You can hear me reading a WAY condensed version of this story (with an alternate title) for NPR's "All Things Considered" by clicking here.
Copyright 2003 Mark Allen
"I Suffered Stendhal Syndrome at Universal Studio's Hollywood!"
- by Mark Allen
If you don't live in Europe, you probably have not have heard of a medical term called The Stendhal Syndrome. It is a (in)famous and slightly dubious medical condition that has been known to affect visitors in large European cities. In particular, Florence, Italy - a city that is home to some of the most important art and architecture produced by mankind, and an environment of cultural history that some find overwhelming... literally.
Apparently, Stendhal Syndrome is a temporary disorder that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion, hallucinations and sometimes unconsciousness when an individual is exposed to excessive amounts of profound art, paintings, sculpture or architecture. It is a drastic mental (and then physical) reaction to works of art that the afflicted person finds orphically profound in beauty and importance, perhaps subconsciously. Or more simply put; it's somebody spazzing out at The Guggenheim.
Named after the famous 19th century author Stendhal (pseudonym of Marie-Henri Beyle), who first described the phenomenon in one of his writings in the 1800's, it's fantastic and peculiar characteristics have given it an "urban legend"-like status, and have assured it's strange legacy's survival throughout the lore and ages of Italian art museums and emergency rooms... even up to today. This psychosomatic affliction is hardly an epidemic in Florence, Italy... but those who do suffer from it are treated by doctors at hospitals who use the phrase "Stendhal Syndrome" indeed as a medical term. Italian doctors may crack a smile when they inform a patient that they have succumbed to "Stendhal Syndrome" - and it's use in the medical field may come with a bit of mirth - but it is a medical term in Europe nonetheless.
Don't laugh... the condition has been documented by Florenceís Santa Maria Nuova hospital's psychiatric team since 1982, and they can account for 107 known cases since that date. While the cases and their physical effects by all accounts do appear to be real - the affliction can safely be said to lie somewhere between fact and fiction... or perhaps fact and bragging. I use the word "bragging" because, according to Graziella Magherini, Italian psychiatrist and author of the novel "The Stendhal Syndrome", Europeans visiting the city are the only ones ever afflicted by the condition. Inexplicably, American and Japanese tourists to the location seem to be immune to it. Perhaps for Italians visiting or living in their homeland, its no more than just a strangely veiled pride in their fantastic cultural history. I mean what's better praise about one's cultural heritage than saying "Watch out - our art is so important, it could be DANGEROUS!".
So, you say, what's the problem? If Stendhal Syndrome only strikes people in the Old World (a place with an unrivaled and deep cultural timeline), why should Americans (with their relatively new and notoriously 'shallow' commercial culture contributions) worry about Stendhal Syndrome? It couldn't happen here, could it? ...could it?
Flashback: me in Los Angeles, California, Spring 1989...
It was a sunny, Spring day in California, 1989... you know the type of weather they have there The kind of day that's ideal for tourists, or really anything for that matter. I was visiting Los Angeles on a road trip with some friends, and those same friends had just talked me into visiting the Universal Studios Tour... you know the one. You've probably heard about where they cart you around in a tram to old sets of TV shows, and by some water where a robotic "Jaws" pops out and pretends to try to take a bite out of you as you take pictures... then they drive you by the "Psycho" house and then through that stupid "parting of the Red Sea" thing and maybe share the "magic" of Hollywood by making you sit through out-of-work actors running around in Cylon suits shooting each other with laser guns in a "Battlestar Galactica" re-enactment. I had never been on the tour... but I had read about it with fascination as a small child in 70ís magazines like Dynamite and World, and had always wanted to do it.
"I can't wait to see robot Jaws and get all disappointed at how small the 'Psycho' house really is!" I glee-fully thought to myself in secret, as I dryly smiled and said out loud; "We have nothing to do today... It sounds cheesy and fun." I balked at the $24 entry fee ...but went in anyway.
