The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015) — Real life horror

“It’s easy for you to say, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have acted that way,’ but you don’t know.”

Skip’s rating: Sometimes, “based on a true story” is a line to sell tickets. This is not one of those times.

Skip’s review: I try to keep a bit of levity in all of my film reviews. Even serious films have some humor to them. Every now and then, though, a film comes along that makes you question what you think you know about the world and the people who operate within the confines of its reality.

The Stanford Prison Experiment took me down a long rabbit hole of Wikipedia pages and documentaries, searching for more and more information regarding the movie’s contents. I wanted this film to be exaggerated for the sake of drama. I wanted to learn that people can’t be this terrible to each other. I wanted to know that the lessons that the real Stanford Prison Experiment taught us were much more light-hearted and jovial than the ones depicted in this film.

Instead, I learned the truth: Nothing is real and everyone is capable of inhumane horror.

Stanford Prison Experiment is entirely based upon a true story. According to the Wikipedia page (the first of many I read in my obsessive research), the Stanford Prison Experiment was “a psychological experiment conducted in the summer of 1971. It was a two-week simulation of a prison environment that examined the effects of situational variables on participants’ reactions and behaviors. Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo led the research team who administered the study.”

Essentially, Dr. Zimbardo created a fake prison in the basement of Jordan Hall, the psychology building at Stanford. In this fake prison, he placed student volunteers, designating half as prison guards and half as prisoners. The study, which was supposed to last two weeks, was terminated on day six due to the extreme brutality of the simulated prison guards.

These real events translate surprisingly well to film, making for psychological horror which proves the adage that “truth is stranger than fiction”. Stranger, and in this instance, infinitely more horrifying.

The story starts innocently enough. Students are interviewed and selected to participate in a study. Everyone is relaxed. We, the audience, are feeling good. This seems like a fun time.

As the film progresses, so does the level of anxiety. Everyone is on edge. Every time a prisoner talks back to a guard, or when a mistake is made that is guaranteed to draw the ire of a prison guard, we tense up. We’re able to feel, to some small extent, what these students felt when subjected to this study.

The entire time I watched this film I had to question what kind of person I thought I would be. Would I be able to ruthlessly subject my peers to physical and mental torture all because I was lucky enough to be assigned a guard role instead of a prisoner role? The point of this film is that we can’t know how we’d react because we aren’t in that position, and once someone is put into that position, it’s impossible to predict how that power will affect them.

Any criticism I have of the film itself can partially be blamed on the reality the film is supposed to depict. The sets are minimal. The dialogue is stilted and cringe. The characters are unrealistic. Yet all of this is directly reflected in the videos from the study which can be found online. The fake prison was cheap. The characters these students created were fake and their mannerisms were exaggerated.

At the end of the day, the anxiety I felt watching this film is a testament to how well it was put together. By the end, I found so many people to hate, but no one worse than Dr. Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup). I’d also applaud the performance of Ezra Miller, but it’s likely that their real-life issues made playing this character very easy.

Another notable actor is Michael Angarano, who plays the worst of the prison guards. I loved his performance in Lords of Dogtown, and he really shows his range in this, playing a dude who is playing another dude. The acting is bad, but it’s bad on purpose, which seems like a hard thing to pull off.


  • In the real-life experiment in 1971, the students were paid $20 a day which is $125.48 in 2016 dollars or $1756.72 in 2 weeks.
  • A fact I learned after writing everything above is that most of the dialogue between prisoners and guards was taken from actual recordings of the study, so any bad or cringe dialogue is literally straight from the real-life events themselves.
  • Final thought: Philip Zimbardo is a real jerk, and a terrible scientist.

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