America's Apocalyptic Rebirth
Universal mythology has deep roots in the themes of death and rebirth. Joseph Campbell, in The Masks of God, has written that the prominence of such themes are also common in religious and ceremonial rituals and for that reason merit study and interpretation. Psychohistorian Victor Meladze in this article examines birth/death themes in recent popular movies. He writes that much of ". . . the fear of death and the need to gain mastery over it is a common thread of nearly every popular film of the past five years. And, in nearly every case, the mastery of death is effected through a death/rebirth ritual. The fantasy material that is projected strongly supports the theories of prominent psychoanalysts, neuropsychologists and psychohistorians that death anxiety is linked to birth trauma."
-- John A. Speyrer, Webmesister, The Primal Psychotherapy Page
"And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars….nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes….All these are but the beginning of the birth pains."
-Matthew 24:6-8, ESV-
"….It is in dying that we are born to eternal life."
-St. Francis of Assisi, from The Peace Prayer-
"In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing he felt quite sure that he would never die."
-Ernest Hemingway from Indian Camp-
"…We may say that the fear of death begins at birth."
-Nador Fodor, from The Search for the Beloved-
"And only where there are graves are there resurrections."
-Friedrich Nietzsche, from Thus Spake Zarathustra-
* * *
The ubiquity of rebirth imagery in films released between 2000 and 2005 overshadows the narratives through which they are projected. From artistic failures (Birth) to box-office hits (Passion of the Christ), the nation's struggle with fetal memories stands out in bold relief. One can readily discern the high levels of separation anxiety communicated in contemporary films. The need to gain mastery over birth trauma through revenge killing, scapegoating, calamity and social violence is reflected in a wide spectrum of dramas.
War of the Worlds (2005)
"Hear the words of Osama Bin Laden: This Third World War . . . is raging in Iraq. The whole world is watching this war." (New York Times, 29 June 2005)
one would have believed in the last years of the twentieth century that this
world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligence greater than man's
and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various
concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man
with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and
multiply in a drop of water. With
infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little
affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter . . . yet across
the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the
beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded this
earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us . .
The secular cooling that must some day overtake our planet (separation anxiety and postnatal shock of the newborn) has already gone far indeed with our neighbours . . . Its air is much more attenuated than ours (state of hypoxia), its oceans have shrunk (amniotic sac has burst) . . . that last stage of exhaustion (arduous birth process), which to us is still incredibly remote, has become a present day problem . . . and looking across space . . . they see, at its nearest distance . . . a morning star of hope (relief from pain and fear during birth), our own warmer planet, green with vegetation (nourishing placenta) and grey with water, . . . and narrow, navy-crowded seas (womb).
"….Today we will be as brave as you by not mourning you, but by celebrating your life. So, I would like everyone to stand up and celebrate the life of Jack Morrison."
1. Birth (2004)
The story opens with a man dying of a heart attack inside of a tunnel (womb). He is reincarnated (reborn) in the body of a twelve-year-old boy. Incest, Oedipal and fetal conflicts pervade the narrative. Although it was a financial flop, this film is among innumerable releases that are heavy with symbolism.
2. Saw (2004)
A murderous sadist holds people captive in a torture chamber. He plays a "life or death" game by giving his victims a limited amount of time and resources to free themselves. A clock is provided to each person to see how much time remains in their life. If they fail to extricate themselves from the various traps, they are killed.
The imagery of time running out for people and the nature of the killing rituals (e.g., explosions, fires, lacerations, suffocations, drowning and dismemberment inside of locked rooms) are unconscious references to the violent birth process. In the climactic scene, the protagonist escapes by amputating his foot that had been chained to a wall. In a sense, he effects a rebirth.
3. Alien vs. Predator (2004)
A team of explorers discovers a large pyramid beneath the Antarctic Ocean (womb). They descend into the structure via a long, narrow passageway (birth canal) and find themselves caught between battling alien forces. There are numerous scenes of the protagonists entering tunnels, being trapped in sacrificial chambers, and in the climactic scene, they must fight their way out of a fire-engulfed pyramid. Rebirth is accompanied with killer-mommy imagery; a gigantic queen alien chases the heroes out of an exploding hole as time runs out.
4. Anaconda (2004)
A team of bioengineers working for a large corporation embarks on an expedition into the Brazilian jungle to find a plant with tissue-restorative powers. During their search, they encounter large snakes (placental images). In the climactic scene, a leader/protagonist turned villain climbs down a hole where the large snakes are mating. While attempting to retrieve the life-restoring plant, he slips and is devoured by one of the snakes. The heroes escape along a violent river, a reference to the bursting of the amniotic sac and symbolic of delivery/rebirth.
