Why do we look?

You ever watch one of those movies that disturbs you just enough to want to go back and dig around in its innards? Figure out what about it caused you to walk away thinking about it? And have it stick in your head?

I have been watching “film noir” movies lately. Don’t ask me why, other than my psyche loves their sick, twisted approach. Gaslight. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Bette Davis was robbed of that Oscar!) Hush… Hush Sweet Charlotte. (Why did no one warn me?? That was amazing, but at the same time, holy hell, Batman! And I can’t even say why without revealing a massive spoiler! WAH!)

Last night, I watched Lady in a Cage. And for some reason, that one is sticking with me enough to want to talk about it. In it, Olivia de Havilland plays a woman with a recently broken hip, who gets stuck in her temporary elevator in an electrical blow out, in the middle of a holiday weekend’s heat wave. Her frantic buzzing for help draws a drunk into her home, who takes a few things and goes home to recruit a prostitute to help him “clean out the place.” All of them get more than they bargained for when three hoodlums track him to the house with her stuck in a cage eight feet off the floor.

You could call the film “trashy,” and it is – in a clean 60’s sort of way, it makes all kinds of horrific implications that would have been shocking at the time, but it never shows much, tantalizing the audience with information but leaving them horrified at the underlining message the director is sending… the general “apathy” of human beings. We cringe along with Cornelia, stuck sweating in her elevator, when the hoodlum, Randall, beats up his girlfriend upstairs (and she likes it). We watch in disbelief and horror as people pass an alarm bell and ignore it, or drive past a house being robbed, or don’t see a woman screaming for help on the side of a busy street. The director sets up this apathy early, when he shows cars careening pat a dead dog lying in the street. Someone’s pet has died, and no one gives a damn. Just as they don’t give a damn until the climax literally stops traffic.

It’s an effective movie in its underlining menace, suspense, and the mounting horror of knowing a murderous psychopath is loose in the house. At first, Randall wears a stocking over his head. That doesn’t stop Cornelia from taking a jab at him – oh, he’s a product of the foster system, “so this is what my tax dollars are paying for!” she snarls.

Then, he takes off the stocking. And she gets worried. Now, she’s seen his face. She can recognize him. He knows that. It’s all to make her suffer the dread of her impending but inevitable death. He kills someone in front of her. The audience also watches what she cannot see—him almost drown one of his cohorts for ogling his girl in the bath. The actor is James Cann, better known a few years later for playing the brutal but likable Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. Here, he slithers around the house like a snake, and you are not just sure what else he might have in mind for the “rich lady.” There’s enough sexual menace in his performance to make you worried.

The movie isn’t perfect and it doesn’t tell us what happened with a plot twist at the end, but it sticks with you. And, it made me think. It works, because home invasions are real. Murders are real. There are recorded cases of people paying no attention to screams for help or to someone stumbling around bloody and battered. It wasn’t their concern. None of their business. So they didn’t do anything. Women are vulnerable. Invalids are vulnerable. And psychopaths exist. That’s why it works, why it scares us, and why thrillers are an effective form of storytelling, because everyone has a basic survival instinct. We want to see the main character survive.

But why do we “look”? Why when we pass a dead dog, even if it makes us sad, do we still look? Why if we pass an accident do we look? Are we hoping to see something or nothing? Is it morbid curiosity? A strange detachment? Vague curiosity about death and others’ misfortunes? Why do we scare ourselves with psychological thrillers or horror movies? Why does evil interest us so much? Is it because it’s against our nature, or very much a part of it? Do we look at it to avoid looking too deep inside ourselves? If we did, what would we find? Or is it we love the jolt of adrenaline fear gives us, like the terrified kid who rides the roller coaster six times for the “high”?

I love to be frightened. In a safe way. And I love to think about the mental mindset behind evil, because I can’t fathom it, can’t understand it, and in the end, that’s a good thing. It means I am not a psychopath.

2 thoughts on “Why do we look?

Add yours

  1. I think for me, morbid curiosity gets the better of me. Some things prove themselves to be too morbid, like marathoning SVU, but there’s a reason why I occasionally read books on serials killers and why I watched both of Netflix’s recent productions on Ted Bundy. It’s like I want to see if I can figure out what went wrong. What started the crazy. It doesn’t matter that I’m not going to actually spot something that psychologists or investigators missed, but that insatiable curiosity won’t let me set it aside.

    One weird side effect is that I’m very aware of the people around me if I’m in a parking lot or even shopping in a grocery store. Not that I’m suspicious, just aware. Because I don’t want to end up like that person who fell victim to so and so.

    Maybe these types of films/books are our way of growing smarter without actually putting ourselves in danger.

    1. You are right. I think humans do wonder about what went wrong, why this happened, what caused that person to do those awful things… it’s abnormal in a sense (not many of us, thankfully, know a bunch of psychopaths) so we look at it, the same as we’d notice another abnormality like two heads or sixteen pads on a cat’s nine toes.

      The weird thing is… the answer is simple: psychopaths are incapable of basic human emotions or empathy. They are hollow. But the rest of us, with our deep, intense feelings, can’t believe that. It’s like a shadow in the mirror. We can see it, but we don’t believe it’s real. It’s unfathomable to us.

      Being aware of others is a good way to be. I’m sorry we live in such a dangerous world now, but better safe than dead in an alley. 😛

      Your last point makes me smile. It’s true, we love a little bit of danger as long as it’s not real. Hence, our love for vampire stories. Seductive evil that can’t literally suck us dry.

Share Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: