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?

The number one phobia producing film is the 1976 film version of William Goldman’s book, The Marathon Man. In it, there are scenes in which a former Nazi dentist, played insidiously by Lawrence Olivier, attempts to torture and “extract” information from an unwitting college graduate student, played by Dustin Hoffman, by removing his teeth without anesthesia. Ouch!!

In some of the funniest scenes in Hollywood history, yet equally as damaging to the dental phobic, is another well known play and 1986 dark comedy film, The Little Shop of Horrors. In it, Steve Martin stars as the sadistic, nitrous oxide sniffing dentist, treating the equally masochistic, pain-loving patient, played by Bill Murray. This film, though hilarious at times, has kept many a patient away from the dental office.

In the 1970’s comedy film, The In-Laws, Alan Arkin portrayed a dentist who was unknowingly dragged along on a CIA mission with future in-law, CIA agent, Peter Falk. Unfortunately, he left a patient with an impression in his mouth, unable to talk or to call for help. We never do find out what happened to that poor fellow.

In the 1985 film, Compromising Positions, a philandering Long Island dentist is found murdered. His neighbor, played by Susan Sarandon, a former journalist who is now an upper middle-class housewife and a patient of his, decides to try to uncover the real killer. As it turns out, this dentist, with enough mistresses to fill an appointment book, is no Father Knows Best character.

Captain Walter Koskiusko “Painless Pole” Waldowski, DDS was a character in Richard Hooker’s 1968 novel and in the 1970 film, MASH. John Schuck played Waldowski in the film. The character’s name and situation form a series of plays-on-words. Being Polish, a sexually well-endowed man, and being a presumably “painless” dentist, “Painless Pole” is an appropriate nickname. In the film, he fails in bed and wants to commit suicide. His colleagues pretend to help him by giving him a placebo that they tell him will eventually end his life. Then the character Lieutenant Dish, played by Jo Ann Pflug, finds Waldowski lying in his coffin, waiting for what he thinks is his own death. The next morning, having had a successful sexual encounter with Lt. Dish, he arrives for breakfast, calm and completely free of anxiety. This incident is the source of the MASH theme song, “Suicide Is Painless”, which refers to both the technique of suicide and to the dentist’s nickname. This would be funny if not for the fact that dentists have such a high suicide rate.

In the 2000 comedy film, The Whole Nine Yards, and its’ sequel, The Whole Ten Yards, Mathew Perry, of Friends fame, plays an unhappily married dentist in Montreal, Canada named Oz. His new next-door neighbor, played by Bruce Willis, is a former Chicago mob hit man-turned-informant. When Oz tells his greedy wife, she forces him to go to Chicago and try to sell the hitman’s location to the mobsters he betrayed. To get his wife off his back, he goes. Meanwhile, Oz’s wife rats on Oz to Jimmy, hoping Jimmy will kill Oz so she can cash in on Oz’s life insurance. Pretty soon everybody wants to kill everyone else, but, especially our unhappy, unfulfilled, dentist.

Novocaine is a 2001 film starring Steve Martin as the dentist, Laura Dern as his hygenist-fianceé and Helena Bonham Carter as Susan, a patient with more on her mind than relief from an uncomfortable tooth, and getting a prescription for Demerol. She makes an appointment, and she seduces the dentist into getting drunk and having sex with her. She then steals all his narcotics, sells them to an 18-year old boy, who then dies in a car accident. The plot goes downhill from there. His fiancée’ kills his brother in the dental chair. He then pulls out his dead brother’s teeth, pulls out his own teeth and puts them into a mold. He super-glues the mold into his brother’s mouth and starts a fire. He and Susan, having become lovers, go to France to live, while his former fiancée’, who killed his brother, (who everyone thinks is the dentist because of his teeth) goes to prison for life. Believe me, this is not a typical day in the life of a dentist.

In the 1970’s, Peter Bonerz played the goofy friend and dentist sharing a professional office-building floor with psychiatrist Bob Hartley, played by Bob Newhart in the TV series, The Bob Newhart Show. The key words here are dentist and goofy.

In the 90’s sitcom, Seinfeld, Dr. Tim Whatley, played by Bryan Cranston, who later plays the father in the sitcom, Malcolm in the Middle, calls himself, “Dentist to the Stars.” As Jerry’s dentist, he is accused of converting to Judaism so that he could say Jewish jokes, and being a “re-gifter,’ giving someone a gift that you received from someone else. Jerry is also upset at seeing Penthouse magazines in the waiting room and having possibly sexually molested while he was unconscious during a tooth filling. And then the most troublesome was receiving Christmas gifts from his dentist that were intended as donations to charities made in the dentist’s name. The phrase, “anti-dentite,” is introduced in the show by Kramer. What an unpleasant character this dentist, Dr. Whatley, is portrayed as, certainly not someone you can trust to be your dental caregiver.

