The Emotional Hook—and Am I the Fish?

This post was written by Carlee Schmidt Reber, Humanities Center Student Fellow

We’ve all had one of those hodge-podge dreams where the book, TV series, and movie you recently watched mix themselves into a tangled narrative in which you are centrally involved. It’s always about ten minutes after I wake up, getting ready in the bathroom, that my mind finally starts sifting through what was real and what was dream.

One of my recent combo-dreams mixed ABC’s first season of Once Upon a Time, BYUtv’s Extinct, Orson Scott Card’s Shadow of the Hegemon, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Throw in the stress of midterms and some work deadlines, and my mind gave me a potently heart-pounding misadventure. I’m far past the point of remembering details (though I’m pretty sure Regina/Evil Queen was the powerful villain and we were traveling through space), but I do remember the emotional rollercoaster of the dream.

After a few more dreams of similar magnitude, I seriously questioned whether engaging with such emotionally-intense stories was healthy for me.

My reflections called to mind a criticism of the popular Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton. A few years ago, and recently again with the release of the TV series, Stanton’s work has been criticized as “emotional pornography.” Viewers immediately engage with individuals who share poignantly emotional parts of their lives, but the mediated snapshot medium means that these raw human experiences are taken in one after the other without actual human connection.

Is there all that much difference between a viewer’s engagement with the emotionally poignant Humans of New York and our engagement with an adventurous novel, or a tragic play, or an inspiring movie? I cried when I got to the end of Wilson Rawl’s Where the Red Fern Grows, and read it again anyways. We all have our favorite inspirational movie where a good two-thirds of the film is the heart-breaking struggle of the protagonist, where he or she fails, struggles, and almost gives up. The “emotional pornography” criticism of Humans of New York is more aptly directed as a question about human nature: why do we love narratives that make us feel deeply intense emotions?

We could go about our day-to-day lives with so much less drama: no explosions, no separation from family members, no high-risk quests. Wouldn’t that be more peaceful? More easygoing? I know I’d sleep better. And yet we proactively choose to engage with these stories that tug on our emotions in every direction. Why?

I don’t have an answer, but I do have some musings.

Maybe it’s a premeditation thing. Perhaps if we see someone else experience tragedy or heartbreak, we can prepare for how we would react if something should happen to us. Perhaps if we see someone struggle to overcome weaknesses or prejudice, we can draw on their strength when we face challenges. Perhaps if we watch enough screwball comedies, we either won’t make the same silly mistakes or when we do, at least we can keep a lighthearted perspective and chuckle.

Maybe they give us personal insight. The emotional resonance we have with a story can teach us things about ourselves. Take as a case study my love for the film How to Train Your Dragon. It is satisfying for me to see brains win over brawn because that’s what my hopes for success in life are counting on. It was this film that helped me realize that experiencing the feeling of discovery is something I need on a regular basis, as part of my lifestyle. I value the creativity and compassion of the protagonist, Hiccup, because those are high priorities in my own life. Though not an outcast like him, I did struggle with feeling lonely in high school, and the associated independence of thought has continued. And then there’s my long-standing, deeply-rooted desire to befriend and ride a dragon—but that’s a topic for another day.

Maybe they give us cultural insight. Our anxieties as a society have always been expressed through the stories we share. That would explain the emotional poignancy of the tales. Stories also pass on our values, the virtues we want to continue in future generations. Making the stories emotionally powerful makes them memorable, and thus it sticks with people.

Maybe it all comes back to the basic human desire for connection. We experience emotions, and we want the validation that comes from knowing other people feel them too. We want to feel with another being. We crave the connection that emotions can bring to us. Stories make this connection accessible.

Do you think I’ve hit it on the head with one of these? Have I missed some possibility? I don’t feel certain I’ve brought to light a clear answer, but I do know this: the narratives are valuable. Stories rich in emotion are treasures from and for humanity.

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