Note: This post is part of my on-going “hauntology project” series. You can find all posts in this series using the category “hauntology.”
The ability to create an empathetic response in an audience member is one of art’s greatest powers. It forces a viewer, reader, or listener to consider something from a point-of-view other than their own and can even create a change in attitude within them. And if an artist can do this while also building sympathy with something alien to the viewer, creating empathy for something truly “other” to the viewer’s world, all the better.
Sometimes that something alien is literally an extra-terrestrial, or at least something so foreign it might as well be of another world. How we change after encountering the Other can only be described as “apocalyptic” in the literal sense of the word: an uncovering. While today we usually associate the word “apocalypse” with the end of the world, or some world altering event, it literally means a “revelation or disclosure,” such as the biblical Book of Revelation—or in Greek “Apokalypsis Ioannou,” John’s Revelation. As such, an encounter with the Other can be an apocalyptic moment because it can be revelatory about ourselves, both the audience surrogate on screen and our actual selves. For the sake of clarity, I will label these two types of apocalypses as either a revelatory or catastrophic apocalypses.
The philosophical and psychology concept of “the Other” is too long and complex to treat in full here, but I will venture a brief summary for the unfamiliar. The Other is always posed in opposition to “the Self.” This Self can be you, an individual, or a group self, be it a nation, race, or other marker of group identity. For example, if the self is you, dear reader, then I am the Other and vice versa. The most well-known application of the idea of Other can be viewed in racial theory and colonialism. With the European conquest of other, non-white, people, Europeans, and later Americans, were faced with daily interactions with people who did not fit their internal idea of Self. And the conquest and subjugation of these other races was rationalized because they were somehow less than human. That the European White “Self” was superior to the non-white “Other.” This same idea can also be applied to male subjugation of women: male is the default “Self” and female is the “Other.”
Building empathy for the Other takes a radical change in attitude. It takes a powerful encounter with the Other, and it takes a revelatory experience. This change can take the form of the reorienting of one’s attitudes towards other people, how you treat them and treat yourself on a daily basis. It could be a reconfiguring of how one sees themselves in relation to those around them, or possibly seeing how your own people, nation, or world exists within a larger system. For the films I will look at in this section, it is asking the question of how Earth can continue to exist as it was after a perception altering revelation.
In many ways, all the films that I will examine as being “haunted” could be described as apocalyptic in the revelatory sense of the word. This is because they all involve some sort of revelation or revealing for a character, and this is part of why they haunt me. These films revealed something about myself that I am still wrestling with. However, the three films I will examine in this section are more traditionally apocalyptic because they bring change on a truly global level. One even involves the actual end of the Earth. However, beyond the global scale apocalypse depicted on film, they also involve more personal revelations and catastrophes, which are, to me, the more meaningful apocalypses that I will discuss.
In two of the films I examine here, Arrival (2016, Denis Villeneuve) and Contact (1997, Robert Zemeckis), it is literally contact with extra-terrestrials that reveals much about humanity’s attitudes about themselves and how we interact with one another. But in the vein of a revelatory apocalypse, these encounters with the Other reveals much more about how we treat our fellow humans than it does the aliens from another place.
In the final film I will look at, Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier), rather than the Other being an alien being it is instead how we interact with one another in the face of a catastrophic apocalypse. The Other is who we, as a species, become in the face of world altering events, though the Other does still have a physical presence–most directly as a rouge planet that destroys the Earth.
For me, these films represent ways in which I am forced the see myself and think about myself differently. Some force me to reconsider how I live my life, another forces me to confront issues of depression and mental health, while others challenge me to fundamentally reorient the way I think about humanity’s place in the universe. But what they all have in common is that the changes they wrought inside of me, how my encounter with the filmic other altered my own thinking, have stayed with me for years. It has lingered on in my thought patterns and attitudes towards and about the Other.