“Let’s do the Time Warp again!”…and again…and again.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show often is considered the archetypal ‘cult film’ (or ‘midnight movie’). But what does that mean? Merriam-Webster provides several definitions of ‘cult,’ including “faddish devotion; also a group of persons showing such devotion.”
Scholars freely admit that the quest to provide an agreed-upon, simple definition for ‘cult film’ is about as easy as marching on the Black Gate of Mordor. However, a common theme is that one does not simply set out to make a ‘cult film’ – rather, an audience crowns the film with its cult status. The audience of devotees keep resurrecting the film long after it has finished its primary run. But the fans don’t just watch the film on their own; they want to celebrate their devotion with other likeminded people – people who ‘get it.’ Perhaps Stuart Samuels (1983) put it best when describing showings of these films as “a special event. It’s a show. It’s a party.” (p. 1)
In the case of Rocky Horror, it’s not just the pelvic thrusts that drive the fans insane. So what is it? Why do those of us who love it await the next public showing with so much antici--…--pation?
There are many reasons. For some it’s the homages to old, campy horror and sci-fi double-features. For others it’s the opportunity to dress up and celebrate thumbing our noses at rigid, ‘traditional’ sexual and gender norms. Others enjoy the collaborative experience of engaging in callouts with various alternative scripts. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
One thing I want to highlight is the sing-a-long aspect. Recent scientific research suggests that singing together not only makes us feel good, it can also make us feel bonded socially. It further solidifies a feeling of ‘us’ – we feel we are with people who understand and value us. In short, we belong. Ultimately, that’s what everyone wants. So, whether you are RHPS Virgin, Veteran, or Regular, join us for the ritual.
Danny Peary’s Cult Movies books (any of them)
Gabriel, S., Naidu, E., Paravati, E., Morrison, C. D., & Gainey, K. (2020). Creating the sacred from the profane: Collective effervescence and everyday activities. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(1), 129-154.
Hoberman, J., & Rosenbaum., J. (1983). Midnight movies. New York, NY: Harper.
Jancovich, M., Lázaro Reboll, A., Stringer, J., & Willis, A. (Eds.). (2003). Defining cult movies: The cultural politics of oppositional taste. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
Keeler, J. R., Roth, E. A., Neuser, B. L., Spitsbergen, J. M., Waters, D. J. M., & Vianney, J. M. (2015). The neurochemistry and social flow of singing: Bonding and oxytocin. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 518. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00518
Kreutz, G. (2014). Does singing facilitate social bonding. Music & Medicine, 6(2), 51-60.
Mathijs, E., & Sexton, J. (2011). Cult cinema: An introduction. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Pearce, E., Launay, J., van Duijn, M., Rotkirch, A., David-Barrett, T., & Dunbar, R. I. (2016). Singing together or apart: The effect of competitive and cooperative singing on social bonding within and between sub-groups of a university Fraternity. Psychology of Music, 44(6), 1255-1273.
Samuels, S. (1983). Midnight movies. New York, NY: Collier Books.
Welch, G. F., Himonides, E., Saunders, J., Papageorgi, I., & Sarazin, M. (2014). Singing and social inclusion. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 803. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00803
The Esoteric Order of Lovecraft (and other strange curiosities)
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” H. P. Lovecraft (1927)
H. P. Lovecraft opens his essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, with this thesis. It is the core of his approach to horror, what attracts some audience members and repels others. Lovecraft’s ultimate goal was to evoke a sense of overwhelming dread in his readers, an atmosphere of cosmic unease that what awaits humans in the deep, dark, unexplored places of the world (or beyond the reaches of outer space) cares little about us – and that is if we are lucky! More than likely, these Cyclopean horrors actively seek our demise because we make tasty snacks. In Lovecraft’s world, a glimpse of this knowledge, and the creatures that embody it, typically drives his protagonists insane. Only the fortunate characters are dispatched quickly; those that remain complete their remaining days in an asylum in Arkham, Massachusetts (a fictitious town created by Lovecraft).*
Lovecraft perhaps is one of the three U.S. horror writers that has had their works most frequently adapted into films (the others being Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King). That said, most people don’t recognize the name of Lovecraft or that they may be watching an adaptation of his work. There could be many reasons for this, but there are two that can be directly tied to human psychological processes. First, humans have a natural preference for patterns and predictability. These things help us make sense of the chaotic aspects of our environment that we have no control over. These preferences likely extend to the media we consume, which is why art that purposefully violates these preferences are jarring, labeled “experimental,” “abstract,” or “fringe,” often shunned by the mainstream and appealing only to niche audiences.
