- Film and television offer voluntary, pleasurable dissociative experiences.
- Film and television give viewers a sense of what dissociation feels like when language fails to adequately describe dissociation.
- Television in the U.S. is seeing a surge in shows that depict dissociated characters and/or dissociative experiences.
- Dissociated viewers can find access to sensation through film and television they might not otherwise have access to due to numbness.
I watch two commercials back to back. The first shows a woman talking to a counsel of her different parts as she considers the virtues of homebuying. The second features a man similarly split, this time into four, talking to his selves about this or that latest feature in his new car.
Next up is Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart on Paramount+’s The Good Fight. She's floating outside her body after participating in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. The camera hovers above her head and she stares directly at it (and us). “There you are,” she says, as the episode fades to black. I chuckle, a slight tingle going down my spine, wondering what it all means.
I switch streaming platforms to find Kaley Cuoco’s Cassie Bowden from HBO’s The Flight Attendant frantically fighting with herself. Multiple Cassies fill the screen. Some seek booze and adventures, others depression and isolation. There are so many fast cuts, split screens, and up-tempo music I have difficulty keeping up. I feel scattered, my senses pulled in all directions. I need a breather before the next episode.
So I hop on over to Netflix to watch Panos Cosmatos’ entry for Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities. Bizarre camera angles, heightened lighting, strange sets, and drugs and alcohol collide to create a psychedelic world. The otherworldly episode sees characters’ face melt at the sight of an alien creature, their image accompanied by a droning atonal soundtrack. I feel nauseated. I can’t look away.
TV's Dissociative Moment
These examples prove dissociation is having its television moment.
This isn’t surprising, considering how film and television are uniquely suited to depicting both dissociated characters and dissociative phenomenological experiences, such as out-of-body experiences, depersonalization, derealization, and dissociative identities. The formal language of film and television—camera angles, shot length, editing techniques, lighting, sound, color, costume, special effects, etc.—gets at aspects of dissociative experience that language alone cannot.
That’s the rub of dissociation, isn’t it? The ways it usurps a person’s language centers, the way it discombobulates perception, sensation, feeling, and knowing, and the way it launches people out of shared reality and traps them in a cavern of alien numbness. Film and television can go a long way in giving viewers insight into what dissociation feels like when language is left wanting.
This isn’t just true for viewers stuck in traumatic dissociation. Lisa D. Butler and Oxana Palesh at the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University School of Medicine, argue that watching film is an act of “voluntary engagement in a positive dissociative experience” (Butler & Palesh 2004). Perhaps all audiences go to the movies for the promise of pleasurable dissociative escape, however momentary.
The lure of film and television’s dissociative promise should make us question the supposed singularity of “healthy” humans. What if we’re all far more delightfully multiple than we think, given our tendency to seek out dissociative fun of all kinds?
We Are Multiple
Pierre Janet noticed this in the early 20th century in his research on hysterical patients. (Janet’s description of hysteria sounds like contemporary discussions around complex PTSD.) Janet, unlike his contemporary Sigmund Freud, saw within such patients “multiple existences” (Janet 1920). The goal of psychoanalysis for Janet meant integrating these multiple existences such that the memories, emotions, perceptions, and knowing of each blended together to form a whole person. Jacques Lacan, writing in the mid-20th century, similarly found “multiple agencies” at operation in a patient’s unconscious, though he ultimately concluded this meant the subject of the unconscious was ultimately unknowable (Lacan 1978).
When reading trauma research about dissociation, I often find television is on the list of “addictions” dissociated patients have trouble licking. These patients are prone to escape, we’re told, seeking to get lost in story-worlds at the expense of dealing with the turmoil in their own lives. While this may be true for many, there’s something we miss if we get stuck at the level of story. Dissociated viewers watch film and television for another reason: to experience sensation. Even if that sensation is unpleasurable, such as the nauseating world created by Panos Cosmatos, these sensations can momentarily jolt a dissociated viewer out of bodily numbness.
Rather than shaming couch potatoes for their addiction to film or television, we may do well to explore what happens in the body of a dissociated viewer when watching representations of dissociation on screen. By giving viewers the opportunity to willingly engage in difficult sensations—such as discomfort, out-of-body sensations, disgust, fear, and dissociation—such viewers can practice digesting these sensations in a safe enough way on their own terms. This practice can help a dissociated viewer confront these same feelings when the time is right for trauma processing.
Advertisers, television and film producers, and writers already work from the presumption that dissociation is pleasurable and that individuals are multiple.
I hope this knowledge helps those of you stuck in traumatic dissociation develop self-compassion. Traumatic dissociation lies. It says we’re alien. It says we don’t belong. If those lies are getting you down, turn on your TV. There you’ll find that nothing is more human than dissociation.
Butler, L. D., & Palesh, O. (2004). Spellbound: Dissociation in the Movies. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 5(2), 61–87.
Janet, P. (1920). The Major Symptoms of Hysteria: Fifteen Lectures Given in the Medical School of Harvard University (Second Edition). The MacMillan Company.
Lacan, J., & Miller, J.-A. (1994). The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI (A. Sheridan, Trans.; Reprinted with an introduction). Penguin.