One of the earliest horror movies I remember seeing as a teenager was The Haunting, the 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel. I don’t remember too much about the actual storyline, besides the customary “people spend the night in a haunted house to test for the paranormal” plot, but what I do remember is the chilling door scene.
Anyone who’s seen it knows what I’m talking about. For those of you who haven’t, there’s an intensely creepy scene where two of the characters are huddled together in a bedroom while an unseen presence starts to loudly knock in the hallway. The knocks get louder as the presence gets closer to their room, until the bedroom door literally starts to bend inward from the force on the other side.
That scene has always stayed with me, not only because of how well done it was, but because it was the first time I realized how enjoyable being scared can be.
There’s a lot of people who avoid horror, and I absolutely sympathize. I for one can’t stand any kind of gore, and it’s incredibly hard to find good horror movies that are exclusively based on fear and suspense rather than disgust.
And yet, there is such an incredible power when it comes to fear evoked in a form of media.
As I spent more time working in social services and witnessing some terrible aspects of humanity, I started to avoid any kind of media that felt too “real”. I couldn’t stand family or legal dramas, especially if kids were abused. I couldn’t handle anything that reminded me of the world I saw at work every day. But what I could handle was fantasy, science fiction, and horror.
Alfred Hitchcock famously described the difference between suspense and surprise, using the analogy of a bomb going off and shocking the audience (the surprise) versus the audience witnessing the bomb being placed, and waiting for it to go off (the suspense). As he stated, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
And yes, good horror movies have their moments of surprise, but the suspense has to be there too. We know the characters are in peril, before they do. We know something bad is going to happen, while they’re ignoring the signs. When the knocking creeps closer, as the characters huddle in fear, we hold our breath right along with them, waiting to see what will happen.
But there’s another element to good horror movies that is, in my mind, the most important. It’s what truly draws me to them, and why I find them a tempting break from reality. And that’s the magic of catharsis. The moment when the tension finally breaks. The moment where we can finally let that breath out.
And that’s what it really comes down to, isn’t it, with horror in media versus real life? A well-scripted catharsis, that gives us the ability to release the tension, let it all go, and just breath.
The Past as Prologue
I’ve always loved history. Despite the extreme bias in who often drives the narrative of what happened and why, there’s so much to be learned in looking at the past. So much has changed over time, and yet so much about humanity remains the same. I find it fascinating.
When I fly in planes, I think of all the people who lived who could never have imagined seeing our world from 10,000 feet above it. When I’m standing in old ruins, whether they be an Anasazi cliff dwelling or a medieval fortress in Germany, I think of the people who lived then, what they felt, what they experienced.
However, there’s an illusion when it comes to history. In order for our brains to process historical events, we tend to break it into pieces. Here’s where the Civil War happened and these were the major players; this was the Depression and the impact on the public. Everything is neatly chopped up into sections, like it was in our high school history books.
It’s not wrong we do this, it’s a way to make sense without overloading our brains. Yet in reality, history is not a series of events, but a river, always flowing. There’s what we can see on the surface, and the things buried deeply underneath, but it’s all connected, and it never stops.
We see things like this pandemic as a singular event, a major one, but singular nonetheless. Yet we are only here today because of so many choices and actions, some harking back to generations ago, that set a stage on which we now find ourselves players.
This is not an entirely new feeling, at least for those of us who are trying to take accountability and responsibility for the inequities in our culture. How do you make things right for the actions of ancestors who made choices ages before we were ever on the scene?
In my mind what truly feels overwhelming at the moment is not an awareness of a singular event, but rather the sudden realization that we are a part of this river, and we are being swept at high speeds into an unknown destination. We have always been a part of it, but we don’t always feel it. And feeling it is scary.
The truth is that we didn’t have to be here. We really didn’t. There are countries that took this seriously from day one, took all responsible measures with testing and quarantining. They had strong teams to work on managing the crisis, and strong leadership from the top positions.
Yet we live in a country where our president understands nothing and cares even less, where some states still have not issued a stay at home order, where people still think it’s appropriate to gather in large groups to celebrate a Christian holiday. Where people claim that “freedom” matters above all, above the health of the most vulnerable among us (as long as everything goes according to their own personal criteria for freedom, and they don’t have to consider the rights of anyone who lives differently from them).