The plot in one episode of the long running, animated TV comedy series, The Simpsons, called “Painless Dentistry,” revolves around the father, Homer, being told that his daughter, Lisa, needs braces. So that he doesn’t have to pay for her braces, he runs for and is elected as the President of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant union. He then leads the workers of the plant in a strike in order to get their revoked dental plan back. What he will do in order to pay for dentistry is a bit excessive, but in this day and age of insurance issues, it is quite timely and understandable.

Andy Dick plays Matthew Brock in the 1990’s comedy series, News Radio. He is described as a news reporter and official office weird guy. He’s a health-nut, has a desk covered in vitamin bottles, and is very anti-smoking. Despite his apparent lack of intellect, it’s revealed in the fourth season that Matthew is a dentist who gave up his practice because radio, not dentistry, was his passion.

Glen Jacobs, professional wrestler, made his debut with the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) as Dr. Isaac Yankem DDS from 1995-1996. The name was obviously a pun, “I Yank’em”, as in “I yank teeth”. The use of such terms as “yank” when referring to removing a tooth is one of the fear trigger words that causes angst and should be avoided.

Since 1978, the comic strip, For Better or For Worse has portrayed dentist, John Patterson in a more favorable light as a dentist, father, and husband to wife, Elly Patterson, a married stay-at-home mother of two, who periodically fills in as a dental assistant in John’s office. The everyday problems of being a family are thankfully more humorously portrayed.

An animated British TV series, Bob and Margaret, 1998-2001, follows the comedic adventures of a married couple, Bob and Margaret Fish. Bob is a dentist and Margaret is a Chiropodist. I’ve never seen the show so I can’t give an opinion about the content.

Another British entry into the media bash the dentists’ image, is the TV 2000-the present television show, My Family. The main character, Ben Harper, played by Robert Lindsay, is described as a misanthropic dentist who shows little compassion for his family, his patients, his partner or anyone else he encounters, and who doesn’t seem to care about anyone other than himself. Again, I have not seen this show, but from all indications, the title character is a dentist who unfortunately fits the mold of most people’s negative view of dentists’ poor personality traits.

In the Prison TV Drama Series, OZ, which ran from 1997-2003, a prison dentist, Dr. Tariq Faraj, appears twice. In one episode, as a form of revenge towards a white supremacist inmate’s racial slurs, this prison dentist of Pakistani origin and warped sense of humor, transplants gum tissue from a dead black man onto the racist’s receded gums. Since his blood is no longer pure, and because of his “ghetto gums,” the white supremacist gets kicked out of the Aryan Brotherhood. Well that doesn’t stop that resourceful and nifty Neo-Nazi from cutting out his transplanted gums with a razor blade without a local anesthetic. WOW!!! OH My GOD, THAT HURTS!!!

On the present day on going television series, Desperate Housewives, the dentist, Dr. Orson Hodge, played by Kyle Maclachlan, kills, but didn’t really kill his first wife, (his mother is eventually exposed as the killer), ran over Mike the Plumber (Richard Denton), and knowing that Mike is having a drug problem, prescribes the very medication to which Mike is addicted. He then marries one of the housewives, goes to prison for the previously attempted murder of Mike the Plumber, loses his license, becomes a kleptomaniac, and is involved in a fight with his wife’s lover during which the lover is killed. He is severely injured and now rolls around town in a wheelchair. How this dentist of questionable character will end up is anybody’s guess. He certainly is not going to win the dentist of the year award.

The latest entry into the character assassination of the dental profession is Glenn Martin, DDS, an animated comedy on Nick at Nite about a dentist who buys an RV, and sets off on a cross-country adventure (or should I say misadventure) with his family doing some dentistry while on vacation. I did see one episode and was not impressed. “Variety” states in their review, “Glen Martin, DDS isn’t as bad as visiting the dentist, but isn’t much better than sitting in the waiting room.” Thank you “Variety” for that eloquent summation of my profession.

So there you have it. Certainly these past portrayals have been less than positive and have contributed greatly to keeping nearly 1/3 of our population from regular dental visits. I know that there have been some dentists who have been positively represented in art and media. But they are relatively few and far between. I certainly would appreciate receiving emails or blogs from readers talking about the dentist they loved, or their own positive dental experiences, or any positive dental images or characters that they have encountered. I am very happy to put them all together in another article.