A Soundtrack of My Childhood

We all have favorite songs. Some of them remain magical for all our lives, or at least for many years, but some are more short-lived and situational. I want to share a few of the faves from my childhood and early teen years. I’ll probably post another time to share high school and college faves and beyond.

Early Childhood

I’m not sure why, but as a kid, I really loved B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” I can’t remember any particular memory related to it, and as a kid I did not see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which featured the song, so that’s not the reason. I think I just heard it on the radio and liked it. The song came out in 1969 when I was only 1 year old, but I feel like I was probably 4 or 5 when I listened to it. I didn’t know this until now, but the song was written for the movie and won an Oscar (Best Song From a Motion Picture at the 1970 awards).

I also liked Sly and the Family Stone around that time. My parents had a couple of their albums, and I liked playing them on the hi-fi. “Everyday People” was one of my favorites. I also remember loving the parts of “Dance to the Music” when Cynthia Robinson talked or sang. And, I recall that my parents had a double album of Sly, and one time when I was looking at the album cover, one of the records fell out and landed on my toe, making the toenail turn black. Funny what you remember!

Another childhood favorite band was The Jackson Five. I loved all their songs, but “The Love You Save” stood out. Ah, back when little Michael Jackson was innocent and cute. I have to admit my memories of the Jacksons are a bit tainted now with all the allegations of abuse against Michael. Still, the Jackson Five music takes me back to happy memories of childhood. Here they are lip-syncing on The Ed Sullivan show in 1970. Look at those bell-bottoms and dance moves! I was only 2 at this time, but I got into the Jackson Five when I was a little older. I watched their cartoon, which ran from 1971 to ’72, when I was 3 and 4 years old.

Middle Childhood

In my mid-childhood, I got really into Donny and Marie Osmond. They had a TV show from 1976 to 1979, and I was a big fan! I was 8 to 11 when the show aired. I had one of their albums on 8-track. I was obsessed with “Deep Purple,” which Donny and Marie covered in 1975. I didn’t know until now that the song was originally written in the ’30s as a piano tune, then performed as a big band number. The lyrics were written in 1938, and several artists covered it before the Osmonds. Oh, how I loved it when Marie spoke those lyrics. So romantic!

I also remember being very into Olivia Newton-John. I loved her music and of course did a lot of lip-syncing with a hairbrush to her tunes. I think that one of her albums was my first vinyl. Her super-romantic ballad “I Honestly Love You” was a favorite. I must have really been into sappy ballads as a kid, because I also recall having little performances with my friends where we sang Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life.” The drama! The pathos! “NEVER AGAIN TO BE ALL ALONE!!!!”

Next, I started getting into the “teen idols.” Shaun Cassidy was my top fave. Even now, listening to “That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll” gives me a little thrill. I was 9 and still very innocent, but my hormones were about to explode. Shaun gave me a preview. I didn’t know or care that the song was written just a year earlier by Eric Carmen. Shaun’s 1977 version was all I needed to hear.

The Pre-Teen Years

When I was 10, 11, and 12, I inherited some albums from my older brother, so my musical tastes expanded a bit beyond soft rock and kid stuff. I ended up with some albums by Kansas, Styx, Bad Company, Queen, and Boston. Don’t get me wrong–I was probably still listening to Shaun Cassidy and Olivia Newton-John. But I was also getting into rock that was slightly more grown up. Who can forget stomping and clapping to Queen’s “We Will Rock You?”

Styx’s “Come Sail Away” was another fave.

(As an adult, Cartman’s version was pretty entertaining, too. Maybe even better than the original.)

Pat Benetar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” from 1980 was a classic pop rock song and one that my friends and I tried (pretty unsuccessfully) to belt out like Pat. I did have one friend, Staci, who came pretty close. Staci had an awesome voice!

Early Teens

Words can’t really express the love I had for Journey’s “Open Arms.” This song, released in 1981 when I was 13, was an opus to all the feels that were happening at that age, as well as my first insane crush. That opening piano riff brings it all back, even now. I sang that song and cried so many times.

Fortunately, my early teen favorite songs were not all wrapped up in heartbreak. I was obsessed with “Beauty and the Beat,” the first full album by the Go-Go’s, which also came out in 1981. It’s hard to choose which song I liked more, “Our Lips Are Sealed,” or “We Got the Beat.” (I still love the Go-Go’s!) So, I am sharing the original, punkier version of “We Got the Beat” from 1980. And, no, at 13 I wasn’t cool enough to know any of the Go-Go’s music from before “Beauty and the Beat” came out.

The year 1981 also brought Joan Jett into my world. I got the Joan Jett & the Blackhearts album “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” and fell in love with the title song. I can still rock out to Joan.

That’s all for now. As I said, I may post another time with later favorite songs. I hope you enjoy the videos I shared here. It was fun to think back on some of the music that had an impact on my youth.

