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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
“Republican Administrations Beget Better Horror Films” by Hugo in the online publication Medium, August 3, 2018.
“The Psychology of Scary Movies” by Jason Bailey in the online publication Flavorwire, October 27, 2016.
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.
I love museums! When I first graduated from college, I applied for a PR job at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology (and didn’t get the job). Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been different if I had gotten that job instead of my first publishing job, which led to many years of copy editing, production editing, and writing before I went back to grad school to become a psychologist. In any case, I have long enjoyed visiting museums of many sorts–art, culture, crafts, natural history … One of the things I most enjoy about them is that it’s a chance to step outside the usual routine and get immersed in a different and carefully curated reality for a while.
I recently learned that some museums have become involved in physical and mental health. This was both surprising to me (as I hadn’t heard about museum-based wellness programs before) and also not surprising, as I have long been aware of the therapeutic benefits of the arts on health and well-being. A report by the American Alliance of Museums provides some interesting information about how museums can be partners in health. As a psychologist, I was particularly intrigued by some of the programs related to mental health issues. Some museums provide programming as a form of therapy. For example, in Wausau, Wisconsin, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum’s Treasuring Memories program, in collaboration with Aspirus Comfort Care and Hospice Services, helps community members of all ages who are coping with the death of a loved one by encouraging them to create memorial art. The Tucson Museum of Art offers programs for critically ill children at the University of Arizona Medical Center to help them explore and express their difficult feelings and interact with others through art-making.
Other museums have curated exhibits or offered educational programs about mental health topics. One example is the Otter Tail County Museum in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, which held an exhibit on the history of the Fergus Falls State Hospital, a facility for patients with concerns such as mental illness, epilepsy, and addiction. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut, created the “Stigmas, Stereotypes, and Solutions” program to help the community explore the prevalence and treatment of mental health issues and provide support for those struggling with such concerns.
According to Elisabeth Ioannides, the Assistant Curator at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, who wrote her dissertation and a number of articles on the application of art therapy in museums, there are a variety of ways in which galleries and museums play a role in mental health, both formally through programming and exhibits and informally, as she notes that simply being in a museum or gallery can contribute to feeling positive and inspired. In an article she wrote for Museum International, she goes into detail about the ways that these institutions can benefit people’s mental health.
I don’t get the chance to partner with any art institutions in my current work as a psychologist, but I do get to fulfill my creative side by integrating the arts into my work when possible, reading about the arts and culture, and writing this blog. Perhaps one day I will get the chance to work in a museum, but for the time being, I will continue to enjoy being a museum patron and art and culture lover.
OK, I am cheating this time with my blog post, as I didn’t write it. This post focuses on the research of Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, with co-author Grant Packard, a marketing professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. The article I am sharing here is an edited transcript of a podcast in which Knowledge@Wharton staff interviewed Jonah Berger. The research Berger and Packard conducted looked at the language in hundreds of songs so they could try to determine what made a song more popular. The psychology of what makes us like a particular song, movie, TV show, etc., is fascinating to me. I hope you’ll find this research interesting as well! Click on the link to go to the original article, which includes a podcast, or read the transcript below.
Knowledge@Wharton: A lot of your past research focuses on virality or why certain things catch on while others don’t. What inspired you to focus on songs this time?
Jonah Berger: We hear songs all the time. We’re in our car on the way to work, or we’re at home listening to YouTube. We like some songs and don’t like others. Some climb the Billboard charts and some fail. One question I wondered was why. Obviously, songs are tough to study. There are a lot of different factors that shape song success, from who sings the songs to what sort of melodies they have. We thought it would be interesting to look at a slightly more unexplored place, and that is the lyrics. Just by looking at the lyrics alone, could we pick up some traction on why songs succeed and fail?
Knowledge@Wharton: You examined songs within their particular genres — country songs with other country songs, R&B songs with other R&B songs. Why did you decide on this format?
Berger: We had a simple, and I think interesting, hypothesis, which is that the success of songs doesn’t just depend on their lyrics in general, it depends on how similar that song is from other songs that are popular recently. Take a country song, for example. A country song could be very like most country songs that are out there already. The lyrics could be very similar to what people usually sing about in country music, or the lyrics could be more different, more novel, more new for a country song. We wondered whether songs that sound more new, because their lyrics are different than most songs in the space, could be more popular with listeners.
Knowledge@Wharton: You found some interesting patterns among these song lyrics. For example, if somebody thinks that all country songs are about girls and trucks, they are not too far off, based on this research.