In the context of horror, the supernatural creatures that seem to be the most successful (i.e., popular and memorable) are the ones that have minimally-counterintuitive characteristics: They generally fit our categorical expectations but have just a few traits that violate these expectations to catch our attention and make them scary. For example, living humans must consume energy (i.e., food) to survive; vampires are humans who are undead and consume the blood of living humans to survive (similar creatures can be found cross-culturally; although they may not drink blood, they typically consume life-essence in some form). Supernatural creatures that possess too many atypical traits are often hard for individuals to visualize and ultimately remember. For Lovecraft, many of his creatures come from the far reaches of space or other dimensions, often defying full description. The descriptions Lovecraft’s narrators do provide thus only give the reader an approximation of what these creatures specifically look like; after that, the narrators die or are driven insane. Interestingly, the Lovecraftian creature that is most popular is one of the easiest to depict – the dreaded Cthulu, best described as a sea-monster with a humanoid body, wings, and an octopus head. I’m not going to even try to describe the non-Euclidian aspects of the Shoggoths, Yog-Sothoth, or Hastur the Unspeakable. Just the mere thought of attempting it makes my head foggy and the boarders of reality precariously thin…
The second aspect of Lovecraft’s writings that makes them an acquired taste is their focus on violating the general human need for meaning. Lovecraft often provided his general philosophy in letters to friends and fellow writers: human existence, with both its joy and suffering, has little meaning in the broader picture of the cosmos. Indeed, Lovecraft argued that the “cosmos is a mindless vortex; a seething ocean of blind forces, in which the greatest joy is unconsciousness and the greatest pain realization.” (1921/1965, p. 156). Given the general human desire for meaning, Lovecraft’s perspective understandably does not resonate with many people. Most horror narratives provide closure by having the monster/antagonist, the embodied threat to cultural values and meaning, defeated and thus the status quo is re-established, sometimes even strengthened. Lovecraft’s narratives typically refuse readers this comfort and thus make reading them much less enjoyable for those who desire such ideological and existential safety.
That said, people do differ in their ability to tolerate ambiguity and a lack of closure. Indeed, some may actively seek narratives that provoke these types of psychological threats if for no other reason than they enjoy the cognitive challenge. Maybe they appreciate the transgressive nature of art that willfully violates generic expectations and cultural norms more broadly. Whatever the reason, Lovecraft’s works have engendered a devoted fanbase who revel in the esoteric nature of his mythos. Lovecraft encouraged several fledgling horror and sci-fi writers, most of whom were his regular correspondence partners, to use mythos characters in their own stories, which helped carry on Lovecraft’s legacy long after his death in 1937. Today, it is common to see merchandise at horror, sci-fi, and comic conventions with the terrifying visage of Cthulu, and even cute and cuddly stuffed animal versions of this Great Old One. Every election cycle there is a new t-shirt or bumper sticker that proudly proclaims “Vote Cthulu – why choose the lesser of the evils?” There is an official Lovecraft appreciation society that creates a variety of media products, both adaptations and homages. There are table-top role-playing games and video games set in Lovecraft’s universe (“The Call of Cthulu” franchise). Many heavy metal bands have made songs referencing Lovecraft’s works, the most notable being Metallica (“Call of Ktulu” and “The Thing That Should Not Be”). Finally, anyone who has watched a film in The Evil Dead series or the show Ash vs. The Evil Dead have been exposed to one of Lovecraft’s most iconic mythos elements – the Necronomicon.
The Necronomicon, as Lovecraft envisioned it, is a fictious book that contains forbidden information about his pantheon of other-worldly horrors and the means for summoning them. However, the notes he made about it in his works were so compelling to his readers that many wondered if it were real (he had some fun with this when answering fan correspondence). Eventually, various fans created versions of the Necronomicon (perhaps an early form of fanfic?). The most noted copy was published in 1977 and could be purchased in fine book retailers everywhere. I got my copy on Amazon (seriously).** Despite the dire warning in the book’s introduction, reading it did not shatter my sanity. No really, trust me! I’ve just checked with the Byakhee sitting next to me; it assures me that I am still quite in control of my faculties and that the weather in R’lyeh is wonderful this time of year. In fact, I’m going to take my next sabbatical there. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go back to reading my ancient, musty codex by candlelight.
Ia! Ia! Lovecraft fhtagn!
* If this sounds suspiciously like another asylum in Gotham City, that is not a coincidence. Learn more here.
