‘Yes! Very funny this terrible thing is. A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns […] The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up. ‘ -Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim
If the simplest, conventional definition of an antihero is “one who lacks most, if not all, of the attributes of the hero,” then seasons 34 through 36 of my life explored a story arc rich in complicated motives, episodic freakouts and calculated self-preservation. I’d come home to Ohio to care for my parents. They were dying. Each in their own way, and on their own time, but for both, death was a certainty.
A lot has been written about the rise of the antihero protagonist, but little about its inverse—the antihero as viewer, equal parts voyeur and complicit, if passive, provocateur. After all, they wouldn’t make this stuff, if people didn’t want to watch, right?
And in those 20 months between my mom’s death and my dad’s, gore, violence and crime were all I wanted to watch. I cycled through two complete viewings of Breaking Bad and plowed through The Sopranos in a month. I did Medicaid paperwork and scrubbed urine stains out of bedding with the First 48 droning in the background. I faithfully DVR’d every episode of I Survived, despite the poor syntax of its episode recaps (“Colin had to lay motionless and play dead as the gunman shot him four times while a school bus with 52 children plummets 45 feet when a Minneapolis bridge collapsed in August 2007”).
Novels, when I could concentrate on them, were exclusively police procedurals, and the only movies I could finish were about vengeance: Oldboy; Once Upon a Time in the West; Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2; Straw Dogs (though only the original, thanks); The Limey. I saw Inglorious Basterds three years too late and still tried to make everyone talk about it afterward.
An ex-boyfriend accused me of only entertaining myself with two things: people buying houses, and people being murdered. In my head, I countered: Permanence and impermanence, buddy. Life or death. What else is there? But, in practice, I just learned to hide my gross interests.
The energy spent hiding my unseemly screen habits felt like a necessity; Movies made me feel something when otherwise, I just felt numb. I became a compulsive viewer-scavenger, an entertainment dirtbag.
But I wasn’t alone. A 2013 joint study between the University of Augsburg in Germany and University of Wisconsin-Madison attempted to answer why so many of us are drawn to violent entertainment. While earlier studies focused primarily on the thrill-as-benefit scary movies offer, this study dug a bit deeper into the moviegoer psyche, positing that “Some types of violent portrayals seem to attract audiences because they promise to satisfy truth-seeking motivations by offering meaningful insights into some aspect of the human condition.”
I’d be flattering myself to retcon that explanation back into my conscious motivation during those years. I didn’t know then why I was attracted to things I was, though I was self-aware enough even in my grief to know that I didn’t care. I needed the insight those movies offered up because I couldn’t process the complex emotions otherwise. Each violent act (or its aftermath) that I took in was a way for me to process death—and how I would soon navigate in the wake it left behind.
The onscreen action was often wildly cathartic. It was all forward-motion when everything around me felt stagnant and in a state of decline. And here’s the craziest thing: It made me a better caregiver. Watching Death Wish as self-care is not something you’ll find in any self-help book, but I’m grateful it was there for me when I needed it. Movies gave me space to breathe, time to process, minutes without worry and, most nights, a way to fall asleep—all things that made it easier to start all over again the next day.
Many of the shows or movies I watched are classics of their genre and, to be clear, I don’t believe there is anything morally wrong about fictionalized violence or graphic true stories shared with the full consent of those involved. But crutches aren’t meant to be used indefinitely and as the grief began to lift, I needed them less and less.
I got praise from friends for coming home, but I never felt comfortable with it. I wanted to be there and I resented it. I didn’t want to lose them and I wanted it all to be over with. Compliments unnerved me because I knew the truth: Real people are weak and complicated, disappointing and selfish, even when they try hard not to be. All the best characters are flawed. I know. I saw it in a movie once.
Featured Image: Miramax Films