Ebba Larkin

writing my way through an existential crisis

Driving along the highway of West Texas in the early morning dark, it is easy to believe I’m in a state of suspended animation, punctuated by brief moments of lucid, hectic movement. Ahead and behind and all around me is an unlit expanse that feels so close it’s claustrophobic. Compelled along a road that defines straight lines, shooting into nothingness, a steady, rhythmic stillness so complete and total I feel completely still.

The effect is heightened by my singular focus on the lights of towns hours away yet, a buoy in the dark, visible only because of the straight-edge flatness of the terrain. You could stare at those lights as you bear down at 70 mph and yet feel you’re never going to arrive. They seem at once fixed and yet always receding. Then, a sudden twist in the road and there they are-whipping by you and gone just as quickly, as if they were never there to begin with. It’s easy to believe I’ve imagined them.

The place where land and sky meet is seamless even in the day, lending a sense of wild freedom to the landscape. But now, pre-dawn, it compresses me, my world narrowing to a tiny pinprick of space, a density from which I cannot escape. Am I dead? For hours each morning, the uncanny feeling of barreling almost recklessly forward yet being pinned still mirrored my inner experience so completely I felt as if I was a soul trapped in amber.

It would not be a cliche to say I felt as if I were in purgatory. I’ve died but I refuse to realize it, so I’m forced to relive this moment over and over until I can break the spell. Traveling down this road in the dark feels like I should arrive at a conclusion, a break that will ease this feeling of being digested and dissolved. A confession of my sins, maybe, or a sudden realization of something that makes sense of it all. I ache for a righting of a wrong. A just hero to grip me tightly, painfully, and raise me from my own perdition. To feel anything at all.

The unanchoring from own my life did not happen as a sudden rupture or clean break, which would have been better: a sudden violence I could mistake for rebirth. It was a sudden veering shift, a vertigo-inducing swing toward an odd angle off of center. The kind of physical swaying sensation one might feel on a ship at sea, one that usually entails an equal but opposite compensating righting of the ship. Like being in a sudden crash, pushed to one side but rebounding back almost immediately, a feeling that something has happened but because you’re in the same spot as seconds before you don’t realize it’s happened. But the ship didn’t right itself, and I didn’t rebound back. I kept waiting for equilibrium, but I felt stubbornly askew, locked in a tangent. I was drifting away from my life in slow motion.

It would have made for a perfect noir film: the small, orange light in the dome of my car barely illuminating the interior, a tight-angle shot of my face staring into nothingness, the dark crowding in, a sense of panicked fleeing tempered with the stillness. The tagline: you can’t go anywhere because you can’t escape yourself. Wherever you arrive, there is just you.

But I had the strong feeling I was in a horror movie, exacerbated by that strange dolly zoom sensation that caused me to objectify myself: that kind of outside of myself yet inside of myself perspective. That point in the film when you finally see that everything is not what you thought it was, that the horror all along was hiding in plain sight. And this interpretation seemed more valid when I realized that, from somewhere deep inside my mind, someone was screaming for help.

In the world of cinema, it’s called a dolly zoom or the vertigo effect. Manipulating the camera to create a purposeful distortion of perception: a warping of the background and foreground while maintaining a tight focus on the subject. According to Film School rejects, the dolly zoom creates “unease and distortion” and “can signal uncanny emotional states” . Distorting the external environment around the subject is meant to reflect an inner distortion, because the only we can know a subject in cinema, to feel like we can live inside the character’s skin, is through external signs like dialogue, camera angle, music, an actor’s facial expression. We cue in to effect the synergy among these create and intuit the inner mind of the character.

But what do we call the dolly zoom or vertigo effect when we experience it in real life? When we’re no longer behind the camera, watching the subject, but the subject herself, feeling the distortion of perspective invading from the outside in? To be at once aware of the warping of space and time around us, our frightened faces and rigid bodies holding still as everything around us seems to at once rush at us and drop away? To not rely on visual cues around us to understand the sudden dropping away of reality and the fine focus on the horror of the moment, but to be in the subject’s skin, feeling that uncanny suddenly become real, to then intuit the distortion of our perspective that camera shot is meant to emulate?

It feels like looking at yourself from the outside in, yet horribly pinned to the moment. An existential vertigo. It feels like suddenly realizing you are in a horror movie and what you took for granted every day is now tinged with danger. What you thought was happening was actually something else. That nice neighbor is a perverse interloper, the smile on the face of your loved one is sly and bloodthirsty, the hole in the basement a portal to hell. You missed the signs, and now, somehow, it all comes rushing at you in gritty and grainy reality. You can’t ignore it now. You can’t unsee what you have seen. You can’t unknow what you now know, and your past, and everything you've ever relied on, subconsciously, to make sense of yourself, is now something else entirely. What you always feared crawled out of your mind and confronted you. And you can’t put it back.

And though in cinema the moment passes, the camera pans away, the action continues, you are stuck in that moment, at once outside yourself, observing this warping of reality, and stuck inside, feeling the unreality of it all.

I remember the moment of my own existential vertigo, my eyes, perhaps ironically, fixed on the blue light of a computer screen. My hand on the mouse, the cursor paused.

This vertigo effect, of at once observing myself as everything around me warped, and feeling trapped in that uncanny gaze, feeling the dizzying and utterly frightening and revolting realizations it produces, or signals, never broke or resolved. The hallways didn’t return to normal proportion. I never reached the door.

Horror entices and revolts. It’s all at once a fear, longing, and disgust. The mundane made dangerous, the loved made revolting. The unflinching gaze as we commit to understanding, finally, what is happening, even as it seems to know is to destroy everything, the monster is coming, our moments have been cut short. Horror is taking this all in, every second, as it is unfolding, even as we are powerless to stop it. It is a terrible knowledge.

I experienced my own existential vertigo as a kind clash of inner and outer perspectives, a sickening dizziness as I felt myself at once aware of the background falling away, ever-expanding toward total dissolution, and at the same time as a long, tight focus narrowing in toward me, crushing me. A confusing feeling of pixelating into nothingness while at the same time being crushed into into infinite density. It narrowed my life to a pin prick of light, or perhaps the mouth of an always moving tunnel that I could never quite get through. A long, dark night where help never arrives.

And after months of seeing myself through the lens of this uncanny distortion, of feeling the realizations rushing toward me but never crashing into me, I woke one morning and believed that I had died.