Why disaster movies can cheer us up

Forget happy endings – today’s movies, TV shows and political issues favour apocalyptic horror and grim realism. But there can be benefits to abandoning the happy ever after, says Ariel Leve

Growing up, I never believed in the happy endings of fairy tales. When I was told that one day my prince would come, my wary response was, ‘But what if he doesn’t?’ I like to be prepared.

As adults, our youthful conviction that we’re owed a happy ending is trumped by a more measured assurance that, when bad things happen, as they inevitably do, it’s for the best – that this, too, shall pass. But these are uncertain times. And if you’re the type that has a tendency to assume the worst, it’s hard to believe everything will be all right just because other people say so. That requires a suspension of disbelief – otherwise known as denial.

Last year I went to see the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road. It is the story of a father and son who, having survived the apocalypse, set off across America in an attempt to escape by sea. It is about as bleak as it gets, offering no hope, no redemption – and, unlike the book,no philosophical or spiritual enlightenment either. Yet, despite the mixed reviews the film had received, the cinema was packed. Why?

According to Dr Julie Norem, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, we are looking for a means to handle uncertainty. ‘When there are too many unknowns, we anchor ourselves by contemplating catastrophe. That way, we know one thing for sure: our own lot’s not that bad. It offers us a little security in an insecure world.’

Viewing the world through grey-tinted goggles is something that comes naturally to me. When I see a movie such as the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man – a thoughtful look at what happens when life tests you – it restores my sense of perspective. Seeing characters grapple with angst and injustice, and asking the unanswerable question, ‘Why me?’ reassures me that I’m not alone. In my world, a movie such as Love Happens – a dopey romantic comedy with a formulaic happy ending – feels much more apocalyptic.

At a time when nothing feels safe, we have a new, more realistic view of ourselves. Perhaps triggered by the economic downturn or fears over the environment, we’ve come to a gradual realisation that blind optimism doesn’t always deliver. In fact, in her book Smile Or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich suggests it was just this sort of uncritical positive thinking in the Bush-era White House and on Wall Street that got us into a financial mess.

Things are not quite as despairing as they were in the Great Depression of the 1930s, but, for many of us, the happy endings on celluloid still seem too contrived. Shows such as Sex And The City, which depicted a glamorous, carefree life, no longer have the same appeal. They feel too frivolous. Instead, the likes of CSI and 24, with their grittier tone, are the new escapism. They reflect a desire to be engaged with adversity, playing on fears of terrorism and violence. Similarly, the popularity of disaster movies, such as District 9 and 2012, reveal a trend towards a higher tolerance of anguish and gloom.

In a society where positive psychology has long been given the upper hand, more and more of us are finding comfort in stating things as they really are, rather than how we wish them to be. Buffing, glossing and sugar-coating are no longer an option. We are facing up to the world as it really is.

Norem’s book The Positive Power Of Negative Thinking addresses the phenomenon of defensive pessimism. There are benefits to being a pessimist, she believes – you can envisage the ways in which things can go wrong and have confidence in your ability to do what needs to be done to protect yourself and/or put them right. In other words, be aware of the potential of bad things ahead and you can prepare the best mode of coping.

Norem maintains that indulging negative thoughts can be a helpful tool for managing anxiety. She has several explanations as to why people would gravitate towards darker forms of entertainment to help them process their feelings during dark times. The first is what she calls a ‘preventive focus’. Being exposed to a dramatisation of an event that hasn’t happened yet or, indeed, may never happen – let’s say, the end of the world – can help us with problem-solving. An extreme response to this fictional scenario might be to stockpile provisions and build a bunker, but a more helpful outcome would be that we gain a recognition and acceptance that we are not always in control.

Another benefit to engaging with ‘feel-bad’ entertainment is what Norem calls ‘downward social comparison’. She believes that, for the most part, the genre attracts generally optimistic people seeking ways to reassure themselves they are doing OK by comparing themselves with those who are worse off. I do this all the time, even though I’m not naturally optimistic. It helps when the comparison is with someone to whom I have no personal connection, so it doesn’t feel like I’m making myself feel better at a friend’s expense. Reading about another’s misery, being engrossed in a big-screen hard-luck story – how can you not emerge feeling a sense of relief about your own lot?

The same is true of reality-TV programmes that depict real people with absurdly calamitous predicaments. A few weeks ago, I was feeling overweight and unproductive, worried about my future and what might happen to the world. I tuned in to a show about a morbidly obese woman who needed a crane to lift her from her home. As the credits rolled, I felt better. At least I can walk through my front door, I thought. Woody Allen put it best in Annie Hall when he said that life was divided into the horrible and the miserable. ‘The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, the crippled. I don’t know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.’

When we engage in darker forms of entertainment, we face up to some of the realities of life. People say life is short, but it’s not. It’s long – and eventful. Of course, that doesn’t account for an apocalypse of taste that even the ancient Mayans couldn’t see coming. If they had, they would have warned us about Zombieland.