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Smile: A Warning about Social Contagion

The following is an analysis of a film that contains content some may find disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.

Occasionally I come across a movie or game that is actually not hot garbage, that has something profound to say. Maybe it’s political, maybe it’s spiritual. Sometimes it’s just an observation of the cost of ignoring problems in our society that have arisen in the Internet age. “Smile” is one of those films. It is so profound, that I felt the need to write about its message because I think the film is less a supernatural horror thriller and more a cautionary tale about social contagions. It’s a warning to parents about the dangers our children face in a world that is slowly growing darker and darker.

Our story begins with the protagonist, Rose, as a child discovering that her mother died of a drug overdose. The camera sweeps over the room revealing the prescription drugs, and their now emptied bottles. The drugs are the sort we see used to treat mental illnesses, and it is clear from the visual cues, that Rose’s mother was a deeply troubled woman. The condition of the house is terrible, not a place fit to raise a child. Relying on the visual cues we can discern that Rose’s mother was likely neglectful and abusive. Nevertheless, stumbling onto her mother in this condition is a traumatic experience that opens Rose up to the tragic events that follow.

Years later, Rose is now a counselor, working in a hospital, helping patients suffering from mental illness. We see her treat a man who is terrified he is going to die. We see she is effective in calming him down and puts together a plan for his care but is clearly on autopilot. She isn’t really listening and is really only showing the level of compassion she has rehearsed time and again. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care, as she gets into an argument with her boss over the funding for his care, it’s just she knows what to do, and is going to do it. And this is her approach to her next patient, a young woman named Laura.

If you’ve seen the YouTube short film,” Laura Hasn’t Slept,” it is the same Laura. While it isn’t necessary to see that film to understand this one, it does establish Laura’s mental health is jeopardized by her inability to sleep, and her frequent nightmares. Laura brings to Rose the exact same complaints she was seeking help with, in the short film. Rose, of course, knows what to do, and starts going through the motions when Laura begs her to actually listen, insisting that she is being stalked by an entity with a disturbing smile. Rose, still dismissive, decides she will at least humor her and hear her out, but suddenly Laura shifts her gaze at Rose directly and starts freaking out. Rose rushes to the emergency phone to call for help but when she turns to check on Laura, the girl is standing with a piece of broken pottery in her hand and a disturbing smile across her face. A moment later she kills herself rather brutally right in front of Rose.

Rose now feels like a failure, like for the first time in her career, she didn’t know what to do. So, she starts looking into Laura’s file, to try and figure out what went wrong, but keeps seeing the girl, with that creepy smile in the corner of her eyes. Though dismissive of the hallucinations at first, she learns that Laura had also been present when her colleague professor committed suicide in front of her. This is when Rose begins to realize that whatever Laura was being troubled by can be passed on. This is also when both auditory and visual hallucinations begin to intensify, so she goes to her family psychiatrist, asking for medication to help her with the hallucinations. However, her psychiatrist knows what to do, is on autopilot, and decides that a wait-and-see approach is necessary. Rose storms out, angered that she is getting the same autopilot treatment she had been giving to her own patients.

She continues her research, and then she has a hallucination at work that causes her to make a major error in the treatment of the man from earlier, who feared he was going to die. She is disciplined and forced to take a leave of absence. Then her cat goes missing (no I will not tell you what happens to it), and her fiancé starts demanding to know if this is hereditary, because he too is on autopilot and assumes he knows what’s wrong… but he starts to distance himself from her. As she is more alone, she has more time to obsess over the situation, the more she obsesses the more things happen.

Rose meets the widow of the college professor who killed himself in front of Laura. She is shown his drawing room and learns that he had been traumatized by the loss of his brother. He too was someone whose mental health was shaky. He also had become obsessed with the smile, which appeared all over his artwork. The widow then let it slip that her husband had also had someone smile strangely at him, then kill herself. Rose demands more details but is thrown out of the house. She then seeks the help of an old friend of hers who happens to be a police officer, and they find the records of the woman who killed herself in front of the college professor and learn that she too was smiled at before a stranger killed himself in front of her. At this point, Rose becomes convinced this is a curse and asks her friend to help her figure out how to break it.