**Neither The Normal Theater nor any of its affiliates endorse reading the Necronomicon or any other esoteric tomes one may find buried in ancient ruins, dark caves, or abandoned cabins in the woods. We do not accept any legal responsibility for any physical, psychological, spiritual, or property damage that may occur from the recitation of any passages therein.
Hood, B. M. (2009). Supersense: Why we believe in the unbelievable. San Francisco, CA: HaperOne.
Joshi, S. T. (1980). H.P. Lovecraft: Four decades of criticism. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
King, S. (1981). Danse macabre. New York, NY: Berkley Books.
Lovecraft, H. P. (1921/1965). Letter to the Gallomo (to Galpin, Lovecraft, Moe), October 6, 1921. In A. Derleth & D. Wandrel (Eds.), H. P. Lovecraft Selected Letters, I, (pp. 155-156). Sauk City, WI: Arkham House.
Lovecraft, H. P. (1927/2008). Supernatural horror in literature & other literary essays. Cabin John, MD: Wildside Press.
Norenzayan, A., Atran, S., Faulkner, J., & Schaller, M. (2006). Memory and mystery: the cultural selection of minimally counterintuitive narratives. Cognitive Science, 30(3), 531–553.
Proulx, T., & Heine, S. J. (2006). Death and black diamonds: Meaning, mortality, and the meaning maintenance model. Psychological Inquiry, 17(4), 309-318.
Proulx, T., Heine, S. J., & Vohs, K. D. (2010). When is the unfamiliar the uncanny? Meaning affirmation after exposure to absurdist literature, humor, and art. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(6), 817-829.
Webster, D. M., & Kruglanski, A. W. (1994). Individual differences in need for cognitive closure. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 67(6), 1049-1062.
Wesselmann, E. D. & Nairne, J. S. (2017). Natural supernaturalism: Why believe in magic and monsters? In T. Langley & L. S. Zubernis (Eds.), Supernatural psychology: Roads less traveled (pp. 289-305). New York, NY: Sterling.
Morbid Curiosity, Misinformation, and Cultural Hindsight
“This could happen in your town, to your children!” This dire warning was a key message presented in the advertising material for drug films like Reefer Madness (1936), as well as other films focused on “social hygiene” (i.e., teenage pregnancy and venereal disease) that were popular during the 1930s-1950s. These films dealt with topics considered taboo by mainstream filmmakers, who were beholden to the Production Code that dominated any film coming out of Hollywood. Thus, these films were the only way someone could see information on these relevant social issues taken straight from “today’s headlines.” The last thing anyone wanted to be was a “delinquent parent,” whose teenage child became involved with bad company and brought shame upon their family. The only reason why anyone would want to see these types of films were as preventative measures, right? The fact that these films usually involved at least an hour’s worth of salacious images, focused on people reveling in sin and vice, surely had nothing to do with high ticket sales. Right???
Films like Reefer Madness are often categorized as exploitation films, loosely defined as low-budget films that ran outside of mainstream Hollywood cinema and focused on sensational content (usually at the expense of coherent narrative structure and believable storylines). Many of these films walked a precarious line between giving audiences a glimpse at cultural taboos and violating local obscenity laws. One way that exploitation filmmakers avoided prosecution was by wrapping their sinful narratives up in a surface-level morality play. A heaping amount of celluloid sin was fine as long as the sinners were ultimately punished, and cultural mores reinforced. The presumed ‘moral’ and ‘educational’ nature of these films likely provided individual viewers a way to explain away any potential emotional discomfort or guilt they may experience because of a desire to watch content that would otherwise clash with their general moral values (what psychologists have often called cognitive dissonance). “It’s not that I want to see these sinful details; I need to see them to stay informed and be a responsible parent and citizen. I need to see the full wages of their sins be collected.” This civic-minded motive is certainly possible, but it is just as likely that viewers who claim this may be protesting a bit much.
