Why We Always Feel Depressed After a New Star Wars Movie, Explained by Science
‘Luke Skywalker Can’t Read’ author Ryan Britt spoke to experts and superfans to understand the emotional and psychological post-Star Wars comedown.
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
On the night of December 17, at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square, I heard a serious scream as the Lucasfilm logo shimmered into view. This sound wasn't a whoop or a cheer of delight, but instead, a scream belonging to someone who's had the shower curtain pulled back and sees a knife coming in. The scream was coming from me, from my mouth. Like many, many moviegoers this weekend, I was too excited for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Now that we've actually seen this thing, how are we coping? Still excited? Having a comedown? I talked to some experts and fans to assess the emotional and psychological aftermath of this massive pop-culture event.
To get real for a second, everything you're about to read is going to contain some pretty hefty spoilers for the new Star Wars movie because someone has to put all of our feelings in one place. If you don't want the movie ruined for you (and you really shouldn't) this is your final warning. Turn back now and come back later.
Overwhelmingly, if you're anything like me, your reaction to The Force Awakens has probably been a little like how a child feels on Christmas afternoon or the day after their big birthday party. The big event has happened, we got our presents or candy or cake, and now we can't believe it's actually over. It feels like Star Wars fever was this shared high the zeitgeist has been riding for almost a year, weeping and losing our shit left and right, and now that it's actually here we're having a rough time acting like we're not getting over a massive addiction.
When I reached out to Dr. Erin Falconer, a neuroscientist friend of mine, she helped me understand how anticipation works in the brain from a chemical perspective: Anticipation is known as 'positive expectancy' in neuroscience. What happens is this: Dopamine is released into a part of your brain called the nucleus accumbens. "When a person expects a context or cue (e.g., Christmas or a Star Wars film) to predict a rewarding experience," Dr. Falconer explained, "anticipation triggers arousal and dopamine neurons firing in the midbrain. If an experience does not live up to the expected reward, you get what is called 'contrast' in cognitive science, or 'reward prediction error' in biological terms."
A Star Wars hangover then, is classic comedown stuff, meaning there's a chance that even if you thought the Star Wars movie was awesome, you might still be experiencing a loss of that dopamine because the experience was slightly contrasted from what you previously believed it might be. Post- Force Awakens, humorist Sam Draisin wrote me, saying, "I feel like I'm on coke right now... I'm high-fiving my 11-year-old self."
"I'm experiencing relief," writer and critic Lev Grossman told me. "I think my fear of the movie being terrible was even bigger than my hope that it was good. Fortunately, it was good." In Grossman's recent cover story for Time Magazine on Star Wars, he asserts that the enduring love of all things Star Wars is connected to the concept of "hope."
But what happens when that hope is dashed, the way many felt it was during the prequel era? What if The Force Awakens didn't live up to our dopamine-soaked expectations? Abraham Riesman of New York replied, "Oh boy! That was not up to snuff!" Back in the spring, I'd interviewed Riesman about how excited he was after one of the trailers and also the fact that he was moved to tears back then. Now, though he tells me that he liked a lot of the film, it still seems he's having a comedown at least vaguely similar to one associated with The Phantom Menace, saying, "I feel like I'm having to wrap my head around Trade Federation stuff again."
Amy Ratcliffe, a writer for StarWars.com and the Nerdist was also left a little wanting in the Luke Skywalker department: "I'd like to have learned more about what happened with Luke. Actually, it would have been nice to hear his voice."
And she's right. Because while there's absolutely no question that The Force Awakens delivered a movie top-heavy with plenty of fan service, its latter half gave us narrative strands which remain largely unresolved. This is distressing for fans in more than one way. As far as the "present" of the film is concerned, we've got nothing but questions. We don't know what's going to happen to Finn; is Rey the daughter of Han and Leia or is she Luke's? And what to say about Kylo Ren? He's now revealed to be formerly known as Ben Solo, Han and Leia's son. Could he actually come back from the Dark Side after killing Han Solo? Could an audience even accept that?
