Why Stories Matter: Some Thoughts from a Mythologist for Seth Rogen

I don’t often comment on current events in this space, but something about this particular story has me wanting to chime in. I think there is room for a mythological perspective on aspects of this story.

Like most of the world, I was heartbroken to hear about the shooting that happened in Isla Vista last week. The shooter, Elliott Rodger, made clear in his Youtube videos and “manifesto” that he was out to get all women (who he believed had rejected him), and the men that they chose instead of him. There have been countless words of commentary and analysis of this man and what motivated him. I’ve read much of it, with a heavy heart, but I haven’t felt compelled to speak out until I read about the exchange between Washington Post journalist Ann Hornaday and actor Seth Rogen. Ms. Hornaday is a film critic for the Post, and she had written a piece on the shooting, in which she speculates (if I dare to paraphrase) that perhaps the countless stories portrayed on film of guys who “get” the hot girl as a reward at the end of the film, may have had an influence on a personality like the shooters. She says:

“How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like “Neighbors” and feel, as Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of “sex and fun and pleasure”? How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, “It’s not fair”?”

When Rogen saw the piece, he had this to say on Twitter:

“I find your article horribly insulting and misinformed”, and

“How dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage.”

Ann Hornaday replies here, mostly quoting the responses to her essay, both supportive and critical.

There are so many aspects to the story of this shooting that can and should be discussed, and I’ll leave it to others to continue with that. However, as a mythologist, I was struck by Mr. Rogen’s response. I do understand it, as a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. “Don’t link me to this awful thing, I had nothing to do with it!” However, I do see an opportunity here for deeper understanding, for Mr. Rogen, Mr. Apatow, and anyone else who tells stories for a living.

Here’s what I would say to them, if I could, simply this. Please remember that stories have power. More power than you realize.

I’ve been studying story for most of my life, going back to the most ancient myths of humankind. I chose to study myth because I felt compelled by questions about story itself. For example, why is story such an important part of our lives? We can’t function without it as a species. It pervades everything we do, every day of our lives. Mr. Rogen and Mr. Apatow may think they’re making light entertainments, meant to provide a welcome diversion on a Saturday night after a long work week, but what they do is so much more than that. Their stories affect people, in deep and profound ways. They don’t have to be in the “12 Years a Slave” business for that to be true. Story has a way of slipping deeply into the back rooms of the psyche, and, as we see with people all the time, they make real world life choices based on what they experience there. Sometimes those choices are born out of their shadow selves.

It’s unlikely that Mr. Rogen will ever see this, but if he did, I’d ask him to approach his work as a sacred space. It matters.


  One thought on “Why Stories Matter: Some Thoughts from a Mythologist for Seth Rogen

  1. May 28, 2014 at 8:00 pm

    This article was the first one that I read this morning, and I was so conflicted about it. I agree with everything you say, especially that we cannot ignore the power that story has. You are right, story matters, and has tremendous power. I would also say, however, that I don’t believe a story can be blamed for the actions of a mentally ill person. It could, in fact, be argued, that the symbolic value of some of these ridiculous movies is that the story-line is encouraging, because we all have access to the rewards of society, even hygienically-challenged potheads. Unfortunately, in these particular movies, the rewards tend to be somewhat hedonistic, not to mention misogynistic. Is the storyteller responsible for the misappropriation or misunderstanding of its symbolic value? Some guy in Portland last week dropped acid, and dressed like an elf and wielding a sword, attacked a car in his pursuit of defeating the Dark Lord of the Middle Earth. I don’t think that would be Tolkein’s problem, but it certainly illustrated the deeply psychological power of narrative.At any rate, the point that the sacred nature of story is not acknowledged is true in all of these instances, and thanks for writing about this aspect of it, Allison. Most people are just being really hard on Ms. Hornaday!

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