The idea that people often have a weird attraction to the culturally forbidden is nothing new; one need look no further than common cultural myths. For example, Pandora opened the box; Adam and Eve ate the fruit; Orpheus looked back at Eurydice. Colloquially, people describe something they cannot look away from as a “train wreck” – a strong compulsion to stare at something they probably shouldn’t. What might be the psychological dynamics that underly this compulsion, this morbid curiosity? Perhaps people chafe at society’s attempts to reign in their personal agency, much as the stereotypical moody teenager shouts back to their parents “You can’t tell me what to do!” Psychologists have called the general form of this rebellious tendency reactance – something most of us exhibit to some level. Maybe it’s because when people try to avoid something they believe they shouldn’t see, know, or think, their very efforts to suppress this desire makes it come back with a vengeance (psychologists have studied the counter-productive effects of thought suppression, both as a general cognitive phenomenon and as an acute problem in various types of mental illness). Of course, it could simply be that when people perceive a threat, they often become hypervigilant to information about that threat in order to avoid (or at least minimize) potential harm. Most advertisements for drug and social hygiene films certainly highlighted the potential threats posed to one’s community by sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll (or jazz, in the case of Reefer Madness).
In hindsight, it’s laughable that anyone could watch Reefer Madness (1936) and take their scare tactics seriously, unless of course they had little knowledge of the actual physiological effects of marijuana. This may have been the case in the 1930s and 40s when the film enjoyed its first run, but what about when it was re-discovered and enjoyed success in the 1970s? By then, cultural knowledge of marijuana contradicted the ludicrous depictions in the film. As such, the film was enjoyable more for ironic entertainment than because it satisfied the audience’s morbid curiosity. Film historians of cult films and ‘midnight movies’ have noted that Reefer Madness was popular in the 1970s mostly on college campuses, and it was common for audience members to enjoy marijuana before (or even during) the film showing! The psychological dynamics of ‘midnight movies’ and ironic viewing are fascinating as well, but I’ll save that discussion for another time…
Ayal, S., & Gino, F. (2012). Honest rationales for dishonest behavior. In M. Mikulincer & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), The social psychology of morality: Exploring the causes of good and evil (pp. 149-166). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.
Havis, A. (2008). Cult films: Taboo and transgression. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Hoberman, J., & Rosenbaum, J. (1983). Midnight movies. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Litman, J. A. (2005). Curiosity and the pleasures of learning: Wanting and liking new information. Cognition & Emotion, 19, 793-814.
Meyers, R. (2011). For one week only: The world of exploitation films. Guilford, CT: Emery Books.
Samuels, S. (1983). Midnight movies. New York, NY: Collier Books.
Schaefer, E. (1999). “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!”: A history of exploitation films, 1919-1959. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Steindl, C., Jonas, E., Sittenthaler, S., Traut-Mattausch, E., & Greenberg, J. (2015). Understanding psychological reactance. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 223, 205-214. https://doi.org/10.1027/2151-2604/a000222
Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 53, 5-13.
‘Tis the season for sleigh bells, screams, and moral outrage
Ah, slasher films. A type of horror film that is often maligned, even within a genre that is already culturally marginalized, but almost always a sure-fire bet to make money. They’ve come in and out of fashion over the past few decades, but much like their most popular antagonists the films are resurrected for a new sequel or remake every few years. As a “child of the ‘80s,” my first memories of horror films revolve around slasher films. Michael Myers (Halloween), Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th 2 onward) and Freddy Kruger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) were U.S. cultural icons, especially in October. There were even Atari, Commodore 64, and Nintendo games for these franchises! Additionally, at least one kid in my grade school Halloween parade dressed as one of these infamous icons every year.
What made these films so popular? Horror films, like all films, are constructed media products that reflect the sociocultural forces they emerge from. Film scholars who approach horror films from this perspective argue that the most effective examples of the genre are those that find the vulnerable areas of culture and attack with their life-threatening weapon of choice: whatever will provoke the most fear and dread in us (within reason, of course; audiences are still meant to enjoy the ride). One major shift in horror starting in the 1960s (with Psycho) was to change the source of horror from external threats (e.g., countries outside the U.S. or outer space) to ones that were homegrown, and the closer the threat was to cherished institutions and the family unit, the scarier. By the late 1970s and early 80s, most popular horror films chose this approach, and the slasher genre exploited it for all it was worth.
Both Black Christmas (1974) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) are model entries in the slasher genre. Black Christmas was most notable for both putting together some of the key elements that we now identify with slasher films (e.g., point-of-view shots used to indicate both the perspective of the killer and also keep up audience tension by keeping the killer’s identity a secret) and for making the young adult victims realistic and relatable. Director Bob Clark specifically wanted to inject social commentary on relevant gender issues (see bonus materials on the Shout Factory 2016 release of the film). These elements would be reinforced culturally in the critically and commercially successful Halloween (1978), a film directed by John Carpenter. These two films were soon followed by a hemorrhage of slasher films, many using various holidays to exploit viewers’ feelings of safety and nostalgia for the cultural practices surrounding these holidays by subverting them with danger and fear.
