I really do love unsettling things. Music, costumes, film & television – seeing people create unsettling art, or making some myself, gives me the warm fuzzies inside. It truly comforts me.
Why? How in the heck can I find comfort and joy in things meant to disturb?
Well, let's talk about what being "unsettled" is. It's a nuanced word. And yeah, I'm gonna start with a Merriam-Webster definition:
un·set·tling ˌən-ˈset-liŋ, -ˈse-tᵊl-iŋ
: having the effect of upsetting, disturbing, or discomposing
I really like the third term there,
discomposing. An unsettling thing takes away your composure, takes away the sure footing on which you stand to face the world. The other words aren't bad, either, because they're vague, nebulous, and fairly unemotional.
Being upset, disturbed, or discomposed – being unsettled – can lead to a variety of emotional responses, but it's not an emotion itself. It's more a realization that something truly unexpected is or may be happening. You might know exactly what that thing is; you might not. Either way, something is off; something is not right. Your mind has trouble making sense of it. Your body wants to be somewhere else.
It's not annoyance; you might respond by getting annoyed.
It's not anger; you might respond by getting angry.
It's not fear; you might respond by becoming afraid.
Remember the whole "clowns standing in odd places" fad from a few years ago? I saw so many people reacting with fear, and sure, media has put plenty of violent clowns out there to prompt that fear response. But without Pennywise? Without Killer Klowns From Outer Space, or the morally bankrupt fascination the truly boring and lifeless have with serial killers like John Wayne Gacy?
Without those cultural prompts, a clown standing at the edge of the woods is just unsettling. It's tough to make any sense of; that's not where clowns go. You don't understand. You feel an urgent, almost desperate need to understand, so you can figure out an appropriate response.
One of my favorite Halloween costumes was the year I dressed in matching clothes, wore a blank, white mask, and held a butter knife.
I didn't say anything to anyone.
I occasionally gestured with the butter knife, waving it gently at things, wordlessly offering it to people. I looked pointedly at it, then at random objects in my surroundings.
It was fucking delightful. 😄 It didn't necessarily make people afraid, and it wasn't meant to; it damn sure threw them off. They didn't know how to respond.
That was unsettling.
With our better understanding in hand: Why in the world do I like unsettling things?
Because that's the default state for some of us when we're in public spaces, and it's comforting to see y'all on an even footing for a change.
Privileged people? Neurotypical people? Yeah, it warms my frail, dry bones to see you in situations – to create situations – where you don't get to stride through life with the composed insouciance to which you're accustomed. Seeing you flounder the same way my autism spectrum disorder makes me struggle has an element of pettiness to it, sure; it's fun. And hey, it's also super familiar territory to me; it's a space where I can shine, as I walk that lonesome road on the reg. I even gave all the plants and critters nicknames.
More than all that, though, in those moments you – the "normal", privileged person – have to try harder: to express yourselves, to connect, to make sense of things.
That's my joy.
And not just because I'm used to it, not just because I enjoy a bit of schadenfreude. It's because
when you're trying as hard as I am to connect and make sense of things, we stand the rare chance of getting there together. For once, we might feel the same thing in the same moment, react the same way.
That's of platinum-level rarity in many people's lives. I treasure it accordingly.