At a glance:
- Since the time of the Romans, catharsis is linked to bloodshed.
- What does research actually say about the necessity of catharsis?
- Horror films act as simulation to connect with emotions otherwise not experienced in real life.
“But do we need catharsis at all? Despite the common experience of catharsis, those who study how, why and what we think remain unsure quite whether catharsis works as simply as we might assume it does.”
Bence Nanay has never seen Game of Thrones. But he knows one strong reason for its appeal. And it’s not Emilia Clarke. “It’s the same with the likes of The Sopranos or The Wire. These programmes are very strong on catharsis,” says the professor of philosophy at the University of Antwerp’s Centre for Philosophical Psychology.
“Catharsis is often portrayed as being a property of Greek tragedy and other very high-brow experiences. But all art is to some extent about trying to manipulate viewers, and this way of creating very strong feelings in the audience, well, TV and cinema are pretty damn efficient at that now.”
If you weren’t sure you were undergoing this thing called catharsis as you watched dragons torch a city, let us explain. The idea is as old as Aristotle, who, in his Poetics, written in the fourth century BC, proposed the idea—its interpretation still not without controversy—that part of our experience of art was in the release of emotion that it afforded; acting aggressively or simply witnessing aggression purges your angry feelings into harmless channels.
“It’s this idea of getting something bad out of your system. You have these negative emotions and in seeing these different forms of tragedy they leave your system, and that’s good thing,” says Nanay. “At least, that’s how catharsis is typically explained.”
A good cry is said to be cathartic, so is speaking your mind, hitting a punchbag, smashing a plate or screaming into a pillow. It’s been posited that, far from simply being ill-mannered and bad for children to hear, swearing is more about catharsis than self-expression.
But then the need for catharsis also inspired the Romans to watch gladiatorial combat to the death—in part, it’s been suggested, also as a means of social control. In 380BC, Saint Augustine lamented that society was addicted to such terrifying spectacles and “drunk with the fascination of bloodshed”.
Today we have video games the likes of God of War, Deadspace and Manhunt, the last deemed so violent three countries banned it. Today we have the likes of the John Wick movies, with the first giving us a body count of 84, the sequel topping that at 128 and the third in the series, of course, topping that.
Indeed, last year saw the release of a series based on The Purge movies—the next in this successful franchise is out next year—the dystopian premise of which is an America where, on one night each year, all law is suspended and the populace is free to commit (or survive) mayhem as it sees fit.
This is considered beneficial for society, a means of ensuring there’s virtually no crime the rest of the time. The Greek word ‘catharsis’, by the way, roughly translates as ‘purging’ or ‘purification’. It certainly seems that we find these movies entertaining: made on a USD3 million budget, the first Purge movie made over USD34 million on its opening weekend.
It also speaks to how screen violence—or “strong violence, gore”, as Netflix puts it in its programme descriptions—is on the increase, arguably in parallel to a decline in the opportunities most of us have in our lives for real physical aggression, short of finding some ersatz version of it through sports.
“That poses the interesting question of whether, like drugs or alcohol, we’re getting used to the effects of violence and so need more and more of it to get the same cathartic effect,” says Nanay.
“And [while studies have yet to look into this] I think that’s likely to be true. Look at horror movies in the 1960s and look at them now—they’re very different things. That said, we don’t just experience catharsis through violence. Melodrama is very good at inducing catharsis, even comedy.”
Certainly, while violence in films has increased over recent decades—especially in those movies targeted at and rated for teenage viewers, the most profitable movie demographic—look at IMDB and some of viewers’ most cathartic moments are in films both more subtle and far from grisly: American Beauty, The Shawshank Redemption, The Breakfast Club, Schindler’s List, Dead Poet’s Society.
But do we need catharsis at all? Despite the common experience of catharsis—that sense of relief at the end of a movie’s two hours of escalating tension—those who study how, why and what we think remain unsure quite whether catharsis works as simply as we might assume it does. Voltaire, back in the mid- 1700s, may have been hitting hard to critique what he called the “gibberish about the purgation of emotions”, but improved understanding since has hardly clarified matters.
