When I was in the 8th grade, I suffered through my very first depressive episode.
I was 14, and after watching a little bit too much Six Feet Under for a person already terrified of death, I found myself spinning out, constantly plagued by thoughts of the afterlife — or the lack thereof. I couldn’t tell you now how long it lasted — at the time, it felt like three months, but in reality the worst of it was probably a couple of weeks. What I can tell you for certain is that every night during that period of my life, I fell asleep to the movie Elf.
Recently on Twitter, I saw someone tweet about how “bad” the movie Elf “actually” “is.” Reading through the replies, I saw a lot of people responding to brag about how they “never liked it” and/or “have never and will never see it.” I love Twitter, but I find that often, it’s a place where the things I love go to die. Brutally. I’m not here to make a case for Elf as a cinematic masterpiece, but I think it’s important to acknowledge it for what it is: a fucking Christmas movie that brings people joy. You assholes.
Do I sound like I’m taking this personally?
Obviously, for me, Elf is more than just a fun, silly holiday movie. It’s my cinematic comfort food. This concept has been discussed extensively, from lists like this one on The AV Club to this episode of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, and it’s something that most people can relate to — everyone has that movie or TV show they return to over and over again. Just the other day, I was talking with friend and BSG contributor Gabriella, who just finished re-watching The Gilmore Girls (again). I told her I didn’t understand how that show could possibly still be enjoyable after how many times she’d seen it, to which she responded, “I just can’t help it. I want to watch something comforting and familiar.”
On a very basic level, I think that’s what defines the things we want to play on loop. It doesn’t matter if they’re technically good, well-written, or even funny to us still (because how many jokes remain funny after you’ve heard them for the 37th time?). When I was 14 putting on Elf before bed, did I laugh every time Buddy the Elf attacked Mall Santa for being an imposter? No. I wasn’t playing Elf because I wanted to laugh. I was playing it so that I could fall asleep without my racing thoughts eating me alive.
I think it’s interesting to examine why, exactly, certain pieces of pop culture serve us in this way. It’s a little bizarre that I watched a Christmas movie to fall asleep every night, especially since this habit carried on through the holidays and into summer. Part of it was that Christmas, to me, was the furthest thing I could imagine from what it was that I feared: death. I was still young enough that the holidays signified warmth and happiness and love, carrying none of the stress and family drama I tend to associate with them now. Christmas movies sell this idea to us, casting the entire month of December in that sparkly twinkle light glow that freezes time and makes life seem eternal. That Christmasy feeling — that was the opposite of depression, and it was what I desperately longed for.
Another thing that makes Elf comforting is the way it follows a formula with predictable conflicts and resolutions, producing a minimal amount of stress for the viewer while still retaining our attention. It’s the hero’s journey, more or less, and rarely does it deviate from what we might expect from a story about an eccentric but lovable man who wants to connect with the workaholic father who doesn’t know he exists. It’s not exactly a nail-biter, but it definitely isn’t boring. I think the same could be said of a lot of the content we turn to for comfort, like Gilmore Girls for Gabriella, or Friends for fellow squad member Susan, or The Office for my roommate, or School of Rock for my boyfriend. Funny and sweet, never too dark: stories we could predict if we didn’t already have them memorized.
Elf turned 15 this year, and for the record, I do still think it’s a good movie. Sure, it’s not perfect — the scenes with Miles Finch (Peter Dinklage) are pretty uncomfortable, and the romance with Zooey Deschanel’s “Jovie” is perhaps a tad unrealistic, considering the fact that Will Ferrell is not only 13 years older than her but also behaving like a literal manchild — but there’s still something irresistibly charming about the whole concept. At just over 90 minutes, the film is tight and the script is nearly seamless, and the climactic ending sequence is so tender that it actually makes my heart feel like a marshmallow dissolving into a mug of hot chocolate. I mean, come on. Spontaneous group caroling is my favorite. And I know that humor is totally subjective, but if you don’t find it funny when Buddy the Elf presses a button in the elevator and whispers “beautiful” when it lights up, I don’t really know how to relate to you on an emotional level.
All of that being said, when I watch Elf now, I can’t help but connect it to that time in my life, my first encounter with depression. It was before I knew what I know now — that after months or maybe weeks or even a couple of days, the feeling would pass — and not certain I’d ever be happy again, Elf served as a semblance of hope. I know the movie by heart, and watching it now feels like spending time with an old friend, one of those friends I used to be really close to but now only see once a year during the holidays.
Don’t be fooled, though. Just because I don’t hang out with Elf during summer anymore doesn’t mean I won’t fight you if you talk shit about it on Twitter.