An Ode to Generation X

The recent, untimely death of Luke Perry, 90210 heartthrob and, more recently, actor in Riverdale, sparked a wave of nostalgia and also fear about my own mortality. It also got me to thinking (probably as a way to stop thinking fearfully about my mortality) about my youth. Specifically, I was thinking about the events, media, and entertainment that shaped and defined Generation X, my generation.

BEVERLY HILLS, 90210, Luke Perry, 1990-2000,
(c)Spelling Television/courtesy Everett Collection

Gen X Got a Bad Rap

The zeitgeist was cynicism and disenfranchisement. I remember as a 20-something reading countless articles saying my generation would “be the first to do worse than their parents.” We were disparaged by Baby Boomers and the media as “slackers” and told we were lazy, aimless, and self-involved. It was difficult to feel positive about the future when these were the constant messages. But, despite our apparently dismal prospects, we still managed to embrace our dark-color-clad youth. (We also proved the naysayers wrong: Gen Xers ended up being quite entrepreneurial and ambitious, helping to create the high-tech industry that fueled the 1990s economic recovery.)

Our generation was shaped by changes in the economy and workforce, such as more women working. Divorce had become more prevalent. These forces and others, such as a lack of affordable childcare, contributed to the “latchkey kid” phenomenon and less adult supervision.

We were the first generation to play video games (remember Atari??), see shows “on demand” (with the invention of VCRs), watch cable TV (on 24 hours a day!), and have home computers. Gen Xer Justin Hall invented blogging. We were the first to have MTV. In fact, in addition to being called Generation X, we were also called the “MTV Generation.” It’s no wonder so many of us grew up to create tech startups and most of us adapted fairly easily to a digital future after our analog childhoods.

The Culture That Shaped Us

The entertainment trends of the late ’80s and early ’90s reflected the complexities of the times and of our young psyches: independence, antiestablishmentarianism, cynicism, creativity. The fashion aesthetic tended toward minimalism, casualness, and subdued colors, as well as tattoos and piercings. Punk was a big influence, as was grunge, alternative rock, riot grrls, and hip hop. Britpop and goth were also part of the mix in the mid to late ’90s, as was the growing rave culture.

Nirvana
riot grrrl, a zine created by Molly Neuman of the band Bratmobile

The ’90s saw an explosion of Gen Ex indie film directors, such as Spike Jonze, Richard Linklater, Sofia Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, and Kevin Smith. Although he was a Baby Boomer and not a Gen Xer, John Hughes was known for mainstream movies, such as The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Sixteen Candles, that shaped the adolescence of Generation X.

Will Smith and Alfonso Ribeiro of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Television also took a turn toward the quirky and independent, with unusual and sometimes subversive shows like The X-Files, The Simpsons, Northern Exposure, and Twin Peaks. Even more mainstream shows were becoming more creative: Think Ally McBeal, Quantum Leap, and Seinfeld. We saw more shows featuring African Americans, including The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Martin, A Different World, Roc, and In Living Color. There were also the popular and increasingly gritty dramas like ER and NYPD Blue. We also saw the birth of the reality TV trend, set off by The Real World. Shows like Friends, Beverly Hills 90210, and Melrose Place set fashion trends and created sex symbols. Admit it: Some of you got a “Rachel” or “Dylan” haircut or tried to model your outfits after Kelly or Donna or Amanda.

Jennifer Aniston as “Rachel” on Friends
“Mulder” and “Scully” from The X-Files

Fashion

Speaking of hair and fashion, there were so many different influences in the 1990s on both. As mentioned, many of the music, movie, and TV trends shaped what we wore and how we wanted to look. There was punk and “alternative” that sparked us to get piercings and tattoos, wear black, and color or spike our hair. The grunge movement showed up in ripped, baggy jeans; flannel; earth tones and puce green (“brown is the new black”); dark lipstick; beanie hats; Doc Martens; and vintage sweaters. There was hip hop, which led to an explosion of Adidas, gold chains, sweat suits, baggy jeans, bright colors, Kangol bucket hats, bike shorts, and gold door-knocker earrings.

Run DMC. Getty Images.

Looking Back

Nostalgia. You don’t truly understand it until you start to get older. When you’re young, you may be living in the moment or looking ahead to what’s next. Now, at 50, I find myself looking back a lot more. It’s been both fun and bittersweet thinking back to my younger days and what it meant to be Gen X in the 1990s. I feel sad at the loss of Luke Perry and others close to my age who are gone before their time. A reminder to appreciate the now, even while looking back.

Street Art and Gentrification in Oakland, California

When I lived in Oakland, from 2005 to 2010, there was a decent amount of street art, but nowhere near as much as there is now. When I visited West Oakland and downtown this past weekend, I was blown away by the explosion of murals and graffiti. I used to frequent these areas when I lived in Oakland, but in the past few years when visiting, I haven’t spent much time in these neighborhoods.

Changes

I used to hang in West Oakland a lot because my partner was a metal artist who worked out of a large co-op in that neighborhood. Back then, the neighborhood was a mix of industrial and low-income housing, as well as blocks of dilapidated houses, abandoned buildings, and trash. It was an interesting place and not a very safe one: There were many break-ins and robberies, and there were bullet holes in the walls of buildings. On the plus side, people without a lot of money could still afford to live there–both long-time neighborhood residents and many struggling artists and “makers.” The influx of money was creeping along slowly then, with a couple condo buildings going up here and there but very few new businesses in the area.