While the police officer researches the matter an incident occurs at Rosé’s nephew’s birthday party, which ups the ante far more than her prior hallucinations. She accidentally traumatizes her nephew and is severely injured, here Rose learns that whatever it is that is troubling her is very capable of causing her direct harm. She ends up in the hospital, her police officer friend informs her he may have found a way out for her. Then they meet with an inmate, a murderer, who explains that the phenomenon needs trauma to be passed on. Most people end up killing themselves in front of someone to pass it on, but he chose to kill someone else instead.

Confident she knows what’s happening now she tries to explain to her sister that she has been cursed, only for her sister to chastise her, and proclaim it’s obvious that she is having the same breakdown that led to the death of their mother. She then demands Rose stay away.

Alone again, obsessing over the curse, the hallucinations continue to get worse and worse. At one point she contemplates killing someone else in front of her boss to pass on the curse, but then determines the only solution is solitude and isolation, to contain the curse. And since no one wanted her around anyway, it seems like a solution that benefits everyone. This decision, of course, leads to a confrontation with the smiling demon itself. But the only spoiler I will give you is this. You see a monster, it is huge, it is gruesome, it is downright terrifying… but there is no monster.

The movie itself is a bit ambiguous as to what the curse is. In a lot of ways, it follows the beats of curse films like “Ringu,” “Ju-on”, or “Final Destination,” where curses are passed through exposure to a McGuffin, a near-death experience, or some other gimmick. But with Smile, something is off. Things only happen to Rose when she is thinking about it. The more people push her away, the more she thinks about it. Soon thinking about it becomes obsessing over it, and as they say, what you obsess over becomes your God. It led me to wonder if people had handled this the opposite way, pulling her closer instead of pushing her away, giving her more to do at work to occupy her time instead of forcing her to take a leave of absence, and so on… perhaps the story could have played out more positively. That’s when it hit me.

There is no Smile monster. Smile is a concept, an idea, a social contagion. It happened to Rose because she was exposed to it happening to someone else, and she did not have the mental or emotional strength, nor the support system to help her work through the real problem… trauma.

Everyday people you know, perhaps even your children, are being exposed to trauma in many ways. The loss of a friend, family member, or even a pet. Trauma can also take forms that seem benign, like TikTok. Watching strange videos on social media exposes people to dark concepts that they are often not ready for. We have seen a massive uptick in cases of Tourette’s, or more frightening, dissociative identity disorders, or other disorders some in our rotting culture are trying to normalize, despite it being clear to anyone willing to think about it that something isn’t right and that it’s not normal.

Often those in our sphere are hurting. Most do have the strength and wherewithal to power through with a little love and support. But some can’t and when they are exposed to these traumas, it puts an idea in their heads, and when they are looking for explanations for their pain, that idea can become an explanation. If those people are then dismissed, ignored, or worse, those ideas are encouraged, those explanations then become an obsession, and the more time they have to obsess, the worse the situation becomes. This is how social contagion spreads.

If we ignore those who seek help, or guidance, if we are on autopilot with them, if we treat them as a burden, an annoyance, or a chore, they will look to other sources for comfort. And there, on TikTok, are many concepts waiting with bated breath for your loved ones. Even a creepy smiling face who tells your children that their parents won’t accept them… but he will… (I think you know of whom I speak.)

And that is the real horror of the movie Smile. The real curse isn’t a creature or a demon. It’s a concept, out there, eager to latch itself onto someone in a moment of weakness and force them down a self-destructive path before seeding itself into the mind of its next victim. We can all agree that monsters and demons are works of fiction . . . but dangerous concepts are not.

Smile is Rated R and is not for everyone. But without a doubt, it is the most profound horror movie I have seen in years. It gives its audience quite a lot to think about, as we watch the world go crazy around us, and it begs us to be there for the people suffering from mental illnesses so that they don’t go down these self-destructive paths.

A 5/5: An absolute masterpiece of the genre.


One Response

  1. Disturbing because of its truth. As a widowed 70 year old who is dismissed and not listened to, I can unfortunately relate. We live in a world where people do not care. Take a pill, get over it, put on your happy face. Busy, busy. You need to help me, but I haven’t got time to hear you or help you. In order to survive you have to be emotionally resilient and enjoy your own company.

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