Movies and Conduct: A Payne Fund Study
Chapter 5: Emotional Possession: Fear and Terror
STUDENTS of conduct are familiar with a type of experience (which, for want of another term, we may label "Emotional Possession") in the course of which, through having his emotions aroused, the individual loses self-control. Some of our most interesting motion-picture data are of this sort. Emotional possession refers to experiences wherein impulses which are ordinarily restrained are strongly stimulated. In this heightened emotional state the individual suffers some loss of ordinary control over his feelings, his thoughts, and his actions. Such a condition results usually from an intense preoccupation with a theme in this case, that of a picture. The individual identifies himself so thoroughly with the plot or loses himself so much in the picture that he is carried away from the usual trend of conduct. His mind becomes fixed on certain imagery, and impulses usually latent or kept under restraint gain expression or seriously threaten to gain such expression. This emotional condition may get such a strong grip on the individual that even his efforts to rid himself of it by reasoning with himself may prove of little avail. The state is usually short-lived yet while it is experienced impulse is released and self-control reduced. These abstract remarks will be made clear in the consideration of the following series of findings. The discussion will be concerned with such experiences induced by the movies as fright, sorrow, love, and excitement. Each of them will be treated briefly in a separate chapter.
The experiencing of fright, horror, or agony as a result of witnessing certain kinds of motion pictures seems common from the accounts of children, high-school, and college students. The experience is most conspicuous in the case of children, although it is not infrequently shared by those of greater age. Its manifestations vary from the shielding of eyes at crucial scenes during the showing of the pictures, to nightmares and terrifying dreams, including sometimes experiences of distinct shock, almost of neurotic proportions.
Pictures with highly dramatic scenes of mystery and agony such as "The Phantom of the Opera," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and "The Gorilla" are chiefly conducive to these kinds of experiences—although scenes from pictures not of a particularly horrifying character may occasion them, depending upon the sensitivity of the observer.
It is not infrequent for a young child to experience some kind of hysteria when introduced to his first motion picture. It is rather interesting that in many of the motion-picture autobiographies the earliest incident as well as the first memory is frequently that of fright occasioned by a motion picture. Let us give a few cases of this character to serve as an introduction to the treatment of fright as a form of emotional possession.
Female, 19, white, college sophomore.—My very earliest recollection of a movie is vague in a way and yet one part is very vivid. I do not even know where I saw my first movie, but it was in some very small theater in Englewood. I do not know who the heroine was, but I do remember that at the most dramatic part she was bound, laid on a pile of sticks and burned. At this point, I became hysterical and had to be taken from the theater.
I never knew if the unfortunate girl was rescued or burned to death, but I never forgot the smoke and flames curling around her slender body. This little episode characterizes to a great extent my reactions to my early movies. I never could be con-
(76) -vinced that the actors were not really suffering the horrible tortures depicted in many films and my sympathy knew no bounds.
Female, 15, white, high-school sophomore.—When I first started going to the movies, I was actually afraid of them. After every picture that I saw, I had horrible nightmares about it. I think that I was about five years old when I saw my first movie, and this fear didn't leave me until I was almost eight.
Female, 20, white, college sophomore. — I was taken to see my first movie at the age of about five or six; I was horror-stricken and mother and dad were requested to leave. I remember as though it was only yesterday how my intense fright had its effects. For several nights I had troubled dreams about that horrible Chinaman, and as a result I refused to sleep alone. Sometimes I would cry so loud in my sleep that mother had to wake me and sit for hours comforting me. This taught my parents a lesson and they never took me to see another movie for a long, long time.
Male, 21, white, college junior.—My first experience with scenes of suffering came when I was less than five years of age. A Negro slave cowered before his master, who was reaching for his whip. This alone was enough to make me burst out into a series of screams which drew the spectators' attention from the picture. When the whip actually touched the slave's back I redoubled my efforts, and as the man fell to the ground unconscious I ran out into the aisle and had to be taken home!
