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.

False Fear

Back during my Honours thesis when I was researching about Tragedy and how it functions, I came across the concept of fear/relief as experienced by the audience. Then, when I started researching for the PhD that I never wrote, I saw the same fear-relief brought up in “Leisure Studies” (what they started calling Adult Play Psychology after it became wildly unfashionable for Play theorists to say that grown men and women would ever do anything as frivolous as “play”) in the discussion of Extreme Sports, and again in the rituals of sport. Fast forward a few years, and I find it again in books on Trauma Therapy and overcoming PTSD. I even find it in books on nutrition and adrenal-related disorders such as Adrenal Fatigue or unusual cortisol levels.

Today, in the video on High Concept films, I heard Michael Hauge talk about the promise of emotion: the emotional journey that the viewer will take, through identifying with and relating to the hero. I guess Aristotle wasn’t far off, if these concepts are still being discussed today!

So what was the common thread that I found through all these varied discussions of us humans, fear and relief? When we talk about “adrenaline junkies,” or those who love horror or thriller films or violent video games, are we talking about people who have something seriously wrong with them, who are obsessed with “danger” or violence or something else unsavory and ultimately detrimental to our society?

Well, as far as I have read and reasoned, this couldn’t be farther from the truth (besides, that video pretty much ruined my life-long love of Back to the Future).

When we watch/see/experience something that makes us feel as though there are high stakes, we get stressed. We go into “fight or flight (or freeze)” mode, a state of “high arousal” where our adrenal glands flood us with adrenaline. But rather than worrying about all the things that does on a physiological level, psychologically we become just a little more used to being in a high-stress, high-stakes situation. Now, I can imagine the short-sighted response to that. “Normalisation of bad things like violence is bad and makes us more violent!” Well, no. Normalisation of “bad things” can actually be good, provided they’re talked about. Here’s what happens: we experience something “stressful,” but are subconsciously/consciously (developmental psychologists are pretty sure that it’s conscious but willingly suppressed from the “age of reason” ie “when the child starts playing make-believe”) aware that it’s not really stressful and we’re actually safe, so we use it as a way to prepare ourselves for the real situation where we find ourselves actually in danger. Now, I don’t know how widely accepted or agreed with Peter Levine is within the world of PTSD treatment (I can imagine them thinking his methods are too “hippy”), but he points out in his book “Waking the Tiger” that the individuals least likely to suffer PTSD are the ones who feel the most empowered to respond to the situation. Neither he nor I are talking specifically about Military PTSD, but any situation where we are “powerless” (Levine quotes Freud’s description of traumatisation).

So next time you watch a scary movie, ride a rollercoaster, read a book about war crimes, indulge in the original Tales of the Brothers Grimm, play an almost-R rated FPS, or even watch the news, be aware of your play-training. Because just like a puppy play-fights, by experiencing that “false fear” and the relief that follows, you’re learning to keep your cool in a tough situation, making yourself more resilient and more trauma-proof.

Healing Trauma with Games

In my previous blog post, “Don’t be it, just experience it,” I mentioned that one of the purposes of play is to arouse the survival instinct. I have been reading Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine (with Ann Frederick), and have found many parallels with his treatment of Trauma (or PTSD) using visualisation, imagination and the “Felt Sense.” This is not an ability to seek out a particular kind of matted-fiber material like a pig sniffing for truffles, but rather the ability to have a sense or feelings that are separate from known emotions or logical reasoning. These feelings occur when, for example, you become frightened or joyful: they are clusters of minor physiological reactions to visual (or other) stimuli, such as increased heart rate, held or rapid breathing, shoulder/upper back tension, feeling hot as vasodilation occurs, etc.

Levine describes healing Trauma as having an intangible, mythological aspect. He says that too often, trauma is attempted to be healed through focusing on the traumatic experience itself, which encourages the traumatised individual to stay stuck, instead of focusing on empowering the individual to be able to release the pent up fight-or-flight energy. I’ve also been reading about Cortisol (The Cortisol Connection by Shawn Talbott) and I recognise that expressing fight or flight responses are both physical and therefore cause the breakdown (or elimination?) of Cortisol from the musculatory system. Levine talks about “trembling” or “shaking” and muscular twitching, which could be interpreted as the body doing its own work and eliminating the Cortisol. Animals do it naturally after the threat has passed, and actors will sometimes to a “Shake out” to remove “nervous energy” before or after going on stage.

So why am I bringing this up (apart from it being a topic of interest to me)? Well, I was struck by Levine’s focus on resolving the response rather than reliving the trauma. He suggests that any visualisation that utilises the Felt Sense to evoke the feeling of Trauma can be used to re-train the individual into feeling capable of and choosing to fight/flee (in their mind/feel it) succesfully, rather than being forced to immobilise and submit. Following this, if a player becomes “immersed” in a game, that is, not literally immersed but have the game as a prompt for their Felt Sense, the player will be able to face threatening and potentially traumatic situations (while all the while safe) and become triumphant… sure, most games you’re probably thinking of right now are geared towards the “fight” instinct, but I remember sneaking around in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and freaking out that the guards were going to see me! And sometimes, such as in Left 4 Dead, sneaking or running and getting into the safehouse is just as important as shooting everything around you.

To some extent, this aligns with my belief that games are ultimate about the feeling of control. But maybe a better term is mastery, or as Levine calls a succesful fight/flight endstate, “Empowerment.”

I’m not saying that all games must contain fight/flight resolution and Empowerment (for example, I love Jones in the Fast Lane and there’s no obvious fight or flight… unless you count turn-based competition and the rush to get the best job with the best pay and the most money and be highly educated…) but in an even more abstract sense, that what we strive for is to arouse that feeling of danger in through our Felt Sense and beat the mythical boss monster. As Levine says:

Most of us enjoy the “natural high” we get from wild arousal. Many of us seek out “near-death” experiences like bungee-jumping, skydiving, and paragliding because of the euphoric feeling that comes with extreme states of arousal. […] Human beings long to be challenged by life, and we need the arousal that energizes us to meet and overcome these challenges. Deep satisfaction is one of the fruits of a completed arousal cycle. The cycle looks like this: we are challenged or threatened, then aroused; the arousal peaks as we mobilize to face the challenge or threat; then, the arousal is activley brought down, leaving us relaxed and satisfied.

Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing to think about when we are designing games? And maybe this is a more important aspect to consider than “These games are teaching people how to shoot guns” (they generally aren’t, however they ARE increasing hand-eye coordination).