How stories help us during hard times

By Diana Velasquez, Senior Staff Writer

With so many people still stuck inside their homes all day, it seems like there’s no activity more popular than lounging about for a good Netflix binge or an hourslong reread of an old favorite book.

Starting in March, when COVID-19 changed our year, kids, teenagers and young adults alike have had to find ways of entertaining themselves in quarantine. One of the easiest forms of entertainment lies in the multitude of streaming options we have at our disposal, but our reasons for watching certain genres run deeper than mere entertainment.

Carl Kurlander, a senior lecturer in the film and media studies department, spent more than 20 years in Hollywood, where he worked on “Saved by the Bell.” He said sitcoms, such as “Friends” or “The Office,” are about finding comfort in these fictional people’s relationships.

“I think everybody’s looking for that wish fulfillment and that idea of a gang or a family,” Kurlander said. “When TV works on you, it’s supposed to give you that warm fuzzy feeling in your stomach.”

For sitcoms from our childhood, Kurlander noted that watching old favorites can calm our nerves by reminding us of simpler times.

“You guys were probably watching Nickelodeon and Disney at a time when you just wanted to have fun,” Kurlander said. “I would put that whole genre of nostalgia into how things used to be back when they seemed so innocent.”

And with social distancing still very much in effect, many people feel that they lack social interaction, which can take a serious toll on mental health. But there is another approach to processing this anxiety through the media.

Adam Lowenstein, a film and media studies professor and an expert in horror films, said on the flip side of the more cheerful or comedic shows and films, movies and shows in the horror or dystopian genre allow us an outlet for our trauma in hard times.

“In actuality, what horror seems to be really effective at doing is allowing people to have an experience where the horror they feel in their lives can be acknowledged,” Lowenstein said. “There’s something important about that.”

This is not a phenomenon unique to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Lowenstein, earlier on in the ages of film, the popularity of the horror genre often coincided with traumatic events that occurred around the world, a notable example being the Great Depression in the ’30s.

Lowenstein said films featuring famous classic monsters like Dracula, The Wolf Man and The Invisible Man were released to great box office success during the Depression. This trend is eerily familiar to the 2020 box office champion, a low budget horror film called “The Wretched,” which sold out across drive-in theaters throughout the country.

He added that he thought the popularity of ”The Wretched” — as well as 2020’s “The Invisible Man” starring Elisabeth Moss, a modern adaptation of the classic horror film that was one of the top movies on digital release this year — shows how impactful horror movies are on people’s minds and hearts.

“[‘The Wretched’] sold out across the country and was the No. 1 film for many weeks,” Lowenstein said. “I think that says something very powerful about what people want to see, especially because it’s so hard to see a movie now.”

But horror isn’t the only genre people are turning to while in quarantine. Fantasy remains at the top of people’s watchlists, particularly with older cartoons Gen Z used to watch, such as Nickelodeon’s renowned “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which recently broke the record of the longest show held in Netflix’s Top 10, situated there for 58 consecutive days.

Lori Campbell, an English senior lecturer who regularly teaches courses on fantasy spanning from “Harry Potter” to J.R.R. Tolkien, said fantasy is a popular genre because it helps people deal with real world issues in a metaphorical way.

“It just does it in a coded way,” Campbell said. “There are no dragons in the real world, but there are dragons in the real world — they just don’t look like dragons.”

Campbell pointed out that fantasy isn’t about escapism, a common misconception about the genre. She said a more notorious example of this is when the “The Lord of the Rings” movies came out in the early 2000s. Many news outlets credited its success to 9/11, saying viewers just wanted to forget about everything for a while.

“Often fantasy becomes even more popular in times of struggle,” Campbell said. “What is ‘The Lord of the Rings’ about? It’s about heroism and fascists who want everybody to be the same. It’s about war. It’s about real things.”

But it’s not just the more fantastical books and movies that have gained popularity. With the recent mass Black Lives Matter protests, there is an increasing demand for anti-racist literature and many reprintings of books from authors who are Black, indigeneous or other people of color.

Campbell said she’s happy Black authors are finally getting the attention that they deserve, but is not surprised by the increase in demand, as she’s seen a similar drive for such content in her students before.

“It’s unfortunate that it had to happen this way, but change is painful, and in the political climate that we’re in there’s a great deal of resistance to that change,” Campbell said. “I find that my students want to talk about these things, real issues.”

But Campbell also said our reading and watching habits are sometimes just about making ourselves feel better. Not only do people normally fall back onto familiar and comforting things from their past when stressed, but now that everyone’s connected on social media, we can all share in our old childhood favorites together.

“I think that nostalgia is something that everybody does, regardless of your age,” Campbell said. “You might go back and listen to the music from that time or read a book from that time and it just gives you comfort.”