EXTENT OF FRIGHT
CHILDREN who are easily frightened by a picture merely because it is strange lose this susceptibility in the course of a short time. It is in a little older group ranging from the age of eight upwards that one finds more genuine instances of fright, depending more upon the nature of the picture than upon the strangeness of the situation. The number of children who admit such experiences, or of older people who recall them, is quite large. As part of this study inquiry was made on this point of 237 school children in the fourth,
( 77) fifth, sixth, and seventh grades, in one of the Chicago public grade schools. In answer to the question "Were you ever frightened or horrified by any motion picture or scene in any motion picture?", 222 or 93 per cent answered "Yes"; 15 or 7 per cent replied "No." In the 458 high-school autobiographies there are definite accounts of being frightened in 61 per cent. In 17 per cent of these documents there is a denial of this kind of experience; while in the remaining 22 per cent of the autobiographies there is no information on the point. It may perhaps be surmised that the smaller percentage of acknowledgment of such experiences of fright in the case of the high-school students indicates some failure to recall such experiences. Both sets of figures are quite convincing in showing the high percentage of individuals who have been frightened by the witnessing of motion pictures seriously enough to make some acknowledgment of the fact.
It is perhaps of interest to mention that of the 222 grade-school children admitting experiences of fright, 48, or 21 per cent, spoke of having hidden their face at some time or other while witnessing motion pictures. This tendency to shut out the horror or agony of the picture by covering one's eyes or turning away one's gaze can be frequently observed in the behavior of children at the picture show when certain kinds of movies are being displayed. This behavior further suggests the extent to which motion pictures may occasion horror in children.
Following are given a series of accounts which will help one to appreciate what has just been said concerning the character and extent of fright induced by motion pictures.
Female, 20, white, college junior.—Now, I enjoy mysteries immensely, but they affected me unfavorably as a child and still do. After seeing a few people murdered by unknown men who sprang up from nowhere, after seeing a girl accidentally tap the
(78) wall only to have a dead body fall out in front of her, I am a nervous wreck. As I said before, I enjoy the play while it is going on, but when I get home I jump at the slightest noise and imagine all sorts of things are going to happen. After the "Phantom of the Opera," I had terrible nightmares. After "The Cat and the Canary," I was afraid to sleep alone. Just recently I saw "The Canary Murder Case," and as I walked home through the dark night, I cannot say I felt perfectly at ease.
Female, 18, Negro, high-school.senior.—I went to a movie once by myself and I had the most terrible experience I have ever witnessed. The picture was of a rich girl who had many jewels and much money; she lived in a house with her father until she died; then the house was supposed to be haunted. One night some girls were on a picnic and passed the house. Someone spoke of its being haunted and dared anyone to go back, but since there were so many of them, they decided they were not afraid. They went back. When they got in the house and were going upstairs, the door through which they had come slammed shut. The next thing that happened was terrible. There was a scream that almost took the roof off; then the figure of a young girl with staring wide eyes and matted hair all dipped in blood appeared before them screaming as she went. Up the stairs she ran leaving the girls unable to move. I was frightened for a year or more. All of my dreams were of the girl with the bloody hair. I was afraid to go in a dark room alone for fear the door would close suddenly.
Female, 19, white, college sophomore. —The first picture that left an impression of horror with me was one in which a fiendish man, living alone in the country, would lower a mirror across the near-by highway. Thus any travelers would see the reflection of the auto's headlights coming towards them, and so to avoid a collision would swerve into the ditch. Then the fiendish person would take them to his home and torture them. This scene so affected me that I believe I shall never forget it. For nights I saw the expression of devilish delight that came over his face when some particularly young person was hurt.
Female, 21, white, college senior.—One of the most horrible pictures I have ever seen was that in which a surgeon transfers
(79) the brain of a dying lunatic to the skull of an ape. The ape then reacts to the ideas that were those of the lunatic; he killed several people before they were able to capture him. Since then it seems that next to rats and mice, monkeys and apes are the most disgusting.
Female, 20, white, college sophomore.—I liked anything, just so long as it was exciting. A certain amount of horror pleased me, but I remember one picture which I saw that scared me so much that I couldn't sleep at night, and I would put my head under the covers to protect myself from the image construed by my imagination. In this movie a horrible, hairy ape, with a habit of breaking into people's houses, came in through a window and ran off with the heroine. After seeing this picture, I was afraid to go into a dark room at night because an ape might be just coming in through a window and carry me off. I was a nervous child anyway, and in the course of an exciting movie like this, I would bite the finger nails on both hands, until my fingers would bleed.