This subversion was perhaps too effective, with Silent Night, Deadly Night being the proverbial last straw. Upon its release, the film ignited a firestorm of moral outrage from concerned parents and various conservative activist groups. But why this film and not the previous entries? By the film’s release, 10 years after Black Christmas, the genre conventions were firmly established and this film delivered on the key aspects that both audiences and investors wanted from slasher films (i.e., sex and violence). Silent Night, Deadly Night‘s content could certainly be considered offensive, but did not differ significantly from other slasher films in the amount of violence and sex portrayed. Unlike most other contemporary slashers, however, this film focused on the killer’s backstory. Director Charles E. Sellier, Jr., viewed the film as a psychological study of the personal traumas and social pressures that might make someone a serial killer (see bonus materials on the Anchor Bay 2012 release of the film). Indeed, I found this portion of the film particularly disturbing as it depicts a young child experiencing repeated traumas of physical and psychological abuse.
However, it wasn’t the focus on the killer’s traumatic past that protestors cited as the reason for their moral outrage. Rather, they were incensed that filmmakers would dare sully the sanctity of the Christmas season and its beloved cultural icon, Santa Claus. Yes, the disturbed killer dispatches his victims while wearing a Santa suit.
It did not seem to matter that the killer was only dressed as Santa, rather than having the killer be Santa. Further, this was not the first slasher film to have their killer dressed as Santa (e.g., Christmas Evil (1980) and To All A Goodnight (1980)). The primary concern focused on the wide-spread advertising campaign that prominently displayed images of the killer in Santa attire, especially the film poster that featured a Santa-esque arm emerging from a chimney holding an axe. A barrage of angry phone calls and letters to the production company, letters to newspaper editors, theater picketing, and news interviews with concerned parents followed suit. [Several of these letters are archived on the Anchor Bay 2012 release of the film.] After only a few weeks, the film distribution company recalled the film. They re-released it later with a radically different advertising campaign – one that removed all explicit references to the killer resembling Kris Kringle. Of course, the campaign made full use of the previous controversy to entice potential viewers (i.e., “They tried to ban it! They didn’t want you to see it!”).
How can we understand the psychological dynamics of this societal reaction? Many of the protestors did not just want the advertising stopped, they wanted the film completely banned. This certainly seems contrary to a society that has enshrined free speech in the First Amendment. Two highlighted editorials explicitly preface their complaint with being in favor of free speech but drew their line at using Christmas and Santa Claus in slasher films. Why? The psychological core of censorship is the desire for protecting society, especially its most vulnerable members, and its cherished morals. Of course, moral values can differ across members of a society and form the core of many controversies (e.g., the “Culture Wars”). Moral outrage and the desire for censorship cuts across the political aisle – both conservative and liberal groups have spearheaded campaigns to censor various types of media. Who is offended all depends on the specific context of the contested text.
Many letters highlighted their motive to protect children, not just from seeing violent content but from having their view of Santa Claus tainted. One writer specifically referred to the film as “an invasion of children’s dreams and fantasies. It’s a form of child abuse.” This person’s complaint is perhaps a tad exaggerated but protecting children from harm has been a consistent thread throughout civil debates concerning media regulation and censorship. But some protestors’ concern went beyond children and extended to the holiday itself. One critic claimed the film “could kill the spirit of the season for good” and at least two other individuals argued this film violated an aspect of U.S. culture that was “sacred.”
I want to focus on the use of the authors’ use of the word “sacred.” Christmas as a holiday certainly holds religious significance for Christians, but the killer was not dressed as a religious figure like Jesus. The cultural figure of Santa is technically a secular symbol. Yet still, these authors seem to imbue Santa with a cultural and moral significance that one usually finds in religious concepts. Ideas of sacredness and purity are important components of how many cultures define morality and are often instilled into cherished cultural symbols (e.g., flags, scripture or other documents key to one’s worldview). When someone behaves in a way that violates something perceived as sacred or pure, people often respond by being morally, and sometimes physically, disgusted. Interestingly, several letter writers and critics described the film using words like “sleazy,” “repulsive,” sick,” “garbage,” “rotten” and a product “of a diseased mind.” All these words have links to psychological research on the physical and emotional reactions people have when they are disgusted by something or afraid of somehow being “contaminated” physically or morally.