Berger: We used natural language processing, which is a way to analyze text using software. We did something called LDA (latent Dirichlet allocation), which helps us figure out the underlying themes or topics in the songs. It can take a whole bunch of different songs with all of their different lyrics and find general themes. We found that there were 10 themes across all songs that tended to pop. Some songs talk about love, others talk about girls and cars, some talk about dancing. We asked, what part of each song is in each of these themes? And we found, like you mentioned, that country songs don’t only sing about girls and cars, but they sing a good bit about that theme.
Knowledge@Wharton: What were your key findings about how lyrical differentiation impacted song popularity?
Berger: We found that even though many things affect song popularity, like who sings it and the melody, we could understand what songs become successful just by looking at the lyrics alone and just by looking at how different a song is from its genre. We found that, on average, the more different a song was from its genre, the more atypical a country song was for country music, the more successful it was on the Billboard chart, the higher ranked it was. Even controlling for things like who sang the song, when it was released, etc., the mere fact that it was different from most other songs in its genre was connected to it being more successful.
Knowledge@Wharton: Is there a particular song that is an especially good example of these overall findings?
Berger: What is interesting is it is hard to tell the difference between songs just by listening to them. I bet if you were listening to a radio and I asked you how different this country song is from country songs that usually come on, you wouldn’t be very good at telling me, and I wouldn’t be very good at telling you. We often don’t consciously pay attention to all of the lyrics or even recognize all of the lyrics, but natural language processing allows us to find these implicit or underlying themes that drive success. So, it wasn’t driven by one song in particular; it was looking at it across all of these songs. Lyrics shaped whether they were successful or not.
Knowledge@Wharton: There were a couple of outliers here, and one of those was pop songs. Can you talk to us about that?
Berger: One thing we wanted to try to do is say whether this effect is causal. It is neat that successful songs tend to have more different lyrics, but are the different lyrics causing the songs to be successful, or might it be something else? We did a lot of work to show a causal effect, and one thing we tried to do was see whether it varies by genre. There is this notion out there, if you think about songs, that certain genres care more about lyrics than others.
You might imagine, for example, that lyrics don’t matter so much in dance songs because there aren’t many lyrics, if there are any at all. If we think about pop songs compared with country or rock, success in pop is often more about being the same rather than being different. We wondered whether in those two genres — pop and dance — we might see different effects, and indeed we did.
We found that lyrics didn’t matter much at all in dance songs, and similarity was better than difference in pop songs. It suggested it is not just about the lyrics themselves, it is about how the lyrics relate to difference and how that matters in the specific genre being examined.
Knowledge@Wharton: Could this technique also be used to predict a summer blockbuster or most popular beach read, for example?
Berger: That is exactly right, and that is what we are trying to do now. We are looking at thousands of movies to see whether we can predict how successful movies are going to be, in terms of box office sales as well as ratings online, based on their scripts. We’re looking at emotional trajectories, for example, in the scripts. We’re doing more work with music lyrics, we’re doing some work with content and text of books, and we’re also doing work with customer service calls.
Imagine you call an airline or an online retailer. How do the words the customer service representative uses, as well as how they use those words, affect how satisfied the customers are? Across a bunch of different domains, we are interested in words even though we don’t always pay attention to them. How might those words affect success or failure?
Knowledge@Wharton: How does this research demonstrate the value of natural language processing, and how do you see that helping to develop this area of research?
Berger: There is a lot of attention these days around artificial intelligence and machine learning, though most people in the general population don’t necessarily understand what that means. But one way that these tools are being used is to pull behavioral insight from text. There are all sorts of textual data out there from online reviews to things like song lyrics and movie scripts. Textual analysis or natural language processing allows us to pull behavioral insights from those reams of data, not just to predict what is going to succeed and fail, but also to use it to understand human and customer behavior. That is really the power of these tools — using them to understand things we might not have been able to understand before.
People may tell you they liked a song or a movie, but they may not know why. What this allows us to do is actually quantify what makes a song or a book or a movie successful, even if it is hard to study otherwise.
Knowledge@Wharton: Do you have a prediction for what is going to be the song of this summer?
Berger: I don’t have a specific prediction, but I bet it will be atypical. I bet it will be something unusual rather than normal.
Why is it that some forms of art can make us get all verklempt and others are less likely to do so? According to art expert and author Philip Hook, paintings and sculptures are less likely to cause someone to weep than music, film, or books. Hook theorizes that this may be because these art forms are more dynamic than static visual arts and thus are more powerful in touching our emotions. That said, many paintings and other visual artworks do cause people to cry. According to Hook, “Spectators of works by Mark Rothko, the American Abstract Expressionist, are often moved to tears.” Apparently, there are on-staff counselors at the Rothko Chapel in Texas, which is exclusively decorated with large abstract Rothko paintings, to provide support to art lovers who become overwhelmed with emotion in the chapel. Why would Rothko’s work stimulate tears more often than the work of some other painters? Hook believes that “There is something about the large expanses of colour which [Rothko] deploys with such subtlety that puts the viewer in touch with the absolute.” Is it a sense of tapping into something unconscious, spiritual, profound, and sensory when viewing a Rothko that causes people to start crying?