Male, 20, white, Jewish, college sophomore.—I sincerely believe that during those high-school days photoplays made little impression on what I thought or how I acted. But on one occasion I saw a movie which has always stayed fresh in my memory; I look back on it with horror. The theme of the picture was about a convict who was hung, and upon his hanging his brains were transferred to a gorilla. The result was that the gorilla escaped and with the human brains was possessed with the desire to kill all those who had a hand in the conviction of the criminal. The entire city was thrown into an uproar, for every few days the newspapers would come out with the news that the judge or the opposing lawyer or some juryman had his back broken in two by the gorilla. The whole episode was gruesome and blood-tingling and something that I remember distinctly this day, even though I saw the movie some seven years ago.
EXPRESSIONS OF FRIGHT
ONE might be inclined to think that the state of fear induced by the picture in children and youths lasts just as long as the picture is witnessed and then disappears
(80) after the individual leaves the theater. Very frequently, however, this is not the case. The feeling of fright may continue for some time and show its presence in a number of ways. The most conspicuous of its expressions is in the form of nightmares and terrifying dreams. The recognition that mysterious or fear-inspiring pictures may lead to terrifying dreams helps one to appreciate this power over emotions. Let us continue with some experiences of this sort.
Male, 21, white, college junior.—Another time a serial with the famous Houdini shocked me very much. In it there was an iron man which would break through all sorts of traps, kill people, and cause terror to every one in the picture. Many a night I dreamed that the iron man had me in his grasp or was trampling all over me.
Female, 19, white, Jewish, college sophomore.—I was perhaps eight years old before I saw a picture which left any definite impression on me. It had to do with the Devil, and the main part was played, I believe, by William S. Hart. My understanding was such that I grasped only the horrible side of the story. That picture caused me many a nightmare, and I loathe William S. Hart to this day.
Female, 19, white, college sophomore.—The picture was supposed to take place in the Andes mountains in South America, and the plot was concerned with a feud between two mountaineer families, each of which inflicted all sorts of torture on the other family whenever a chance arose. It was these terrible punishments, so strikingly portrayed, that left such an impression on my mind. As I look back now it seems foolish for me to have been so frightened, but I was young and impressionable, and then, too, the whole theme of the picture was the dreariness, the horror, and the futility of a life such as the characters lived. The picture frightened me so that I wouldn't sit through it to the end, but I got up and walked out into the lobby and waited there for my parents. For days the picture haunted me, and 1 couldn't stop thinking about the suffering of the people in the picture. It was too realistic for anyone as young as I to see. For
(81) two or three weeks I was still so frightened that I wouldn't be left alone. I was afraid to stay by myself, and I wanted to have someone with me all the time.
Male, 20, white, college sophomore. —The most horrible experience I had in my life was occasioned in this manner. I had seen a picture in which a Chinese parade was featured, and included in this parade there were a number of enlarged demons, monsters, etc. That night I had one of the few nightmares of my life and by far the worst. I awakened in abject terror, and sleeping alone I ran to my mother's bedroom. On the way I had to pass the basement door, and through it I perceived an endless procession of these monsters marching. The door was closed, but they came right through and headed for me; needless to say, I made all haste to mother's side. When you realize that I was at least partially awake when this occurred, the force of the nightmare is apparent.
Female, 20, white, college sophomore.—It happened that I went to see a mystery play one night, in the course of which were several blood-curdling scenes,—one of a girl locked in a room where she saw long, bony fingers creeping over the back of a chair, and who found behind the chair a man who (lied as she bent over him;—one of a dim room with a pile of rags in the corner, and as I looked the rags moved, crawled forward and became a person, an odious, horribly maimed, hideously bound creature which sent cold chills running over me. I was horrified. That night I dreamed of those horrid scenes, and was so frightened that I dared not pull the spread higher. The next night was not so bad, and gradually the memory faded; so I again became a movie enthusiast. Yet, there was an effect, and as I think of the scene which frightened me so, a half horror creeps upon me.