The stage for all of this was set such a long time ago, when it became the norm that a philosophy of individualism was held above all else. When it was decided to pretend that wealth and safety was only obtained by those who deserved it, and the rest of us were lesser. When people doubled down on using religion as a proof of superiority. And it’s only been enhanced by all the many choices over time that led to a narcissistic and scientifically illiterate shell of a man being held in high power.
How do you get catharsis from that?
When Leadership Matters Most
Not too long after the pandemic escalated, I found myself watching Angela Merkel deliver a national address to Germany. She isn’t my national leader, and I don’t know how much we would align politically, but I felt a desperate need to hear someone in a position of world power speak calmly and intelligently about what was happening.
We all know that during a crisis, leadership is key. Strong leadership is the difference between calm and chaos, lives saved and lives lost. Humans are social, communal creatures, but we also have strong fears, and good leadership helps us manage them.
There is nothing like a crisis for highlighting what both good and bad leadership looks like.
We’ve seen leaders step up in a myriad of ways. Politicians who were struggling with popularity before the crisis started are showing strong skills we couldn’t see in calmer times. Doctors and scientists are being calm, rational voices amidst a great deal of chaos. Managers are being supportive and understanding of the demands of trying to simultaneously work and parent at home. And individuals in every conceivable kind of situation are making sacrifices for the common good.
Then there’s the other side. The CEOs and managers who insist that their employees keep working in inadequate safety with insufficient protection while at the same time, they spend vast amounts of money on marketing to promote the idea that they care. The politicians who try to claim they “just learned” that asymptomatic people can spread the virus, despite it being a known fact for months, as an excuse for lack of decisive action. The people who think they can disbelieve a virus out of existence, or blame it on some random piece of technology, rather than take the science seriously.
The frustrating thing is that although leadership matters at all levels, strong leadership at the mid level cannot make up for inadequate leadership at the top. It makes a difference, absolutely; it saves lives, for sure, but for any organization or group to successfully weather a crisis, you need that strong, committed, intelligent leadership from every level.
All of us can step up and do our best. Yet a poor CEO can sink an entire company, a bad president can traumatize a nation.
Searching for Catharsis
So, here we are. In the midst of an pandemic, with poor national leadership, and a great deal of unknown elements facing us in the coming months.
We are dealing with a huge amount of trauma. People are being laid off, or forced to continue working with inadequate safety precautions. People living in poverty and people of color are facing hugely inequitable treatment in health care and employment. People are trying to work, and home school, and keep sane in our new non-normal. And to top it all off, we are surrounded by those delightful human beings that demand we must continuously be productive with our time or we are failures who lack discipline. (Stop telling me that Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine, Bob, I don’t care).
This isn’t a story. We don’t get the triumphant moment, where the music swells and we confidently stride into the night, having figured out exactly how to defeat the monster. The monster is everywhere, and every time. The greed, the selfishness, the prioritization of wealth over all.
So how do we deal with this kind of horror?
Holding on to our values
Every year, on the first day of the leadership program I facilitated, we would hand out an activity sheet to help our participants identify their top values. They would start by highlighting ten, and then we’d make them cut it down to five, and then to three. We would always hear a bit of grumbling, some “how am I supposed to choose”, even some creative attempts to find alternate words that would encapsulate multiple meanings. Finally, in the end, they would have their three. And then, as the year went on, they would forget about it. But we didn’t. And at graduation, we presented their values back to them, as a reminder of what brought them meaning.
My co-facilitator had designed the activity based on an exercise in a book called The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism by Michael Lerner. There’s a fair amount of evidence that meaningful work has more to do with employee satisfaction that pure compensation. We knew we couldn’t remove the big stressors for our students. We couldn’t change the reality of working in human services, or save them from bad management decisions. What we could do was provide them with an alternate perspective, a reminder of why they chose to work in this field in the first place.
