https://www.bbc.com/-(Image credit: ABC) -By Allie Volpe
TV, cakes, art, even pornography – when recreation is supposed to be an escape, why are we voluntarily looking to stay connected to what stresses us most?
Never has the world so desperately needed a break from reality. Among pandemic grief, exhausting global politics and non-stop news, it’s no surprise many people have sought a respite in Netflix or literature just to get a break from the barrage of negative energy. Except not everyone is bingeing buddy films or devouring pulpy romance novels to escape their lives – many are keeping themselves busy with entertainment that feels eerily close to their day-to-day.
Recently, a group of researchers from Italy, Turkey and Switzerland identified a trend of coronavirus-themed pornography; searches have surged since the onset of the pandemic, especially in nations with intense stay-at-home orders.
And Covid-19-themed pornography is only one example of how we’re choosing to let reality seep into the modes of entertainment we usually use to escape. In the past several months, television shows like the long-running Grey’s Anatomy, Shameless and South Park have woven Covid-19 into their storylines; even the upcoming Sex and The City re-boot will purportedly tackle the pandemic. Similarly, new big-budget movies are dedicating their entire premises to the horrors of contagion, while world-famous restaurants are offering up cakes with coronavirus spike proteins as decoration. (Maybe you’ve baked one, too.)
As if we didn’t get enough of Covid-19 in our real lives, we’re now confronted with it in recreation, too. And although people have plenty of alternative entertainment options that have nothing to do with the pandemic, some of us are opting in to merging daily life with the modes we use to escape it.
So, if the seemingly obvious way to unwind involves distancing ourselves from the things that stress us most, are we working against our best interests by inviting potential stressors into our downtime? Why are we choosing to keep connecting with our uncomfortable realities, even when we have the clear option not to?
Media as a mirror
People consume media for many reasons, but significant among them is relatability, says Matthew Grizzard, an assistant professor in the School of Communication at The Ohio State University. People often want to see their experiences and themselves reflected in what they’re watching, reading or doing. “We do like to see characters that are going through the same thing we’re going through,” he says. So, seeking out activities that validate our feelings or reflect our experiences isn’t just a pandemic-induced phenomenon. Think of listening to sad music following a breakup, for instance.
In the same way, we may be engaging in pandemic-related recreation in order to look for parallels within our own lives, says Grizzard. “It’s one of those things where you see your reflection in what you’re watching.”
However strange it seems to watch characters struggle through devastating events, seeing similar conditions play out fictionally actually can be cathartic
Seeing similar circumstances play out on screen or on the page can feel like being seen – confirmation that somebody ‘gets’ us, says Drea Letamendi, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of the Resilience Center at University of California, Los Angeles. The parasocial (or one-sided) relationships we form with fictional characters and celebrities help affirm our real-life experiences, providing a sense of comfort in solidarity. To see characters similarly suffering helps remind us we’re not alone in our adversity.
“Yes, what you’re experiencing is on screen, it’s real,” says Letamendi. “It’s something that is mirrored in the stories that we’re seeing across the landscape of media. Despite the fictional nature of those stories, they can be validating for us.”
For example, in March 2020 as the pandemic was tightening its grip, the 2011 pandemic thriller Contagion started trending in the US across Amazon Prime Video, iTunes and other on-demand platforms. “At the beginning of the pandemic, people found themselves in a situation that was unprecedented,” explains Mathias Clasen, an associate professor of literature and media at Denmark’s Aarhus University, and the director of the Recreational Fear Lab, where he researches the psychology of horror media. Clasen says that “no one alive had never seen anything like [the pandemic]” – except in media.
There’s past precedent for uncertain realities motivating us to flock to horror media, too; following World War Two, post-apocalyptic fiction gained popularity as a result of people’s fears of nuclear holocaust. So, however strange it seems to watch characters struggle through devastating events – especially while we’re actually living them in our daily lives – seeing similar conditions play out fictionally actually can be cathartic.
Processing the unprecedented
As our altered reality drags on until a nebulous end, we also lack a template for how to live day to day. So, with no roadmap for living through and processing a unique catastrophe, entertainment could help guide us.
First, because fictional narratives have a defined beginning, middle and end, often with some form of resolution, watching pandemic-inspired entertainment can feel like looking into a crystal ball, says Grizzard. Movies and television shows with Covid-19 storylines can help guide us through aspects of pandemic life, like how to react in socially distanced situations, or give us an excuse to feel similar emotions as the protagonists. The presence of a climax and resolution can also be satisfying for viewers whose lives are in flux; these plot points can potentially offer a prediction to how our own situation will subside.
With no roadmap for living through and processing a unique catastrophe, entertainment could help guide us
Additionally, watching characters navigate similar situations helps us regulate our own emotions in real life, says Letamendi. For instance, watching the cast of Grey’s Anatomy work through the trauma of the pandemic “helps us to begin to wrestle with and process our own emotions, which we still need to do”, she says. “Even though those characters are fictional, they are modelling for us how to process their emotions, how to seek help and emotional literacy.”
Learning by example is naturally human, says Letamendi. In our brains, mirror neurons fire both when we perform a physical action or experience an emotion, and also observe another person experiencing those same actions and emotions. For example, when we see someone we love suffering, mirror neurons are responsible for the pain we feel in response. “That’s what empathy is,” she says. Fiction also activates mirror neurons, which explains how we’re able to process our emotions with the example of characters as a guide.
Research also shows that exposure to the macabre can help us regulate and process our emotions — and even help us bounce back. In a recent study, Clasen and his colleagues found that people who consider themselves fans of horror films showed greater resilience during the pandemic than fans of other genres. “They had fewer symptoms of corona stress because they are used to negative emotions,” says Clasen. “They’re used to feeling fear and dread and anxiety, and they might have more experience coping.”
Letamendi agrees. She says observing characters in these genres who have taken control despite their catastrophic surroundings – think The Walking Dead – can help reinforce resilience and self-efficacy in viewers.
A sign of acceptance
It’s well known that, in uncertain times, taking control of a small task or activity can give us back agency. But there are all kinds of pursuits unrelated to the pandemic – baking or crafting, for instance. These hobbies make sense to engage in to find that sense of control: start with raw materials, follow the directions as stated and reach your desired outcome.
But why introduce a stressful element by, say, embroidering a face mask instead of a bouquet?
“It reflects a sign of acceptance as opposed to fighting a reality right now,” says Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association. “A lot of the escapism we engage in, while it can be healthy to some extent, kind of fights the fact that this is where we are, that this pandemic is real. So, I think engaging in activities that reflect that shows a sign of acceptance even if we don’t like it. We accept that this is our reality so we’re going to do the best that we can.”
So, with a global event as impactful as the pandemic, perhaps it’s actually not surprising – and maybe even inevitable – that our reality would seep into our escapes. Ultimately, the reason we’re grasping for so much context and connection from entertainment is because we’re human; no other species yearn to find answers and clarity throughout their lives.
“Monkeys and gorillas, they don’t have existential crises,” says Clasen. “We humans do.”