2017-05-19 / Opinion

The higher they rise ... well, you know the rest

By JEFF LAGASSE
Columnist

Don’t watch “The Walk” on a large television screen. If you have a fear of heights you’re liable to lose control of some very important bodily functions, and you’ll be stuck explaining to any housemates why you have an oscillating fan pointed at your living room couch.

Consider that a backhanded compliment of the movie’s special effects. If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, it relates the true story of Philippe Petit, a French high-wire artist who rose to international fame in 1974 by walking on a wire strung between the two World Trade Center towers. And while the towers are sadly gone now, you’ll remember that they were very, very high. Like, 110 stories high. Birds feel queasy at that altitude.

Recreating the towers digitally and in the studio is a marvel of movie magic, with frankly some of the best special effects I’ve ever seen, and while it made for enthralling viewing, it also created some queasy, uncomfortable moments. I knew the imagery, while realistically rendered, was fake. I knew Petit wouldn’t fall off his high-wire, because he’s still alive, and in fact worked as a consultant on the film. But that didn’t matter. When Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who portrayed Petit, is shown suspended in mid-air halfway between the two towers, with only a thin cable supporting his body, I had to clutch a pillow to keep from passing out. There’s a chance I sucked my thumb at some point, but nobody can prove that. In fact, forget I said anything.

Not everyone has a fear of heights, and maybe those people came away from the movie whistling a happy tune. Maybe they watched it on a stadium-grade IMAX screen, merrily gulping Junior Mints with nary a disruption to their gastrointestinal systems.

My fear of heights runs too deep for that kind of fortitude. If it were any worse I’d have to carry a brown paper bag with me at all times, for hyperventilation purposes. For kicks I’d also abandon walking from place to place in favor of rolling around face-down on a skateboard. The closer to the ground, the better.

Acrophobia is the official term for an extreme or irrational fear of heights, but very few people meet its criteria. In order to be a full-fledged acrophobe you’d have weep violently or revert to a catatonic state simply by climbing a flight of stairs. True acrophobia is a serious medical condition, and there are really only two means of treating it: Judicious use of potent medication, and living in an eco-pod buried miles below the surface of the Earth. If you opt for door number two, I suggest bringing a book.

What I have is more closely described as “visual height intolerance.” Up to one-third of the population experiences this to some degree. It’s not intense enough to warrant pharmaceutical intervention (drats!), but it can complicate certain situations.

Take ladders, for example. I regard ladders in much the same way I regard snakes and Pauly Shore fans: Dangerous creatures that are to be avoided at all costs. There are ladders barely taller than I am that inspire in me a horror-movie kind of fear, and this turns mundane tasks into complicated affairs. It should be a relatively simple matter to climb the six steps necessary to lift myself into the attic so I can retrieve my old VHS copy of “Mrs. Doubtfire.” The chances of injury are minimal. Tell that to my brain’s panic center, which blazes bright red whenever that rusty contraption is wrested from its hiding spot. The wobbling, the creaking ... yeah, no thanks. I’d sooner drink a gallon drum of tomato ketchup.

Ladders are a walk through a dewy meadow compared to the Ferris wheel, though. Ferris wheels are torture devices for the height averse. You’d think that roller coasters would be far worse, with their violent dips and drops, but no; roller coasters are models of speed and control, and paradoxically I feel safe in their wind-whipping velocity. A Ferris wheel has no velocity. It’s slow. It’s clunky. It allows you to feel every micromovement, every cross-breeze and creak of its motor, and as passengers are loaded and your compartment reaches the top, it just stays there — eerily still, swaying ever-so-slightly as the far-away Earth remains distant and unreachable. In those moments I chance a look down, and that’s when I start envisioning various scenarios, all ending with TV news reporters and a solemn-looking cleaning crew armed with mops and buckets. It’s awkward to have such dark thoughts at a venue that serves slushies in plastic alligator cups.

Nature brought us to this point. Human beings evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to be comfortable at a certain height, and then whammo, during the past century or so we’ve seen the rise of towering skyscrapers, passenger flights, parachuters, base jumpers and the International Space Station. The species got vertical in a hurry, and frankly our brains haven’t had enough time to catch up. We’re still wired to be OK with a medium-sized tree. Anything higher than than and about a third of us, by some statistics, start to majorly spazz out.

Which makes Petit a freak of nature, doesn’t it? Maybe that’s why people gather in large crowds to witness a good high-wire act — it’s far more gutsy than anything we’d even think of attempting. People like Petit have got that little something extra, a biological override that allows them to do things we normal folks can’t. Conceivably, we’ll soon be able to swallow that kind of courage in pill form and start sprinting up ladders with wanton recklessness. The Ferris wheel won’t be so terrifying. And we can keep those oscillating fans in the backs of our closets.

A man can dream. In the interim, a man can crawl. It may look silly, but it never ends with a splat.

— Jeff Lagasse is an easily frightened editor at a Portland media company. If you’re the sadistic type and want to freak him out with aerial photos taken at high altitudes, shoot him an email at jelagasse@gmail.com.

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