Catharsis – Pity and Fear

I was talking to my friend about horror & thriller films, and the subject of Catharsis came up.

He told me, “I don’t understand why someone who is so afraid of something would watch a film about it to frighten themselves.”

Some fears are universal, such as the fear of rejection. Some are personal, due to traumas of any magnitude, or very real threats such as abusive adults, natural disaster, illness, or snakes or spiders (personal anecdote: around the time I started getting parasthesia, I also had a nightmare about spiders–a real threat where I grew up–attacking and crawling all over me. I’ve lived with a controlled phobia since then).

But because we have the ability to empathise, when we emotionally invest in characters who experience fear, we can allow ourselves to actually feel those feelings that we hope we won’t have to actually feel in response to events in our own, real life. When we choose to watch something, we’re choosing to experience it in a safe (ie, not-real-world, no lasting implications) way. When we watch something that frightens us, we identify with the person it happens to, we feel that what happens to them is happening to us (which is why we will, for example, hold our hand during a scene when someone’s hand is crushed); yet, importantly, we also know that it isn’t us, and we feel relieved. That’s catharsis. We feel emotions for something that’s happening to someone else, and emotions about knowing isn’t happening to us – relief, without a lingering sense of guilt about our relief.

Why do we seek these feelings out? Well, it feels good. It feels good that we are safe, and that we can be happy about it in a way that we know isn’t actually sadistic or voyeuristic- a way of avoiding “it should have been me,” in favour of “it could have been me.

It’s a way of playing with a feeling, a fear, or a dark desire, without needing to actually encounter it in the real world where there may be lasting repercussions. Rather than suppress the forbidden thought or emotion, we can play with it, and teach ourselves how to overcome it.

We don’t become desensitized to the horror, violence, or evil. We become desensitized to our feelings of fear and powerlessness. We’re training ourselves how to deal with fear.

Comedy versus Horror

What’s the difference between Comedy and Horror?

I’m not sure I really ever agreed with Aristotle’s definition of Comedy vs Tragedy, but I was thinking today about the trope of “Body Horror,” and how it was used as a comedic element in Deadpool (2016)

I concluded that: in Comedy, we are told everything is going to be okay; in Horror (or Tragedy, for that matter), we are told that it is not.

 

TV Tragedy for Today

I’ve been meaning (“struggling”) to write this post for a while, but today, between an audition for “Project Macbeth” and the season premiere of “The Biggest Loser: The Next Generation,” I think I have the ideal sweet spot.

My hypothesis, if you deign to entertain my reasoning, is that “makeover” reality TV is, functionally, today’s version of Theatrical Tragedy.

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Don’t be it, just experience it

I just finished reading the GDC talk by Richard Lemarchand, Lead Games Designer at Naughty Dog, “Attention, not Immersion.” Firstly, I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t and didn’t see it at GDC.

But I actually wanted to post about something he mentions about 1/7th of the way through (pages 17 & 18)…

If I could reach into your mind, make you forgot who you were while leaving your
skills and emotions intact, and have you literally believe that you were Nathan Drake,
hanging out the back of a cargo plane with the desert floor a quarter-mile below you,
and gun-wielding enemies above you, you probably wouldn’t be excited and
entertained in the way that everyone at Naughty Dog hopes for, for players of our
games…
…you’d almost certainly be scared witless! No disrespect, you understand.

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Prelude to Imagined Situations

A friend of mine writes children’s stories, and is blogging about to process. She just wrote a blog post about sad stories: how much she loves them, and how she doesn’t feel like she can write them. A particular line caught my eye:

So in a way, I guess sad stories have been a release for me when I feel down and am unable to express myself adequately in real life. Instead, I can escape into a sad book and feel emotion through the veil of the characters.

Whether that’s healthy or not, I can’t say.

But, for all that sad stories capture me and offer a release, I cannot seem to write a story that has a sad ending.

So I wrote her a LONG reply. I’ve (barely… I removed half a line) edited it a little for here, but I’m putting it up because it’s on the same thread as a blog post I’m preparing that’s a little more “academic.”

Regarding whether it’s unhealthy to enjoy the experience of someone else’s misfortune via a sad story or whatever- well, I am writing a blog post about this, but no, it’s not.

Tragedy was considered a very important part of Ancient Greek culture- it guarded against excesses of virtue/vice. It caused the audience to first feel horror at the experience of the hero, and then feel relief that it wasn’t happening to them, followed by a fear that it COULD.