Female, 19, white, college sophomore.—The horror-pictures and serials used to frighten me when I was a child. I remember one picture in particular—I cannot even recollect the name of it but it was a newspaper story and concerned several mysterious killings which, it came out later, were committed by a huge orang-utan which had been given the brain of a man in an experiment by a doctor—one of the men killed by the animal. I remember distinctly the scene which frightened me so. The ape
(82) was standing in an open window leering at his next victim who was lying in bed, a helpless invalid, rendered even more helpless by fear and horror. Of course, a newspaper reporter, the hero in the story, came in to his rescue just in time and shot the ape, but by that time I had been so thoroughly frightened that I could not sleep that night. Every time I closed my eyes, I could see this ape standing in the window and as the foot of my bed was only a few feet away from an open window, unprotected by even screens, I soon decided to spend the rest of the night in my mother's bed with her. I remember being so paralyzed with fear that I could scarcely get out of bed, but once my feet touched the floor I ran as fast as I possibly could to my mother and spent not only that night but the next one, also, with her. I do not believe I cried, but I became speechless, powerless, rigid, staring wide-eyed into the dark, and the fright did not leave me for several days.
The accounts which have been given are rather impressive in showing the experiences of fright which may be occasioned by certain kinds of motion pictures. Some further light upon this item is given by the findings in the cases of a class of 47 children whose ages ranged from seven to nine years, and of another class of 41 children with ages from nine to twelve years. Both classes of children were questioned about any experiences of fear or fright recently induced by motion pictures. Only accounts of actual experiences as related by the children were used in compilation of results. The movie objects which produced fear in the youngest class were : spooks, ghosts, phantoms, devils, gorillas, bears, tigers, bandits, "bad men," grabbing hands and claws, fighting, shooting, falling or hanging from high places, drowning, wrecks, collisions, fire, and floods. Expressions of their emotions during the witnessing of such pictures were : getting nervous, biting finger nails, pulling hair, crunching teeth, twisting caps, grabbing one's neighbor, feeling shivery, hiding eyes until the scene changed, looking
( 83) away, screaming, jumping out of seat, and getting under the seat. Expression of the emotional behavior on the way home as mentioned by the children were : running home, being frightened by shadows, avoiding dark streets, holding on to mother, sister, or brother. Expressions at home were: staying close to mother, looking in back of one's chair, afraid to go to bed, looking under the bed, closing window, begging for a light to be left burning, hiding head under covers, seeing devils dancing in the dark, wanting to sleep with someone, bad dreams, calling out in sleep, and walking in sleep.
Expressions of emotion at the theater in the class of older boys and girls were: screaming, jumping out of seats, holding seats, falling out of seats, biting finger nails, gritting teeth, hiding face in hands or cap, and holding people in the adjoining seats. Approximately one-fifth of the boys and girls in the class spoke of having great fear on the way home after having seen some frightening picture; some ran, others took short cuts to get home quickly, others hesitated at alley crossings; some were afraid of open spaces. One boy was afraid that a trapdoor would open up in the pavement and swallow him; and a girl claimed that the sidewalk lifted up in back of her as she hurried home. Approximately one-third of the children in this class mentioned having bad dreams following upon the experience, including shock, nightmares, keeping one's head under the blankets, asking to sleep with mother or father, crying out in sleep and falling out of bed.