As we all climbed into the tram at the beginning of the tour and proceeded into the vast Universal Studios lots... our announcer, Tammy (of whom I would make quite an impression on by the end of the tour), got on her megaphone in the tram's first car, turned around backwards and faced us, and cheerily let us know that she was our tour guide. The Spring wind blew through my hair as the tram's smooth, silent glide approached two massive, warehouse-like structures. When we got to the entrance of one... the tram stopped, and Tammy got a cartoon-ishly mischievous look on her face, hunched over slightly and crack-ily whispered to us through her megaphone that on the way to the see the The Munster's mansion "...we'll will be making a side journey through one of the massive prop warehouses that stores every prop ever used ever in any Universal production! But s-s-s-h-h-h-h! Don't tell my boss okay?!" All the tourists excitedly chirped and sat up in their seats, holding their cameras up in front of their chins to show appreciation for super-savvy Hollywood insider Tammy. This seemed to be the main way to venerate the now God-like Tammy... holding your camera in front of your chin and smile like a seal waiting for a tossed fish. Since I didn't have a camera... I held up my brochure and gave my best Vanna White-like open-mouthed, garish grinning death mask mouth gash. I thought the warehouse side-trip sounded pretty cool! Maybe if we smile and hold our cameras up enough she'll introduce us to a celebrity! Gasp! By the end of the tour Tammy would seem like Satan to me.
As we entered the airline hanger-like building, I saw what looked like mile-high shelves... lined with every category of everything imaginable. Stuffed dogs, suits of armor that were really plastic, an entire isle of "breakaway" furniture, lawn mowers with mouths and eyes, UFOs big and small, fake paintings organized by style and period, a whole isle of magic wands and scepters, plastic food, a row of sticks of dynamite with wires and a clock attached to each one, horse saddles, octopus arms, rows of imitations of famous paintings like The Mona Lisa, giant calculators, rolls of carpet, rolls of fake grass, bows and arrows, ray guns, couches, car doors, entire cars, coconut trees, wheelchairs with rocket engines on them, twenty different replicas of Michelangelo's David in every size and color imaginable, rubber cash register... swords... witch's pot... plastic dolphin... operating table... fake boobs... space helmet... totem pole... boulders... rocking chair... rat head... cigar shop Indian... pinball machine... giant Ms Pac Man... box of steering wheels... gorilla foot... medieval torture rack... giant eyeball... miniature city... ...all tagged with a number and organized according to time period or condition within their own categories and then organized even deeper into sub categories (for instance a child's baby doll toy with open and close eye lids from the 1950's was different a child's baby doll toy with open and close eye lids from the 1950's that had been damaged and burnt in a nuclear blast and existed in a post apocalyptic world). These things were actually marked and cross-referenced down to the smallest imaginable detail and apparently used quite often for every kind of movie, television show and commercial through the ages of Universal's history. It was impressive and fascinating. And... oddly familiar.
As we creeped slowly through more and more high shelves and our guide Tammy yapped into her megaphone... whispering promises of more behind-the-scenes perks if we were good... I noticed that I started to feel an oddly strange familiarity with my surroundings. It was a weird kind of jumbled sense of "home" that was starting to become palpable... but that I couldn't entirely pinpoint. All thoughts of kissing Tammy's ass left me as the strange feeling that was coming over me began to feel like it might overwhelm my mind. I began to wonder how many of these objects I was seeing on the shelves had crossed my line of sight in how many hundreds of television shows and movies I had watched in all the years I had been alive... some of them obviously more than once. My eyes began to dart back and forth as we crept between isle after isle ...I began to feel something like a fever dream-state coming over me that was like crossed wires in my brain. It felt lightly electric. I recognized each and every one of these objects from ...somewhere ...I think. Or maybe... was the relative darkness and motion sickness-like slow crawl of the tram playing tricks on my psyche?