When I drove through West Oakland yesterday, and I could hardly believe the changes since 2010. There were street art murals everywhere–too many to count. The sidewalk along Mandela Parkway was all fixed up with nice landscaping and fancy streetlamps. What used to be deserted streets were full of joggers and walkers (mostly white). There were new condo and apartment buildings as far as the eye could see, as well as coffee shops boasting organic coffee and WiFi.

Feelings About Gentrification

I have mixed feelings about the changes to West Oakland (and the whole Bay Area). On the one hand, I love public art and organic coffee. I’d rather live in a clean and safe apartment than a dilapidated hovel or an illegal warehouse. I like being places with vibrant business and people out and about. I have had a lot of privilege that has allowed me to live in places like these through most of my life.

But, that said, I wish that a neighborhood could grow and evolve without getting so expensive that the former residents (particularly low-income residents and people of color) can’t afford to stay. I’m not an expert on economics, but I imagine that federal, state, and local governments have to put specific programs in place to make this happen–leaving it up to the free market typically results in the wealthy winning out.

I did a little research on gentrification in Oakland and West Oakland in particular. After World War II, West Oakland became a thriving arts district and cultural haven for African-Americans, boasting many blues and jazz venues, as well as other businesses. However, economic changes starting in the 1950s and intensifying in subsequent decades led to the gradual deterioration of the neighborhood. Public projects damaging to the area’s fabric (such as the razing of homes to build the train station) also contributed to the area’s decline.

Regarding more recent changes to West Oakland, according to one article, “[Long-time residents] say newcomers are “Columbusing” Oakland—appropriating the city without any regard for the people who were here building community long before Oakland was the “it” place to move to. Others are happy to see changes, such as bike lanes, street repairs, and new businesses, come in. However, one thing that I can’t imagine anyone is happy about (except landlords) is the price of rent. A search of Craiglist revealed that rents in West Oakland are generally $2000 to $4000 for a one bedroom. Rents in the Oakland neighborhood where I lived, near Lake Merritt are similar, having doubled and tripled in the past 10 years. I would not be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment there now.

… Back to the Art

I could go on about gentrification. But to go back to the art: I was thrilled to see so much public art in West Oakland and downtown, and that inspired me to read more about that, too.

The Community Rejuvenation Project (CRP) has been around since 2005 and has been a major force in the creation of murals around Oakland. The nonprofit aims to beautify and cultivate healthy communities through public art.

The History of Mural Arts

An article on CRP’s website gives a fascinating history of mural art. The article chronicles the art from the earliest-known murals in France (created in 30,000 B.C.) to the early 20th-century Mexican mural arts movement associated with Diego Rivera to the Chicano art movement and African-American community mural movement of the 1960s to the 1970s and 1980s graffiti culture of Philadelphia and New York to contemporary aerosol and mural art.

Commodification of Street Art

One thing I hadn’t thought of (brought to my attention by another article on the CRP website) is the commodification of street art by private sponsors. Some developers see graffiti and other street art murals as “must-have amenities” for their properties. On the one hand, I think it’s great that these artists get paid for their work. But, I can also see the problem pointed out by CRP: Private mural sponsors may promote a gentrification agenda that displaces low-income residents, including artists, and fail to engage the community in creating the art.

More Mural Projects in Oakland

I saw several articles about the Oakland Mural Festival in 2018, which resulted in several new public works in the Jack London Square area. The Festival’s website says the event was planned to “use mural arts to engage East Bay youth, local Bay Area artists, and the Oakland community through beautification and placemaking activities … and to call attention to social issues, honor the legacy of Oakland’s historically industrial waterfront, and celebrate Oakland’s cultural identity.”

Future Goals

I’ve always been drawn to public art, particularly graffiti art. I’ll have to make some more trips to Oakland to take more photos of these beautiful creations.

What I Learned from ATS® Bellydance

I have been studying bellydance since 2013 and performing since 2015. My primary style of dance is American Tribal Style® (ATS®) Bellydance, a modern fusion format that was created by Carolena Nericcio in San Francisco in the 1980s.

A Little ATS History

This style borrows from and was heavily influenced by the tribal bellydance language of Jamila Salimpour, published in her manual, The Danse Orientale (1978). Salimpour was a dancer who studied Egyptian dance and set out to combine different Middle Eastern and Arabic dance forms. She created a new vocabulary for bellydance, based on frequently repeated movements that she saw in what were normally considered improvised dances. She moved to San Francisco in 1958 and began teaching and eventually performing with her company Bal Anat. (Read more about the Salimpour School here.)

My dance troupe, Shekinah Tribal Bellydance, founded in Santa Cruz, California, in 2014 by Inna Dagman and currently directed by Maya Goytia, with some performance planning assistance by me.

