Halloween is around the corner!
The swiftly-international-becoming Fright Season, where people dress up and surround themselves in scary imagery and settings. Everything is about the scare, the close brush with death or worse, the thrill of the blood running cold in our veins for seconds before laughing at each other.
Or is it?
Well, yes, but in my eyes, everything that we set up to startle or scare us is a means to an end. A means to a cathartic experience. We love catharsis so much that we will push through terrible notions, truly intimidating things, horrifying ideas, just to get to it.
But what is it?
The definition of catharsis points to a feeling of relief and purging of powerful emotions of fear or pity. I'd add the entire range of intense stress and worry or concern.
Catharsis isn't necessarily good or bad. But it is a resolution. Things settle in such a way that we can release and relax, just like after intense exercise. The sensation of relief is good for us in so many ways that actively setting it up to happen is intertwined with human culture: through the telling of stories.
There are many ways of telling stories, from acting them out situationally (like the case is with Halloween) to watching them in plays and movies to reading them in books to hearing them around the camp fire. All of them (or well, most) have some element of catharsis at the end as the reward for keeping up with them and seeing the characters through to the end.
In ancient Greek tragedies, catharsis was a mandatory part of the storytelling. The idea was that the audience of the play would be able to calmly discuss the issue addressed by the play after releasing their anger and emotions, but be aware enough of them to spark a constructive conversation as they walked away from the theater.
The more intense the story, the more rewarding its catharsis. As I already mentioned, catharsis doesn't have to be a good ending. It just needs to be an ending that gives relief. Take for example the final scene in Schindler's List:
It's a powerful, cathartic moment. Not only because he is exploding with emotion, taking the audience with him, but because there has been resolution of the storyline- there is nothing more to be explored, and we (the audience) can release our emotions from having followed him in his struggle with him. We cleanse ourselves, shedding stress and relaxing, and perhaps reflecting as we emerge from the immersion in the aftereffect. Never again, right?
But it can also be a good moment! Catharsis doesn't require crying or desperation to happen. We release emotions and cleanse through a happy sigh and a grin. Take the two moments of resolution in Mulan's story (yes, two cathartic moments):
Both of them are powerful. Both of them make has sit back and sigh in relaxation- one of them may even bring (happy) tears to our eyes. Why are they cathartic? Because the story has resolved and given us answers to the characters' struggle that allow us to release.
If we're not allowed to release, then the story has no catharsis for us.
Sometimes, it's warranted. Other times, not so much- and your mileage might vary on when that is. But a story without catharsis is a story that doesn't allow you to put down the load that you took up as you experienced it. A story without catharsis will leave you seeking to find catharsis differently, which may even cause you to be irritable or angry when it finishes. In my case with the example of The Green Mile, I still am angry at the movie as much as I am at the characters. I know why it is the way it is, especially once I realised that the story was riffing off an actual (and appalling) event, and I am begrudgingly conceding that it shouldn't have a catharsis, but I still resent it for it, in a way.
That's how powerful the existence of catharsis is. How do you incorporate it in a story?
That's something I'll tackle next time. In the meantime, Happy Halloween!
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Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Oct. 28, 2023
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