Mortality, mass psychosis, and how we live today

The question has the ring of one posed by a street-corner preacher: If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, how would you spend today? Answers, presumably, will vary. You might visit your family, or break off a relationship, or go careening down the highway at top speed on your motorcycle. You might get incredibly drunk, or go to church, or hug your child. It’s just a thought experiment, but it’s a revealing one.

Wait, back up — is it a thought experiment? None of us know for sure that we’ll die tomorrow, but we also don’t know that we won’t. Calamity waits around every corner. Freak accidents and aneurysms occur. The scariest obituaries are those memorializing people who didn’t know death was imminent, but it came for them anyhow.

Many of us live our lives sustained by a wholly unsupportable illusion we rarely confront: Death is out in the distance somewhere, not nearby.

But that fantasy is upended if you receive a terminal diagnosis, or if you live with severe chronic illness. It dissipates as you get older. It pauses, curiously, when someone close to you dies — at least for a time — but tends to return if and when you manage to bat away the looming specter of your own end. And, of course, it changes dramatically when an invisible virus threatens the normal balance of life and the world turns upside down.

A young woman looks sad.
Kate Lyn Sheil in She Dies Tomorrow.
Courtesy of Neon

We shine lights of distraction to keep the shadows of our own mortality at bay, but some events cast a broader pall. Amy Seimetz’s new movie She Dies Tomorrow imagines the premonition of death as not only something we occasionally experience but also a virus of its own, spreading from person to person, similar to an infection or a mania. But it’s the kind of mania that appears, under some lights, like sanity.

Kate Lyn Sheil plays Amy, a recovering alcoholic who becomes convinced her death will happen the next day. She’s not suicidal; she just knows her death is coming. Devastated and alone in the house she just bought, she cracks open a bottle of wine, browses cremation urns online, and listens to Mozart’s Requiem on repeat. We don’t really know, at first, why she’s slipped into this state — and even when we eventually find out, the explanation just adds more mystery.

When Amy tells her friend Jane (played by Jane Adams) about her impending demise, Jane initially worries for her. But all of a sudden, she becomes certain that she, too, will die tomorrow. And then Jane attends her sister-in-law’s birthday party, with her new foreboding hanging around her almost visibly, and it’s highly contagious.

She Dies Tomorrow is designed to infect you, too, at least a little — colored lights, unidentifiable soundscapes, a heavy pace, and the never-ending strains of the Requiem (traditionally a mass for the dead) cast a spell of existential dread. It’s catching. Humanity is “the only creature that pretends to be what it’s not,” Jane reminds the birthday party guests. And She Dies Tomorrow challenges both what we pretend to be and what we really are by forcing us to remember that we’re real, living in bodies that won’t last forever.


I happened to see She Dies Tomorrow on the same day I watched Strasbourg 1518, a 10-minute film directed by Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin) that was shot entirely in isolation during this spring’s coronavirus quarantine and then distributed online. Dancers across Europe gyrate and spin alone in empty rooms to an intoxicating new composition by musician Mica Levi. A voice intones throughout: “How are you, from 10 to one? Ten to two?” and “Every morning, when I wake up, for 10 seconds I am free.” It’s a bit of performance art that captures the frustrations of being a physical body trapped by a pandemic, but in the way only artists of the 21st century could pull off.

A dancer flails so fast that the image is blurry.
An image from Strasbourg 1518.
Courtesy of A24

Strasbourg 1518 was so haunting that I felt compelled to rewatch it immediately, and then I had to look up the title. The results made it more disturbing and magnetic.

In 1518, a mysterious “dancing plague” — that is, an epidemic of dancing — broke out in Germany. The details vary from account to account, but essentially, one woman began dancing alone in a Strasbourg street in July. Within a week, more had joined her. For the participants, the urge to dance was uncontrollable and contagious. Local doctors said the culprit was “hot blood,” and prescribed more dancing as the cure. By August, according to some reports, more than 400 people were dancing frantically and uncontrollably in the streets of Strasbourg, some of them collapsing and even dying. The dancing didn’t end until September, when, depending on who you read, either priests or doctors intervened.

The Strasbourg incident wasn’t the only European “dancing mania” of the Middle Ages, though it was apparently the biggest. Technically nobody knows why the manias happened, with some experts speculating that the urge to dance could have been caused by ingesting molds or being bitten by a scorpion. But the most common suggestion — and probably the most unnerving one, by today’s standards — is that there was no reason at all, that dancing fevers are simply one type of mass psychogenic illness (MPI).