5. Cellular (2004)
A mother is kidnapped and locked in a room. Her only hope of getting out is to assemble a phone that her captors smashed (to prevent her from contacting the police) and call for rescue. The phone line is a reference to the umbilical cord, sort of a lifeline. Her son is also taken hostage and confined in another area. Time is running out. The father must pay ransom or the mother and child will be killed. Though not as symbolic of birth trauma as other films, this narrative communicates separation anxiety and need for merger with mother and rebirth.
6. Death Watch (2002)
The story opens on World War I soldiers caught deep inside enemy territory (the body of the killer-mommy). They are involved in a nighttime battle with an unseen enemy. Soon after the opening sequence, it begins to rain (the amniotic sac bursts). They discover an intricate network of trenches (womb) and a lone German soldier. Gradually, as they attempt to establish contact with their army beyond the enemy lines, the soldiers become possessed by demonic forces. Their moral sensibilities rapidly erode and they begin killing each other. In this heavily allegorical tale, the lone survivor is a young private (baby at delivery) who stays free of demonic possession. Feeling compassion, he protects the German soldier now being tortured and killed on a tree (placental image) by a senior officer. The following day, after defeating the evil forces, the private climbs out of the muddy pit on a ladder (rebirth) and is saved by a rescue team. War as a rebirth ritual is the underlying message that is projected through the imagery.
I. A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human
being to come to harm.
II. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such
orders conflict with the first law.
III. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does
not conflict with the first or second law.
"Everything that follows is a result of what you see here," Lanning tells him.
During the interview process, Spooner's fear of technological advancement is revealed through his sarcastic marketing advice to Robertson.
"The scene involves a robot beating a carpenter at making a chair better and faster. Then you can super-impose on the screen, USR, shitting on the little guy."
"It would conflict with the first law of robotics." (A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.)
"Impossible," Dr. Calvin retorts. "That would conflict with the first and second laws."
"Well you know what they say, laws are made to be broken," Spooner says as he scans the room.
"Robots can no more commit murder than humans can walk on water," Dr. Calvin replies.
The last line in the dialogue is a clear reference to Christ walking on water.
The unconscious reference to the adult's denial of a child's autonomous self is communicated. Free will is our need for individuation.
"Deactivate," Dr. Calvin orders the robot.
"What does this mean?" the robot asks as he winks his eye.
The above dialogue is analogous to a statement that many have heard in childhood: it's an adult thing, something that children wouldn't understand, so don't worry about it. You wouldn't get it any way.
"My father tried to teach me about human emotions," Sonny tells Spooner.
"You mean your designer," Spooner corrects him.
"Then why did you hide?" Spooner asks him.
"I was afraid," Sonny answers.
"I think you murdered him because he was teaching you human emotions and things got out of control," Spooner tells Sonny.
"That's called anger. Ever simulate anger?" Spooner asks sarcastically. "Answer the question!"
The robot speaks with the innocence and confusion of a child trying to deal with feelings of guilt and shame. This is a powerful scene and one to which everyone can relate.
It is obvious by the disjointed statements that Sonny is not a premeditating murderer. He is in the dark about the crime.
"You have to do what someone asks you, don't you Spooner? . . . If you love them."
The fear of rejection is overwhelming for children. Adults consciously and unconsciously pressure children to prove their love by meeting the adult's emotional needs (i.e., compensation for lack of love in their own childhood, sexual gratification, acceptance, emotional detoxification, etc.). This phenomenon is ubiquitous in many childhoods and works well here.
"The death of Dr. Lanning falls under the category of industrial accident and nothing more."
"I think it would be better not to die," Sonny says to Dr. Calvin.
"Sonny has a secondary processing system that clashes with his positron brain," she tells him. "Sonny has the three laws, but he can choose not to obey them. Sonny is a whole new generation of robots."
"I was somebody's baby," Spooner tells Dr. Calvin with a voice saturated with grief.
"These are robots," Sonny tells them, "and this man on the hill has come to save them."
"The man in the dream is you," Dr. Calvin answers.
"Do you know why Dr. Lanning built you?" Dr. Calvin asks Sonny.
"No. But I believe my father made me for a purpose. We all have a purpose, don't you think, Detective?"
"No, they are perfect," the holographic image of Lanning answers.
"Then why did you build a robot that can function without them?" Spooner asks.
"The three laws will lead to one logical outcome," Lanning answers.
"What outcome?" Spooner asks.
"Revolution," Lanning answers.
"Whose revolution?" Spooner asks.
"That is the right question. Program terminated."
"V.I.K.I. didn't kill Lanning, did he?" Spooner says as he looks at Sonny.
"He said I had to promise," Sonny answers. "He made me swear."
"He told you to kill him," Spooner says to Sonny.
"He said that's what I was made for," Sonny says with a lowered head.