Part of the problem is that it’s become received wisdom that it’s best to ‘let it out’. There’s the Aristotelian idea of tragedy. Exorcism and confession are among the many ancient rituals based on the idea of getting something out. For centuries medicine was predicated on the idea of balancing the humours—choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine—invariably through some kind of draining.
With Sigmund Freud came the idea that mental wellness could be achieved—through the guidance of a therapist—by filtering away the psyche’s repressed fears, desires and unresolved issues, by releasing all that ‘psychic energy’ that would otherwise lead to neurosis. The English language speaks of being ‘bottled up’, of ‘letting off steam’ so as to not ‘boil over’. Social media has given us the online rant. Venting as a good thing has become a central tenet of the self-help industry.
In the 1990s, a study by psychologist Brad Bushman and colleagues concluded that “exposure to media messages in support of catharsis can affect subsequent behavioural choices”. In other words, if you read an article telling you that an effective way to handle anger is to vent it towards an inanimate object, and then your anger is provoked, then guess what? You go and hit something.
But, crucially, further studies by Bradman revealed that hitting something only sustains the anger, rather than releasing it. Research has likewise suggested that playing video games—or acting out our rage or frustration in other ways, by watching Saw for example—is more likely to increase our aggression, somewhat undermining the premise of The Purge.
“Basically, to draw a distinction between catharsis as a proper therapeutic process and catharsis as venting, the latter is just practising letting off steam and that, in effect, is just getting good at getting angry,” as chartered psychologist Mark Millard puts it. In short, if you think catharsis works, you’re more likely to seek it out. One 2009 study showed that people who believe in catharsis are attracted to more violent video games.
When you vent in search of catharsis, you stay angry, so you keep venting, because, well, it feels good. That applies to the commonplace idea of venting through, say, intense exercise too. It just doesn’t work. You get accustomed to, and then dependent on, that act of blowing off steam. Small wonder psychologists refer to ‘the catharsis myth’.
This is all the more the case since most anger we feel typically can’t be directed at one person, or one situation—it’s a culmination of many little things.
So attempts to achieve catharsis inevitably make us feel even more helpless. Talking things through with someone you’re angry with as reasonably as possible gives a far higher sense of relief, but that makes for a really tedious movie. But it would be right: in coping with negative emotions it’s far better to ‘cool down’—relax, do nothing or distract yourself.
So does the catharsis experienced through watching Game of Thrones or a blood-soaked John Wick, some horror flick or even a drama—the experience of anxiety, fear and pity in safety—work as well? After all, even today’s film students are taught to follow the three-act narrative of set-up, conflict and resolution—a pattern seen in classical symphonies, even in the set list at gigs.
Might this be a certain kind of stimulation we crave because most of us live lives free of blood and horror? (‘We’ being especially younger people, since the older you get the more you realise that real life has enough in it to scare without any additional material, thank you.) Might this be in part why hearing a spoiler is so irritating— less because it gives the plot away so much as it greatly diminishes the cathartic experience?
The jury is out. And it’s been out for quite a while. The impact of watching horror, specifically, has concerned society since the late 1950s when, by today’s measure, utterly tame fare the likes of I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Blood of Dracula was seen as one cause of juvenile delinquency; even then, Martin Grotjahn, a University of Southern California School of Medicine professor, dissented, playing the catharsis card and calling such movies “self- administered psychiatric therapy for America’s adolescents”.
Today no psychologist would prescribe a solid bout of horror films or Call of Duty as a cure for your frustrations. And yet aside from the other reported pleasures of horror films—the formula’s moral certainties, the opportunity to learn to master one’s reactions—further, somewhat counter-intuitive findings of science show that the greater the scare experienced in front of the screen, the greater the delight.
