How Mass Hysteria Explains The Happening

M. Night Shyamalan’s career trajectory resembles a roller-coaster at this point; going from the heights of The Sixth Sense to almost a decade long low back up to the highs of Glass and beyond. During that low, however, was The Happening which has been seen as one of the worst films the director ever brought to screen.

The Premise

As anyone who sat through it may vaguely recall, people start committing suicide en masse which news reports inaccurately suggest might be the result of terrorism. Mark Wahlberg and his group flee New York City to escape the supposed attack. During the hysteria, Mark and his group are told by someone who works in a greenhouse that the events of The Happening – The Happenings, if you will – are being caused by the plant-life.

And this is where the film becomes a not-very-subtle anecdote for climate change. The gentleman in question claims that instead of a neuro-toxin being released by terrorists, it’s instead the plant-life defending itself against humanity. This helps to explain why people are only affected when they’re in large groups. The plants feel threatened when big numbers of people congregate near them.

The entire crisis then abruptly ends. We see glimpses of humanity split up and isolated across the whole United States followed by a news-reporter confirming the theory.

Regarding the actual premise – plants defending themselves against humanity – there’s very little wrong with it. However, it did lead to some of the most ridiculously realized scenes imaginable. Groups running as soon as the wind bustles served up some unintentional surprising entertainment. After all, the neuro-toxin either is or isn’t in the air. Running wouldn’t exactly prove useful.

Yet, while this behavior seems ridiculous to anyone watching The Happening, it doesn’t for those experiencing what’s going on.

This differing of opinions – viewers thinking the actions are ludicrous versus what the characters think and feel – may be the point. The latter’s reactions to what’s going on may be the secret ingredient in The Happening; after all, Shyamalan is well known for having twists in his films so why wouldn’t there be one here?

What’s Going On?

Plants spontaneously attacking people is a little bit far-fetched of a premise, even for Shyamalan. What isn’t too outlandish an idea, however, is mass hysteria. While it’s one of the freakiest phenomena known to man, scientists have confirmed it’s scientifically valid.

Concerning how it can affect human behavior; at one point, mass hysteria was determined to be behind the case of a few hundred people who constantly danced for a month until they passed away from exhaustion. In a more recent example, it may have also been the cause of 40 school girls who fainted for no discernible reason.

But how does that relate to The Happening? To go back to the beginning of the film; a group of people commit suicide. That and the hysteria that follows is initially blamed on a neuro-toxin released by terrorists. In the real world, mass hysteria only needs a few ingredients; a spark to cause enough terror and a large enough group to feed into each other’s fear. When the Happenings are first announced, the news media even define the symptoms of the chemical attack:

“The first stage is confused speech. The second stage is physical disorientation, loss of direction. The last stage is fatal.”

Further Reading: Film Review | Bird Box – The Happening But Good

Not only does the chemical attack make people go crazy and commit suicide but it’s also completely undetectable. Nobody knows it they’ve actually been affected. Even the rumor of such an event – or Happening – could be enough to cause hysteria and panic would set in pretty quickly.

And as for why the plants are only attacking large groups of people? Well, mass hysteria needs a mass. In order to create a continuous feedback loop of fear, there needs to be a certain amount of people to provide that loop. You can also add in the fact that the gentleman who originally suggested that it may be the plants – the guy who worked in the greenhouse – didn’t have too many credentials behind his name.

With all that in mind, mass hysteria could describe all of the supposed symptoms that people are feeling.

A Better Film?

The criticism that’s been leveled at The Happening hasn’t just been directed at its principal premise, but also it’s acting which has always been described as haphazard and almost absurd. However what if instead of looking at it through the lens of a plant-based attack, we look at it through the context of mass hysteria in action.

Through this way, we could ask whether Mark Wahlberg is phoning-in his performance, or if he’s portraying a man who’s slowly losing his grip on reality. It doesn’t just stop with Mark Wahlberg; almost everyone’s behavior comes across as crazy, except to the characters themselves. This can be interpreted in the same way that many cult members would act, right up until mass suicide or ritualistic murder.

Through the lens of mass hysteria, The Happening may have been a lot better than we originally thought.

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