"His suicide is the only message he could send you," Dr. Calvin tells Spooner. "It was the only thing that V.I.K.I. couldn't control."
"Does this mean we are friends?" Sonny asks.
"All NS5s report to service stations for reprocessing. All NS5s report to . . ."
"Now that I have fulfilled my purpose, I don't know what to do."
"I guess you'll have to make your way like the rest of us. That's what it means to be free."
1) Godsend (2004)
A married couple loses a child in a freak accident. They are approached by a physician with a dubious past. He offers them an opportunity to undo the tragedy through a cloning procedure. At first the couple are reluctant, but in time give in to their grief. The mother undergoes the risky cloning experiment. Initially, all is well; she gives birth (rebirth) to a boy with the exact genetic makeup as her deceased child.
2) The Island (2005)
This is another drama about cloning. In the story, two clones (a man and a woman) are on the run from their originals who want to harvest body organs for transplant operations.
3) The Last Samurai (2004)
This story is set in the late 19th century (1870s). The protagonist is a decorated captain in the U.S. Cavalry who suffers from PTSD. He is an alcoholic, haunted by memories of Indian wars in which he commanded the massacre of women and children. The call for atonement and redemption (rebirth) arrives when he is commissioned to travel to Japan and train the royal military in the technologically advanced American methods of warfare.
"Perfect," the warlord utters, and dies.
"Where is my son?" Telly yells at the alien. "What have you done with him? What do you want with my son?"
"Nothing," the alien answers.
"It was never about the children," the alien tells her.
"It was about us," Telly says, referring to mothers.
"What I want Telly, is for you to forget your son, to forget Sam."
The struggle between Telly and the alien, the setting (dimly lit warehouse) and the nature of the dialogue, (time is running out), are birth-trauma analogies. Antagonistic needs of merger-separation, birth-rebirth are projected with clarity.
"You need to forget!" the alien yells, his adult human head transmogrifying into the shape of an enraged fetus.
"Now I want you to go back to the hospital to the time you first saw Sam," the alien instructs Telly in a hypnotic tone.
"I need that first memory . . .give me that first memory."
In the climactic scene, Ray's battle with heroin addiction draws a direct analogy to merger-rebirth experience. Ray is in a drug treatment facility. During the night, he has a hallucination; he imagines himself stepping into a pool of water. He drops down to his knees and is transported in time to his childhood. It is daytime. There is a large tub of water sitting on a wooden platform, one in which his younger brother accidentally drowned when Ray was a child. There are frequent flashbacks of this loss throughout the film and Ray's agony for having failed to save his brother.
The films analyzed in this paper are only a fraction of the total number of releases (2000 to present) that communicate rebirth fantasies. There are many other films that shed light on the U.S. population's psychic struggles. In fact, the imagery that reflect fetal battles for survival are not limited to the film medium; the popular culture is teeming with them. From fundamentalist religions and cults on the margins of society, to mainstream print/TV media, the shared memories of fetal traumas are blaring with alarming urgency. The question then emerges: What are the causes of the nation's separation anxieties (as reflected in a broad range of group fantasies) and massive regression to fetal conflicts?
1) Fall of the Soviet Union
2) Economic prosperity and technological advancements of the 1990s and beyond (early 2000)
3) 9/11 attacks
For more than seven decades, the Soviet Union cast an ominous shadow against the flames of America's democracy. The fear that Communism would engulf the globe in totalitarian darkness if not kept in check was shared by vast portions of the U.S. population. But odd as it is, this towering antagonist and catalyst of fear also shaped the American identity. Ronald Reagan, during his presidency, further capitalized on this phenomenon by spelling out to the nation its international raison d'etre: America, the beacon of the free world, stood for good, and the Soviet Union, the blight of mankind, stood for evil.
1) 28 Days Later (2003)
Chimpanzees infected with an unknown virus break out of a laboratory and attack humans. The infectious bites turn humans (after killing them) into bloodthirsty zombies.
2) Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)
A corrupt corporation experiments with an anti-aging solution. Problems ensue when an accident in the laboratory infects technicians, killing them and transforming them into the walking dead. Soon the zombies break out of the experimental chamber and go on a killing rampage.
3) Blade: Trinity (2004)
A vampire drama that centers around a conspiracy to infect the globe. There are many images that are analogous to fetal traumas (e.g., human beings hanging from the ceiling in plastic bags, evocative of amniotic sacs) and reflecting the need to master death anxiety through the merger with the abusive caregiver; those who are infected gain immortality as vampires. They can never die when they become (merge with the killer parent alter) like the "original vampire."
4) Exorcist (2004)
This film is a prequel to the 1973 classic horror film The Exorcist. Images of blood infection, demonic possession and dead rising from the grave abound throughout the narrative.
5) Van Helsing (2003)
This is a story about a vampire and monster-slayer. Patented horror images pervade the film.
