Love and Fear on the Big Collective Screen

Having studied both film and psychology, I find myself often thinking about the interplay between these two worlds that have so captured my own imagination and interest.

Continuing with my theme for this year:  cultivating authentic calm, I turn to the most successful movies of all time in order to contemplate the zeitgeist, collective anxieties and potentially rising, and healing, consciousness.

If you look at the top-grossing movies in our American experience (adjusted for inflation so that we have a relatively fair picture of what pictures the most people have bothered to watch, as opposed to simply dollars spent), we have the following list:

Gone with the Wind ‘39

Star Wars ‘77

The Sound of Music ‘65

E.T.:  The Extra-Terrestrial ‘82

The Ten Commandments ‘56

Titanic ‘97

Jaws ‘75

Doctor Zhivago ‘65

The Exorcist ‘73

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ‘37

While there are many interesting things to potentially explore here, let’s strive for the themes that seem most universal.  In other words, while we all have our personal angst, what are the big collective themes that show up across different eras (and thus emotional times) which span economic depressions (lack), times of war and upheaval (threat of annihilation) and even times of growth and prosperity (perhaps the threat of emptiness even with material abundance)?

If we think about movies as akin to collective dreams, it becomes less important who personally made them and more important to contemplate what they might mean for all of us—especially if themes recur over generations.  Carl Jung suggests that it is precisely whatever we cannot be conscious of that materializes and meets us as our fate, therefore perhaps a bit of meta-consciousness serves us individually as well as collectively.

So, what might these blockbusters really be saying about us as a group?

For one thing, half of them are period pieces; in other words themes relevant to the present day were successful when looked at through the protective gauze of the past.  Could this imply that we don’t want to look at our fears and desires directly in the here and now, but we do want to cathartically process them (in the anonymity of dark theaters, huddled in collective groups… at least until this current age of ubiquitous little screens).

Of course the very nature of film is to “transport” us (as to a different era), but if not a period piece the other top five movies are concerned with some place beyond our usual consciousness (outer space—and Star Wars is also a future period piece—, alien/E.T. coming from space, monsters in the deep, devils from hell or fairytale beings in an animated deep dark woods… all stories coming from worlds symbolic of the unconscious… stories concerned with what comes out of that murky unknown, particularly if we deny, or repress, its contents).

Much has been made of the “hero’s journey” and Hollywood has drank deeply from that cool-aid cup in the never-ending quest for the secret of what to serve up to the masses in return for a buck.  But as the great screenwriter, William Goldman, begins his autobiography:  Nobody knows anything.

Far be it for me to think I have the secret or the answer.  Rather I invite you to join me in contemplating this list in light of the questions:  What do we really want?  What are we truly afraid of?


As far as themes, we might codify our top ten as follows:

GWTW:  Loss and unrequited love—painful independence

Star Wars:  Good and evil—which is our true parent?—painful truth about darkness

The Sound of Music:  Search for true identity, love and self-expression—hope

E.T.:  Brilliant and kind being is not at home on earth—hard to be different

The Ten Commandments:  If there is a higher power, show me the miracles—awe

Titanic:  Invincible proves vulnerable—swallowed by the sea

Jaws:  The monster is real—and will eat you if you go in the water

Doctor Zhivago:  Love is worth everything—to die for

The Exorcist:  The monster is real—and you’re not even safe inside yourself

Snow White:  The pure is threatened, but the small will help—everything is beautiful (happily ever after… in a fairytale)


The core fears at play in our top ten?  Perhaps:

Gone with the Wind:  I will go hungry (if I am fool enough to depend:  I’m dead)

Star Wars:  The dark side will kill me (if I don’t kill my dad:  I’m dead)

The Sound of Music:  I don’t know who I am (and if I don’t sing when the Nazis come… I’m dead)

E.T.:  I’m too different (And if I don’t get home:  I’m dead)

The Ten Commandments:  I’m bad (And if I don’t vote Republican:  I’m dead.  Just kidding, sort of, but Charlton Heston parts the waters?)

Titanic:  I’m drowning (If there’s no room for me in the life boat:  I’m dead)

Jaws:  Monsters are real (If I go into the water… I’m dead)

Doctor Zhivago:  I am alone and can’t see (If I love with all my heart:  I’m dead)

The Exorcist:  The dark side has me (without the exorcist I’m even worse off than dead)

Snow White:  My step-mom wants to kill me and I must depend on strange little men (I’m not dead, but then I’m not alive either—I’m not even real… and the happiest place on earth, one day when they build it, is going to be expensive)


Striving to distill these films down further we have romantic (i.e. relational) views of life:  GWTW, Sound of Music, Doc Zhivago, Titanic and Snow White and the theme of mammalian attachment (the need for love and the mortal consequences surrounding such risk)—films that say that we do need each other in order to live (and this can be scary).