DURATION OF FRIGHT
SUCH instances and expressions of fright induced by the witnessing of certain kinds of motion pictures are ordinarily short-lived. The individual regains control of his thoughts and feelings with the passage of time, sometimes by the next day, sometimes in the course of the next few
( 84) days. It is probably because of the transitoriness of the fright that this kind of behavior has never impressed people as much of a problem. But while it is true that the fear or fright induced by motion pictures is generally shortlived, still in certain individuals it may become fixed and last for a long time. Instances of this duration of the emotional experience follow:
Male, 19, white, college sophomore.—When I was ten years old I experienced a great shock in connection with a motion picture that affected my behavior for years, and still has a subconscious influence over me. One afternoon I went to see the first reels of a new serial mystery movie. The incidents in this play opened with the discovery by a certain young man of certain secret processes whereby he was able to endow a mysterious inhuman machine with life. He kept this machine in a mummy case. On the eve of his wedding, when the bride and the guests were all assembled waiting for his appearance, he is seated before his desk in a dark room with only a desk lamp burning, when suddenly this horrible, powerful, inhuman hand reaches across the area of light, seizes him by the throat, and strangles him to death. That scene frightened me as nothing ever has before or since. I went home in a perfect paroxysm of fear. For many months after that I was afraid to enter a dark room or even to sit in a lighted one at night without someone else with me. For many years I had a strange distrust of the dark or of being alone at any time, and still at times I feel the same uneasy lack of confidence returning on me when I am alone at night, although I realize that it is extremely silly. Strangely enough, it was never the thought of something natural that frightened me, such as a man, a burglar, for instance, but it was the fear of something supernatural, something entirely outside the physical field. For the same reason I have never yet been able to feel comfortable among the mummies in a museum, and I instinctively look upon them with revulsion and disgust.
Female, 20, white, college sophomore.—When I recall the first movie that made an impression upon me, I am filled with horror. I do not remember how old I was when I saw it, but I know that
(85) I was quite young. Posters outside of the theater attracted me to the movie. I insisted upon going to see that particular one. I can still see the pictures on that poster. I went that time with my mother and one or two other people. The picture had as a setting an insane asylum. The heroine was a nurse. The ghostly-featured crazy woman tried to stab the heroine to death while she slept one night. Another time she crept in behind her in an effort to stab her in the back. A fierce struggle followed this attempt, after which the heroine was just barely rescued. In the end the asylum caught on fire. The hero (lashed in to save his sweetheart, and came out with the clawing, cringing, insane woman. At that time, I had many nightmares as a result. Since then I have recalled these scenes many times very vividly. I have always had a horror for crazy people.
Female, 18, white, high-school sophomore.—As I write, clear pictures of a certain movie I saw come to my mind. These pictures stayed in my mind and troubled me for two years after I had seen them; they haunted my dreams. Many nights I remember lying awake in bed, clinging to my sister, who slept with me, while I tried to shut out horrible pictures that would not be shut out. After such a description as this, one would think it was a really horrible picture; but it was not. It was, however, one that I should not have seen. It was a picture of a young man who had married a beautiful girl, who had become insane. The girl was taken care of by a woman, who was very careful to see that she was never free to do any harm. One day, years later, he fell in love with another girl and was going to marry her. He did not tell her, however, about his first wife. After the ceremony the young man took his bride to her new home. They spent a happy evening together and then the bride went up to her room. She carefully arranged her beautiful wedding gown over a chair and crept into bed. Then a terrible thing happened. The keeper of the insane woman fell asleep and the lunatic stole her keys and freed herself. The picture of her in her rags with hair hanging down her back, almost crawling down the stairway, snatching the wall with her unkept nails, was very hideous. When she reached the bride's room, clawed at her door, and finally entered and stood looking wickedly at the sleeping bride,
(86) I could stand it no longer and finally buried my head in my lap. As far as I can remember, this is the only picture that troubled me this way.
Female, 19, white, college sophomore.—One picture stands out in my memory at this time, and one actor. The picture is Viola Dana in "The Cossacks." That again was a tragedy. It was a horrible picture. It left an indelible impression upon my mind, for not only weeks but months. When I wanted to go to sleep at night, I would again see those Cossacks slaughtering the peasantry, or the heroine's sister thrown out of the window of a twelve-story hotel building. Gee, when I think of it now, I feel tremors of horror and aversion.
Female, 17, Negro, high-school senior.—The first picture to produce upon me the feeling of fear was "Earth Bound." It was a story of an unfaithful husband who was murdered by his best friend. Through the whole story his spirit lingered. As I watched this visible shadow stride the halls, passing through doors, and reaching out in pity to his young daughter and wife, my nerves became shattered. The spell of its effect remained upon me for a period of a year or more. The sight of a dark hall or room horrified me.
