Both Familiar and Alien

I just watched The Haunting of Julia, aka Full Circle, a nice little haunted house flick with a lot a mood but a problematic soundtrack. It starred post Rosemary’s Baby Mia “no luck with real-estate” Farrow. However, the main conflict that the her character, the titular Julia, deals with, and her reason for moving to the creepy house, is the grief and guilt she feels regarding the accidental death of her daughter.

“I bet a hug would make it all better.”

The film begins with this death. The daughter starts to choke on an apple (by far the most symbolic fruit you could choke on). Julia at first pats her coughing daughter’s back. When that doesn’t work Julia tries to reach in and pull the apple out with her fingers, while her husband grabs her daughter, holds her upside down and shakes her. At this point, I’m yelling, “Heimlich maneuver!” at the screen, but the film characters don’t hear me and the daughter dies.

This scene made me realize that I didn’t know when the Heimlich maneuver had been invented. I had always assumed it was during the early twentieth century, but it turns out that Heimlich first published a paper on the maneuver in 1974 and the Red Cross didn’t start endorsing it until 1976 (according to, oh so, reliable Wikipedia). The film wasn’t released until 1977, so it makes sense that these characters didn’t know about the technique. Modern innovation in medicine has made it so that the film’s inciting incident could not occur now without the audience wondering why these parents didn’t  just use the well known technique. This phenomena is actually surprisingly common when if comes to film plots.

The invention that most hurt horror movies was the cell phone. Now when teenagers are being chased through the woods, the audience inevitable asks, “Why don’t they just call the police?” Screenwriters now must write exposition about how there is no service in the woods or the battery is dead, or add scene where we see the phone fall out of reach. Most of the time these scenes seem awkward and tacked on.

Technology doesn’t only affect horror films. Take the plot of After Hours: the protagonist has to go through a set of horrible ordeals because at the beginning his cash was blown out a taxi cab window. It is his lack of money that keeps him from just going home. However, this problem would no longer be an issue today—he could just use a ATM or a credit card. All in all, this makes a certain amount of sense, as technology changes, so do our problems.

Yet, to return to The Haunting of Julia, what surprised me was when Julia and her husband fail to dislodge the apple, Julia tries to do an emergency tracheotomy. Apparently the tracheotomy existed before the Heimlich maneuver. Somehow this seems backward to me, I would like to think that the more invasive technique came later. Yet, apparently even ancient Greek physician Hippocrates had an opinion on tracheotomies (he was against them).

This isn’t the only time that I’d been surprised by the items that were available to the ancients. As I finished The Aeneid, I came across a section where Turnus claims that he is going to kick Aeneas’s butt and mess up his hair—“ that hair/ he curls with heated irons.” I was shocked. Did ancient Roman’s have curling irons? Yes, they did, it was called the calamistrum. It is odd to think that when, as a teenager, I tried to curl my hair and burned my forehead, I was sharing an experience with people who’ve been dead for millennia.

My surprise probably reveals more about me than history. Because on the surface, the Heimlich Maneuver seems so simple and a tracheotomy seems so complex (at least if I was performing these techniques), I had assumed that the Heimlich maneuver must have come first. I viewed history as moving from simplicity to complexity, when in reality the simple methods are often harder to discover and less obvious. What seems simple turns out to be the conclusion of a lot of complex thought. For goodness sake, we needed germ theory to convince doctors to wash their hands, and we were able to get men to the moon while still using slide rulers.

When watching The Haunting of Julia, what scared me the most was not the sociopath little girl ghost, but that people could live in world with cars and telephones, a world that looked like mine, and were still helpless as their child choked on a piece of fruit. While I find comfort in thinking that Aeneas probably burned his forehead too, I cannot escape how the past is so alien and familiar at the same time.

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