ATS also descended from the artistic and freeform style of Jamila Salimpour’s student Masha Archer, who then taught Nericcio. In addition to Middle Eastern and Arabic influences, ATS also incorporates elements of flamenco, Eastern European folk dance, and Indian Odissi dance. The original ATS dance troupe and school founded by Nericcio is FatChance BellyDance, based in San Francisco.

A FatChance BellyDance performance from late 1990s or early 2000s. Their original costume included jewelry from Afghanistan, India, North Africa, and the Middle East; a decorated turban; an Indian-style choli top; a coin bra; a full skirt; a hip scarf; pantaloons; and an elaborate belt. Some dance barefoot, and others wear ballet flats or other dance shoes. Most of these elements are still a part of the contemporary ATS costume, although many troupes substitute a “hair garden” of silk flowers and sometimes a headband for the turban.
A FatChance performance from 1997, along with an interview with Carolena Nericcio, who talks about the history of ATS and bellydance in general. Although Carolena uses the term Gypsy, I prefer to use Romani, as some people of Romani descent and others may find the term Gypsy to be offensive.

What Makes ATS Different

One of the things about ATS that is unique compared with most other contemporary bellydance styles is that it is meant to be danced in groups improvisationally. Dancers learn a language of moves, cues, and formations, which they can then use in the moment with others dancers schooled in this format. The typical formations include two, three, or four “featured” dancers; if there are more than this number of dancers on stage, the others form a “chorus,” or semicircle in the back of the stage to provide a dancing backdrop and cheering section to the featured performers.

Although I also enjoy Egyptian, cabaret, Suhaila-style, and Jamila-style forms of bellydance, among others, ATS really captured my heart. One reason is that as a performer who is a little shy, I like the group format–many other bellydancers perform solo, which is not my preferred way of performing. Also, I love the beauty and history of the ATS costuming. Although the dance style is modern, many of the fabrics and jewelry pieces we use are vintage, and I really enjoy learning about the history of these costume elements.

Lessons Learned

I also love ATS because of some of the life lessons being immersed in this world has taught me. Some of the most important things I have learned are

  1. It’s “We,” Not “Me.” I like the emphasis on “dance sisterhood” (and “brotherhood”–there is a small but growing number of male-identified ATS dancers) and making the group look good. One of the main lessons of ATS is to think about how what you are doing reflects on the others in your formation and troupe. For example, when you are leading the group, you are conscious of giving clear signals, using moves and cues that are familiar to the other dancers. Also, when you are following a leader, you attempt to match the leader’s style and speed, even if you would prefer to do something slower or faster–it’s about the coordination and “flock of birds” look of your group rather than making yourself stand out.
  2. Support Your Fellow Dancers. Building off of the first lesson, I feel that ATS has helped me to be more conscious of working together with my group and everyone supporting each other, both as dancers and as people. One way that this manifests is regarding body image. ATS welcomes people of all sizes and shapes, as well as ages and ethnicities. I love how ATS honors all sorts of bodies and doesn’t prioritize a certain body type or look. I perceive many other forms of dance to favor younger, thinner dancers, although of course this is not always the case. Although more men are participating in ATS than in the past, it’s still primarily a culture of female-identified people, and it’s refreshing to be involved in a culture that celebrates women as they are rather than creating shame and competition around fitting a cultural beauty ideal. One thing I will say is that in my experience, there are few African Americans in the ATS world; I’d like to see this change. It was exciting and inspiring to see the troupe Tribal Unicorn Collective, a trio of African American dancers, perform at ATS Reunion 2019 (see video below), not just because they were awesome, but also because it was nice to see some black women performing.
  3. Do Your Best, but Perfection Is Not Always Possible. Of course, as performers, we do our best to condition and strengthen our bodies so we can do the moves, practice so we know what we are doing, and strive to look polished during a show. However, we also know that in dance (especially improvisation), mistakes happen. We learn to keep smiling and keep on dancing when something doesn’t go as planned. In fact, sometimes the audience wouldn’t even realize that we’ve screwed up–unless we make a face, laugh, look embarrassed, etc.
  4. Practice, Practice, Practice. You can’t improve if you don’t work at it! Putting the time and effort in will result in growth. This also goes along with supporting your dance sisters and brothers–in order to make the group look good, each dancer must do their part to be prepared and give it their all. I also find that lots of practice and focusing on my own learning and improvement is a good way to overcome the inevitable insecurities and jealousies that may pop up.
  5. It’s Never Too Late to Try Something New. I didn’t start taking regular bellydance classes until I was in my mid-40s in 2013, and I didn’t start learning ATS until 2014. Before I decided to take ATS classes, I had seen some ATS performances and was mesmerized. However, my initial reaction was, “Wow, they are so impressive and beautiful–I wish I had studied this form of dance when I was young.” Then, I realized I could still do it (and did)!

Valuable lessons in dance but also in other aspects of life!