I recently heard a snippet of a podcast called Every Little Thing, where they talked to a man who repairs label printers. He’d never thought of his job as essential, yet he works with a medical company that does coronavirus tests, and uses the labels to ship all over the country. In other words, him coming in and servicing the machine is critical to saving lives. His dedication to his work has an entirely new sense of meaning.
Right now, we can’t erase the bad decisions that have put us where we are. But we can remember our values, our reasons why. There are a great many jokes being made about saving the world while watching Netflix in our underwear, but regardless, everything we do right now matters. It has meaning.
Whether we are high risk ourselves, or simply love and respect people at risk, we are choosing, every day, to put our community, to put humanity, first.
Finding the Precious Amidst the Inane
My best friend lives in another state, and for many years now we have met online, almost every weekend, to play a game together. It keeps us in touch, we can chat about our lives, and then we can run around with big swords and hit things. I’ve often called it a form a therapy.
Since all of this started, I’ve realized that it’s much more than that. It’s hard to even explain how critical my friend and our sessions are to my mental health and sense of safety, but she is truly an invaluable part in working through loneliness and keeping me sane right now. Meeting up and playing a game may seem so insignificant on the surface, but underneath, it is so much more.
Everywhere you look right now, we are surrounded by the precious. The families finding ways to visit through glass, teachers learning new technology to support their students, volunteers signing up to adopt elders in care homes for online visits, animal adoptions increasing while people are at home, nature being rejuvenated during the break from humanity, health care workers playing joyful music every time someone comes off a ventilator.
I have another friend who is extremely artistic, and will often stop to take a picture of a crack on the sidewalk, or a leaf against a window. She possesses an amazing eye for photography, and the smallest things can suddenly turn into art in her hands. She has such an incredible ability to see the beautiful in the most mundane things.
We’re going to be experiencing a lot of difficult feelings right now, but our other emotions are still right there. We may have to adjust perspective to see it sometimes, but there will still be things that will make you smile, laugh, happy cry, and gasp in awe.
The other piece I find essential is taking action whenever I can. It’s not the same kinds of action all the time. There are days where I just clean, because cleaning my physical space helps me feel sorted mentally. There are days where my action is talking to a friend, or writing for just an hour, or finding new recipes online. And yes, there are days where I can be more active politically or engage with our world a bit more. But every day isn’t about saving the world – it can’t be.
It’s easy to feel like we’re not doing enough. I know, because I feel that way all the time. And there will always be those around us who want to criticize and tell us how we should be living our lives. But in the end, it’s about doing what actions we can, in that moment, for ourselves, and those we love.
I want to take a moment here, and acknowledge that none of the above is easy or simple. There’s people right now who feel frustrated at being told “put it into perspective” when they’re dealing with a lot of anger and sadness. If someone just lost their job, thinking about appreciating the beauty around them is not going to be as vital as thinking about how to feed their family. If someone has a loved one who is sick, trying to force them to be optimistic is not going to help.
Dealing with trauma is very personal, and we all do it in our own way. Find what works for you. Just remember to ask for help when you need it.
It’s taken me a long while to find the words to write about what’s going on the world right now. I knew I needed to write about it though, because writing is how I process, and I have to process to cope.
I wasn’t held back by writer’s block by any means, rather it was more a writer’s flood, a torrent of feelings and thoughts that were so interconnected and convoluted, I could barely get them out through my fingers for the longest time. And what I could get out was in fits and starts.
But the longer I’ve been sitting at home with my thoughts, the more I knew I needed to get the feelings out. Keeping it all in isn’t healthy, not for anyone. So here we are.
I hope you all get a chance to start processing your feelings. Whether you write, or talk, or make art, or chop wood, or whatever it takes.
As John Oliver said in his most recent segment, “The real test here isn’t whether or not our country will get through this. It will. The question is how we get through this and what kind of country we want to be on the other side.”
We live in an individualistic society, but we don’t have to be individualistic people. We can value our own needs and happiness while respecting the needs and happiness of others. We can suffer through this to become less, or we can survive it to become more.
Let’s remember to breath and find catharsis when we can. Have grace for ourselves when we can’t.
And if you do nothing else, remember to vote.