Aside from this, there is enough research into play and fantasy, especially of negative emotions. These emotions occur to us, we all know they do. We like to feel fear on rollercoasters, we like to cry over sad stories. But we don’t want to really be falling for our lives or have something sad happen to us. Hence, we enjoy experiencing them in Imagined Situations (Vygotsky’s term for it), suspending our disbelief (see Coleridge), but deep down knowing that we’re safe. Do we enjoy the actual experience, or reawakening safe? I’m not sure.

I just went largely off-topic based on one line you wrote :) But I think that while sad/tragic/scary/horror stories have their place, so do happy stories. We all want to believe that we can achieve something great. We want to see someone like us achieve happiness. We want to feel happy for someone we deem worthy. I don’t actually believe they are opposites, but they complement. I love Hans Christian Andersen, but I love the Grimm brothers as well as the similar stories Dad has read me from Slovakian folklore. I also always loved Aesop’s fables. Many of these are extremely abstract and use large amounts of symbolism. They are warnings, they are moral. They had poor narrative structure sometimes. They often involved something potentially very bad happening, but then order being restored. They were warnings that at the end said, “It’s okay. Don’t live your life naively, but don’t live in constant fear.”

I also loved Little Golden Books and one called Whistle For Willie, which was about a little boy who couldn’t whiste to call his pet dog. I think in the end he learned how to whistle? But I loved just being in his world, drawing on the pavement with chalk with him. Every story has its place. Sometimes it’s nice to live in a happy place for a little while :)

Branches vs Stakes

Oh, how wonderfully witty and punny of me.

Anyway. I was talking to my friend on Tuesday night, and we were discussing Bioshock. What was interesting was that he said something like, “I don’t know, I didn’t like it because it lacked what I liked the most in System Shock. You basically can never die because there are health stations everywhere. It wasn’t scary.” I asked him whether he meant that, in System Shock, the stakes were higher, and therefore there was a real fear that you’d lose. This was exactly what he meant.

While personally I am a big fan of “safe,” linear use-your-brain-puzzle-solving-adventure games with witty dialogue, I completely understand what he’s getting at. Once, games were hard. Really hard. They were scary (and not being they had horror themes): they filled you with adrenaline, and while the loss was frustrating and disappointing, the win was less “epic” and more “masterly.” There was a struggle, and there was eventual success. I do need to clarify that I’m not talking about games that are so dicky and tricky that it’s almost impossible to play in the first place, though. I’m talking about games where the stakes were high: you had a lot to lose.

Recently, Peter Molyneux has… well, gone back on his advocacy of branching storylines, emergent gameplay, multiple endings etc. He says that people get annoyed when they feel they’ve “missed out” on parts of the story, simply because of a choice they made. Hmm, that sounds like good ol’ anagnorisis and peripetea to me! But I think this really touches on a mistake made by a number of developers.

I don’t think people need more choice or agency within the storyline of the game. Sure, branching narratives sound cool, but they basically boil down to an electronic choose-your-own-adventure book. Wait.. “book”? Shock! Horror! Games aren’t allowed to be like any other type of pre-existing media, are they? Well, apparently they are… hence branching narratives.

But what about situations where it’s so important that you do things right (ie, succeed in achieving the win-conditions), that you actually become so immersed due to the game gradually building to extremely high-stakes? Psychologically, he higher the stakes, the greater the payoff. The more options, the greater the chance of feeling “ripped off” by the “wrong” choice (I put these in scare quotes as these are both emotionally-driven, personal responses that may have nothing to do with the actual storyline, events, or writer/designer’s intentions). Statistically, we are happier when we have less options, less room to move, less potential we can potentially fail to realise. Once a peasant, always a peasant. Game didn’t quite go the direction you’d hoped? Oh well, time to go plant some seeds (aka, write some fanfic).

My own Hamartia

I realise now one improvement or change I could have made to my thesis.

It isn’t actually important that the player character can’t speak, so much as it is important that the tragic hero doesn’t listen. That is hubris- pride that they know what is right, that they will ignore any warning that anyone will give them. They believe they are above fate (or karma, or whatever law of balance etc you want to think about).

Whoops, I could have ended up with a Creative Component I actually thought was any good, and recieved better marks overall 😉