“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”
“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
“But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
The movie Bird Box has garnered a lot of views and a lot reactions in a short period of time. I enjoyed it but it took some processing for me to understanding what was so arresting about the film. I concluded that Bird Box has dug to the bedrock of a spiritual/psychological truth of our current society. The primary idea in the Bird Box is that what you look at can destroy you.
Every successful horror film does this on some level: the most shallow examples being cautionary tales about teenage lust (like every slasher movie ever made) or the more philosophically minded stories cautioning about consumerism or conformity (every zombie movie ever made).
Then things get spiritual. Dracula and Frankenstein reveal to us the horror of longing for eternal life minus morality. Even the modern It Follows shows us the solipsist horror of easy pleasure when a nemesis with a shifting identity pursues us to literally pleasure us to death. It is when horror movies approach the spiritual that they have their deepest impact. Horror at its best reveals humanity’s instinctive understanding of what would be the worst. More importantly, horror reveals real problems in our society by drawing bitter water from the deepest wells of our psyche.
Back to Bird Box. We start with the main problem in the movie. People see something and it drives them mad. Not mad, but to immediate suicide. This goes beyond the biological/mechanical suicide of The Happening. These people haven’t just had their brain chemistry hijacked. They have seen something powerful enough to corrupt and damn their soul and make their body agree to and participate in the damnation.
It’s eventually revealed that the things people are seeing before they kill themselves are demons: mankind’s first and most formidable foes. This is fitting. One of the Devil’s chief jobs is to accuse. He is also tasked with lying, instilling fear, and destroying. No doubt, if all of these things are being communicated with a look and the look carries spiritual authority, it isn’t a surprise that the one who looks ends his/her life.
On the surface, the movie watcher (we’re not goers anymore, are we?) just accepts the rules of this universe but the rules came from a deeper Jungian place in our collective subconscious. To illustrate: there’s been a sharp split in audience reaction to this movie: those who think it is terrifying and those who don’t get it: the guilty and the damned respectively. The first group knows the language of accusation, of forfeiture of soul, of spiritual torment. They know this on an instinctual level. For them, the terror makes sense. For the damned, they don’t see this disaster coming in the real world, so codifying it in horror makes no sense. They’ll accept the rules but the rules seem dumb.
Back to the bird box. So characters are brought to an apocalypse whereby they’re faced with their tormentors. Seeing their spiritual reality for what it is drives them to immediate despair and they kill themselves as fast as they can. Then come the crazies. Really, they’re not the crazies. They’re nihilists. They embrace their guilt, their despicable nature and thereby celebrate the demonic message. To them, the creatures are angels bringing good news. Nothing matters. Life is meaningless. Worse yet, life had meaning and we all missed it. We are all damned so: why wait? Now they have an excuse to carry weapons and wear leather chaps in public.
Here we reach a central irony in the psychological bedrock of this horror. It’s been done in movies before but the iconography is very potent in this film. Knowledge is what kills. True enlightenment (endarkenment) is to be avoided. Ignorance is what saves. Blindness is what saves you to see for another day.
Now what, in the age of Netflix, in the information age, could justify such an idea? Why would knowing less, seeing less, save us? We’ve got Wikipedia and Zillow, and Facebook. We know a lot and it helps us a lot…doesn’t it? Aren’t we all using the internet to better our lives? Don’t we feel that improvement on a daily basis?
No. You know that’s not true, in the same way you felt the rules of this movie were reasonable rules. Faust knew it too. These demons act as Drone-palantirs: driving us mad or corrupting us on the spot. I’m hinting, but I think I’m hinting because, you reading this already know a thousand reasons why this is true: why this form of horror is birthed from something that is wrong with our actual existence.
We know too much. America is guilty. You are guilty. News is all bad news. The world is getting worse. Everything goes to hell. To take another angle of the problem, we as Westerners are utterly ruined by the cynicism of the stories we now tell ourselves. Romanticism gave way to modernism then post-modernism, and now casual nihilism realized through constant and insatiable novelty.
Nietzche was not an accidental voice to start this piece. The internet is not a crystal palace or a shining city on a hill. It burned the desert beneath us, turned it to glass so that we could see the vast oceans of hell just beneath. Top grossing films and most trafficked internet sites all involve some degree of violence and pornography and those trends are always growing in variety and intensity. We are like Faust in that we have all the knowledge of the world at our fingertips. But just like Faust, we must converse with demons before we get there…if we ever get there.
How many trash articles, gossip columns, porn sites, slasher movies, political scandals, do we consume before learning a new body of knowledge? How many games do we play which we know are addictive before we use these new technologies to enhance and safeguard our human connections, our love, and all that we believe to be beautiful? Our consumption of what is worthless, dark, and hideous has reached critical mass and there is no more bandwidth for our eyes to take in any light. That is the psycho-spiritual reality that Bird Box has tapped into.
To survive and remain human–remain alive–the heroes must close their eyes, turn everything off, shut the doors and trust nothing from the outside. To escape their damnation, they must tear themselves apart: gouging out eyes and cutting off hands. To survive, we know we must do the same. We quit Facebook. We buy farms. We lock our phones away when home. We take up antiquary hobbies. We feel the damnation at the end of the path but we don’t know how to turn around.
Enter the birds. The birds warn the heroes of the presence of demons. In one sense, they are a kind of salvation. They can’t kill the demons but they make a ruckus and seem to discourage the demons from doing their work. They can guide the heroes to continue this regimen of eye gouging so that the heroes can remain blind and safe. And the birds must stay with the heroes for them to be effective. They are not a weapon to be holstered or a potion to be drunk. They must be cared for and kept alive on their own terms.
Christians might see this as a metaphor for the Holy Spirit and that would be apt. Within this interpretation, the Christian’s job is to avert his/her eyes from the sinful temptations of the world and walk the straight and narrow path to salvation (or river to safe haven). Maybe we take on a more Quaker regimen.
And speaking of rivers: they have been symbols of transition, of barrier, of death (maybe death of self-will) of a return to nature, or the Spirit. Walk in the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. Stay in the river’s current and you won’t be stopped and destroyed by temptation. The forest works in a similar way and accentuates the same themes: a return to a more simple life, a passage to another type of reality. And in the heroine’s passage through the forest, she is faced with a litany of temptations to look, to go back to her old ways of seeing and the immediate damnation it has led to. She must plug her ears and close her eyes to this and press on through the dark unknown. She must remain blind and become permanently blind to the world she has known in order to survive.
Here is where the horror genre gets its power. This is where horror does its job. We know this is what we must do as a society to survive, to thrive, to live, to regain our health and our humanity. We know we must shut our eyes, stumble like idiots, and listen for the true, simple voice (remember, the Holy Spirit shows up first as a dove) that will lead us to salvation.