The amazing Tribal Unicorn Collective perform at ATS Reunion 2019 in Scottsdale, Arizona.
A more recent FatChance BellyDance performance from the Rakkasah West festival in Concord, California, in 2018.
ATS is popular all over the world. Here is Sirin Tribe of Saint Petersburg, Russia, performing in 2016.
Dayanisima troupe of North Carolina performs at ATS Reunion in Scottsdale, Arizona, January 2019.
Although ATS is typically performed in groups, it can be danced as a solo. One of the best performers is Kae Montgomery, shown here at Show de Gala Be Tribal Bellydance Tagest 2017 in Ciudad de México.

Death and Flowers and a Poem

There has been too much untimely death in my periphery the past couple of years. This past week has been difficult, and my mind has been turning over ruminations on death, life, mortality, and age. That’s all I wish to say about it, but I will share this beautiful poem by Sylvia Plath.

Who

The month of flowering’s finished. The fruit’s in,
Eaten or rotten. I am all mouth.
October’s the month for storage.

The shed’s fusty as a mummy’s stomach:
Old tools, handles and rusty tusks.
I am at home here among the dead heads.

Let me sit in a flowerpot,
The spiders won’t notice.
My heart is a stopped geranium.

If only the wind would leave my lungs alone.
Dogsbody noses the petals. They bloom upside down.
They rattle like hydrangea bushes.

Mouldering heads console me,
Nailed to the rafters yesterday:
Inmates who don’t hibernate.

Cabbageheads: wormy purple, silver-glaze,
A dressing of mule ears, mothy pelts, but green-hearted,
Their veins white as porkfat.

O the beauty of usage!
The orange pumpkins have no eyes.
These halls are full of women who think they are birds.

This is a dull school.
I am a root, a stone, an owl pellet,
Without dreams of any sort.

Mother, you are the one mouth
I would be a tongue to. Mother of otherness
Eat me. Wastebasket gaper, shadow of doorways.

I said: I must remember this, being small.
There were such enormous flowers,
Purple and red mouths, utterly lovely.

The hoops of blackberry stems made me cry.
Now they light me up like an electric bulb.
For weeks I can remember nothing at all.

Haunted Houses and Their Symbolism

I recently watched the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, loosely based on the 1959 book of the same name by Shirley Jackson. One of the things I liked, aside from its compelling psychological dive into the impact of trauma, was the beautiful and creepy titular house. In Hill House, as in many haunted house stories, the house was evil and had a mind of its own. (NOTE: Spoilers ahead.)

Hill House‘s Red Room

An important element of this theme is Hill House‘s mysterious “Red Room,” a seemingly locked and inaccessible chamber. However, each family member is able to enter the room and use it for a different purpose. What’s more, the room looks different to each person. The room takes on a shape and function that will entice each inhabitant to lower their guard and make them want to stay forever. The ghost of Nell, in explaining the Red Room to her siblings, declares, “Mom says that a house is like a body. And that every house has eyes, and bones, and skin, and a face. This room is like the heart of the house. No, not a heart, a stomach.” In other words, the family members are food for the house to digest.

Dream Analysis

Hill House and other haunted house tales made me think about dream analysis. Granted, as a psychologist, I see people’s dreams as largely personal. Often, one dreamer will interpret an image completely different than would another. However, people living in a society do pick up conscious and unconscious symbolism based on cultural beliefs and experiences. For instance, many of us have had similar nightmares about taking an exam. We could not find the testing room, were late, or had never taken the class on which we were being tested. These dreams usually represent anxieties about feeling unprepared, being scrutinized, or feeling inadequate.

“Dream dictionaries” explain the meaning of dream imagery. They state that when one dreams of a house, this symbolizes the dreamer’s self, and the rooms inside the house relate to various aspects of the self and facets of personality. For instance, the attic refers to the mind or intellect, and the basement represents the subconscious.

Going back to Hill House and its Red Room, a notable feature was its impenetrable red door. In dream analysis (which can also be applied to stories), a door symbolizes new opportunities. A locked door represents missed opportunities or openings that are denied or not available. The color red has a number of meanings in dreams including raw energy, force, passion, aggression, power, impulsiveness, danger, violence, blood, shame, and sexual urges. Putting these symbols together, the Red Room could be seen as a place to indulge one’s powerful yet inaccessible or denied emotions and urges. In the context of the TV show, characters spent time in the Red Room playing games, reading, or dancing. The pleasures of the room made the “real world” pale in comparison and, for some characters, become threatening.

Analyzing Dreams and Stories About Haunted Houses

In looking more broadly at haunted house tales, a common plot line is that “things were fine until we moved into this house.” The house is evil or harbors evil forces such as restless ghosts that aim to harm, kill, corrupt, or possess the inhabitants. Typically, things get progressively worse the longer the residents live there. Taking a psychological view, these stories provide us flawed humans, prone to mistakes and bad behavior, with an “out” for our actions: We are not responsible for the evil we do but are simply helpless vessels for destructive spirits. And, from a dream analysis perspective, houses represent people, so the symbolism fits.