"N-o-o-o-o-o... it's something about all the objects I'm seeing that's doing it... I... think" I confusingly thought to myself, eyes wide as baseballs, one casually over my mouth - as Tammy preached and preached and tourist cameras clicked and clicked and the tram crawled and crawled through the massive darkness past styrofoam gravestones and rows of silver space suits hanging on racks. It's like my senses were picking up nostalgic stimuli ...but too fast... and in the wrong order. And as we kept moving along and Tammy was saying "Here's an entire section of fake ice sculptures. Note the one made in the image of actor Jason Lively!", the tram began to actually slow down to a near stop... but I suddenly felt like things were moving faster and faster... I started to feel rather unwell and began to break a sweat... and oh God I feel like I need some fresh air ...what's happening to me, oh god I ...and *W-H-O-O-O-S-H!*
...suddenly we were out of the warehouse into the open, breezy air again. I felt physically and mentally relieved. Whew... what happened in there?
I collected myself and chalked the experience up to claustrophobia... or maybe all the beer I had drank the night before. I don't know. It was no big deal.
As we rolled along outside on our way to the animatronic Jaws, we took a side turn down what looked like parody of a typical American suburban street. Driving past the rows of weirdly sunny homes, Tammy announced that many of the houses on the street had been used in numerous television productions. And she was right. I seemed to recognize every inch of the street and houses. It was actually pretty remarkable.
I saw the house from Bewitched, the Partridge's house, Beaver's house... the house from "Earth Girls Are Easy" and The Twilight Zone "Monsters On Mulberry Street" episode were just some of the shows she mentioned... and they were all on the same street. The same street! The same perfect, sunny street lined with hedges and lampposts and mailboxes and driveways. These were the very settings and objects that created magic for me and a zillion other viewers through years of American entertainment media. It was like being in some weird dream, then waking up from the dream... but still being in it in a conscious state (the best way I can think of to describe it). The rows of homes were obnoxiously held up in garish broad daylight for me to soak in their clunky, matter-of-fact material-ness of. It almost stung my eyes. I've seen thousands of streets like this in America... but none that had such subtle spatial inconsistencies... inconsistencies that had a disorientating effect. The houses looked oddly flat... with lush green but stunted front lawns, The distance from the way-too-small front porch of Samantha and Darrin's house to the front sidewalk was a mere few feet! Why Ms. Kravitz could have made it from her house to the Stevens' in a few leaping steps! Beaver's house looked flimsy, under whelming, un-inviting, almost crass.
I couldn't believe how garish they all looked... brightly lit by the afternoon glare. I could see flaws in them... stains, cracks. It even seemed sacrilegious the way Tammy our guide kept screeching little factoids into her megaphone about the things she was showing us. "Here's Beaver's house! The pool in the back yard was recently filled with Jell-O for a Fruit Roll-Ups commercial! Our cleaning crew had a hard time getting it all out of there but its fine now!" I felt almost like they needed to be treated with more sanctity. Taking all this in was more of a head trip than I had originally anticipated. It had nothing to do with the fact that they looked more "fake" in real life than on television. It's always "weird" to visit a place in person that you have only experience before through photographs or television. But this wasn't just any location. This place housed the semiotics of a lifetime of television and movies. These signifiers... many of them witnessed by me (through the tv) during my formative years ...were powerful signifiers. Signifiers of beauty, power, humor, conflict, inspiration, horror, values, philosophy. Love it or hate it, the entertainment industry and it's product is a powerful canon by which we as a society compare and contrast our reality. But this was combined with the way in which I was seeing it now. It all lay in how my mind was seeing what I was seeing in moving space... as the neurons in the back of my subconscious mind were firing recognition signal after recognition signal... and getting unexpected responses. I noticed that even though I was seeing these places in 3-D reality for the first time... they seemed even more 2-D in the 3-D, if that makes sense. The amount of movement I was suddenly aware of all around me was remarkable. The way the edges of surfaces changed as I moved past them was really messing with my head. I could sense the subtle echoes of sound waves from all around me bouncing off the edges of the homes as I moved. It's strange to see objects and locations in the flesh after you have witnessed them your whole life on television. It's like I had my own editing booth inside my head. After witnessing these things for years on a screen where the cinematographers and editors determined how and when I saw what I saw... I was now able to control these actions with my own head and eyes as I moved around them with my own body - and the tram. Turn head... pan, blink eyes... cut, focus, zoom, remember... print!
