Unsure How To Deal With New-Age Anxiety? Try Fantasy.
Since the millennium, life has become increasingly stress inducing. How to cope? Scream, cry, and explore the fantastical.
By Ruby Thelot
The End Times is a column cataloguing the omens of the Apocalypse as they occur in culture.
On the eve of the new millennium, a million fireworks were tested and readied. Men in beige work chinos adjusted the firing settings, tweaking meticulously the timers of the launchers; everything had to be perfect. Governments around the world celebrated the passage into a new age, the year 2000. If you were there, you may recall the titillating feeling that the future was upon us. The internet was just starting to gain popularity, with only 250 million users worldwide.
I was given, in my grade school class, an aluminum box embossed with a dove, when cracked open, the box revealed a soft black velvet interior with a commemorative set of coins and stamps. I’ve kept the box and its offering in mint condition ever since, perhaps because I intuitively knew that it marked a great departure into the unknown, and I wanted a memento of the before times. The dove, probably representing peace, in hindsight, best exemplifies my unbothered innocence entering the uncharted New Age of Anxiety.
On the eve of the new millennium, tensions ran high. By all accounts, political, religious, or technological, the world was supposed to end. There were plots linked to al-Qaeda to set off explosives at LAX with “a blast forty times greater than that of a devastating car bomb.” A US military ship, the USS The Sullivans, was also targeted by a failed bombing attempt near Yemen. Fundamentalist Christian leaders saw the year 2000 (Y2K) as an omen of the Apocalypse. In late 1999, the New York Times reported that “the Rev. Jerry Falwell suggested that Y2K would confirm Christian prophecy – God's instrument to shake this nation, to humble this nation.” The Y2K crisis might incite a worldwide revival that would lead to the rapture of the church.
Along with many survivalists, Mr. Falwell advised stocking up on food and guns. Computer scientists and engineers worldwide became increasingly worried about the Y2K bug: the hypothesis that computer software would fail in mass due to the date change. Programs developed in the 20th century usually represented years with only the two last digits and removed the “19” to save on memory costs. As the millennium changed, computers would fail, and the globalized bug would engender massive disruptions in telecommunications and infrastructure.
But nothing happened.
We entered the new millennium with loud celebrations but no true events. In a sense, we amassed all this anxiety but enjoyed no catharsis. All the apprehension had built up but never been evacuated. A freak-out is a burst of transient high emotion meant to express and expulse the accumulated stress. The freak-out has a bodily function: it provides an escape to unspent emotional energy. In the following years, what we got was much worse: no one civilizational event but a neverending series of seemingly major events, one after the other.
In a sense, we’ve been freaking out since 1999, with no rest, no relief, no break. Modernity was dubbed by philosopher Frederic Jameson “The Age of Anxiety” because of the central thematic present in the art it engendered. Archetypical modernist paintings like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” expressed feelings of “alienation, anomie, solitude, social fragmentation, and isolation,” so prominent during the period, consequential aftershocks of rampant industrialization.
In “The Scream,” it is understood that the yell punctures the calm of the urban setting. The scream is a freak-out, by nature, temporary and cathartic. Our age is different in that the scream seems to be digitally recorded and played on loop on a buggy media player. There is no end in sight for the freak-out, it has become endless. The worries of 1999 have been exacerbated: the burgeoning predictions surrounding climate change have blossomed into serious and dire, the internet, a marginal consumer technology at the time, now feels ubiquitous, and the political worries about terrorism have proven troublingly true.
In the face of inescapable worry, where do we find refuge? The culture industry and its accompanying spectacle have stepped up and provided shelter from this anxiety in the form of fantasy. For the last ten years, multi-platform epics like the Marvel Cinematic Universe have dominated the box office. A way to understand their popularity is through the concept of “paracosms.” A paracosm (from the Greek, para meaning “beside” + world “cosmos”) is a prolonged fantasy world usually originating in childhood. Children usually inhabit these alternative worlds to “orient themselves in reality,” and they possess idiosyncratic elements like imaginary friends, unique conventions, and histories.
Movies used to be singular works of art, and even when there were sequels, the trilogies, or however many were produced, were circumscribed in a franchise. Cinematic universes expand the idea of franchises into wholly culturally habitable worlds. From TV to movies to games, an audience member can remain in the same world undisturbed by other franchises or the real world. The fascination with “cinematic universes” is highly related to the extension of paracosms into adulthood.
Psychiatrists Delmont and Shirley Morrison, in their book “Memories of Loss and Dreams of Perfection,” identify paracosms as a coping mechanism for children who suffer an early loss. It is in that world that they process and understand their loss. We use paracosms for the same purpose; in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we play out fantasies of victory, grandeur, and grief. In a world torn by war, the coddled Western public reenacts the conflicts with toy figures and superheroes. This time, the world is saved, the terrorist attack is prevented, the good guys win. The most popular movies reveal what we really want: order, calm, justice... But alas, here we are.
Paracosms have a shelf life and, slowly but surely, the real impedes on their ability to provide an escape. It is a privilege to live in a world of fantasy, and that power may soon be eroding. Children who are removed from their paracosms can face serious psychological consequences. The loss of a safe emotional outlet is tantamount to the loss of coping mechanisms, which can lead to suppressed emotions and difficulty in processing complex feelings. Moreover, the removal from fantasy can lead to psychological distress and increased anxiety.
We need to learn to deal with the eternal freak-out before we are caught off-guard, thrown into the real. We need to learn to expel the tension that has settled beneath our skin. Fuck, yell, cry, anything to live and express the emotions bottled up for two decades. May I suggest standing on a bridge and screaming?