A lot of recent media has been set in tropical destinations, but with psychological and political commentary increasingly being injected into these escapist settings, Hollie Moir ponders if we can ever truly retreat… is paradise, indeed, lost?
What we would give to escape to a remote island, spending our whole day in the sun and drinking cocktails (or mocktails if that tickles your fancy). It seems like a very, very distant memory to leave our everyday lives behind to retreat and only recently has travelling become something imaginable with less obstacles and limitations. Subsequently, while many continue to feel uncomfortable to travel, or are simply unable to, turning to film and TV remains one of the best options to escape normality. Your attention might be directed to a fictional reality created by a witch (see: Wandavision, 2020) or a sunny Cinque Terre inspired Italian town (see: Luca, 2021). The beach and seaside surrounding is continuing to rise in popularity for film and TV, attracting many audiences who have not seen the sun or sea in over a year (especially here in Scotland). However, this setting is becoming more psychologically unsettling than escapist, creating a sense of fear in places never expected. This raises the question: can we ever truly escape?
Why is the beach such an attractive backdrop for psychological manipulation? One thing we cannot deny, is the effectiveness of juxtaposing the peaceful seaside background with dramatic and horrific events. The plot appears more intense and more intimate than films and TV which rely on nostalgia and grand settings. Plus, with less production (as much as I'm partial to some extra bells and whistles), there is a greater focus on acting abilities and further heightening a sense of relatability and authenticity of the characters.
"Why is the beach such an attractive backdrop for psychological manipulation?"
By no means is the typical “beach escape” the first harmless subject or environment used to popularize previously unknown fears; we can see this in other horror movies: The Birds (1963), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and IT (1990, 2017, 2019), which used subjects such as birds, sleeping, and clowns respectively. Hitchcock’s early masterpiece The Birds (1963) cleverly uses two innocuous subjects; the film's protagonist escapes to the quiet Bottega Bay from the big city, only to experience and witness many deadly attacks from local seagulls. Personally, I believe one of the most influential uses of a sinister beach backdrop was in 1975, through the critically acclaimed Jaws (dir. Steven Spielberg), where a summer resort town is troubled by a man-eating great white shark, thus popularizing and triggering thalassophobia (the fear of the ocean) in many people. And more recently, we have the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk background for Us (2019, dir. Jordan Peele), a serene beach location for Old (2021, dir. M Night Shyamalan) and beach-side Provincetown, Massachusetts featured for the tenth season of American Horror Story: Double Feature (2021, dir. Ryan Murphy).
We must question if there is a reason for this rise of seaside backdrops in media or whether it is just simply a coincidence. While many people are currently dying to go to a beachside resort, the mere idea of a beach at the minute, with or without the influence of these movies and shows, can feel quite intimidating. We have learned to fear and feel uncomfortable in crowded spaces, and understandably so. Early newsreels of 2020 showing crowded beaches in Florida, whilst the UK continued to be in a severe lockdown come to mind, alongside the discomfort that arose when watching the same footage. On the other hand, however, the silence of a remote island leaves us with our own thoughts, theories, and problems – a scary situation for many of us, and perhaps a situation we have been all too familiar with since 2019. We have been used to being on our own for so long, that the thought of isolation for any longer is unbearable. Both instances of fear and interpretation all come back to current events and fears within society. Perhaps subverting peaceful spaces like the beach in film and TV is the cause of our inability to escape, or perhaps it is simply contributing to already existing anxiety relating to today’s social climate.
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