...as we rode along the tram to what Tammy told us would eventually be the highly anticipated robot Jaws, my anticipation turned into something else. I felt, again, an overwhelming feeling of dizziness and disorientation and maybe nausea. Everything around me turning up in brightness - The hot sun started to white-out and over-expose my vision - all the sounds around me sounded kind of farther away than they should have, things seemed to be moving in fast and slow motion simultaneously. The kind of thing you experience during a severe panic attack - or maybe at the beginnings of a hallucinatory drug trip
As we rounded another corner of creepily familiar buildings, we finally exited the neighborhood ...and entered a round tunnel. The inside of the tunnel was made of a kind of mesh that was lit somehow from behind, and the whole thing was moving slowly in a clock-wise direction - a kind of all-encasing motorized tube - with a bridge that went through the center of it. When inside, it gave you the illusion that you were spinning while the bridge and tunnel were motionless. It's kinetic optical illusion was the last thing I needed in my growing state of over-stimulation. As the tram entered the tunnel and parked in the center, the gray/blue gossamer cylinder was turning clockwise all around us... the tourists were ohhh-ing and ahh-ing. That's when it hit me. It's familiarity became pinpointed. It was the same tunnel used in the two-part Bigfoot episode of "The Six Million Dollar Man"! As Tammy, who now had the entire tram eating out of the palm of her hand, began her speech "This motorized tunnel was first used in The Six Million Dollar man starring 70ís heartthrob Lee Majors..." I ...without even thinking about if it was horribly mortifying or not, inexplicably - and explosively - stood up in my seat on the back of the tram and yelled at an uncontrollable volume "Oh my God!!! It's the tunnel from 'The Six Million Dollar Man'!! The Bigfoot one!!! Oh my Gooooood!!! Aaaahhhheeeeyyyyeee remember it! A-a-a-a-yah-yah-yah-yah-yeeeeeee-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e!!!"
Tammy... for a split second lost her regal persona. She was suddenly smile-less - frozen and looking at me in total stillness for about five seconds, as did the rest of the people in the tram - who were now all turned around and staring at me like blank statues. Tammy collected herself and said "Sir can you please remain seated in the tram during the tour!" in that blank, stunted, monotone way people ask questions with the vocal tone of a command. I had been marked. I already had already realized how ridiculous what I had done was and had quickly sat down anyway, taken a few deep, calming, jittery breaths - and wiped the sweat from my face. I turned and looked at my two friends on my immediate right, who both were now looking at me with pin-hole mouths and baseball-sized, wide-eyed stares... that folded and burst into breathless cracks of laughter as our eyes met. I just kind of half heartedly chuckled back to them and looked at my feet. I think I might have heard a flashbulb go off.
"Oh my God indeed" I thought to myself. Yikes. I have never been so surprised and mortified... truly. Am I going nuts? What in the world came over me just then? This kind of behavior was not like me at all. But this was no time to question my motives... I was feeling dizzy as the tram left the tunnel and entered yet another area of Hollywood magic. I had realized that ever so slowly, my delightful anticipation for what surprise was waiting behind each turn of the tour turned into a slight dread anticipation for what surprise was waiting behind each turn of the tour. I felt like I was shifting into survival mode... breaking out in a hard core sweat from the effect... and also the adrenaline rush of extreme embarrassment... perhaps with some slight motion sickness from the spinning tunnel added on. I consciously hoped this. Subconsciously though, I was starting to get the creepy feeling that Tammy and Universal Studios were in control of the surface of the tour itself, the tram... what we saw... and that part was okay. But the things that lay within the tour, beyond Tammy and Universal's reach - or even awareness - those were the things that seemed to be in control of me, and the effect they were having on me was causing me to loose control of my emotions, and therefore my body.
