15 Psychological Conditions Named After Literary Characters

By E. W. Kemble (1861–1933) - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By E. W. Kemble (1861–1933) - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons / By E. W. Kemble (1861–1933) - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

If you’re a chemist and you make a crucial discovery, chances are they’ll name the particle or compound after you. But psychologists have always had a liberal arts flair when it comes to their discoveries. Serious psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud and pop psychologists alike have used fictional characters from their favorite stories to describe all sorts of mental conditions. Here are 15 of those literary psych disorders. You’ll probably grow out of that Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan syndrome, but if you’re suffering from Rapunzel syndrome, please: see a doctor.


Huckleberry Finn syndrome is sometimes used as a loose term for childhood truancy—think unruly kids "going out on the raft to go fishing," or, perhaps more likely these days, kids staying in to play video games. But it also appears in books as a psychodynamic complex. In The Dictionary of Modern Medicine, J.C. Segen explains that it often begins as youthful rebellion but evolves into "frequent job changes and absenteeism as an adult." It’s thought to be a response to parental rejection, or deep-set feelings of inferiority and depression.


In 1955, John Todd and Kenneth Dewhurst published a paper detailing the so-called "Othello syndrome." This Shakespearean moniker referred to "a dangerous form of psychosis … [whose] central theme consists in a delusional belief in infidelity of the spouse." If you’ll recall from high school English class, Othello murders his wife, Desdemona, because he irrationally believed she’d had an affair. Some studies suggest this affliction is most common among older men with a neurological disorder, rather than a psychiatric one. It can lead people to kill their partners or, at the very least, subject them to lie detector tests.


If you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, someone has probably described you as "a Pollyanna," in reference to Eleanor H. Porter’s sunny children’s literature heroine. But some psychologists also use the term "Pollyanna syndrome" to refer to an unrealistic, even dangerous optimism. One study suggests it can negatively impact disabled patients and their families.


Just like Oscar Wilde’s vain creation Dorian Gray, people who suffer from this body dysmorphic disorder have an "obsessive preoccupation with physical attractiveness." They do not handle aging well, and frequently turn to plastic surgery, anti-impotence drugs, or hair plugs to preserve their youth for as long as possible.


Colette Dowling popularized the term "Cinderella complex" in 1981 with her book of the same name. It described a uniquely feminine condition in which women subconsciously fear independence. As Dowling explained, "Women are brought up to depend on a man and to feel naked and afraid without one… The Cinderella Complex leads to inappropriate or ineffectual behavior on the job, to anxiety about success, to the fear that independence will lead to loss of femininity." This hidden desire for dependency leads afflicted women to seek out a male partner (or "prince") to whisk them away to a figurative castle and dispatch their problems (i.e. evil stepsisters) for them along the way.



Depending on who you ask, a "Superman complex" may refer to one of two things. If you ask Dr. Fredric Wertham, the psychiatrist who infamously condemned comic books to a Senate subcommittee in 1954, it’s a damaging condition under which one enjoys fantasies "of sadistic joy in seeing other people repeatedly punished while the hero remains immune." But he’s generally considered a loon today, so you should probably ask Max Carey. Carey wrote The Superman Complex, a book which seeks to diagnose overachieving workers in danger of burning out. According to Carey, people with a Superman complex tend to think they can solve any problem and sacrifice any amount of sleep or food to get the job done. As you might imagine, they’re also manipulative, narcissistic, and difficult to work with.


"Sleeping Beauty syndrome" is the catchier, Disneyfied name for a rare neurological disorder known as Kleine-Levin Syndrome (KLS). The condition is associated with excessive episodes of sleep that can last for weeks. Any regular activities stop during these episodes; KLS patients can do little more than sleep, eat, and go to the bathroom for the duration of the bout. They may also appear "spacey" and act confused when they are actually awake. Hypersexuality is another symptom. Treatment is tricky for KLS, but its episodes tend to get less frequent after 8 to 12 years.


The most famous of all the literary-inspired psychological disorders, an Oedipus complex occurs when a son has feelings of desire for his mother, and feelings of contempt for his father (or, in his mind, his rival). Sigmund Freud borrowed the name of Sophocles’ tortured Oedipus Rex protagonist to describe this condition, which he viewed as a normal stage of childhood. Carl Jung later came up with the companion "Electra complex" for girls.


Anyone who’s watched a Judd Apatow movie is well-acquainted with Peter Pan syndrome. Those who have it simply refuse to grow up. They may not don a green cap and attempt to fly, but in their quest to avoid adulthood, they might set impossible goals, abuse alcohol and drugs, and/or lazily search for jobs. Although Peter Pan syndrome is not studied widely, as it is not an officially recognized psychopathology, researchers believe it affects men more than women, and that overprotective parents can play a role in its development.



Munchausen syndrome was the old name for what we now call factitious disorder. Those diagnosed with the disorder trick others into thinking they’re sick… by causing the symptoms themselves. Their ultimate goal is sympathy, and in order to make their story more believable, they might sign up for painful procedures or even secretly injure themselves. The original name comes from Baron Munchausen, a fictional German nobleman who told wild lies about his achievements. The character was created by writer Rudolf Erich Raspe and was loosely based on a real aristocrat.


Individuals diagnosed with Alice in Wonderland syndrome (AWS) have a serious problem with perception. Essentially, everyday life for them is like those "Eat Me" and "Drink Me" scenes from Alice in Wonderland: objects appear to be impossibly small or frighteningly large. The disorder primarily affects children and no treatment is currently available. But AWS tends to fade away as kids grow up, usually around their late teens.


As you might recall, Ophelia is Hamlet’s distressed girlfriend in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. Dr. Ian Carr borrowed her name for a neuropsychiatric disorder he discovered in his own teenage daughter. First he noticed that some of the "sparkling precision of her conversation" had vanished. Then she started experiencing memory loss, hallucinations, and depression. The mental disorder, they discovered, was spurred by Hodgkin's lymphoma. Its successful treatment restored Carr’s daughter neurologically, for the most part—except she had a large gap of months missing from her memory. Subsequent studies found that patients with Hodgkin's lymphoma often experienced similarly bizarre personality changes prior to detection.


The "Bambi complex" isn’t listed by the American Psychiatric Association. Rather, it’s a pop psychology label given to people with overly sentimental attitudes toward wildlife. Environmental historian Ralph H. Lutts used the term in his essay "The Trouble With Bambi," which argued that the Disney movie (which was based on a book) presented a nature fantasy that unfairly demonized hunters.



As described by Arpad Pauncz in "Psychopathology of Shakespeare’s 'King Lear,'" the so-called Lear complex is a riff on the Oedipus complex, except the father is the one sexually attracted to his daughter. This was a reference to Lear’s weird fixation on his youngest daughter, Cordelia.


Rapunzel was known for letting down her hair, but those who suffer from "Rapunzel syndrome" eat theirs. This exceedingly rare—and exceedingly gruesome—condition is the result of a combination of trichotillomania (the compulsion to pull out one’s hair) and trichophagia (the compulsion to eat one’s hair). The consumed hair accumulates into a ball in the stomach, which leads to a whole slew of digestive problems. Just this year, doctors removed two substantial hairballs from the stomach and small intestine of a 38-year-old "Rapunzel" in Arizona. According to the BBC, hers is only the 89th reported case.