Sometimes called “mass hysteria,” MPIs occur when symptoms of some kind of illness spread among a cohesive group of people as though they’re contagions, but with no underlying virus or bacteria causing it. Researchers have found that the symptoms tend to spread through visual contact, seem to be exacerbated by media coverage, and appear very real to the people who experience them.

There are a whole bunch of tricky ethical and historical concerns inherent in how we think about MPIs, not least of which is the long history of women and other marginalized groups being kept in their place by those who, for one reason or another, deem them psychotic. But the kernel of the idea, even interpreted outside the medical framework, has proven to be an intoxicating one for filmmakers. Take, for instance, Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, in which teen girls in a dance troupe start to fall to the ground in shivers and convulsions. There’s no explanation, and our main character Toni (Royalty Hightower), desperate to fit in with the group, starts to experience symptoms as well. For Toni, the fits become her hungry, isolated soul’s unconscious way to feel as if she’s part of something.

She Dies Tomorrow, though it was not made for a world in the state ours is in, evokes isolation in its exploration of mortality. And the movie doesn’t provide any definitive answer on whether its characters, in coming to believe they only have one day left, are contracting a psychosis or, perhaps, finally coming to their senses. It clings mostly to the effects of feeling alone while facing existence: Living with loneliness is dark, and difficult, and more life-sapping than thinking you’re going to die. Each character spins out of control not just because they’re convinced they’re going to die tomorrow, but because they feel as if they’re facing that knowledge by themselves. Each realizes anew how much they’ve messed up their own relationships. They’ve severed or strained ties between themselves and others, and now they are definitely not okay.

A man’s face, lit in purple light, with a tear streaming down his cheek.
Tunde Adebimpe in She Dies Tomorrow.
Neon

Strasbourg 1518, in contrast, is a direct product of our moment of isolation and depicts it elliptically. Dancers both caught in and stranded by a plague, alone in their homes, all dance, hearing the same beat and the same voice asking the same questions. How are you, from ten to one? Ten to two? These questions we ask one another in little boxes on our screens or on the phone, and answer with more or less honesty. Every morning, when I wake up, for 10 seconds I am free. The art grasps, harnesses, and redirects the controlled explosion of feeling trapped, the emotional swings that seem irrational but are probably the most rational response of all to a totally enraging situation.

The dancers throw themselves against their walls, whip their hair around, things I have wanted to do most every day when I remember I am not, in fact, free.


I confess that living through this moment has sometimes felt as if I’m trying to decide which mass psychosis to engage in, or, alternately, trying to figure out if I’m just coming to my senses. People tweeted early on about wondering if they were feeling the symptoms of infection or just anxiety — if that cough or chest tightness was “real” or just an effect of allergies, or the news. All these months later, I’m less worried about tangible symptoms and more about intangible tricks my mind plays on me. Is it foolish to think I am somehow completely protected when I go outside, taking proper precautions, wiping things down, because I “feel safe”? What if I lose patience and choose to live as if nothing is wrong? What if I decide that to protect myself and others would make me weak — isn’t that a delusion? Will seeing other people living one way or another cause me to think I ought to, as well?

I lived through April 2020 in New York and listened to all-night, all-day sirens; I know what’s real; I believe in facts; I cover my face and wash my hands and stay out of restaurants. But if anything, those sirens made me — and my neighbors, and people I tweet with all day long — more aware of our mortality. I’m more aware now than I was eight months ago that I, or anyone I love, could die tomorrow.

A dancer bows alone in a room, next to a wooden bucket.
A scene from Strasbourg 1518.
A24

That awareness is good. I belong to a religious tradition that, like many others, has yearly rituals designed to remind us that we are made of dust, the same stuff as the rest of the universe. But those reminders have a dark side; I have to balance the doom with living, to look away from the feverish panic and maybe go sit under a tree that’s been there since long before I was born and will probably outlast me by a century.

Properly respecting the virus that would like to kill me — no, not even like, a virus has no motivation, replication is just its ontological purpose — without tipping into fantasy is hard. I want to believe I can cheat death with soap and cloth. Or that if I can only feel the same level of sleep-sapping panic as people on my Twitter feed, I might by force of will be able to propel myself out of this timeline. Only one of those actions has any effect on the situation.

But nothing you or I do can erase reality. So in the face of our own mortality, we keep dancing in our rooms alone. We try to beat loneliness however we can. We remind each other what matters, who matters. We make things to share our exhaustion and frustration and exhilaration with one another. In the midst of what can feel like solitary madness, we might, if we’re lucky, find the wisdom we usually ignore.

She Dies Tomorrow opened on July 31 in select drive-in theaters and will premiere on digital platforms such as Apple TV and Google Play beginning August 7. In the US, Strasbourg 1518 is streaming on its website. The Fits is streaming on the Criterion Channel.


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