Love him or hate him, Stephen King has been providing American culture a context for exploring painful emotions for decades. Even if you have never read one of his novels, it’s likely that you have seen a film or television series adaptation of his work. HBO is the latest network to provide an adaptation of his work The Outsider. Screenwriter Richard Price has taken artistic liberty in order to utilize the medium of the small screen to help the audience probe the relationship between grief and fear.
Grief, however, is seldom an emotion that comes singularly. Attached to grief is the fear that more loss will be demanded of us.The story begins with the discovery of the body of a young child named Frankie Peterson (Duncan E. Clark), who was brutally murdered. The overwhelming evidence points to Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), an upstanding citizen and Little League baseball coach. Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) is the arresting officer, and because his own son played on Maitland’s team before dying of cancer, Anderson is disgusted and exacts vengeance disguised as justice by arresting Maitland in front of the entire town. The only problem is that Maitland is on camera asking a question in another city at a teacher’s convention at the exact time that the murder occurred. Anderson’s actions set off a chain of events that lead to the assassination of Maitland before he has his day in court, conveniently at the same time that Anderson and the audience are beginning to question his guilt and grapple with the idea that some kind of supernatural boogeyman may be lurking in the shadows.
As with many King stories, one has to maintain a certain suspension of disbelief to follow along, but I believe we would be remiss to completely dismiss the canon of one of America’s most prolific writers. He’s popular for a reason, and his ability to get into the depths of the collective American psyche leads me to believe we would do well to explore his appeal. Regarding The Outsider, King has asked the question, “How does a person cope with the unbelievable?” Contextually, coping with the unbelievable he is referring to involves the emotions of grief and fear.
Our deepest fears are often portrayed in our favorite movies, books, and television shows, and for good reason. There is an innate sense in humanity that, as Carl Jung wrote in Contributions to Analytical Psychology, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” Still, there is a fear of whether or not we will be able to endure what we become if the pain is too much. King has created a world where we can explore those darker emotions at arm’s length, thereby anesthetizing us just enough that the pain isn’t unbearable. In the book Transforming Terror, therapist Miriam Greenspan poses a question and subsequent answer: “Why not medicate what we can’t tolerate? The answer is that despair, like grief and fear, carries vital information that we miss when we chemically obliterate it.” As a nation, we’re more apt to turn to Prozac or Ambien than to face any feelings of discomfort such as grief or fear. In her excellent work, Greenspan goes on to demonstrate that the pathology of those emotions, when properly coped with, is not like a cancerous disease but a form of healing that leads us to better life.
Greenspan’s argument is that the emotions grief and fear are teachers. On the lesson of grief, she writes, “Grief arises because we are not alone, and what connects us to others and the world also breaks our hearts.” Price’s decision to depart from the source material and have Anderson’s son die of cancer instead of away at camp as portrayed in the book gives the audience an opportunity to relate with Anderson on a level that is almost universal—how we cope with personal loss is directly related to how we cope with communal loss. One who numbs or ignores pain will never be capable of empathizing with a community that is mourning the loss of a child. The more Anderson opens himself to coping with the loss of his own son, the more he is able to contend with the loss of Frankie and even Terry.
Grief, however, is seldom an emotion that comes singularly. Attached to grief is the fear that more loss will be demanded of us. Once we are adequately able to accept what we have lost, we must accept that we can’t predict what we may lose in the future. On the subject of fear, Greenspan argues, “The more we are open to fear, the more we learn the art of living mindfully with vulnerability…” Anderson is afraid of being open to the possibility of supernatural evil until the quirky private detective Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo) arrives and begins to help him see that she has lived through the reality of facing supernatural evil before. Literature is ripe with “guides” through painful experiences. Dante has Virgil and Beatrice, Scrooge has the three spirits, and Anderson has Holly Gibney. We need others who have gone before us to help us cope with the sensitivity of being vulnerable to the unknown.
Watching Detective Ralph Anderson grapple with the death of his son in the face of external evil allows the audience to watch him cope with his negative emotions—in part so that we may to learn to cope with ours. Like so many stereotypical brooding detectives before him, he drinks at the end of the day that Maitland was martyred by the angry mob to numb the emotions that come with failure in the face of a seemingly impossible situation. Those of us who have experienced the appeal of substances that numb the pain can identify—drugs and alcohol do their job of numbing pain, and they do it well. Deep inside, however, we are rooting for Anderson not to become a useless alcoholic. We sense that he can solve this case and stop the terror from taking another innocent victim if he can learn to cope.
In the end, part of the human experience is learning to endure suffering so that suffering can do its work of transforming us into who we are capable of becoming. One need not be an alcoholic to understand what it is to numb out negative emotions. Video games, Netflix, social media, food, material goods—anything can distract us from the things that cause us pain. For the Christian, this is an especially important battle.
When we ignore or numb our pain, we are turning to things other than God and missing out on what it is he can teach us through our suffering. We ignore the promise that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Although King is not a Christian, I appreciate the lessons I have picked up on through the common grace that he has experienced. HBO’s adaptation of The Outsider has reminded me that it is essential that we learn to cope with fear and grief in order to be guides for those in the world who have no hope.