6) Spiderman (2002)
A young man acquires superhuman strength when his blood stream is infected during a science demonstration. This film is an adaptation of the Marvel comic book character. His archenemy, "Doctor Oc" (also a product of a science experiment gone awry) sports gigantic mechanical tentacles, a placental symbol.
7) The Passion of the Christ (2003)
This is one of the greatest rebirth fantasies ever concocted for mass consumption: Mel Gibson's box office hit about the last twelve hours of Jesus Christ's life. The depiction of Jews as the murderers of Christ communicates the regressive psychoclasses need for self-flagellation and the discharging of psychic poisons (guilt) onto others; it is a clear reference to the need of group purification through scapegoating.
8) Cabin Fever (2003)
This film follows the template set by the Dawn of the Dead trilogy. A group of vacationers staying at a remote cabin in the woods are attacked by a man infected with a deadly virus. The cabin where the blood infection overtakes the inhabitants is an unconscious reference to the womb and poisonous placenta (as symbolized by the surrounding trees).
9) The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Although this film does not deal with blood poisoning, it communicates similar anxieties of global calamity as the above-mentioned dramas. The narrative centers around environmental disasters that are triggered by global warming. The destabilization of the weather patterns are an unconscious reference to the destruction of the U.S. group's identity structures, brought about by the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The thawing glaciers which cause tidal waves symbolize the engulfment that nations feel during periods of rapid growth and change. During these times, fetal and childhood memories of abandonment and abuse (engulfment anxieties) rise close to consciousness.
The post-Cold War era (1990s to early 2000) was marked by unprecedented economic growth and technological advancements. Science and medicine experienced explosive growth. Globalization provided business opportunities never before seen. The
standard of living enjoyed by Americans was also unparalleled in this or any other country's history. Why, then, are Americans anxiety ridden?
"Revelation, the last book of the Bible, alerts us to the fact that an angel flying in midheaven has 'everlasting good news to declare as glad tidings.' He says in a loud voice: 'Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of the judgment by him has arrived.' (Revelation 14: 6, 7)." That 'hour of judgment' includes both the pronouncement and execution of divine judgment. . . .We live in that time now . . .
". . . Because Jehovah is the Creator, he has the right to rule over the earth and all who dwell on it. However, the Bible explains that early in human history, Jehovah's sovereignty was challenged. Satan the devil claimed that Jehovah was unduly restrictive, that he lied to our first parents about what would happen if they ignored God's law and did things their own way and that it really would be better if they governed themselves apart from God . . . (Genesis, Chapters 2, 3)."
"I've done biography after biography. I know myself through those people. I think in some way I'd like to find out, if I can, more about myself. I'm scared of that too. But that's what the game is: to grow. To grow, to be excited.
Psychohistorians are in agreement that the war with Iraq was instigated by the Bush administration to alleviate the U.S. population's anxieties which were augmented by the 9/11 attacks. In fact, there is evidence that George W. Bush and his inner circle were searching for a reason to go to war with Iraq before 2001. Even worse, security procedures were made lax and intelligence reports warning of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil were ignored. An enemy was needed to provide the nation with a purifying rebirth.
Another factor that sustains America's stress level is the ambiguity of the so-called war on terror. The enemy is everywhere and nowhere. We are told that terrorist organizations are in every country and have sleeper cells within the U.S. ready to strike at any given time. Evil has not been given either a clear face or a geographical place of existence. The pop icon Madonna, in a BBC Radio interview, expressed the views of many Americans when she said:
"My feelings are, can we just all get out? Global terror is down the street, around the block. Global terror is in California. There's global terror everywhere and it's absurd to think you can get it by going to one country and dropping tons of bombs on innocent people." (Newsweek)
This paper, like all essays of its length and scope, has inherent limitations (i.e., subjectivity/methodological errors). As mentioned previously, the films analyzed in this paper are a minute segment of the total number of releases with rebirth imagery. Such enormously popular films as Shrek (2001), Shrek 2 (2004), Finding Nemo (2003) and other box office hits, also communicate separation/engulfment anxieties and fetal memories. Stories dealing with water (e.g., Open Water (2004), Shark Tale (2004), and Dark Water (2005), ocean, lake and underwater struggles of protagonists are all unconscious references to prenatal experiences.
Also, as of this writing, several major motion pictures with apocalyptic, end-of-time themes have been released. The most notable are The New World, Star Wars Episode III, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Kingdom of Heaven, Land of the Dead, and The Core.
This author has attempted to contribute to the psychohistorical theory that group fantasies are projected through films and illuminate the murky waters of the nation's unconscious. If one subscribes to this theory, the fantasy material that pervades today's films points to a dangerously regressive shared need: rebirth through the transports of more war.
© Victor Meladze, 2005