Hook notes that Vincent van Gogh’s works are also among those most likely to make someone tear up. This may be for different reasons than with Rothko’s paintings: Most art lovers are aware of the poverty, emotional suffering, mental illness, and lack of success van Gogh experienced during his life (as well as his early death by suicide). Thus, people looking at van Gogh’s paintings may consciously or unconsciously project poignant and even tragic meanings onto them.
Many viewers cried when visiting Marina Abramović’s performance piece “The Artist Is Present,” in which Abramović silently stared at each stranger who sat in front of her. (In fact, I cried watching the short video about “The Artist Is Present” to which I have linked here.) Participants in this piece have said that the experience felt deeply intimate, even religious. Perhaps one reason that viewers reacted in this way is that in our day-to-day lives, we typically have very few opportunities to make sustained and sanctioned eye contact with another person, particularly a stranger. Many of the ways in which we interact with others–and with ourselves–are superficial and avoidant. Our connections are mediated by technology, and we often stay busy or distracted in ways that prevent us from sitting with ourselves. As an exercise during my psychology graduate program, we were paired with a fellow student and had to sit quietly while making unbroken eye contact for 15 minutes. It was very challenging not to look away and indeed felt extremely intimate and moving.
The reasons for art triggering tears are varied, as are the types of reactions people have. In some cases, people experience more extreme emotional and physical reactions to art than just crying. Stendhal syndrome, named for 19th-century French author Marie-Henri Beyle (better known by his pseudonym, Stendhal), is a psychosomatic disorder with the symptoms of rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion, fainting, and sometimes hallucinations that occurs when a person has an experience of great personal significance, particularly viewing art. In other words, people may become overcome and overwhelmed by an artwork. Stendhal had these reactions when visiting the beautiful Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, where several iconic Renaissance artists and scientists, such as Michelangelo and Galileo, are buried and the walls are adorned by Giotto frescoes. Stendhal wrote:
I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call “nerves.” Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.
Although Stendhal syndrome is not considered an actual psychiatric disorder, there is scientific evidence that the same cerebral areas involved in emotional reactions are activated during the exposure to artworks. I feel that those cerebral areas must be particularly sensitive for me, as I find myself crying pretty often when reading a moving novel, watching an emotional TV or movie scene, watching amazing dancers, and even at some commercials. That said, I have never fainted in front of a painting or had heart palpitations at the theater.
Last month, I saw the comic book-based Afrofuturist film Black Panther, which got me to thinking about how much representation matters: Seeing positive images of people who share your gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. makes a difference in how you feel about yourself and see the world. Black Panther, a black superhero movie, got raves from viewers and critics alike for its exciting action, beautiful costumes and scenery, and fine acting, but more importantly, it broke new ground in Hollywood by featuring a black superhero. Black Panther tells the story of the first black superhero in mainstream American comics.
The emotional responses many black viewers had to the film show how powerful and necessary it is to put black heroes front and center. Since the 1960s, researchers of television and film have noted that what is shown–or not shown–in mainstream media shapes how we see the world and what we believe to be “normal.” The absence or underrepresentation of certain groups, such as African-Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos results in what media scholars call “symbolic annihilation.” George Gerbner coined this term in the 1970s to explain how the underrepresentation of certain groups in mainstream media perpetuates social inequality and undermines the legitimacy of their identities. Misrepresentation, or stereotyping, is also a sadly frequent and prevalent phenomenon in the mainstream media. Lack of representation, underrepresentation, and misrepresentation skew viewers’ understanding of the world, perpetuate racism and other -isms, and can damage the self-esteem of those who are not depicted or depicted poorly.
Previous filmmakers, with few exceptions (such as Stephen Norrington, who directed Blade, with the tituar character played by Wesley Snipes), made the black superhero a secondary character alongside white ones (such as Storm in the X-Men movies and War Machine in the Iron Man series). In contrast, Black Panther‘s director, Ryan Coogler, brought to life the story of T’Challa, a modern black superhero who is respectable, imaginative, powerful. According to Coogler, “I think the question that I’m trying to ask and answer in Black Panther is, ‘What does it truly mean to be African?'” This is a question that has long gone unexplored in mainstream film.