A final thought about haunted houses: To dream of one symbolizes unfinished emotional business related to childhood and family, dead relatives, or repressed memories and feelings. It’s not hard to see how many books, TV shows, and movies about haunted houses espouse this idea. The whole concept of ghosts is that they are spirits that are not resting in peace due to a violent death or unresolved matters before death. Many haunted house stories explain the haunting as being caused by a wrong or violence that occurred in the house or on the site on which the house was built.

Fitting with the dream dictionary explanation of haunted houses, in Hill House, most of the characters had serious emotional or mental health issues. (That is, unless you are a true believer in the supernatural and interpreted some of the main characters’ behaviors as being caused by haunting or possession.) And, traumatic events had occurred in the building throughout its history.

I think we are all drawn to ghost stories and tales of haunted houses because of their symbolism. Whether we harbor an unconscious desire to blame our flaws on evil spirits, have a longing to connect with long-dead relatives or lovers, or believe in the justice of karma (those who have committed past wrongs will be haunted by their victims), these stories continue to intrigue, thrill, and frighten us.

The Psychology of Color

The study of how colors impact us in both conscious and unconscious ways is fascinating–at least to a psychology geek like myself. Did you know that studies have shown that people taking a “hot-colored” (e.g., red, orange) placebo pill felt more stimulated, and those taking a “cool-colored” one (e.g., blue, green), felt more sedate or depressed? Similarly, we may feel a certain way when looking at a painting made up of hot colors versus cool colors or of bright versus dull colors. These effects are mainly due to our expectations. In other words, we associate various colors with certain states and experiences. These expectations come from a mix of culture, biology, and individual differences.

Color Symbolism

In art, fashion, advertising, and architecture, color is often used symbolically to convey or stimulate feelings or moods. Different cultures have different associations with particular colors; also, this symbolism can change over time and varies in different contexts. For instance, in the 1800s and early 1900s, pink was considered a masculine color, and blue, feminine; however, this was not universally true, as the marketing of children’s clothes favored different colors in different parts of the United States in the early 20th Century. These days in American and European cultures, pink is generally considered a feminine hue. In many Western cultures, red is associated with passion or danger. In China, red is traditionally a color meaning good luck or happiness and is often used in weddings and other celebrations. Yellow is a color that many connect to happiness and sunshine in various cultures; however, it can also have the more negative connotation of cowardice in the United States (e.g., to be “yellow bellied,” a term that comes from cowboy culture and refers to birds with a yellow bellied, as birds may be seen as timid and easily startled).

''Young Boy with Whip'', American School painting, ca. 1840
”Young Boy with Whip”, American School painting, ca. 1840.

The color black has a complex impact on many. In the late 1800s, if a young Western woman was wearing black clothing, people would assume that someone had died and that she was in mourning. Today, we see women wearing black all the time and typically don’t associate it with death or mourning. Despite the more universal use of black in fashion, there are still some longstanding associations we have with it. Black is the color of night and lack of sunlight. Many children and some adults are afraid of the dark. Evolutionarily, we have been more vulnerable to attack by enemies or predators in the dark, as it is harder to see them coming and we can’t rely as much on vision to allow us to fight back or escape. Thus, black can have associations with fear, death, or danger in some contexts.

Environmental Psychology and Color

Color is an important factor in advertising, architecture, and interior design. However, as the impact of color is not universal, the use of specific colors to generate specific feelings or reactions is not always that reliable. That said, colors can play a fairly substantial role in purchases and branding. For example, research has show that the vast majority of consumers make instant judgments about how they perceive a product in terms of things like the product’s “personality” (e.g., the ruggedness of a motorcycle or piece of hardware) based on color.

Color has an important place in human-made environments. Faber Birren, considered the father of applied color psychology, was the first to establish the profession of color consultant in 1936. The work of Birren and others led to the thoughtful use of color in architecture and interior design in various environments to stimulate certain feelings and behaviors and inhibit others. For example, a goal in many institutional environments (e.g., prisons, hospitals) is to promote calm or focus and discourage overstimulation and agitation: In these settings, a good designer would use calming or muted colors, monochromatic schemes, or “weak” color contrasts. Specific colors are chosen for their associations: The color green may be used to promote calm and balance (so may be appropriate in a nursing home or jail), whereas white may be used to express sterility and neutrality, cleanliness and purity or spaciousness (and thus may be more fitting in an operating room or art gallery). Conversely, bright or strong colors and multicolored schemes would be used in environments where stimulation is the aim, such as a bar or a kindergarten classroom.

The 81st Security Forces Squadron confinement facility open bay area at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi is designed to house military inmates post and pre-trial on a rehabilitative basis. Note the subdued, calming colors.

 

Photo of bright-colored architecture for children.
Bright colors in an environment for children can stimulate psychological and sensory development. Base Urbana + Pessoa Arquitetos. Image ©Pedro Vanucchi.

Meditation of Music: A Performance by Estas Tonne

Photo of Estas Tonne

A friend invited me to see a performance by mystical guitarist Estas Tonne last night. I was not quite sure what to expect. I had not heard of Tonne until recently, and my only exposure (after hearing about the show) was listening to a few of Tonne’s tracks through the iTunes store. My friend had informed me that Tonne’s show would be “a spiritual journey.” She was correct.