Even though most people use concepts of purity and sacredness to some degree when judging moral issues, some focus more heavily on them than others (take an assessment of your own views here). For individuals who do not imbue Santa Claus with these elements, or who are not particularly focused on purity as an aspect of morality, they likely are not bothered by Silent Night, Deadly Night, at least any more than they would be by the content found in most slasher films. So, if you dig slasher films, or horror more broadly, it’s worth your while to experience one or both iconic films. Also, you’ll never think of the name “Billy” in the same way again.
Fisher, R., Lilie, S., Evans, C., Hollon, G., Sands, M., Depaul, D., ... & Hultgren, T. (1999). Political ideologies and support for censorship: Is it a question of whose ox is being gored? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29(8), 1705-1731.
Haidt, J. (2008). Morality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(1), 65-72.
Hoffner, C., & Buchanan, M. (2002). Parents’ responses to television violence: The third-person perception, parental mediation, and support for censorship. Media Psychology, 4, 231-252.
Kelly, D. (2011). Yuck! The nature and moral significance of disgust. Cambridge, MA: Bradford.
Maddrey, J. (2004). Nightmares in red, white and blue: The evolution of the American horror film. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company.
Nowell, R. (2011). Blood money: A history of the first teen slasher film cycle. New York, NY: Continuum.
Rockoff, A. (2002). Going to pieces: The rise and fall of the slasher film, 1978-1986. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company.
Schoell, W. (1985). Stay out of the shower: 25 years of shocker films beginning with “Psycho.” New York, NY: Dembner Books.
Tropiano, S. (2009). Obscene, indecent, immoral, and offensive: 100+ years of censored, banned, and controversial films. New York, NY: Limelight Editions.
Williams, T. (1996). Hearths of darkness: The family in the American horror film. Madison, WI: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
“Dreaming the crow-black dream”*
“Victims, aren’t we all?”
Eric Draven, the main character of The Crow, delivers this line before exacting vengeance on one of the villains responsible for the violent death of him and his fiancé, Shelly. This line doesn’t just punctuate an intense cinematic moment, it cuts through the audience like an existential dagger.
I was 14 when I first saw The Crow, and it quickly became one of my favorite films. Over the next couple years, I became so enamored with the film that my room was soon covered with posters bearing the artwork and film images. I dressed up as Eric Draven three Halloweens in a row. I read the graphic novel source material multiple times a year. I worked with friends on various Crow-themed artistic endeavors, and bought an obscene amount of related merchandise. My first college paper and first speech were on The Crow’s transmedia franchise (I cosplayed Eric Draven in the speech). Later in life, I even commissioned a sketch of myself as the character from none other than the original artist James O’Barr!
There are many reasons why this film (and the other Crow films, comics, and novels) resonated with me and has made such an impact on my life. It wasn’t just because most of my wardrobe made it easy to cosplay the main character! Perhaps part of it was the idea that our emotional connections to loved ones can transcend this mortal coil – an extremely comforting thought when someone is struggling with grief, as I had through much of my young adult life. Perhaps it was my burgeoning interest in post-punk and gothic rock bands, such as Joy Division and The Cure – both of which provided aesthetic inspiration for the comic and the film. The correct answer is all of that and probably more.
I’m not the only one who became ensnared by the narrative universe of The Crow. The film has an international cult-following that goes strong to this day. I still see at least two or three Crow cos-players at every convention I attend. The initial film and comic created a franchise that involves three film sequels, multiple comic arcs, a TV show, a Crow-themed band called Trust Obey (that O’Barr contributed to), and has inspired fans worldwide to express their love for these works of art in various creative ways (one of my favorite examples is by The 69 Eyes, a gothic-rock band from Finland who recorded a song called “Brandon Lee”).
What is it about The Crow that speaks to so many people who have wildly different life experiences? Researchers suggest that successful fiction engages audiences emotionally, and having some aspect of the characters that audiences can identify with intensifies this effect. One need not have experienced the specific trauma faced by the characters to identify with them. In general, people can engage in perspective-taking and empathize with others – even fictional characters. Any perceived similarity between oneself and the character can intensify this experience. Most of us know what it’s like to lose someone we love, or to have some other traumatic event cut us to the quick and shatter our concept of normality. We feel viscerally the aching emptiness, the crushing despair, the existential terror of being in a situation that makes no sense. We rage at the unfairness of a seemingly uncaring world and we shiver at the icy, numbing solitude we feel, even when we are in a crowd. In other words, we don’t need to have direct experience with Eric’s specific circumstances to have at least a small understanding of the gravity of his pain.
