M. Night Shyamalan’s new psychological horror film, The Visit, has twists and turns and unexpected surprises that I wouldn’t think of revealing. And, of course, this film has one of Shyamalan’s shock endings – it wouldn’t be a Shyamalan film without it. But for me as a psychoanalyst, there’s something else of more interest. What this film’s characters tell us about the ability or inability to work out the sometimes very scary feelings of loss and guilt.
In The Visit, we have a family – a Mom (Kathryn Hahn), a 15-year-old daughter, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), and a 13-year-old son, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould). A jolting loss derailed them all and they can’t deal with the feelings. The Dad (Benjamin Kanes) abandoned all of them for another woman several years ago. Each character deals with feelings of grief and guilt in the only ways they can without any real help. Each uses various self-protective maneuvers. Here are 4 common methods to manage loss:
1. Trying not to think about it
Mom’s way to deal with the sadness is Trying not to think about it. That isn’t uncommon when feelings are too much to feel. So, In The Visit, Becca and Tyler’s mom tries her hardest to be cheerful. But she isn’t at all over being abandoned by her husband. Hasn’t gotten over, either, that she fought brutally with her parents to marry the guy who ended up leaving her, just as her parents had warned. However, as much as Mom’s shame and guilt preoccupy her, she doesn’t feel them consciously. She’s too afraid her sadness will overwhelm her.
So, Mom soldiers on by doing everything she can to not think about it. Not to feel what she feels. Mom loves her kids. But she isn’t able to grieve the losses of her husband or her parents. And, when a mom battles against her own difficult feelings alone, she leaves children alone, too, to manage theirs.
2. A detached observer
Becca hides behind her camera in The Visit, making a documentary of her mom’s life that will not include her dad. She’s a detached observer, wanting to make things OK, even better than OK, for her troubled Mom (and herself). Becca is the one that gets forgiveness for her Mom from her grandparents.
But being aware of her Mom’s hurt doesn’t make Becca aware of her own. In fact, Becca detaches from her feelings as if they don’t exist. That’s Becca’s symptom. Sadness can be scary, even terrifying. Especially if those feelings go unexpressed, have no outlet or an ear to listen. And, especially if they’re accompanied by deep feelings of guilt (in most cases, not rational). This scariness is true for Becca – and Tyler.
3. A phobic response
Tyler tries to detach from his sadness, too. Indeed, he’s all too rational in The Visit: “Well, life just changes and people find something better.” Rationality is Tyler’s defense. He wants to believe his dad’s leaving doesn’t bother him at all. As if being left is an everyday occurrence.
Yet, Tyler’s germ phobia makes him the most obviously symptomatic character, germs being his buried feelings. Tyler’s feelings threaten constantly to return and infect Tyler. That’s how feelings are. Feelings don’t go away, even if you want them to.
We eventually find that Tyler froze on the baseball field as a small boy and thinks he failed his dad. He believes, in his little boy’s mind, that this is the reason his dad left. He irrationally blames himself, and these feelings of guilt are blown out of proportion, blocking out the better times and love given.
4. Disturbed behavior and/or panicked flight
Then, there’s “Nana” (Deanna Dunagan) in The Visit. “Nana’s” history drives her to do cruel and even destructive things. And, that kind of very real guilt is impossible to touch. Becca and Tyler’s “Nana” can’t approach anything to do with her past without extreme panic. Nana’s kind of avoidance results in very troubling and bizarre behaviors. These behaviors stem from the feelings she can’t come even close to being reminded of. As if the reminder itself is an accusation.
Becca interviews “Nana” for her documentary. But any question that arouses feelings of guilt or sadness is met with horror and immediate running away. People like “Nana” are distrustful and suspicious, and ready to “kill” if anyone gets close to their feelings. Unmanageable terror can interfere with facing what has happened or been done.
None of these 4 methods for trying to manage sadness and guilt works. Feelings, of course, don’t go away, even if you think they’re gone. They get buried, or you distract yourself, or they turn into troubling symptoms. Like Tyler’s germ phobia or “Nana’s” bizarre behavior. Feelings need to be felt. To feel feelings often requires help.
Finding your way to the other side of grief and guilt
Grief can overwhelm you. And, you develop many ways of managing your feelings. We see 4 ways in the characters in The Visit. What do you do if that’s happening to you? Therapy or sensitive people can help you to face your sadness and guilt. And Becca and Tyler and Mom (much less troubled than “Nana”), finally do just that, in The Visit.
Becca helps Tyler to know it isn’t his fault their Dad left. She remembers the good and loving times. Mom grieves her losses, feels sad she couldn’t face her mistakes earlier, and reconcile with her Mom and Dad. Finally, she forgives herself.
Losses must be felt and grieved. It’s hard to do alone. You need someone there to hear and support you. Then, sadness becomes relieving. The feelings aren’t so scary anymore. Guilt, too, can be seen for what it is and put in its proper place. It become normal regret. You find that you’re only human as we all are. Life can begin again.