Tonne, a virtuoso on the guitar, started the night by lighting incense, haloed by bright spotlights above him, alone, on the stage. He took a few deep breaths, looked around, and cautioned the audience that we should not expect anything in particular. We should not expect to hear “songs” or see a show. He informed us that the music would be like “… a train. Prepare to let the music take you places, and allow your mind to travel where it will. Your mind may visit memories that are pleasant, or some that are not.” He then proceeded to play the guitar, nonstop, for about two hours.

It’s hard to adequately describe what this experience was like, but the closest I could come is to call it a loosely guided meditation. I am by no means a regular meditator, but I have done it, and I am familiar with the struggles our Western, busy, minds have with letting go of familiar thinking patterns and predictable paths. It’s not easy to quiet the mind and let go. During the one hundred and twenty minutes of Tonne’s seamless solo guitar-playing, my mind followed peaceful loops and troubled snarls. This was unlike any other “show” I had experienced: There was no program to follow and no interlude of artist chit-chat or audience applause to punctuate the various directions in which Tonne’s guitar took us.

Tonne’s music fluidly combines flamenco, New Age, Eastern European, and electronic elements and bathes the listener in a beautiful and ever-changing soundscape. In some ways, this was an enjoyably easy experience that transported me to many places in my mind’s past, present, and future. At the same time, the show was challenging in its structurelessness. There were moments when I longed for some narrative or a break in the music to provide a more familiar performer-listener dynamic. But, ultimately, I was moved and deeply impressed by Tonne’s skill, endurance, and spiritual earnestness. Other than the brief introduction and a few parting words, the only other verbal interaction Tonne had with us was some thoughtful philosophizing near the end of the journey, during which he spoke of how people, broken into billions of pieces, need to find ways of putting themselves back together. It was obvious that this performance was a sort of spiritual meditation for Tonne. I emerged, changed.

The Psychology of Horror Movies

Jason Voorhees

With Halloween coming, many people’s minds are on monsters, witches, and scary movies. Just why do people love horror movies? Actually, only about 30 percent of people in the U.S. do. According to Dr. Glenn Sparks, a professor at Purdue University, a third of people seek out scary movies, about a third hate them, and another third could take them or leave them. Full disclosure: I am somewhere between “hate” and “meh” when it comes to horror movies. Definitely not my favorite genre. But, I am always interested in why people do what they do and like what they like.

Arousal

Dr. Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies, writes, and talks about fear, believes some love horror because fear stimulates the body’s “fight or flight” response. While the feeling of fear in a real-life dangerous scenario is unpleasant, in a controlled situation, like watching a scary movie, fight or flight causes the body to release dopamine, leading to good feelings.

Sparks states that it’s not the fear itself that makes film viewers feel good–it’s the relief after the scare is over. This fits with the “excitation transfer theory,” which states that arousal caused by one stimulus can intensify the excitation response to a different stimulus because the excitement from the first stimulus remains. In other words, the (usually unpleasant) jolt of fear a viewer feels when the bad guy axes a victim produces chemicals that arouse the body. This physical arousal continues after the shock is over, leading to heightened feelings of relief and pleasure: Just think about how people often laugh just after screaming during a horror film.

The Taboo

Horror film critic and co-producer of the movie Found Footage 3D, Scott Weinberg, has a different theory about the love of scary movies. He believes that it’s the illicit nature of horror flicks that explains their appeal. There is a thrill in doing something that you’re “not supposed to” do. The themes of horror movies are typically death, danger, paranoia, the dark side of human nature–things that are often considered taboo. Add to this the fact that many horror movies intertwine sex and sensuality with death and horror, adding to their seductive, and disturbing, nature. Just think of all the horror films in which the monster is alluring (like a vampire), or those in which the teens having sex are the most likely to be killed (e.g., Friday the Thirteenth). Many people have a desire to seek out what is forbidden, or they at least have a sense of curiosity about things that are outside the typical realm of everyday life.

Politics?

Interestingly, freelance writer and actor Hugo postulates that in the United States, horror flicks are more popular and/or more likely to be produced during Republican presidencies. He states that two of the top three horror flicks according to IMDb (Internet Movie Database) came out during Republican administrations, as did three of the top five horror films according to Rotten Tomatoes. He states that this may be because “… [Republican presidents] presided over incredible moments and turbulent times in history. These times have been consequential and sometimes scary. These conditions expose society and bring about a sense of vulnerability.” If it’s true that Republican administrations see more turbulence, perhaps these are times in which people need the controlled thrills of horror as an escape from reality, or the themes of horror reflect the anxieties that are more prevalent during these eras.

I am not sure whether the years under Republican leadership have always been more turbulent than those under Democrats. I do know that most Republicans are conservatives, and conservativism, by nature, involves a resistance to social change. This resistance often comes with fears of others and of the unknown, as well as a sense of the world as dangerous. Perhaps the same social trends that prompt the American people to elect a conservative leader make them more likely to be attracted to horror movies, which tap into our fears of being killed and tortured by a dangerous “other.”

