Is harking back to '90s hits and classics only an outcome of fresh content crisis? Nostalgia experts weigh in

Experts say conjuring nostalgia by watching old movies or taking up old hobbies is an effective way to cope with stress and anxiety. It can lift moods, boost confidence, and inspire a sense of optimism.

The New York Times November 20, 2020 12:50:12 IST
Is harking back to '90s hits and classics only an outcome of fresh content crisis? Nostalgia experts weigh in

Dr Libby Torchia’s pandemic breaking point came one morning in May, when she and her boss got into an argument over whether staff members should wear masks at the Columbus, Ohio, clinic where they worked. (“We should!” Torchia, 32, a veterinarian, said.)

Her colleagues knew just how to comfort her: Blast the Spice Girls hit song 'Wannabe.' From the surgical suite where they were about to spay a dog, they broke into a dance party. “It really helped to bring my focus back, and made me feel a lot happier and just kind of let go of all of the conflict,” Torchia said.

Some people swear by silent breakfasts. Others recommend breathing exercises. For another group of people, the ultimate coping mechanism for political angst and the pandemic is escaping into a world of yesteryear — listening to 1990s hits, watching old films, and playing 16-bit video games. When everything has turned upside down, why not go back to a time when the world seemed simpler?

Is harking back to 90s hits and classics only an outcome of fresh content crisis Nostalgia experts weigh in

(Clockwise from left) Stills from Jurassic Park (1993), Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Hocus Pocus (1993) and The Goonies (1985)

It is not just Spice Girls and Fleetwood Mac that are having moments. Jurassic Park (1993), Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Hocus Pocus (1993), and The Goonies (1985) have hit box office charts over the past few months, pulling in thousands of dollars in ticket sales, especially at drive-in screens where social distancing is easier.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) dominated the conversation an evening on Twitter after Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, and other celebrities reenacted it in a virtual table reading.

These throwbacks have not had much competition, admittedly, as many major movie studios have delayed releases until next year or later. But people are harking back to old favourites not just because there is nothing else to watch or do. These films and songs offer solace and predictability in a time when each week seems to bring unpleasant surprises.

Research shows that conjuring nostalgia by watching old movies or taking up old hobbies is an effective way to cope with stress and anxiety. It can lift moods, boost confidence, and inspire a sense of optimism, said Dr Wing Yee Cheung, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Winchester in England, who studies nostalgia. “We feel that we have lost footing at the present time, and we gain some comfort by taking a step back and revisiting something that reminds us of a time that we used to feel more connected with other people,” Cheung said. “It gives you the energy to cope with what is going on now and move forward.”

Torchia, who now works at a different veterinary clinic, said that during the pandemic, she has spent hours listening to the Spice Girls and Britney Spears, favorites from elementary and middle school, because they remind her of times when she felt more hopeful and less isolated from her family. She has also watched about 10 classic Disney movies, including Mulan (both the 1998 version and the 2020 remake), and on election night, she watched the romantic comedy Easy A (2010) to calm her as the results started rolling in.

Is harking back to 90s hits and classics only an outcome of fresh content crisis Nostalgia experts weigh in

Stanley Tucci and Emma Stone in Easy A (2010)

Dr Lasana Harris, an assistant professor of psychology at University College London, said the psychological benefits of getting lost in the plot of an old, favourite TV show or movie can last anywhere from a few minutes to a day.

“It changes the narrative you’re constantly telling yourself, reminding yourself you do have people who love and care for you even if you haven’t had a hug in a while,” Harris said.

Harris found that he, too, sought familiarity, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. Each morning, for a half-hour before work, he would mix music on his computer — something he had not done in decades. “We need to be distracted from time to time,” he said.

Distraction has been key for Anna Townsend, a recruiter living in Athens, Georgia. Overwhelmed with anxiety about the coronavirus , protests in Atlanta, the election and her husband's recent job loss, she decided to watch less TV news and more vintage comedies. She said she has seen about 40 movies since March, including Casper (1995), The Addams Family (1991), Halloweentown (1998), Dumb and Dumber (1994), and Hocus Pocus.

Is harking back to 90s hits and classics only an outcome of fresh content crisis Nostalgia experts weigh in

(Clockwise from left) Stills from The Addams Family (1991), Casper (1995) and Dumb and Dumber (1994).

“It’s something to numb your mind a little bit,” Townsend, 31, said. “You can just spend one hour and 45 minutes zoning out.”

In Jalandhar, a city in northwest India, Banvinder Singh said he has gotten through lockdown by watching 1960s and ’70s Bollywood movies, and listening to decades-old Punjabi songs. They have lifted the spirits of his 82-year-old grandmother, who had not been able to go to the temple every day because of coronavirus risks. “We try to make her busy with old movies,” said Singh, 29, an auditor at Ernst & Young, who said his family gathers in front of the TV in the living room to watch films. “It just made her more positive.”

Chris Mazurek, who lives outside Melbourne, Australia, which until last month had one of the world’s longest and most severe lockdowns, said that in July, when it looked as if there was no end in sight to the lockdown, he started listening to the Foo Fighters album There Is Nothing Left to Lose.

The 1999 album brought him back to his high school days and motivated him to reconnect over Facebook with several high school friends with whom he had not been in touch in a decade.

Mazurek, 36, and his wife had to get creative to keep their three young children entertained through what was ultimately 111 days of lockdown. When they watched movies, his children would draw handmade movie tickets, and Mazurek would make popcorn and hot chocolate — their usual snacks when, before the pandemic, they would go to the movie theatre.

Is harking back to 90s hits and classics only an outcome of fresh content crisis Nostalgia experts weigh in

A still from Back to the Future (1985)

At home, they watched — multiple times — The Mighty Ducks (1992), Back to the Future (1985), Home Alone (1990), and The Goonies, some of his favourites from his childhood. “It took me back to a time that was a little bit simpler,” said Mazurek, a director at Accenture Consulting.

When he recently caught up with friends in Europe, who were anxious about entering their own looming lockdowns, he had some advice: Pull out the old movies, and start playing old board games from your childhood. He told them he even enjoyed some aspects of his time at home.

So much so that one day he will feel nostalgic for the quarantine? “I don’t think we’re far enough out of it to feel good about it yet,” he said.

Jenny Gross c.2020 The New York Times Company

All images from Twitter

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