The second group would be the reptilian, lizard brain, films which are all about fight (Star Wars, Jaws, Exorcist) or flight (Ten Commandments where Heston’s crew flees Egypt, and E.T. where the tender alien must flee planet earth).  These are more about survival at the animal level, more focused on separation and non-attachment, than on loving human attachment.

Now maybe these films are themselves like evocative screens, Rorschach Tests onto which we can project our own unconscious contents, but I invite my readers to look and tell us what you see in this list.

In the meantime, I stay with my theme of engendering emotional security and safety through connection and understanding.  Thus I encourage us all to be more aware of our fears and our triggers:  fear of lack, fear of loss, fear of abandonment, fear of exclusion… and realize how these distill down to annihilation dread.

So, let’s stop slaying the dragon, the shark and the devil and recognize that these very psychically real elements hail from the unconscious and are also, quite possibly, remnants of our individual and collective terrified infantile feeling states—traumatized and unconscious babies grown by us into monsters.  When we project these frightened babies/monsters onto our kids, parenting breaks down; when we project them onto our fellows, society breaks down; and when we project them onto other nations, wars ensue.

Graduating up from lizard to mammal brain, let us take the risky leap and go ahead and attach—consciously, deeply and with love—as parents, whistling while we work shoulder-to-shoulder, crossing the frozen tundra for each other, being sure the kids get the life-boats ahead of us, even if it means our icy, albeit romantic, doom, let’s be sure that it’s all our collective children who will never go hungry again—and let’s bring the hills to life, today and every day, with the sound of our, and our children’s, music.

Namaste, BD


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12 Responses to “Love and Fear on the Big Collective Screen”

  1. Lindsey Says:

    This is so marvelous! Thank you for sharing such a thoughtful excavation of the themes that are central to our most favored entertainment. I share your exhortation in the last paragraph, too … xox

  2. pamela hunt Says:


    I love this. I”m a big Joseph Campbell fan, and like him, you make Jung easier. This was a fascinating read!!


  3. Katrina Kenison Says:

    Ok, here I am, the third member of your faithful fan club (with Lindsey and Pamela!). Fascinating to look at these movies as a group, especially after being haunted all week by my new favorite movie, The King’s Speech. Thinking about the utterly amazing performance by Colin Firth, I realize that we are so moved by Bertie’s lonely struggle because, whether we stutter or not, his fear of exposure is universal. (Reveal my true self and I’m dead. . .) And his salvation lies in finally finding the courage to be authentic, knowing that he already has won the unconditional acceptance of one genuine (if unlikely) friend.

    I love this quote, which seems to sum up what is possible when we move beyond fear and into true courage. It occurs to me that this may also be what you offer people in therapy — listening without judging, hearing them and responding with compassion, giving the person back to themselves, so that those who are suffering feel less afraid, and then perhaps, not quite so sad.

    “Going beyond fear begins when we examine our fear: our anxiety, nervousness, concern, and restlessness. If we look into our fear, if we look beneath its veneer, the first thing we find is sadness, beneath the nervousness…[Sadness] is calm and gentle….discovering fearlessness comes from working with the softness of the human heart.” Chogyam Trungpa

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I’m quite taken with “The King’s Speech” as well Katrina—with the moving power of that relationship, with the insights into fear and voice learned by the therapist working with the traumatized by a past war (collective fear) and the need for one human to find his voice IN THE SERVICE of a country about to dive back into the next global round of collective, fear-driven, psychosis.

      As we parent, love, and connect upon the ashes of so much destruction we are well-advised by you to heed the words of Chogyam Trungpa—and to stay soft, vulnerable and connected in that soft sadness pulsing always within our mortal, and yet illuminated, human situation.

      Here’s to fearlessness amongst and between us—in the service of each other. XO

  4. rebecca @ altared spaces Says:

    Listening to my son whistling this morning. And noticing how it chases away my anger at the dishes that weren’t done. Love does triumph over that reptile brain that fears I’m doomed if they don’t love me enough to get their hands dirty.

  5. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Interesting read! You make some really thought-provoking connections!

    ps: We’re gonna need a bigger boat.

  6. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Another delightful read, on so many levels. I love the concept of films as collective dreams. Everything from fear to the fantastic. I know that I often use film to enhance or appease certain moods, and I then carry the positive effects into my dreaming.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      And perhaps they are also a bridge between our individual dreams and our connected situation—a chance to know that we can relate to each other, even realize that we are all in this collective situation (inner and outer/”real” and “fantastical”) together. Either way Wolf, here’s to good moods at all levels.

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