Male, 19, white, college sophomore.—One picture, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," gave me quite a severe fright. I saw it when I could not have been more than eleven years old, and I can still remember the fear I had of the dark alleys and shadows when walking home from the theater with my aunt. I think the evil character in the play worked at night in dark places. For some weeks and months later I had a fear of dark shadows at night when I was alone. I ran quickly past dark alleys and I avoided poorly lighted sections of the street. I never took short cuts through the prairies when by myself for fear that some lurking danger beset me. In short, the effect of that movie was to make me afraid of the dark and of all unseen passages. It was more than two or three years before I fully outgrew this fear.
Because of such a similar type of experience the writer of the following account built up a definite aversion to the attendance at motion pictures.
Female, 26, white, college senior.—The picture was Dante's "Inferno," and I am quite certain that there never was a picture less suitable for any child of that age to see. It showed weird and horrible monsters, and people being tortured in every possible manner. At the end of half an hour I was thoroughly miserable and begged to be taken out, but my mother bade me keep quiet and stop looking at it if I didn't like it. I writhed in my seat during the remainder of the picture and was in tears and nearly a nervous wreck when we finally left. For weeks I dreamed of the atrocious creatures and the terrible tortures I had seen. I was afraid to go to bed and was frightened by the dark, although I would never tell anyone. During the next few years my mother offered many inducements to get me into the movies, but I always held my ground, vowing to myself that nothing in the world could ever make me. Two or three times, when I was a little older, she even commanded me, and although I hated myself for it, I defied her and said, "I will not," for I still could not forget that horrible picture. I won out, too, but I knew that my mother was very angry, because I always obeyed her when she told me I must do anything. She finally realized that she could not make me go, so she stopped mentioning it to me, and I gradually became a little less hostile.
EFFECT OF SPECIFIC PICTURES
SUCH instances draw one's attention to the importance of considering a problem which has been rather conspicuously ignored. While it perhaps is to be admitted that the fixation of such experiences of fright presupposes occasionally a very sensitive disposition on the part of the individual, still it also points to the excruciating character of what may be presented in motion pictures. Motionpicture producers and censors seem to have ignored this aspect of experience. The influence of certain specific pictures in inducing the kinds of reactions described has been very great. Such pictures as the "Phantom of the Opera," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," "The Gorilla," "The Cat
(88) Creeps," "The Lost World," have particularly occasioned terror and fright. The influence of "The Phantom of the Opera" can be gauged from the following run of instances:
Male, 19, white, college sophomore.—For several nights I was very uneasy, scared to go into dark rooms or to be alone in the house after having seen the "Phantom of the Opera." As I recall it, and realize I am in the house alone, I feel the cold chills promenading up my spine. When that ugly face, which was disclosed to the audience after much suspense and excitement, becomes a visual image and you are alone in a large, very quiet house, there is a tendency to scream or run (but I guess I better finish this paper first). I remember "screeching" in the show when that horrible face was shown.
Female, 18, Negro, high-school senior.—The picture, "The Phantom of the Opera," was the most horrible, the most gruesome and horrifying picture I have ever seen. This scene, for instance, I consider the worse. The phantom had captured the girl and the next morning the girl discovered that he wore a mask and slipping up behind him, she jerked the mask from his face. But oh, what a face he turned on her! Eyes staring from great deep sockets, no lips, just ugly picket-like tusks for teeth, and a white pasty-like complexion—this was the ghastly thing that stared forth from the screen.
Female, 15, white, high-school sophomore.— “The Phantom of the Opera," with Lon Chaney as the phantom, frightened me more than any other motion picture I have seen. He was made up as the most horrible creature with long teeth, glaring eyes, and a bald head. When he was unmasked by the heroine, I gasped and almost screamed. Although I tried to draw my eyes away from his terrible face, I couldn't; his ugliness was so fascinating. The entire picture was so weird and fantastic that the shivers ran up and down my back. For a long time after that, I dared not go near dark places, particularly the cellar. I did not let anyone else know I was frightened for fear they would call me silly.
Female, 14, white, high-school sophomore.—Yes, I have been frightened by a scene from "The Phantom of the Opera." This
(89) one was when the phantom pulled the mask from his face. I gave a little inward cry, for I was so frightened that I couldn't scream. The boys and girls around me were screaming and hiding their faces. The girl that went with me got under her seat. I couldn't move for two or three minutes. I can't explain my feeling; it was a mysterious sensation, and my blood became cooler.
