How far would you go against your conscience and common sense to obey an authority figure?
That is the prevailing question asked in Compliance (2012), an independent psychological suspense movie directed by Craig Zobel. The movie had no blood, gore, people in masks, guns, bombs, or knives, but it was probably one of the scariest movies I have ever seen. (But it is rated R for nudity, language, and sexual references.)
It starts out at an ordinary fast food restaurant on a busy Friday night. The manager is stressed out because someone left the freezer door open and several shipments of bacon went bad. Bacon’s a popular item in any fast food joint that has it, so Friday night was not off to a very good start. To make things more stressful, the manager was also expecting a quality control person from corporate to make a discreet appearance. The night had just started to get busy when a man claiming to be a police officer called and told the manager that one of her young female employees had apparently stolen money from a customer’s purse. The manager brought her young employee into the back room and they both spoke with the “officer,” who began to interrogate both the girl and her manager. Though both claimed that the girl was innocent, the “police officer’s” demands and requests grew increasingly demoralizing.
I don’t want to give away much more of the plot, but I think the most frightening thing about the movie was that it was based on true events. A man claiming to be a police officer would call a fast food restaurant and force managers to strip-search young employees, often making them do other lewd things as well, under threat of arrest or other consequences with the law.
The movie and the true events on which it was based are a creepy window into human nature. We are conditioned to obey those who claim to be authority figures, whether their commands go against our conscience or not. The Milgram experiment demonstrated this, and it really got me thinking about what I had done if I had been in a similar situation.