I’m not even a fan of comic books, and I thoroughly enjoyed Black Panther, both because it was a really well-done movie, but also because I recognized the cultural power and importance of the film. Hearing the voices of black directors, writers, and actors and seeing them take a central role in Hollywood is long overdue, and I hope there will be more and more movies like Black Panther being made. I also hope to see growing (positive) representation of other groups whose voices have been absent, underrepresented, or misrepresented for too long.
It’s spring, and I’ve been thinking about the myth of Persephone and Demeter. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the myth, I’ll tell it here.
According to Greek mythology, Persephone (also called Kore, “the maiden”) was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of harvest and fertility. Persephone was a beautiful young girl with many suitors, including Hades, the god of the underworld (and Zeus’ brother–her own uncle!). Demeter was very protective of Persephone and refused to consider Hades’ desire to have her for his bride. Demeter didn’t want her lovely young daughter married off to a middle-aged man surrounded by death. Hades was determined to get his way, so one day while the maiden was playing and picking flowers with her friends, he caused the earth to suddenly open up under Persephone’s feet when she stopped to admire a beautiful narcissus flower. Hades grabbed the maiden before she could call for help and took her with him into his underworld kingdom. Although Zeus and Helios, the sun god, saw the abduction happen, they decided not to tell Demeter, as Zeus didn’t want to cause problems with his brother, Hades.
Demeter was overcome with grief when her daughter went missing and asked her friend Hecate, goddess of the wilderness and childbirth, for help; Hecate advised Demeter to ask Helios if he’d seen anything, and Demeter convinced Helios to tell her what he’d witnessed. Helios revealed that Hades has abducted Persephone, causing Demeter to become enraged with Hades and with Zeus for not telling her he knew what had happened to their daughter. To punish the gods and express her grief, Demeter refused to continue with her duties as the goddess of harvest and fertility, causing great devastation to the earth: The ground dried up, crops withered, animals starved, and famine and death spread across the world.
Zeus heard the cries of the suffering people and decided to do something to appease Demeter and save humanity. He told Demeter that he would ask Persephone if she preferred to stay in the underworld with her “husband,” Hades, or return to Olympus with her mother: If Persephone said she wanted to remain with Hades, Demeter would have to accept this and go back to her duties as the harvest and fertility goddess. Demeter agreed. However, Hades tricked Persephone, who was distraught at having been kidnapped and forced to remain with him. Persephone was lured into eating a pomegranate seed–anyone who ate any food of the underworld would be cursed to miss the underworld if they ever left it. When Persephone was brought to Olympus to tell her father what her wishes were, she said that she wanted to return to be with Hades. Demeter was infuriated by this response, assuming that Hades had somehow deceived Persephone into answering this way. Demeter declared she would never bring life back to the earth. Zeus proposed a compromise in which Persephone would spend 6 months a year with Hades and 6 months with Demeter, a plan that pleased no one; however, all had to adhere to Zeus’ will.
The Greeks used this myth to explain the seasons: In the fall and winter when Persephone is with her husband, Hades, ruling as queen of the underworld, Demeter mourns and allows life on earth to die and decay. In the spring and summer, Demeter rejoices at having her daughter return to her and makes the world fertile, then fruitful again.
There are other version of this myth in older and later cultures, as well as similar stories of death and rebirth. One could surmise that such stories are related to celebrations of spring (such as Easter, in which Christians honor Jesus’ resurrection after death and secular people celebrate new life in spring through symbols like eggs, baby chicks, and rabbits; and Ostara, a pagan celebration of the season’s change from dark winter to brightening spring).
With my view rooted in the contemporary world, it’s hard to remember to consider the Persephone story from within the context of antiquity and how people in that time viewed family, marriage, the rights of women, and freedom. From a modern perspective, the story evokes thoughts of rape, trauma, pedophilia, and incest. It’s hard to see it as anything but a terrible tragedy and difficult not to focus on the story being about a young girl whose freedom and innocence were taken by her uncle. From a more psychological view, one can also interpret the myth as exploring the struggle of a mother to allow her daughter to grow up and leave home, or a mother’s jealousy of her daughter’s youth and budding sexuality (thus, Demeter’s hiding Persephone away from her suitors and not allowing Hades to marry her). Along the same lines, one could interpret the story as depicting the struggle of the old (embodied by Demeter) to pass on the torch to the young (Persephone)–the nostalgia and pain of growing older, seeing the world change, and coming to terms with one’s own mortality.
I choose to focus on the hopeful and affirming part of the story–the fact that growth and rebirth are a natural part of the cycle. Acknowledging that death and decay are also a part of life, we can use the reminder of spring and the myth of Persephone to spur us on to appreciate the life we have and to take advantage of renewed energy, new beginnings, and second chances during this time of the year.