Soon Tammy cruelly mocked my mental state by whizzing us past and inside building after building after building... showcasing hypnotizing sets, disorienting props and nauseating movie memorabilia. Japanese tourists "ooohhh"-ed and "aaahhh"-ed and snapped pictures and clapped in delight at everything they saw while I was in the back seat having a low key breakdown. Universal hadn't intended this magical tour ride to be a mental torture chamber - but it was becoming one for me. We witnessed the "Different Strokes" set, the "Psycho" house, the "Night Rider" car spoke to us ...every detail of every surface of every one of these experiences almost seeming to reach out at me... grab me ...it was like a haunted house ride... I was feeling dizzy and disoriented but at the same time weirdly wired for energy... I seemed to be loosing grip on controlling my bodily functionsÖ which at the time seemed to be a kind of low-key, sweaty, frenzied, wide-eyed jitter as my head darted back and forth between setting, prop, set, fake house, fake car. All the years of movies and television that had been dumped into my subconscious were now meeting their maker. I had always had a love/hate relationship with prime time network television and mainstream Hollywood movies but this was ridiculous! It's like they all were pulling at me like the strings of a marionette puppet - saying "You complained about us... said we were weak... unimaginative and dumb... you said we were nothing but corporate product. But we DID have an impact on you! Look at how much power we have over you! WE CONTROL YOU!" All the while the Tammy yap-yap-yapped like a mythological auctioneer from her feedback-y megaphone at the front of the tram.
The cheesy ride attractions like the animatronic Jaws, Battlestar Galactica laser show and the Earthquake subway disaster thing acted as resting points where I could stare down at the tram floor, collect myself and try to process everything I had just taken in. After all they were new attractions... their surfaces and details had no hold over my subconscious mind. As other tourists laughed and screamed and snapped pictures of King Kong grabbing at their car... I kept taking deep breaths to try and calm down.
Then, much to my horror, we drove again through the neighborhood with all the houses from all the TV shows. We stopped at the Munster's house and I had another weird incident where I stood up in the tram. Except this time, instead of shouting "It's the Munster's house!" I just kind of yelled "Itbuthububudugubutt!" like a babbling holy roller. An enraged father in front of me put his arm around his son and hissed at me "Sit down you're ruining the tour for everyone!" He was right. I was in Hell. Once again Tammy stopped her sermon and asked me to please sit down... this time looking stern, and then making a call on a walkie talkie after asking me to do so. I plopped down in my seat and stared at the tram floor... again... mortified, sweaty, dizzy, dazed, confused, overwhelmed and transformed. My friends next to me had stopped laughing and now were grabbing my arm and whispering "Are you all right?" and ìYou look paleî. Physically I felt terrible... but it was a psychosomatic terrible. I seemed to be getting a bad headache and I knew if we looked at any more set locations it would get worse. I felt like everything would get worse... what if I puked? What if I had a seizure? What if the universe exploded? The possibility didn't seem to far fetched at the time. I was scared - but jonesing for more... oddly... and was apprehensive about what the tram would uncover around the next corner.
We approached a western village set. I recognized it immediately as part of "pioneer America" - not from historical knowledge, but from television. It had been used in probably hundreds of western-themed shows and movies. "Sometimes this set was used in TV shows set in the Old West, and sometimes it was used in TV shows set in modern time, where the characters went back in time to the old West!" recited Tammy into her megaphone like a kindergarten teacher. As soon as I heard her announcement I literally put my head down in my shaking hands and covered my eyes. We drove through the sandy center street of the village. The Japanese tourists gasped and clapped and snapped photos as actors in western garb came out of the buildings and shot each other with cap guns. Every time I peaked out through my fingers I saw... not the actors... but the corner of a saloon door that I remember somehow... the head of a cigar store Indian that I seemed to weirdly know from "Creepshow 2"... a pile of tumbleweeds I remember Electra Woman and Dyna girl bursting out of, but hadn't thought of since I was six. Everything - every surface - around me spoke to me with profound indication, and no matter where I looked it looked as if them, and the very space they occupied was closing in on me. I couldn't take it... what if what I saw cause me to have another ecstatic, spastic outburst?