One thing that viewers may resonate with is Eric’s sense of moral outrage at the cosmic injustice of his tragedy (this theme shows up continuously in the comic). When innocent people suffer tragedy, it violates the general concept of a ‘just world’: that people reap what they sew, the good are rewarded and the bad punished, etc. The idea of a just world can be existentially comforting and can provide a sense of meaning in a world that often seems capricious and even dangerous. However, when one is directly confronted with tragedy, the belief that there is a cosmic balance is shaken or even destroyed. People have a fundamental need for meaning and when that need is thwarted, it needs to be restored somehow. There are various ways that people can do that, and many times it is by making some type of spiritual or supernatural explanation. In the context of The Crow universe, innocent victims experience a horrible tragedy (“something so bad happens…”) and are then provided a supernatural avenue to come back from the grave and “set the wrong things right” – in these narratives that typically involves revenge (although the late-90s TV series provides an alternative perspective).
The actions and traits of main characters (sometimes called heroes or protagonists) can influence the degree to which we identify with and enjoy the narratives. However, many protagonists can behave in ways that we do not agree with and would condemn if the characters were real people. Eric Draven, as well as other protagonists in Crow-related stories, respond to their tragedy by seeking violent revenge on those responsible. Research suggests that when audiences enjoy narratives that involve morally ambiguous protagonists (“anti-heroes”), audiences are not enjoying the character’s morally questionable actions per se, but rather resonating with the character’s emotions and motivations that they find understandable. It is likely that audiences vicariously experience the character’s moral outrage and the revenge narrative re-establishes audiences’ sense of justice and cosmic meaning; like enjoying most anti-hero narratives, the fact that it occurs within a fictional environment makes it acceptable for us to enjoy the narrative even if we might otherwise condemn the actions if they occurred in reality.
Of course, not every Crow fan has experienced intense personal tragedy – there may be something else in the narrative they resonate with. Further, simply experiencing such a tragedy does not mean one will enjoy The Crow. Perhaps someone doesn’t like the moral ambiguity of Eric Draven’s actions, no matter how heinous the actions of the villains. Not everyone enjoys revenge narratives; for them, the fact that it is fiction does not provide sufficient license from them to enjoy the narrative. That’s perfectly fine. Those individuals likely will find their own narratives to give voice to their pain and make sense of their trauma. That’s what many Crow fans like myself have done with these stories; in them, we find some glimmer of light that helps illuminate the darkness of our traumas and we feel a little less alone. Maybe we even find a way to re-forge a bit of meaning from our shattered worldviews.
What many Crow fans ultimately focus on in this narrative is not the trauma of the protagonists, but rather the idea that one’s emotional connections to their loved ones endure beyond grief. Death does not erase our feelings for and memories of the loved ones who are no longer with us. Indeed, it is these feelings and memories that can help us weather the storm and emerge from the trauma, scarred but strengthened. James O’Barr states in his introduction to the 2010 special edition of The Crow graphic novel that his book ultimately “is a celebration of true love.” Indeed, the film ends with a voice-over of the little girl Sara asserting as similar point - that it is our continued love for the people no longer with us that keeps their memory alive.
*lyrics lovingly borrowed from “Burn” by The Cure
Baumeister, R. F., & Wilson, B. (1996). Life stories and the four need for meaning. Psychological Inquiry, 7(4), 322-325.
Hafer, C. L. (2000). Do innocent victims threaten the belief in a just world? Evidence from a modified Stroop task. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 79(2), 165-173.
Mar, R. A., & Oatley, K. (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(3), 173-192.
Jackson, J., Huq, A. Z., Bradford, B., & Tyler, T. R. (2013). Monopolizing force? Police legitimacy and public attitudes toward the acceptability of violence. Psychology, Public Policy, & Law, 19(4), 479-497.
Janicke, S. H., & Raney, A., A. (2015). Exploring the role of identification and moral disengagement in the enjoyment of an antihero television series. Communications: The European Journal of Communication Research, 40(4), 485-495.
Krakowiak, K. M., & Tsay, M. (2011). The role of moral disengagement in the enjoyment of real and fictional characters. International Journal of Arts & Technology, 4(1), 90-101.
Lerner, M. J. (1980). The Belief in a Just World. Boston, MA: Springer.
Shafer, D. M., & Raney, A. A. (2012). Exploring how we enjoy antihero narratives. Journal of Communication, 62(6), 1028-1046.
Spivey, M., & Knowlton, S. (2008). Anti-heroism in the continuum of good and evil. In R. S. Rosenberg (Ed.), The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration (pp. 51-63). Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, Inc.