Female, 16, white, high-school sophomore.—I was severely frightened when I saw Lon Chaney in "The Phantom of the Opera." I went home and could not sleep that night, and many nights after that. I would wake up in my sleep and scream from fright.
Female, 17, Negro, high-school senior.—I witnessed one of my most terrible experiences when I saw "The Phantom of the Opera." I will never forget the chill and fear that played tag up and down my spine as the singer approached the figure of the phantom playing the organ. I can see her now moving slowly toward that ugly, inhuman thing. My heart seems to stand still as she snatches the grotesque mask from his face, and his face stands bare. No wonder she fainted. I came near it myself. Every time I think of that scene, I shudder. It is needless to say that for weeks after I was afraid to enter a dark room.
These accounts suffice for an understanding of what can be done by a picture which is consciously designed around the themes of mystery and fear. Of course, most of the experiences of fright in young children result from these specific kinds of pictures, yet it would be a mistake to assume that they are confined to them. Pictures which seek in no sense to play upon the impulses aroused by such scenes may contain an incident here and there which actually induces fear in the child. A college girl writes:
Female, 20, white, college sophomore.—Another unfortunate picture, "Little Lord Fauntleroy," meant only to be a delightful movie for children, left a deep impression: The little girl heroine was delirious for several days and imagined she was wandering
(90) through a strange land where she met a horrible creature who chased her; I will never forget the huge snake which crawled at her. After seeing that picture I had nightmares in which I was being chased by horrible things; usually I woke up so terrified that my father had to come in and quiet me. I doubt whether the producers realized how such a picture would stimulate the imagination of growing children.
The inability on the part of well-intentioned people to visualize just how the child's mind and feelings may be disturbed by gruesome and frightening pictures is shown by the recommendations occasionally made to children to see pictures of the type represented by the following instance
Female, 20, white, college sophomore.—The next stage does not stand out so very well in my mind. I think they were mainly horrible, mysterious types. One that sticks in my mind, and to a certain extent in my dreams, was "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." We were urged at school to go to see the picture. If I ever have contact with children I will certainly keep them from seeing any such plays. For weeks I would wake up seared so that I could hardly move because I had had a dream about some phase of the play.
The chief objective of this discussion is not that, however, of seeking to assess the value or harm of showing such kinds of pictures to children. It is difficult perhaps to evaluate motion pictures in this respect. While, as we have seen, many informants declare that the witnessing of a terrifying picture has left some permanent effect on them, in the main the effect was temporary. The fact, moreover, that people, including children, have a distinct desire for such kinds of pictures is reflected both by box-office receipts and by personal acknowledgments. It may even be found that children display some avid liking for pictures which frighten them. On one occasion the writer
( 91) spoke to a class of boys and girls of the third grade. Out of the class of 44 students 38 gave instances of being frightened, on occasion severely, by certain motion pictures. Yet in response to the further question as to whether or not they like to be frightened by motion pictures, 31 out of the 38 replied that they did.
FRIGHT AS A FORM OF EMOTIONAL POSSESSION
WHAT these experiences do show is that ordinary control over one's feelings and perceptions may be lost on certain occasions. Individuals in the state of fright induced by the witnessing of a motion picture see non-existent things and take special precautions for safety that ordinarily would be ignored. Indeed, many of them realize the absurdity of their ideas and their conduct, yet find it impossible to control either their impulses or their feelings. The very effort taken by the child or youth to explain to himself that what he saw was only a picture and that it is foolish for him to feel afraid points to the condition of emotional possession. It is this overpowering by an impulse or feeling, this arrest of reflective judgment, and the subsequent loss of control that loom up as the most important aspect of this experience of fright.
We follow with some instances which bring out more vividly this point:
Male, 20, white, college sophomore.—" While the City Sleeps," "London After Midnight," both starring Lon Chaney, "Chicago," "Cat and the Canary," and "Shadows of the Night" are mystery and gang war pictures that I have seen and well remember. The shooting in them never frightens me at the time because I always say to myself that it is just a movie and nobody was really hurt in making it, and that blanks are always used in the guns. Nevertheless, when walking home down some dark street, I notice myself walking as far from the buildings
(92) and as far from the big trees and bushes as I can get. Sometimes I clench my fists for fear someone will jump out and hold me up.