At one point a bunch of water raced down a hill in the western village showing how a fake flash flood could be used in a film... the choreographed water then raced around the wheels of our parked tram as everyone laughed and giggled. Oh God no. I remember reading about this part in those magazines as a kid, but I didn't dare look up. I occupied my mind with the scenes of "Charlie's Angels", "Dynasty" and "Escape From Witch Mountain" that for some reason flashed underneath my eyelids like a fast-forward montage whenever I closed my eyes - my memory probably dumping out un-needed inventory to make room for all the information this damned tourist tram was feeding it. I remember only feeling the mist of the water hit my feverish skin. I couldn't look up... I'm sure it was fantastic, but I couldn't look up. It was too much. Everything was too much... I was in Hell. "This flood device was built for the film 'The Apple Dumpling Gang'" Tammy recited, her squawking over the sound of the roaring water drilling like hot shards of migraine glass into my skull... adding to the apocalyptic discord I dreaded was near. As we drove away, I heard the water stop... sucking into drains and getting ready for the next tram. I was feeling worse. I literally felt like I was on the verge of crying. What I felt verged on sadness... pity.
It was when the tram slid down another serpentine street - a street that Tammy told us was used in "The Sting" and "Chinatown" and "Earnest Goes To College" - that things got ugly. I was already an waiting pipe bomb of potential mortification and trauma itching to discharge ...once again... and all it was gonna take was one more big stimuli ...one more catalyst... one more pair of fake double doors that looked like Stockard Channing might have passed through them ...to push me over the margin and into God knows where. We rounded the corner at the end of street... and there it was...
There is a very, very famous fake town square on the Universal Studios lot. It's a really elaborate set... by any account it really looks like a real town square; in fact, it is one... there's just no town. The center is a giant, grass-covered square complete with benches and sidewalks and a statue in the middle surrounded my park benches. This is surrounded by a street and lots of buildings facing inward... every kind of building imaginableÖ a store, a barber shop, a drive-through gas station and car wash, apartments, a diner, a movie theater with a marquee, etc. If you enter most of the store fronts that face the square... the stores kind of end about five feet in from the front door - but you would never know that from the outside, at least not on television. There's also a fake city hall. This fake city hall has been used in so many productions its probably impossible to actually gauge the number. In fact every fake thing in this giant fake town square was mecca for every real thing I was feeling at the moment. As the tram slowed down and Tammy told everyone that a section of the famous town square was being renovated for "Back To the Future 2" to look futuristic... and that was when it happened.
This is a little hard to admit happened - or even believe that it really did. In moments of extreme panic humans go into "fight or flight mode"... but I, in my moment of panic - chose the third option; "freak mode" Seemingly now without any ability to actually control what I was doing... as if I was being controlled by something else (something inside me?) ...I simply stepped off the tram (while it was still rolling) and walked (quickly) towards the grassy center of the square. Tourists ohhh-ed and ahhh-ed again. Tammy stopped in the middle of her megaphone harranging and commanded to me in vain "Sir! Sir! Stay in the tram sir!", causing it to once again crackle and feed-back as it was overloaded with her volume... then she quickly got on her walkie talkie again. The tourists grew silent. It became a "heavy" moment. As I walked away from the tram, with it to my back - the mood was probably tense... but what was in front of my eyes was pure, calming bliss.
Ecstatic panic and giddy confusion suddenly turned to confident rapture. Lost in my own mind, my own delusional pilgrimage... I reached the shimmering sidewalk edge of the square. I stopped and slowly knelt down. I lowered my body further... surrendering, and placed the left side of my face on the hot, white concrete of the sacred sidewalk, which was sparkling in the sun. Enraptured, I then shuffled... slumped over on my knees ...onto the grass and looked down at it - my eye and mind had become a "camera" as I pressed my face down into the ground to get a close up "angle" - able to see every blade... every geometric shape of sunlight shining through the grass and onto the dirt beneath. Years of having my "suspension of disbelief" yanked and prodded by television was taking it's toll on the visceral, plain physicality of the sun-lit pavement and grass surrounding me. The fresh grass seemed unreal... fantastic... religious... FAMOUS! I reached down and pulled two chunks of lawn from the ground and cupped them in my palms with a gurgling, sick smile on my face. I heard more flashbulbs going off on the tram behind me. How many celebrities had walked on this ground? How many moving images of this very ground were playing on screens big and small right now, all over the world... being radio-waved into the far reaches of outer space?