Vess, M., Routledge, C., Landau, M. J., & Arndt, J. (2009). The dynamics of death and meaning: The effects of death-relevant cognitions and personal need for structure on perceptions of meaning in life. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 97(4), 728-744.
GREASE is still the word.
When I hear a song from Grease, I’m immediately transported back to high school. I remember parties on those warm summer nights in which the film was playing in the background. I recall school dances, singing along with my peers to songs about cruising around in the ‘ultramatic’ Greased Lightin’ and how we were born to do the hand jive. I get a warm, wistful feeling and conveniently forget the agonizing social awkwardness of those events: Will Sally say yes if I ask her to the dance? What if she dances with Johnny instead of me during [insert cheesy pop love song title]? For the blissful two minutes and 49 seconds of “You’re The One That I Want” I remember a time when I had fewer cares…and enough hair to run a switchblade comb through.
In short, I’m feeling nostalgic. Nostalgia certainly is nothing new - poets, painters, and philosophers have been musing about it for generations. Only within the last two decades have social scientists begun to understand this complex emotional experience. But what exactly is this feeling? The New Oxford Dictionary defines nostalgia as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.” Being nostalgic is a common experience – one that people experience throughout their lives. Further, nostalgia appears to be a cross-cultural phenomenon. The specific triggers may differ between people and places, but the feelings are similar. Nostalgia is a mixed-bag: we feel warm and fuzzy as we think of our old relationships, but we also feel the pangs of longing and loss for what once was.
Why would we want to be in this emotional state? What does feeling nostalgic do for us? Research demonstrates that nostalgia provides for us a sense of belonging and self-consistency throughout time. It reaffirms our sense of meaning in our experiences – even when the nostalgic memories involve a negative event, we are reminded of how both the good and the bad in our lives have shaped who we are today. Nostalgia inspires us to strive for our goals, to be optimistic about the future, knowing that no matter what comes are way we are rooted in a solid sense of self. We can weather the storms and still be ourselves. We will always have our memories.
Grease is a perfect example of this. Yes, there are many high points for the characters, but there are also plenty of slings and arrows of teenage strife. Many of us likely experienced some of these low points as well during our own trek through adolescence. Perhaps this is part of what makes the characters relatable, whether we were a greaser, a theater/band kid, a student council rep, an athlete, or an avid athletics fan (not to be confused with an athletic supporter).
Like these characters, we all found ourselves on the cusp of adulthood, wondering what we would become. What will our transition to adulthood be like, and will our friendships hold firm or dissolve? When on the cusp of a major life transition, like graduating high school (or college), these intimidating questions are in our minds after we cross the stage, turn our tassels, and toss our mortar board hats in the air. The film’s final song “We Go Together” seems to be an answer to the characters’ (and our) questions about the future. The characters respond to their anxiety by re-affirming their commitment to each other: “We’ll always be like one…we’re for each other…We’ll always be together.” They then embark on adulthood with optimism and a song on their lips. Roll credits.
In many ways, Grease is the cinematic embodiment of nostalgia. Frankie Valli’s lyrics in the opening theme take on a new layer within the context of nostalgia research. For viewers, Grease represents a time and a place; for them it’s got meaning and it’s the way they are feeling. Put another way, nostalgia “is the word.”
Barrett, F. S., Grimm, K. J., Robins, R. W., Wildschut, T., Sedikieds, C., & Janata, P. (2010). Music-evoked nostalgia: Affect, memory, and personality. Emotion, 10(3), 390-403.
Cavanagh, S. R., Glode, R. J., & Opitz, P. C. (2015). Lost or fond? Effects of nostalgia on sad mood recovery vary by attachment insecurity. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 773. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00773
Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2018). Finding meaning in nostalgia. Review of General Psychology, 22(1), 48-61.
Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2008). Nostalgia: Past, present, and future. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(5), 304-307
Seehusen, J., Cordaro, F., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Routledge, C., Blackhart, G. C., Epstude, K., & Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M. (2013). Individual differences in nostalgia proneness: The integrating role of the need to belong. Personality & Individual Differences, 55, 904-908.
Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: Content, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 91 (5), 975-993.
Eric Wesselmann is a psychology professor. He is also a film buff and obtained a minor in Cinema Studies from ISU back in 2003. Since then he has maintained his film passions by regularly attending pop culture conventions (e.g., Horror Hound Weekend, Wizard World), spending way too much money on merch and autographs. He is a member of the WGLT Psych Geeks podcast, which comments on the interface between psychology and popular culture.