What is Escapism? How Films Make Us Forget Ourselves


Definition: Escapism is a psychological concept that refers to the inclination to distract oneself from the realities of life by engaging in activities or behaviors that provide a temporary sense of relief or pleasure. At its core, escapism involves seeking mental diversion from daily life’s demands, pressures, or unpleasant aspects. This can manifest in various forms, such as daydreaming, fantasy, entertainment, or substance use. While often viewed negatively, escapism can also have positive aspects, offering individuals a way to cope with stress and maintain mental well-being.

In this brief essay, I’ll explore escapism and how it can explain why we forget our daily chores while watching movies.

Psychological Theories Behind Escapism

Two major psychological theories behind escapism are cognitive dissonance and flow theory.

Cognitive Dissonance

The cognitive dissonance theory suggests that people experience discomfort when holding conflicting thoughts or beliefs. Movies can relieve this discomfort by presenting alternate realities that align more closely with the viewer’s desires.

Flow Theory

Flow theory, developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes a state of complete immersion and engagement in an activity.

We often get in this state when fully immersed in a movie – especially as we unravel and understand the plot. If the movie is too confusing, we can become annoyed, frustrated, and taken out of the flow state.

A technique like breaking the fourth wall might do the same, but it can also keep us in the flow state when we enjoy the diegetic and sometimes immersive break.

Psychological Mechanisms

Escapism operates primarily through three psychological mechanisms, which are related to the psychological states mentioned above:

Cognitive Distraction: Engaging in activities that occupy the mind and prevent it from focusing on stressors. This is related to cognitive dissonance.

Flow State: Immersing oneself in an activity that provides intrinsic satisfaction and a sense of timelessness, often called “in the zone.” The is flow theory in action.

Emotional Regulation: Using escapist activities to manage emotional states, such as reducing anxiety or depression. This is related to the combined cognitive dissonance and flow theory.

Forms of Escapism

Entertainment and Media Consumption

One of the most prevalent forms of escapism is through entertainment and media consumption. Watching movies, reading books, playing video games, and surfing the internet temporarily let us escape reality and immerse ourselves in alternative worlds.

How Different Movie Genres Stoke Escapism

Science Fiction and Fantasy: These genres are perhaps the most quintessential forms of escapist cinema. They create worlds and scenarios far removed from everyday life, allowing viewers to explore the unknown. Take, for instance, Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), which transports audiences to a galaxy far, far away, filled with adventure and heroism.

Read more about fantasy and fantasy subgenres in film.

Romantic Comedies: While not as visually fantastical, romantic comedies offer emotional escapism by presenting idealized versions of love and relationships. For example, a movie like Notting Hill (1999) provides a heartwarming escape into a charming love story between a famous actress and a London bookseller.

Action and Adventure: These films offer thrilling experiences with an adrenaline rush, allowing viewers to experience excitement and danger vicariously. Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) delivers non-stop action and adventure, capturing our imagination from start to finish.

Historical and Cultural Perspectives

If you thought escapism and the desire to escape from the daily chores is anything new, you thought wrong. Your ancestors enjoyed it just as much as we do. It’s just the media that have changed.

Throughout history, people have sought ways to escape the harsh realities of life. Ancient civilizations often engaged in rituals, festivals, and storytelling as forms of escapism. For example, the Romans held gladiatorial games, while the Greeks participated in theatrical performances.

Today, the range of escapist activities has expanded significantly. The rise of technology and the internet has provided new avenues for escapism, such as virtual reality and social media. These modern forms of escapism offer immersive experiences that were previously unimaginable.

Implications and Considerations

As with all things fun, there’s something as too much fun. This is also the case with escapism, which has several positive aspects – but only to an extent.

Positive Aspects

Escapism can have several positive effects, including:

  • Stress Relief: Temporary escape can provide much-needed relief from stress and anxiety, contributing to overall mental health.
  • Creativity and Innovation: Engaging in imaginative activities can foster creativity and innovation, as individuals explore new ideas and perspectives.
  • Social Connection: Participating in social escapist activities can strengthen social bonds and provide a sense of community.

Negative Aspects

However, escapism can also have negative implications:

  • Avoidance Behavior: Excessive escapism may lead to avoidance of real-life problems, preventing individuals from addressing important issues.
  • Addiction: Certain forms of escapism, such as substance use or excessive gaming, can lead to addiction and associated health problems.
  • Isolation: Over-reliance on escapist activities can result in social isolation and a disconnection from reality.

Summing Up

Escapism is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that plays a key role in our lives. Movies, whether watched in a theater, on TV, on a smartphone, or through VR glasses, are a modern way of getting away from it all, at least for a little while.

Escapism offers valuable coping mechanisms and opportunities for relief, but it is essential to maintain a balance and be aware of the potential negative consequences. So get off that couch once in a while to grab a new bag of chips while you’re binge-watching your favorite show.

Up Next: What is Re-Mediation?


  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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