It was at that realization that I smiled a sick smile, turned to the faces looking at me in the tram... and said out loud "Don Knotts walked on this grass in 'The Reluctant Astronaut!'" I said it to the tram... but it felt like I was speaking to the whole universe... and to myself. Hollywood "magic" had become garish Hollywood "voodoo". More cameras clicked. I wondered which of the other tourists thought I was part of the show, and which of the tourists thought I was just nuts. I then laid face down on the grass, a transcendent smile on my face, knees bent, my butt in the air ...speaking in tongues. The "suspension of disbelief" of my past and the reality of my present collided in a tourist trap that's physical properties didn't allow such a combination - and the result of the crash was my freak-out.
Suddenly I felt two authoritative arms grab me from behind. They were Universal Studio security guards - jolting me out of my moment. They caused a string of my drool to form between the ground and my head as they picked a babbling, grinning me up off the world-famous grass and half guided, half dragged me - over to the tram and plopped me down in my seat - like a scolded child being brought inside the house by an angry parent. The whole mood of the tram was now very tense and silent... all eyes on me. One guard then walked over to Queen Tammy and secretly conferenced with her, the other looked down at me and said sternly "Sir, if you get up out of your seat again we will have the police arrest you. You are disturbing the tour and endangering the other people on this tram. Do you understand me? Stay in your seat." I looked at him with what I'm guessing was a crazed, worn, post ecstasy look that probably wrongly affirmed his suspicion that I was recreational crack user, and muttered a flat but earnest "Yes." I told him I wouldn't and I meant it... really. What else could I say that could possibly save face? What else could I do? By this point I was resigned to my situation. I was a freaky moron. What I had done was as a mystery to me as it probably was to everyone else. I was mortified by the situation... kind of. I looked forward at the horrified tourists... their faces. They had a myriad of reactions... the younger ones pulled at the sleeves of their parents and whispered "What wrong with that man?"
Didn't they ever watch television? Could they see where we were? I could, using logic, understand why no one else was reacting in the same way I was, but at the same time... I couldn't.
I looked over at my friends. They're delightful, mocking laughter at what had probably seemed to them like a righteous prank had turned into a genuine desire to not want to know me. I looked forward. I felt like I had just re-enacted a scene from a "Say no to drugs" educational film.
I noticed, despite it all... that I felt strangely satiated. I was depleted and exhausted but was able to collect myself for the remainder of the tour, which was almost over anyway (I was actually amazed they let me stay). Was this the procedure for people like me? Had I not been the first? Was it a common occurrence?
When it was over, we were all herded off the tram and into a giant elevator that took us to ground level and towards the gift shop exit. A man turned around to me with his son and half-yelled "Thanks for ruining the tour for me and my family... drug addict!" Everyone else in the crowded elevator looked at me for a reaction. I got the impression that what he was saying was what they were all thinking. I just looked up at him and then looked away... reaction-less... guilty. How could I react? What could I say? I was having post-conversion stress disorder... I was totally physically and mentally drained. I looked down and realized I still had the two clumps of sacred grass still clasped tightly in my hands. I just wanted to get out of there.
One of my friends bought me this fake rock prop thing in the gift shop. It looked like a heavy chunk of granite but was actually a squeezable sponge. It had a tag hanging off of it that said "Universal Studios Tour Hollywood" and was supposed to represent the magic illusion of movie making and special effects. He handed it to me and said "Here this will cheer you up" I just took it and said in a sarcastic and flat monotone "Oh yes... it looks like a rock... but it's a sponge. Can we go to the car?" Sometimes meeting God can turn you into the world's biggest asshole. Plus I felt like I was going to pass out. It was like I was coming down from an acid trip... and rocks that looked real and then squished when you touched them weren't helping my situation
I have never really had an in depth conversation with my friends that I went on the trip with back then. We've never really talked about it. But I've thought about it a lot.