It's possible that Kylo Ren may be the first attempt for Star Wars to create a totally irredeemable villain who is also scarily real. Writer and teacher Michael Carlisle thinks that part of the resonance of The Force Awakens—regardless of our individual emotional reactions—is the way Kylo Ren becomes the ultimate symbol of a "real-life" kind of bad guy, complete with shades of racist and sexist Gamer-Gate-esque methods.
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"Kylo Ren is the anonymous white male internet troll, destroying what you think is good, behind a mask," said Carlisle. "He is genre-savvy: He wants a return to the First Order, the Light/Dark bimodality where it was easy to decide who was on what side. He puts himself on the Dark side... He is beset on all sides by a diverse cast: a black male Stormtrooper slave turns on him, a Latino male Resistance pilot who helps the Stormtrooper escape, a white female scavenger who rejects his hostile advances into her mind... [And] he can kill his father. He can kill your favorite character. Is THAT enough to not be redeemable? It's like he's saying: Can I FINALLY just stay on the Dark Side now?"
My friend and colleague Cici James—founder and former publisher of the science fiction venture Singularity & Co.—attended the screening with me and noted that there was an "audible silence" in the theater when Kylo Ren killed his father, Han Solo. But watching Han's body fall into that abyss was more than just a moment of cinematic shock. Rather, it was the body of everyone's nostalgic youth. The death of some kind of carefree innocence. Not just my generation's innocence, but my mom's generation, too. Michael Carlisle is right: This villain seems more like something that might happen in real life, which is why it's painful. The reason why the silence was audible was because a Star Wars movie has never burdened audiences with a loss of this magnitude, a loss that is clearly final. As my old editor friend from Tor.com, Chris Lough, pointed out, "They stabbed Han. Threw him into a bottomless pit. Then threw that pit into the sun. Damn."
Han Solo is definitely gone. This isn't Sherlock Holmes's Reichenbach Falls, or Spock's radiation chamber from The Wrath of Khan, or any other sci-fi death where you can come back with magic. This death is permanent. In writing about Return of the Jedi in my new book, Luke Skywalker Can't Read , I flippantly said even the good guys who die don't have to really die because they exist as "Force Ghosts." Han Solo isn't a Jedi—he's not coming back as a ghost. As he himself growls in the film, "That's not how the Force works!"
The way the Force works might never be totally clear, but some psychology tells us the way our minds work. In the recently released book Star Wars Psychology, the book's editor Travis Langley writes about Jean Piaget's notion of "schemas." A schema is an ideal mental structure, an abstract meaning our brains form around certain things. Langley applies this to the Star Wars special editions: "Accepting that Greedo shoots first... means changing the original schema, and accommodation does not happen so easily."
Now, a Star Wars fan's schema is struggling to accommodate all sorts of things—the biography of Luke Skywalker, the nature of Han and Leia's romance. The name of their son. In the beloved Star Wars "expanded universe" novels of a bygone era, Han and Leia did have kids, and one of them did turn to the Dark Side. But, in those books it was Luke who had the son named Ben. And that's all different now, even though it's a little bit the same. The dopamine expectations now forming in everyone's nucleus accumbens are all related to the next movie—Episode VIII. That movie isn't just thinking about resolving the storylines indigenous to this new movie, but also catching up on this newly revised version of "the past." As Amy Ratcliffe said, we really didn't find out a whole lot about Luke. Temporally, the cliffhanger extends in two directions: one toward the future of Rey, Finn, and Poe's new adventures with Luke and Leia, but also backward to try and explain to us how Luke got where he was in the first place.
Plus, this movie ends with the most effectively psychologically maddening cliffhanger perhaps of all time, a final cliffhanger that takes place on an actual cliff. This is all a lot to process. "Processing in these brain areas interact with the dopamine system to influence how an event is perceived," Dr. Falconer explained, "and this will ultimately change a person's thinking and decision-making process."
So, if your friends tell you the new Star Wars movie blew their minds, give them a break. It's more than just the Force getting to them—it's science.
Ryan Britt is the author of Luke Skywalker Can't Read and Other Geeky Truths from Plume (Penguin Random House). He's written for the New York Times, Electric Literature, the Awl, Tor.com, and elsewhere. He lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.