Female, 19, while, college sophomore.—About four years ago (I was then fifteen) 1 saw "The Lost World" a movie portraying the prehistoric animals which were supposed to have been rediscovered still living in the African jungles. An American sportsman and his wife believed they could still find dinosaurs of enormous size. Consequently they went on this expedition. As this picture goes on, we see them hunting and searching everywhere for this great reptile at one time seen by a native. Tracks are discovered and finally they come upon the dinosaur which is about seventy feet long, with an ugly, scaly body and a nauseous, slimy neck upon which is perched a little wriggling, pointed head. By this time I was ready to creep; I had to cover my eyes to prevent dizziness; I felt as if all of my insides had turned around; it was not exactly a sick feeling, but terribly creepy and slimy. My companion saw my reaction and suggested leaving the theater, but I was determined not to let my emotions get the best of me. As the story goes the hunters succeed in trapping the beast and in getting him crated for the homeward journey. Meanwhile news has reached London that this rare species had been discovered and masses crowd the wharf to await its arrival. A special raft-like ship was built and the trip goes well until about ten miles from port. Then the dinosaur succeeds in breaking loose and plunges into the sea. He hits some bridge and breaks it to pieces; upon reaching the port he smashed things right and left with his huge tail, tears upon the city, waves down office buildings, crushing and eating people on the street. A panic follows; people get down on their knees to pray; everyone thinks the world is coming to an end. I think the picture ends with the dinosaur's plunging into the ocean, never to be found again and leaving the city in a turmoil about its return. "The Lost World" was probably the most terrifying picture I ever saw, and it certainly left me with a bad imprint for a few days. After I got home I knew that I could not sleep; therefore I sat in the living room and decided to read a book; only the reading lamp was burning and I still insist that I saw all sorts of huge, strange shadows on the wall. Every little noise made me jump.
(93) Finally I dozed off and suddenly began to kick and struggle as if I were trying to get away from being crushed; my entire night was spent in that manner and the next day I could not concentrate on my work at school. I knew perfectly well that it was all imagination but try as I might I could not get that picture out of my mind. Even now as I write about it I shudder and feel the tension of my nerves.
Female, 20, white, college sophomore.—I saw many pictures which almost scared me out of a year's growth, but the one that had the greatest effect, so far as I can remember, was "Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde." When I saw the awful Mr. Hyde creeping and cringing around, I wanted to yell. In one spot, when Mr. Hyde was hiding behind a door and was about to spring upon a girl, I actually shut my eyes. I could not look. It was awful, then. It probably would seem awful to me to-day too. This terror inspired by the film version of Stevenson's story remained with me for several weeks. It was real, as no other movie-inspired terror ever lasted that long with me. I hated to go into dark rooms alone. I always had a terrifying vision of this ugly, misshapen thing meeting me in the dark. If I couldn't find a light I wouldn't enter the room. This may sound absurd, but it is true. Finally, I started the old trick of whistling to keep up my courage. It worked more or less successfully, but by the time I had mastered the trick the effects of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" had worn off to a great degree.
Female, 15, white, high-school sophomore. —About four months ago I saw Douglas Fairbanks in "The Gaucho." In the picture was a hideous man who had some kind of a "black death" disease. His face was covered with a veil and he was bent and stooped. He blinked like a monkey and he looked like one, only worse. Altogether, he presented the most horrible sight I have ever seen. For months I imagined this man to be hiding in the dark, behind a door. I tried to dispel this crazy idea by calling myself silly, but it didn't work. I don't like to write about it now because if I recall the picture too vividly my imaginings may begin again. Once I even dreamed he was chasing me. What a nightmare! For a few nights after I saw the picture, I kept a light in my room, much to the disgust of my mother.
These instances added to those given above should suffice to establish the point that motion pictures may play very vividly upon a given emotion of the individual; his impulses may be so aroused and his imagery so fixed that for a period of time he is transported out of his normal conduct and is completely subjugated by his impulses.