I don't think my reaction was one of disillusionment... of seeing the magic of Hollywood, my glass menagerie, for what it really was. That would be too easy. I think it was more of a strange awakening of things that had collected in and occupied a very large part of my subconscious mind... starting from when I was a small child until now. And the casual nature by which they had being plopped into my lap. They, at that moment had started to become overwhelming ...and eventually did become overwhelming... and caused me to... basically, have a "religious" vision. Every one of the thousands of objects on the tour acted like a talisman demanding immediate attention from my subconscious... each one of them had something to say to the back of my head... my past - while the front of my head wondered why it was happening so fast, and flipped out. My circuits couldn't handle the overload if information, and they blew. The unreal (which I had always hoped was real) was shown to me as being real... and I couldn't accept how unreal that reality of what was unreal was. The fact that I was seeing so many subconsciously familiar locations - all hitting subconscious memory gongs in my head at the same time... was outrunning my ability to process them, and deal with them in the ways my body and mind had become accustomed up until that point. It was too much to take in all at once. The disassociation I was experiencing while my subconscious mind was signaling my conscious mind to expect more stimuli in a certain order that it had become evolutionarily accustomed to while dealing with this apparently same stimuli in the past was... not working. Just typing about it makes it all come flooding back.
The psychologist Graziella Magherini claims that people afflicted by Stendhal Syndrome in Florence are often caught by surprise... if they are expecting it they won't get it. According to her, European victims are often of a sensitive nature and often are in touch with their emotions. When they get to Florence for the first time and see first hand fantastic works of art they have learned about their entire lives and that are central to Europe's vast cultural history - they become overwhelmed and loose control of their physical body.
I'm convinced the same thing happened to me at the Universal Studios Tour. I was talked into going to the tour at the last minute while on a casual road trip. And once there, was not expecting to be bombarded with such a rich and visceral stew of Americana semiotics that I would be able to identify so strongly with, even subconsciously, and that, despite what I may have thought, we very important to me and the cultural history of my country.
I think the Universal Studios Tour is one of the great American museums of our country. I mean think about it... its our Louvre. America's entertainment industry and its influence on the rest of the world during the 20th century, and still, is inarguably far-reaching. And there it all is... it's source... a huge chunk of it at least... every artifact... every relic... sitting in giant cross-referenced warehouses and fake streets in Hollywood, California... waiting for its truest moment in the spotlight.
I don't remember seeing any warning signs at The Universal Studios Tour... except for one... expecting mothers weren't allowed on the ride. But I think this had more to do with the bumps and rattling the tram got during the subway earthquake simulation... not because someone might go into pre-mature early panic birth after gazing at the Dobbie Gillis' front yard and thinking they saw God.
I've never returned to the Universal Studios Tour since that fateful spring day... its been almost 12 years now. Even to this day... I look at Hollywood movies differently because of my experience. Sometimes when I watch television, I get sweaty palms. I have to remind myself that Entertainment Weekly is just a magazine.
I understand that the tour has changed a great deal since then as well. It's less about visiting the old sets and props of films and more about wacky animatronic and special effects rides created specifically for the tour, which I think is a shame.
Maybe letting an entire generation that was raised on television roam around the objects that help shape their subconscious proved to be too dangerous. Maybe there were more people like me that had divine moments and lost control at the sight of the real "Different Strokes" set. Maybe there are more Americans who suffered Stendhal Syndrome at the Universal Studios Tour Hollywood ...who sued.
Although, on a recent trip to the Universal Studios web site, I saw that they are maybe target-marketing this select group of connoisseurs of prop and set-induced temporary dementia. For $125 a person, a deluxe tram tour is available (by reservation only) that skips the rides all together and takes you and only nine other people at a time on a detailed journey through ghostly, abandoned sets and echo-y prop warehouses and plastic phony streets and timeless fake town squares... even letting you get out and wander around... maybe even touch things.
I actually think Stendhal Syndrome could be suffered in other key spots in the United States, places besides movie studio tours. I could see the same thing happening at Disneyland... or the Mall of America... or one of Las Vegas' newly themed casinos. But I sincerely doubt it would happen at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art... at least, not to an American.
Copyright 2003 Mark Allen
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