Dante: The Divine Comedy – ‘In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.’ – Inferno Canto 1: 1-60. The Dark Wood and the Hill.
Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood
Do not let it grieve you
No one leaves for good
You are not alone
No one is alone
I was not expecting to become a sobbing mess during Into The Woods.
Truth be told, I am in a very delicate place. The blasted landscape of Grief. My brother died under traumatic circumstances this year and my response was to go into ‘coping/organisational’ mode, then numbness then dissociation. Something had to give eventually and after many months the reality of the situation started to seep into my bones and finally my brain, where it’s presently wreaking havoc in the a form of a PTSD like condition.
Into The Woods is a clever confabulation of classic fairy tales, which hearkens back to their dark origins. The end of the film is a virtual holocaust, with many characters dead and others bereaved.
Fairy tales, the old-fashioned kind, are very potent. They represent the shadowiest recesses of the human mind. Our hopes. Our fears. Everything that makes us human, including unimaginable pain.
Just watching this film version of Sondheim’s and Lapine’s remarkable piece, pierced my very thin defenses and touched the rawest nerves in my being. At this moment, that is perhaps a very easy thing to do. Films can be cathartic and healing in an odd way. Through this film I was able to release some of the pain I’d been holding onto for decades (losing both parents very young), along with my present pain. The old and the present pains are of course connected.
Here’s a temporary thesis – Good Fairy Tales are about teaching us to deal with loss and impermanence. Bad Fairy Tales are saccharine things full of lies that merely distract and teach us nothing. The Fairy or Folk Tale is of course, closely aligned to dark fantasy writing and horror fiction/movies. Horror is primarily a young person’s genre as the undeniable truth that we will all die has not yet fully penetrated the developing mind. Fairy Tales are created for even younger minds. In Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Denial Of Death (1973), he outlined the thesis that the human personality is formed around the process of denying death so that we can continue to function. The downside is that this belief obscures self-knowledge and is responsible for much of the evil in the world.
43 years later, The Worm At The Core: On The Role Of Death In Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski actually verified this theory using psychological testing (over many, many years). They called it terror management theory.
Let’s go back to my Good/Bad Fairy Tale hypothesis. I think we can now see that MOST Fairy Tales and horror movies, although they include the idea of mortality, also deny it by having characters rise from the dead. How about Snow White and Michael Myers? In fact very few horror movies and film/theatre adaptations of fairy tales deal with bereavement, ageing and death in any meaningful way, apart from possibly Don’t Look Now and Into The Woods, which both riff on Little Red Riding Hood.
TMT combines existential philosophy, anthropology, sociology and psychology and proposes that the avoidance of the idea of death has far-reaching consequences into how we manage our personal lives, our society and more disturbingly, our politics. In fact it penetrates to the very heart of humanity. It has existed since we became self-aware and has molded how we have conducted ourselves through history. It probably led to the invention of spirituality, religion – and art, and has helped us build the world we now inhabit. A sometimes beautiful but mainly monstrous, warring planet overwhelmed with an obsession with fame, social injustice and unimaginable cruelty towards our fellow kind.
It’s not all negative however, despite the bleak picture I’ve just painted. We have ART; the desire to represent the world around us and the feelings it provokes. Hense story telling. It’s unclear whether spirituality encouraged story telling or vice versa. At any rate we NEED story telling, much like terror management theory, to navigate our lives. Stories can act as guides. Unfortunately our own lives do not have clear cut beginnings, middles and ends. The narrative can be cut off by sudden death. Most people do not like ambiguous endings. They need resolution. Usually a happy one. Very young minds are very similar to older minds in this regard. What the best Fairy Tales and Into The Woods provides is something different. ‘Good’ wins over ‘evil’, then everything falls apart and becomes as chaotic as the real world itself. Characters have to make tough decisions that don’t chime with their original desires. (‘I wish. I want’) They then have to adapt to an imperfect world. I think this is a good message for children. A good message for all of us.
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see