take thou this vial, being then in bed,
And this distilléd liquor drink thou off;
When presently through all thy veins shall run
A cold and drowsy humour, for no pulse
Shall keep his native progress, but surcease:
No warmth, no breath, shall testify thou livest;
The roses in thy lips and cheeks shall fade
To paly ashes, thy eyes' windows fall,
Like death, when he shuts up the day of life;
Each part, deprived of supple government,
Shall, stiff and stark and cold, appear like death:
And in this borrow'd likeness of shrunk death
Thou shalt continue two and forty hours,
And then awake as from a pleasant sleep...

William Shakespeare
Romeo and Juliet
Act IV scene I

(Account of character Jem Rodney, the molecatcher)
...coming up to him he saw that Marner's eyes were set like a dead man's, and he spoke to him and shook him, and his limbs were stiff, and his hands clutched the bag as if they'd been made of iron...No, no; it was no stroke that would let a man stand on his legs, like a horse between the shafts, and then walk off as soon as you can say "Gee!" But there might be such a thing as a man's soul being loose from his body, and going out and in, like a bird out of its nest and back; and that was how folks got over-wise, for they went to school in this shell-less state to those who could teach them more than their neighbours could learn with their five senses and the parson.

...a peculiar interest had been centred in him ever since he had fallen at a prayer meeting into a mysterious rigidity and suspension of consciousness which, lasting for an hour or more, had been mistaken for death.

George Eliot
Silas Marner

In William Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet the kindly Friar Laurence (in the course of a botched attempt to help the lovers) provides Juliet with a catalepsy-inducing potion so effective that Romeo tragically imagines his beloved's death-like trance to be actual death and poisons himself in despair just before she awakens from her stupor - leading her to kill herself with his dagger upon discovering his suicide.

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, an affliction which adds to his uncanny reputation as a wizard or 'cunning man' among the superstitious natives of his adopted village of Raveloe.

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 Sheridan Le Fanu's novella The Room in the Dragon Volant a naïve young man falls foul of a criminal gang who employ a curious, bulbocapnine-like drug which induces catalepsy - as a result of which he narrowly escapes premature burial.

In the Ted Hughes poem titled "Conjuring in Heaven" from Crow (poetry), the eponymous character is left in a state of catalepsy.[10]

Other media

In the old time radio show Suspense theater, episode titled "Dead Ernest." Episodes number 205, 1946, and number 244, 1947. [11] In the movie Son of Dracula (1943,Universal Pictures), vampire hunter Professor Lazlo (J. Edward Bromberg) describes a vampire as being in a "cataleptic state" between sunrise and sunset, but practically "invincible" during the nighttime, to Dr. Harry Brewster( Frank Craven), as they look for answers to a number of strange situations involving Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr.).

See also


  1. "Definition of Catalepsy". 
  2. "The catalepsy test: its ups and downs". Behav. Neurosci. 102 (5): 748–59. October 1988. doi:10.1037/0735-7044.102.5.748. PMID 2904271. 
  3. "The orexin-1 antagonist SB-334867 blocks antipsychotic treatment emergent catalepsy: implications for the treatment of extrapyramidal symptoms". Schizophr Bull 33 (6): 1291–97. November 2007. doi:10.1093/schbul/sbm087. PMID 17660489. 
  4. "Fyn is required for haloperidol-induced catalepsy in mice". J. Biol. Chem. 281 (11): 7129–35. March 2006. doi:10.1074/jbc.M511608200. PMID 16407246. 
  5. Miller, Ronald (2005). Miller's Anesthesia. New York: Elsevier/Churchill Livingstone. ISBN 978-0-443-06656-6. 
  6. "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. October 1997. doi:10.1073/pnas.94.22.12157. PMID 9342379. Bibcode1997PNAS...9412157A. 
  7. <Milton H. Erickson, edited by Ernest Rossi "Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson, Irvington 1980>
  8. D'Angour, Armand (2019). Socrates in Love. Bloomsbury Publishing, London, page 76. 
  9. St. Teresa of Avila, The Life of St. Teresa de Avila, 1565, chapters V, VI, and VII.
  10. Hughes, T. (1972). Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. London: Faber & Faber.
  11. Old Time Radio Researcher's Group Youtube: Old Time Radio, Suspense, Dead Earnest. or

External links