Regardless of whether Hugo’s theory is correct, movies often do depict, directly or indirectly, what is happening in society at the time. For instance, a lot of the “invasion” movies of the 1950s and 1960s reflected fears of communism and subversives, such as the horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Filmed in 1956, it is the most popular of several similar movies (e.g., Invasion of the Saucer Men, The Brain Eaters, and Invaders from Mars) in which aliens take over the minds and bodies of the people of Earth, reflecting Cold War paranoia. Another good example of a film reflecting the political or social climate is Jordan Peele’s critically acclaimed 2017 Get Out, which used both horror and black comedy to expose the myth of a post-racial United States amidst renewed media attention to and activism around racism and violence against black people.

Summing Up

So, going back to the point made at the beginning of this post that about 30 percent of Americans like scary movies, one could assume that this 30 percent is made up of thrill-seekers, or one could theorize that the Trump era is a time in which fear and paranoia are on the rise, making us more likely to seek out horror.

Whatever the explanation, horror movie season is upon us. Whether you are a horror lover, a horror hater, or indifferent to scary movies, I hope that you get some thrills this Halloween season and/or find some ways to escape from any anxieties you may be feeling about the current social and political times in which we live.

This post references the following pieces:

  1. “Republican Administrations Beget Better Horror Films” by Hugo in the online publication Medium, August 3, 2018.

  2. “The Psychology of Scary Movies” by Jason Bailey in the online publication Flavorwire, October 27, 2016.

“Blaze”: A Touching and Tragic Tale of the Tortured Artist

Today, I saw the movie Blaze, a biopic about the country musician Blaze Foley, born Michael David Fuller, who never achieved fame but had some influential on other “outlaw” country singers, such as Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. I’m not a huge country music fan, but I have come to appreciate it more as I’ve gotten older and broader in my musical tastes, particularly classic country and a few country artists who cross over to Americana, folk, and bluegrass, such as Lucinda Williams, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris. Blaze Foley’s music provided a soundtrack and emotional anchor to much of the movie Blaze. It was a touching and meandering film that was skillfully directed by actor and director Ethan Hawke. Hawke’s style of storytelling through multiple voices and songs, as well as atmospheric visuals, made the viewer feel as though they were swimming in a timeless world in which it was sometimes difficult to tell when the multiple storylines were taking place and difficult to feel the accurate passing of time.

The story of Blaze Foley felt more archetypal than specific: How many countless tales have been told of sensitive and tortured artists who can’t survive in the “real” daytime world of making ends meet and creating healthy relationships but instead exist in the nocturnal world of neon lights and spotlights, the haze of cigarettes, and the heightened emotion of music? Alternating between pithy koans and mumbled drunken gibberish, the characters drift through scenes of their past, present, and future in overlapping narratives that, between a few moments of sweetness and connection, mostly sink deeper into the hopelessness and aimlessness that brings us to an inevitable unhappy ending.

If it sounds like a depressing downer, that’s only part of the story: There’s no denying that the story is a tragedy and echoes the tragedies of so many other artists (and non-artists) who succumb to emotional and mental decline and substance abuse. But, there is beauty woven throughout. There is simple magic in the scenes of Blaze living with his girlfriend, then wife, Sybil, in a “treehouse” in rural Georgia. There is simple beauty in the music. And, the visuals reveal a decaying, ramshackle beauty in the rundown streets of 1970s Austin, the glow of red in a bar room, and the peaceful forests of Georgia.

I found the introduction of the character of Sybil to be fascinating, as she, an actress, is first shown practicing a monologue that expresses a sadly codependent version of love, leaving the viewer to wonder whether she will turn out to be subsumed by Blaze’s demons. Instead, Sybil turns out to be a sad but strong figure, who serves early on as Blaze’s muse and champion, encouraging him to move to Austin to try and make it as a singer. The scenes of their romance depict two equals well matched and living in a beautiful “paradise” in which their poverty and lack of modern comforts only makes their passionate love affair more romantic. Eventually, Sybil moves on when Blaze’s drinking, drugging, touring, and infidelity become too much for her. Rather than being destroyed by Blaze’s decline, she chooses to save herself and jump ship. It’s no surprise that Sybil (expertly played by Alia Shawkat) is a compelling and nuanced character, as Hawke cowrote the screenplay with Sybil Rosen, Blaze Foley’s ex-wife (and much of the film is based on Rosen’s 2008 memoir).

Like any good piece of art, Blaze took me on an emotional journey and left me wanting to know more about this talented man, who was too damaged to exist in this world. And, it left me thinking about love, heartbreak, and why some can overcome their traumas and others never rise from the ashes of their past. It also left me wanting to listen to more music by Foley and by artists he influenced. I didn’t know until today that the song “Drunken Angel” by Lucinda Williams, one of my favorites of hers, was written for Foley. Check out the film trailer below, as well as a video of Williams doing a live version of the song.