Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Totally Superfluous Movie Review: The Taking of Deborah Logan

Last year, during my horror movie binge, I watched a newish movie on Netflix, "The Taking of Deborah Logan." The movie had an interesting premise: a elderly woman with Alzheimer's becomes the subject of a young student's film project, but there is reason to believe that she is experiencing something far worse.

In fact, the poster immediately sets the stage that something very bad is going to happen... or has already happened.

The movie tries to make itself look like a documentary, similar to the Blair Witch Project. The group of filmmakers film themselves and behind the scenes because, well, they're filmmakers. They like cameras. Of course, it's obvious early on that the movie is fictional:

One, because of a recognizable actress in the role of Deborah's daughter.

Two, because the poster highlights the producers' other, fictional movies.

And three, because just like in Blair Witch, you reach a point where you begin to wonder why the characters continue to film or hold the camera, rather than drop and run, or at least put it down to argue with each other. The level of commitment to recording every moment is not completely believable, no matter how devoted the filmmakers are to their craft.

The movie packs lots of creepy scenes and a few legitimate scares.  The movie is well-paced, well-acted, and at times, truly terrifying. That's why it pains me to say I really didn't like it.

Or rather, the psychologist in me, with an awareness of the history of treatment of mental and neurological illness, didn't like it. I'm probably not giving away a huge spoiler when I say that Deborah is possessed by something evil. In fact, this becomes a suspicion very early on with some strong evidence to support it. The evidence simply gets stronger and scarier as the movie goes on.

For centuries, people with mental and neurological illnesses were accused of being possessed. They were exorcised, treated cruelly, and had holes drilled in their heads to "let the evil spirits out." Some with an awareness of what was happening to them may even have come to believe they were possessed. Though modern medicine has certainly moved past this point to recognize legitimate illness, there are still some nutjobs people who believe that illness is demonic possession. And even among people with more modern understanding of illness, many conditions are still treated as unimportant or something to be ashamed of.

This is why it really bothered me that this movie seemed to dismiss that history for cheap scares. I'm sure the filmmakers did not intend to suggest mental and neurological illnesses aren't "real." But there are many people who fail to learn from history - some are doomed to repeat it, some are doomed to make thoughtless mistakes that appear malicious. An extreme, recent example:

Overall, I'm afraid I can't give The Taking of Deborah Logan high marks, or a recommendation to my fellow horror movie lovers. There are many things to like about the movie. But the psychologist in me just can't get past this issue.

Thoughtfully yours,

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Comfort of Home, The Thrill of the Unknown

I've gotten out of the habit of blogging regularly once again. I recently went out of town for work, and came back to have a lot of catching up to do on various work tasks. Though I loved the trip and had a great time, by the end, I was thrilled to be back home.

I started thinking about this interesting juxtaposition - how people can love traveling and seeing new places but also love the comfort of the familiar. And what I think it comes down to, at least in part, is cognitive resources.

Social psychologists Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor postulated that people are cognitive misers; they are thrifty with their cognitive resources, and avoid using them if they can coast through a situation on mental autopilot.

This is certainly true, but I think there's a little more to it. We're cognitive neophiliacs; new things get our attention and encourage us to use some of our cognitive resources, to a point. But when new situations become overwhelming or threaten to use more resources than we have or are willing to give, we tune out. Things that are familiar take little to no mental energy, which is why they could be comforting at some times and stifling at others.

In fact, exerting mental energy depends on two things: ability, a trait, and motivation, a state. Some people begin with higher ability than others, but if motivation is low, it might be difficult to tell the difference. Further, some people have a high motivation to use mental resources - we refer to them as being high in "need for cognition." They tend to also have high ability, and are the true cognitive neophiliacs. They love thinking through situations and ideas, and thrive on learning new things. But even people with low need for cognition are willing and able to use mental resources at some point in time.

When you travel somewhere new, you're bombarded with new sights and sounds, maybe even a different language than you're used to hearing. You have to learn new paths to take to get where you're going, because your cognitive maps aren't very useful in a new location. And I'm not just talking about navigating to attractions, since many people use GPS or maps to get there, but even the simple act of waking up in the morning and getting ready requires a mental map that differs from your usual routine. If you're able and motivated, you will likely thrive in this new situation.

But mental resources are limited, and we all reach a point where we have no more left to give. It just takes some people longer to get there than others. It's at this point that we are attracted to the familiar, where we can once again rely on our mental autopilot (good old Otto).

I've been home for almost a week, and honestly, I'm starting to get the travel bug again. But it's nice to return to familiar sights, sounds, and people. So instead, I'm thinking of directing my replenished cognitive resources toward learning something new and improving in my daily activities. Hopefully there will be another trip in my near future, though.

Cognitively yours,