By Dr. Steve Schlozman
Like lots of people, I can remember the first time I saw “Star Wars.”
It was my first summer at sleep-away camp; I was 11 years old, and suffering from homesickness bad as a fever. I think I had about three weeks to go in an eight-week session that was hardly, in retrospect, torture. Still, when you’re 11, there are some things that never stop being terrifying. For instance, walking across the cold Minnesota dirt to the morning group shower was a daily tribulation. I was ready to go home.
Then, inexplicably, the camp director announced one morning during breakfast that the normal activities of the day would be cancelled. There would be no canoeing, fishing or riflery. He had a special treat, he told us, and we were to clear our trays and head out to the parking lot, where a bunch of school buses would be waiting to take us on a surprise field trip.
The parking lot was, to me, a lot like a landing pad. Five weeks earlier we had all been deposited there by these same buses, and since that time, while it had not been entirely off-limits, its hallowed ground was rarely frequented — lest we risk revisiting the fact that we would not be talking to our parents except through written letters for the next two months. (“Dear Mom and Dad. How are you? Today I caught a fish and cooked it. It tried to bite my finger off.”)
“Star” Wars is fundamentally about nostalgia. And nostalgia, remember, is a good thing.
We boarded those buses, and drove through the small town that harbored our camp, pulling into the parking lot of the only movie theater in town. It was a small town, so the theater itself was not that big; it couldn’t possibly accommodate all of the gangly legs and arms that emerged from the three big yellow buses, so we were divided into waves. I was in Wave 1 — I entered the theater near the front of the pack, while many of my fellow campers were left to while away the time at a local park until the next movie began.
And the movie we were to see was, of course, “Star Wars.”
Remember that this was during what some have called the golden age of summer camps. By definition, there was no contact with the outside world. We had no access to phones, or Internet, or even newspapers. There was certainly no television. I had no idea what “Star Wars” was all about; I hadn’t even heard of it. For me, it was enough to be sitting in the air-conditioning. But then, those words started scrolling across the screen:
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
And I’ll be damned if that movie wasn’t about a boy who willingly travels far away from his own home.
We burst out of the theater at the end of the movie ready to take on whatever foes blocked our inextricable march toward justice. Sure, Darth Vader worried me a little, but I knew Luke could handle him. And I, after all, had been exiled just like Luke; that meant that I could handle Darth Vader as well. Han Solo was the “bad guy” we all knew would turn good in less than an hour, and each of us wanted a Wookiee for a friend. In fact, I think we wanted a Wookiee even more than we wanted a light saber.
(And yes, it’s hard for the shrink in me to ignore the symbolism of that long, powerful sword that emerges ready to fight with energy and cool noises. To this day, the concept of a light saber gives me the same sense of power that I experienced at camp whenever we boys chose to extinguish a fire by urinating on it.)
All of these memories…it has to be driving some of the current “Star Wars” fervor. Just look at the numbers. This year’s iteration of the film shattered just about every movie record ever set. It grossed the most money ever for a December opening. It had the single largest opening Friday profits in movie history. People skipped school and work to see the film. Even President Obama hurried out of his last press conference of 2015 by saying, “OK, everybody, I gotta get to ‘Star Wars.’ ”
So yeah, let’s chalk up much of the excitement around this film to parent and child nostalgia. Parents today saw this film’s genesis in droves when they were kids, and the movie has therefore become part of the cultural landscape. Few movie franchises have so thoroughly pierced our everyday lives.
But all this hype begs an important and perhaps untoward question:
“Star Wars,” as a story? It’s nothing special. (Please don’t egg my house!)
“Star Wars” is pretty standard stuff: good guys and bad guys, evil empires and noble rebels. There’s even a princess. It’s like Carl Jung got in a car accident with a John Ford western. How many American archetypes can fit into a single motion picture? A lot, it turns out. In fact, these archetypes are the very reason we celebrate “Star Wars” in the first place.
I’ve noted elsewhere that “Star Wars” can be a bit clunky. But, I also know that the film refuses to bow to my stodgier impulses. (And don’t worry. I’m going to resist the perhaps expected psychological discussion of Darth Vader being Luke’s father.)
“Star Wars” is fundamentally about nostalgia. It speaks to our collective longing for a world where the boundaries are clear and and our ideals remain unquestioned. The Empire is bad and the Rebels are good. Even the surprises are pleasantly predictable. We adults know that the world is not really this straightforward, but that doesn’t matter when you have your kids next to you and a large (and overpriced) popcorn to share.
And nostalgia, remember, is a good thing. In fact, multiple studies have stressed the benefits of nostalgic indulgence. Nostalgia allows our own histories and memories to rework themselves into something grander and even optimistically stalwart. Nostalgia creates connection, courage and a sense of a brightened future.
Ironically, this is a far cry from the original conceptualization of nostalgia as a disease. Now, we recognize nostalgia as a legitimate source of hope, or even, perhaps, inspiration. I mean, look at the title of first “Star Wars” film back in 1977: “A New Hope.”
These kinds of explanations inevitably yield clichés, but it’s also the very nature of these explanations that allow clichés to ring true. We’ve had almost nonstop news lately about terrorists and nasty politicians and seemingly unsolvable social chasms. How great is it, then, to have a movie in which these lines are never gray? That has to feel good to our kids. After all, they’re worried about the adults around them. We can’t seem to stop fighting with each other, and we aren’t even sure who’s on our side.
In “Star Wars,” there is no ambiguity. (OK, so there’s a little ambiguity, but no spoilers here!) This kind of straightforwardness is refreshing, even if we need to remind ourselves that the movies have an uncanny ability to make things impressively clear while the outside world remains murky and undecided.
And, here’s the epilogue to my own experience: after I saw “Star Wars” that day in 1977, I forgot all about my homesickness. I had The Force. That was more than enough to get me through the rest of those open showers.
Dr. Steve Schlozman is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and associate director at The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.