Waiting to Be Shocked and Woken Up

I get really annoyed by people who gasp at movies—specifically gasping at parts which aren’t too shocking. The kinds of places in movies where everybody else is going, “I saw that coming,” and proceeds to just shift in their seat so as to wake up the half of their rump that’s gone all somnambulist on them. When people struggle for breath at those places in the film, it just sticks out awkwardly. Because it’s so counter-cultural.

We’re not a people who gasp anymore. It’s like fainting from hearing traumatic news—nobody does that; that’s an action sequestered to the time of Victorian manors and whalebone corsets. And we, today, don’t gasp. We’ve seen it all, unlike those who’ve gone before us. The “lost generation” of Hemingway and such were the numb ones—the ones who gasped, realized nobody else back home was gasping with them, and sat there silently trying to make sense of a world where two such polar opposites could exist in a simultaneous cacophony.

Or even a few decades later. Typically during wars our country was involved in, you would never see publicized photos of American soldiers’ bodies in newspapers or magazines. You just didn’t do that. Perhaps out of respect, but also because lying facedown dead in the dust wasn’t America, and if you’re needing to keep up the perception of how we are strong and dominant, such pictures hurt your cause. But Vietnam comes, we’re not strong and dominant, and everybody gasps. We were weak and confused and the black-and-white scheme of bad guys versus good guys was no longer a discernible line. It was as muddled as ice cream soup. And it caused our jaws to drop.

But that’s not us anymore. Nothing makes us gasp. We’re now in a country/world where just about everything that can be done has been done. When we hear on the news about dads who have locked their daughters in closets to keep them as their personal sex slaves, it still turns our stomach, but it doesn’t really shock us anymore like it would’ve perhaps twenty years ago because the word “incest” has lost some of its punch. We’ve heard it before. When we now see pictures of dead soldiers it doesn’t really jar us all that much (unless you’re in the military) because it’s no longer a foreign sight, and besides, we see the same thing in movies. And those movies are cool. Sex also doesn’t really thrill us all that much, what with easy-access porn. The veil of mystery really isn’t there anymore. The marriage bed might as well be as commonplace as the weekly mowing of the lawn.

We’re not shocked any longer. And I think we miss that. I’m pretty sure deep down we long to be shocked.

This is exactly why people will slow down as they drive past a car accident, and it’s not done out of respect, sadness, or even to see what happened because we already know what happened. We know what an accident is. It’s two or more vehicles colliding, crunching each other, and most likely causing damage to the lives contained within those cars. Quite possibly, people are hurt. And that’s what we’re trying to get a better look at. We’re hoping to see something jarring.

We all know this from personal experience. When we have to wait in standstill traffic for the longest time only to see the clog of cars suddenly free up for no apparent reason, we get a little frustrated because the highway didn’t provide some answer for why we just sat in traffic for the last hour, sweating the pits out of our pressed and starched Oxfords. We need pacification through justification. Our waiting needs legitimacy given to it. Instead of being glad there is no accident of carnage to be seen, we’re indignant. Because we want to be shocked.

And when we do drive past an accident, we’re almost disappointed to see how it was a family with a flat tire—that’s it?—causing us to go down the interstate at a snail’s pace. We want blood. We want screaming grief clutching the median while firefighters hold her back and do their best to placate her. We want Zoe Saldaña in Crash. We want to see people sitting and hugging their knees with their hands as their glassed-over expression decries their anesthetized state. We want something to make us go, “Oh my God,” and unnerve us to where the rest of our day has a tactile alertness to it crawling across our skin. Without this, life is just the same desensitized snooze button.

(Side note: this is why I think people gobble up Chuck Palahniuk’s novels.)

We’re not masochists. We’re not evil. We’re just asleep. And we know this and need something to wake us up. We’re vegetables, comatose in the sense we’re well aware of our surroundings but can do nothing to interact with them, impatiently waiting for that miracle jolt to awaken us and bring us back to the land of feeling. And it can’t be the same story or sight that made you gasp way back when because that’s old news, too. It needs to be better, stronger, more over the top than the last. If it’s not, you’ll only be dissatisfied.

But for the person who gasps at that movie scene—the one everybody else takes in with a ho-hum attitude—his jolt is what it is. We who are more acclimated to the violent nature of the world in which we live tend to judge this person’s shocked attitude and ascribe to it the descriptors of ridiculous, unmerited, and altogether out-of-touch, but we are in no position to do such a thing. We then assign a level of immaturity, unintelligence, and inexperience to this person, which couldn’t be more inappropriate. In reality, perhaps we are the ones who are altogether out-of-touch. But that doesn’t change how our sector will ridicule theirs.

The girl who is deeply offended by the racy nature of today’s television commercials will be laughed at, but if she’s never viewed porn, then her response makes sense. It is not our job to come along and bring her up (or down) to our echelon so she can “get a level head on her shoulders.” It is our job to sit and listen, rather than scoff and convert.

If anything, these people are better able to see the pain, heartache, and macabre better than any of us. They will be able to pinpoint hurt, deception, and evil in its truer, purer forms; a viewing of the over-the-top is not needed to wake them up. These people, then, can direct us back to what is more “par level,” if you will. Their reaction can help remind us how, for example, infidelity really is quite horrific even if it is now commonplace. They can aid in bringing us back to a more childlike understanding of horror, where simple words like “dark,” “alone,” and “hungry” communicate sheer terror.

But we don’t want to be like kids again because such a thing is never desired here anymore (even though especially now we probably resemble children more than we realize). This is because being “in touch” is in such high demand. It is a symptom of the Information Age which may very well now be incurable. And it spreads to the point where we vilify rather than encourage those around us who are more easily shocked by what they see.

Now, it still annoys me—the movie gasps—because it means this person and I could probably not be very good friends. Odds are, he’s not had enough pain in his life and has too rosy a view of things. Am I jumping to conclusions? Pretty severely, yes—I’ll admit that. Everybody’s had pain, so Movie Gasper’s life probably isn’t too different from mine. I all too quickly label and ship off such people, shunning them to a place in my mind reserved for those who “don’t get it.” Sure, something could be said for the danger of living like an ostrich with its head in the ground; that isn’t healthy, either. But there’s a balance to be struck in terms of both sides, and rarely do you see such high-wire acts being carried out with skilled, measured steps. So perhaps I’m the one who is clueless and blind, lacking the more crystalline sight of the less-adulterated crowd.

Much love.

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