I was watching Everything Everywhere All at Once and it felt uncomfortably close to home. Not the part of about multiverses and strange rituals and conspiracies, but the part about believing in them. It felt like watching a psychotic episode.
I haven’t had a psychotic ‘break’ (essentially a day-trip into schizophrenia) but I have seen a few up close. I’ve seen someone truly believe they were at the center of a grand conspiracy that we had to go to some parking lot to sort out. There were messages and signs everywhere, I just wasn’t catching on. So many movies start this way, but this was real life.
The difference in movies is that the audience is in on the delusion, and it’s fun. Thinking there’s a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, imagining that the whole world is a computer program, lots of movies are psychotic breaks we safely experience in the cinema. If you start imagining these things outside the theatre, however, that’s just schizophrenia.
In Everything Everywhere there’s a telling scene where Mrs. Wang (Michelle Yeoh) holds a script telling her the obscure rituals she needs to perform to access the multiverse. I’ve seen someone perform similar rituals in real life, only it doesn’t work. The truth is that ‘real’ life is full of rituals like this (stand this way in line, take out this plastic card, push these magic numbers). In a psychotic episode these lines get crossed, but the premise itself is not absurd.
What so many movies do is take psychotic episodes to their logical conclusion. What if there really is a conspiracy, and you’re the only one that can stop it? What if everyone really is out to get you? What if the signs are all hiding there in plain sight, waiting for you to put them together? A cinematic break is thus a psychotic break writ large. TV episodes are psychotic episodes, and every novel is a pocket delusion.
In this sense mental health is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not about having or not having delusions, it’s about having the right delusions. If enough people have a delusion it becomes social reality. Take for example, everything. Money, marriage, nations, words, math. We imbue meaningless things with meaning and because we all agree on it, it’s true. But not true in an especially ‘objective’ sense, it’s more like a shared hallucinations.
Hallucinations have something to do with reality (hence planes fly based on math) but they’re still a representation of reality (which is why they crash too). There are different degrees of delusion, from the 100% useless to the 99% useful, but they’re all a degree of separation from ‘reality’, which is infinite and simply cannot be fit in a human skull.
Hence madness is not about having an ‘unhealthy’ brain per se, that too is just a metaphor. We are all mad in socially agreed upon ways and we go into dark rooms and go mad together for fun (movies). Madness is when your delusions get unmoored from everyone else’s and it hurts. Reality is not only different from other people, it’s different from moment to moment, you become estranged even from yourself, whatever that is. The disconnection hurts.