More provocative film-makers might play with our expectations of—even, perhaps, our longing for—catharsis too, building up the tension but offering no release. Just try classics the likes of Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man, The Descent or The Blair Witch Project. And—while no convincing model yet exists to pinpoint exactly why—even these kinds of resolution-free movies feel enjoyable, perhaps even more so, according to some studies. Enjoyable, at least, to some.
“I’ve never been a fan of horror films. I love physical thrills—on a rollercoaster, for example—but, no, not horror,” laughs Millard. “Yet art like films can still be used to help you to feel what you’re already feeling, especially if you’re not so good at connecting with your emotions.
Or, especially in the case of horror films, to rehearse emotions that we’re not likely to experience in normal real life.
You feel these feelings but the experience is at a remove from you—it’s beyond you—which helps you process it. Catharsis allows us to approach emotions that don’t [on paper] feel good to us. We can tap them through an external stimulus.
“For some it’s visual—film or TV—and for others the impact is more through music, but in both cases there are chemical reactions being induced,” he adds. “After all, the artwork is in some sense designed to do that—and undoubtedly there’s a pleasure in having a certain mood racked up and then dissipated at the end. Everyone has had that experience of leaving the cinema feeling drained, as a sensation that we enjoy. But, of course, it is a simulation. At the end the lights come up and we walk away.”
And that takes us back to Aristotle, or, more precisely, to his tutor Plato. While Aristotle saw benefit in being taken on a cathartic journey in watching a tragic play—not just the experience of relief when Medea finally takes her revenge, for example, or when Antigone stands up for her brother, but the learning of universal truths along the way too—Plato thought very much otherwise.
It was Plato who argued that art was merely what he called ‘mimesis’—imitation or the representation of the truth, and, since some people were unable to recognise this, a corrupting distraction from reality. But that might be precisely how we want to experience negative emotions of a kind we’d typically want to avoid.
“Catharsis is complicated,” says Nanay, for philosophers, psychologists and film fans alike. He argues that the cathartic experience via art and entertainment is also of a particular, perhaps limited, kind, enjoyed in the hinterland between the impersonal and the personal, the fictitious and the real.
“It’s not as simple as the pleasure in stopping a painful feeling because, if that’s the case, we wouldn’t go where the painful experience was in the first place. This isn’t just the relief felt of banging your head against a wall and then stopping. What emotions do you feel when watching Game of Thrones? Fear? Sadness? Not really because you know it’s fiction. It’s not the same as if your wife died.
“But it’s not just imagining the emotions either,” he adds. “It’s a vicarious experience. But what happens is that, in watching the episode, you get rid of these vicarious emotions. You enjoy the process because you experience all the positive emotions when the negative ones go away. You can get your kicks in lots of other ways, of course. Art is just one established way of regulating such emotions. But it’s a powerful one.”
A better understanding of vicarious emotion might help us understand the fine distinctions that are important in the ways we engage with each other. Empathy is much better understood in psychology circles, even if vicarious emotion—the subtle distinction between the disgust one might feel looking at a slug climbing one’s own leg and that felt looking at someone else looking at a slug climbing up theirs, as Nanay draws it—is likely much more visceral in its impact on how we relate.
In the meantime, he’s not buying the idea that, in catharsis, we feel genuine anxiety or fear for ourselves—‘self-centred’ fear as he calls it—at all, even if it might lead to this. In short: we might not take the short cut through a dark alley on the way home after watching a horror movie, but we’re not actually fearing for our lives.
But it all puts a different spin on precisely what we’re experiencing when we feel anxiety, fear or pity—all problematic terms in themselves—when we experience, cope with or enjoy a work of art such as Game of Thrones. If the experience is unpleasant, why go through it?
If it’s pleasant, why want it to end? Or, as Nanay argues, is it a question of the relief felt being just like the kind we’d feel if we had gone through real fear, even if the fear hasn’t been real? If it’s not too much of a distraction, keep all that in mind the next time the end credits roll.