I recently watched Netflix’s Bird Box (directed by Susanne Bier, based on the novel by Josh Malerman), and although I wasn’t overly impressed with this film, I thought there were some interesting conceptual threads lying under the surface. The story involves the age-old dichotomous narrative of good versus evil, where “the good” must use their strength and wit to persevere and triumph in this fight against evil and against those that perpetuate or propagate it. In this case, we see humanity at large being attacked by an evil force taking the form of their worst fears, where blindfolding oneself or keeping one’s eyes closed to this mysterious entity is the only means of surviving its presence. As an interesting caveat, only those that are deemed “insane” are immune to this danger, where they alone can face these entities with no apparent harm coming to them. To add to the fear and chaos of this situation, these madmen are also intent on forcing everyone else to see what they perceive to be an awe-inspiring force (as if it were a god), and they perform this (often violent) coercion regardless of the fact that forcing others to see what they see is effectively an act of murder.
There’s a number of metaphoric and allegorical threads one could extract from this story-line, including interpreting the entity as some kind of god (Yahweh?), and the blindfolding of the masses as the inability to face this God, whether in the biblical sense where a face-to-face encounter results in death (e.g. Exodus 33:20), or in the figurative/spiritual sense of modern humanity having turned away from God (for better or worse). Furthermore, this entity taking on the form of one’s biggest fears resonates with the biblical conception of the unequivocal “fear of God”. If we were to frame the story around such an allegory, then the dystopic chaos that ensues from this “turning away”, and the difficulties that arise, may be entirely expected from a religious perspective. Even though the atheistic skepticism precipitating from modernity and the Enlightenment has no doubt brought us a number of epistemic, political, and societal benefits, it’s also created its own share of problems that are yet to be resolved.
Religion and belief in a God or gods often fills a void in people’s lives because of the many hardships concomitant with the human condition, and so even if there’s a conscious decision to reject this emotional or spiritual crutch, there’s an unavoidable trade-off that can make life much more psychologically challenging, as exemplified by the burdensome journey undertaken by Malorie and her children. On the other hand, those that intentionally or inadvertently come face-to-face with this God or God concept may be hypnotically drawn in by it, and thereby end up committing a form of intellectual suicide in the process.
In the interest of considering a radically different interpretation of this story, what if “the entity” is actually a representation of the intellectual content or philosophical paradigms that have arisen in our modern age? Modernity has brought with it various instantiations of existentialism, postmodernism, skepticism, atheism, and along with it a transvaluation of our morals and of the meaning and purpose that we ascribe to our own lives. It is no doubt unsettling (if not outright frightening) to face and contemplate our own existential status, among other things, the fact that we are but an infinitesimally small and insignificant constituent of an unfathomably old and vast cosmos, and the fact that our lives (as individuals and as a species) are relatively short as we inch closer to our inevitable death.
Most people would prefer to blind themselves from these uncomfortable facts even if this is accomplished by being unconsciously driven to adopt any manner of ideologies or belief systems that serve as a means of epistemic isolation and psychological consolation. For those that earnestly try to confront and navigate this seemingly alien existential space, whether intentionally or as a matter of chance, many are overwhelmed with anxiety, depression, and the like, even leading some to contemplate or go through with committing suicide. If one’s sense of meaning and purpose is uprooted, it’s not surprising that they may feel lost in this world, even losing their will to live. In short, many are simply not mentally prepared to handle a number of uncomfortable existential truths nor are we all equally well-equipped to psychologically handle many of the obstacles encountered in our human condition. Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Marx, and a number of other great thinkers of the modern age knew this fact about “the masses” all too well, even if they each differed in their interpretation of, or response to, this particular problem.
The blindfolding of the masses could be taken to represent a fairly common response to the realizations brought about by modernity, manifesting itself as a kind of reflexive blindness to the present state of affairs, but also resulting in an aimless wandering, where people are in need of some kind of direction, a structure or system to guide them through what has become a very unfamiliar and often disturbing world.
Eventually Malorie and her kids find a guide of sorts, when they make radio contact with a stranger by the name of “Rick” that instructs them to travel through the woods and down a nearby river – an almost 48-hour arduous journey – to reach what appears to be their last hope of refuge. After encountering a few hurdles along the way, including a violent run-in with a madman, and a near-death experience after cap-sizing their boat, they reach their long sought-after sanctuary. It turns out that the sanctuary is a school for the blind, and Malorie discovers that the stranger she had spoken with on the radio is himself blind, thus granting him and a number of others at this sanctuary their own reliable means of protection from the entity.
It’s interesting to consider the fact that Malorie and her kids are being guided toward their own form of salvation by a blind person, serving as a good analogy of the role played by religious clergy, where they’re often blind to reason in order to “see” by way of faith. And Malorie’s use of birds to help signal the level of danger around her as they’re forced to “see with their ears”, is not only a functional analogue to the coal miner’s canary, but also reflects the role that birds play in the biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood, where doves were used to signal when the flood had ended. Malorie’s use of the birds might also be seen to represent our harnessing and domestication of nature, and how civilization has helped us overcome the brutality and indifference found within the state of nature. But our use of technology has also created its own set of problems for us, thus paradoxically being both a source of, and solution to, many of the problems precipitating from modern life.
And might we benefit from recognizing the fact that the madmen, who are trying to force others to see what they see, are very reminiscent of religious proselytizers and theocrats – though this can also be extended conceptually to the proselytizing of atheism or postmodernism (depending on one’s interpretation of what “the entity” represents)? Religious followers (let alone fanatics) can seem like madmen to rational skeptics, just as many atheists, skeptics, existentialists, and postmodernists can seem like madmen to mystics, traditionalists, and to the devoutly religious. In either case of proselytizing, there’s an inherent problem when the tactics taken are too forceful, and with respect to the unforeseen consequences resulting from a “successful” ideological conversion (such as violent behavior or other forms of moral regression towards oneself or others). The madmen symbolize quite well the fanaticism, coercion, and lack of mutual understanding that have plagued our history and constrained our cultural evolution for millennia.
Throughout this perilous journey, the trials and tribulations experienced along the way symbolize the challenges and difficulties encountered on any spiritual or transformational journey. And, to further the religious allegory, it’s not much more of a stretch to see the capsizing of the boat (arguably the climax of this difficult journey), where both Malorie and her children are briefly submerged underwater, as a baptism of sorts – a symbolic death and resurrection – experienced just prior to reaching the final destination on their path to redemption. Pondering over such a story should always give us pause to ask what our path to redemption, as a society, ought to be.