Over a year ago, I completed a script titled “Strangers,” a psychological thriller in which the lead character, Joel, visualizes a world where everyone wears a mask on his face. Joel is unable to relate to anyone because the only face he can see is his own. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has found itself in an eerily similar scenario. Nearly every person in Manhattan wears a mask these days. What was once my creative fantasy has become a terrifying reality.
The crisis has changed the concept of “stranger” in New York. Seeing another person’s face usually sets us at ease, allowing us to learn something about how the other person is feeling, his personality, and his intentions. That’s gone. We have become fearful of one another. We make sure to stay far apart not just because of the virus but also because now there’s an element of the unknown in every person. Humans are social creatures; we communicate in subtle ways through expression and tone of voice. Now it’s hard to talk with anyone. Muffled voices sound on the streets. Paranoia ranges freely. Manhattan’s social character has been completely transformed. We have all been pushed into a world not unlike Joel’s.
When I wrote the script, I loved the idea of someone unable to communicate by seeing other people’s faces. Now, not so much. I thought it was a fantastic idea for a movie; it isn’t so good for real life.
Joel finds himself staying mostly inside because of the terror he faces in the outside world. He grows desperate and depressed. For entertainment, he browses animal videos. His apartment is a mess because, despite having ample time to clean it, he’s too despondent to care. Self-isolation has driven him into a maddening boredom. Joel’s best “friend” is a poster of a cat he has named Zanny, to whom he expresses his thoughts and feelings. But Zanny can’t give Joel the social interaction he needs.
All of this has become a bit too real. We hold birthday parties over Skype. We dive deep into movies and YouTube videos. Everyone is bored and getting more frustrated at the lack of stimulation. It feels as if we’ve entered an alternative reality, in which we’re allowed only glimpses of real interaction.
In my script, I envisioned a huge “reveal,” just as Joel exits the subway into Columbus Circle: every person outside is casually wearing a mask, going about their business. The reality is somehow scarier. Once heavily populated areas now stand nearly empty. People haul huge carts of food home so that they don’t have to go outside again for weeks. They stand in huge lines outside supermarkets, staying several feet away from one another.
Mark Twain’s well-known quote—“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t”—will never cease to be relevant. It’s all somehow much more bizarre than I could’ve conjured. Never could I have anticipated that the world would actually be filled with people wearing masks. It was supposed to be a movie script! It was supposed to be thought-provoking, not life-changing. Reality took my fictional idea of one man seeing the world in a horrific way and made it into truth, for everyone.
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